Do you relate to one of the two scenarios below for yourself or your partner?
“She never understands me. In the past, also, no one understood me.”
“No one ever gave me attention.”
“He does not talk to me for days. Even when he doesn’t treat me well, I continue to care for him.”
“I can do anything for her, but when I don’t get the attention, I get possessive.”
“They never acknowledge my effort. It has always happened to me.”
“One day, they will understand and appreciate me.”
“I can manage on my own. It is my comfort zone.”
“I am not a romantic person.”
“I don’t need any support. So, I don’t ask for support.”
“I don’t like arguments. I keep quiet.”
“I am married to my work.”
“I lose my freedom in the relationship. I prefer to be alone.”
Enmeshment: ‘I Exist Because You Do’
Scenario 1 depicts enmeshment. An enmeshed individual lacks emotional identity. They usually start their sentences with “we.” They are overly focused on the partner’s feelings/issues. It is challenging to be in this place because it makes one feel needy and frustrated as others’ emotions/actions are not in their control and, over time, can make them emotionally fragile. They fear moving towards autonomy as they harbor deep self-doubts and seek validation to foster self-worth. It leads to blaming oneself or others, being present selflessly, and over-functioning as a partner, which only reinforces the enmeshment. Emotional dependency increases vulnerability, and the more it is not reciprocated can lead to anxiety and depression.
Detachment: ‘I Feel Safe When I am Free’
Scenario 2 represents the detached individuals on the opposite end of the spectrum. They are focused, achievement-driven, and rigid on emotional boundaries. Mostly noted as a workaholic, caring, and friendly person. However, their partner would call them “emotionally unavailable.” It appears as if emotions do not affect them. It almost seems like they are temporarily enmeshed with everyone, including strangers, but are emotionally missing with their partners. Usually, they feel lonely, as if no one truly knows them, that they are there for all, but no one is there for them. They are good listeners but seldom share themselves and maintain an emotional distance with their partners to avoid rejection and pain.
In an enmeshed-detached relationship, the enmeshed partner continuously seeks an emotional connection, and the detached partner is constantly distancing. The more the enmeshed partner tries, the further the other avoids. If we think of individual and relationship spaces as two essential aspects of a person, there is no healthy balance of 50-50 between the two. The first partner is more in the relationship space, while the second partner is content in the individual area.
Both find it challenging to give-receive emotional support while sufficiently retaining individuality. Instead, couples focus on each other’s faults and changing the partner. They believe their approach to be normal and therefore resist self-change. Over time they avoid talking and settle down in a dysfunctional equilibrium. The enmeshed partner emotionally over-functions for the other but individually under-functions, while the detached partner settles for the opposite. The couples are usually unaware of this pattern and honestly believe they are giving their best for the relationship. However, despite their good intentions, they experience emotional distress while maintaining the superficial harmony. Though dysfunctional stability instills temporary peace, it limits living a whole relationship and life.
The status quo of unhealthy equilibrium does not last forever. There will be times when the balance is threatened. These could be life-changing events like parenthood, unemployment, the loss of a parent, physical or mental health conditions like sickness or depression, etc., that uncover the hidden tensions. Usually, when one of them feels vulnerable, the wounds open up. Though dysfunctional stability instills temporary peace, it limits living a whole relationship and life.
Differentiation: I Respect You, Me, and Us
If one end of the spectrum is enmeshment and the other extreme is detachment, differentiation is mid-way. Family therapy pioneer Murrary Bowen described differentiation as an evolutionary process fueled by two counter-balancing forces – the need for belonging and separation. Differentiation refers to how an individual can delineate self while in touch with feelings. A differentiated person accepts and discerns thoughts and emotions equally, manages reactivity, and makes meaningful choices, aware of how they affect others. They care for themselves and extend the care to others.
Restore the Functional Equilibrium
Depending on the level of patterns, duration of the relationship, and the severity of the distressing circumstance that breaks the dysfunctional equilibrium, restoring the balance needs time and help. Here are a few tips for moving towards functional stability.
Drs. John and Julie Gottman suggest learning about emotions happens best when in the middle of experiencing them. When you or your partner is going through an emotional state, (1) listen, understand and empathize with your/partner’s emotions without focusing prematurely on solutions; (2) validate and normalize the feelings with past experiences; (3) show acceptance of feelings and know that it is okay to feel so; (4) give assurance to self/partner that it will pass and seek/provide support; and (5) enable self/them to arrive at own solution.
Set Emotional Boundaries
Become aware of your emotional boundaries. You do not own the responsibility for making your partner feel good. Breathe together and do not get overwhelmed by your partner’s emotional state. Your partner can resolve their feelings on their own. All they need is your listening and understanding. Trust they can work through this state and allow emotional space to solve their problems.
Build Your Identity
Give time to yourself to understand your beliefs, values, feelings and become aware of who you are. Define self by setting boundaries, accepting and respecting self, practicing self-regulation, and staying connected. Express, share, and be present with your partner. Align your goals with a purpose in line with your values and work towards it.
A functional balance involves partners building a healthy individual space, belonging in the relationship space, and keeping the communication open.
Enmeshment: Symptoms and Causes. (2013, November 5). Fulsheartransition.
Gottman, J., & Gottman, J. (2000). Level 1 Clinical Training Gottman Method Couples Therapy: Bridging the Couple Chasm.
Peratsakis, D. (2017). Notes on the Philosophy and Practice of Individual, Couple, and Family Therapy. Advanced Methods in Counseling and Psychotherapy.
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