Having a close relationship is one of the best feelings in the world.
It feels like you have someone who knows you better than you know yourself.
That’s what we all crave, right?
Someone who gets us like nobody else can?
Being super close with a friend, family member, or romantic partner isn’t inherently bad.
But what if you’ve become so wrapped up in them that you no longer know who you are?
Enmeshment vs. Codependency: Definitions and Signs
In this article, we’re going to look at two types of unhealthy relationship dynamics: enmeshment and codependency.
Both involve super close emotional ties, but they’re not the same thing. Knowing the difference between the two can help you spot if something’s off in your relationships and figure out what steps to take next.
So, let’s dive into what each of these terms really means and how you can recognize the signs and avoid attracting toxic people moving forward.
Enmeshment is defined as a relationship that doesn’t allow emotional independence or separation between people. This kind of relationship has blurry or no boundaries.
It’s an imbalanced relationship that leaves the people in them unable to form their own thoughts and behaviors separate from the other.
Usually when we talk about enmeshment, we’re referring to the parent-child relationship but it can also occur between siblings, friends, romantic partners, or other family members.
The concept of enmeshment goes back to the 70s when Salvador Minuchin, a psychiatrist and family therapist, coined the term to describe the over-involved relationships resulting from unclear boundaries in families.
He found that parent-child relationships where enmeshment was present resulted in distress and an inability to function independently later in the child’s life.
Enmeshment is very much a two-way street. Both parties participate in the dysfunction equally.
Characteristics of enmeshed relationships include:
- One person is the go-to shoulder to cry on for the other and vice versa.
- Neither person can really tell where their feelings end and the other’s begin.
- They’re super glued to each other, emotionally speaking.
- It’s like they’ve lost their own personalities and just blend into one.
- There’s a complete lack of boundaries
- There are unclear or confused roles and expectations
- They’re so wrapped up in each other’s business, it’s like they’re living one life.
- Time apart feels like an emotional rollercoaster for both.
- Forget about “me time” or personal secrets; everything’s an open book.
How Do You Recognize Enmeshment?
It can be challenging to identify enmeshed relationships, especially if you’re in a tight-knit family or have a particularly close bond with someone. If you’re concerned about enmeshment, here are some questions you can ask yourself:
- Is your relationship appropriate? For example, is it a “parent and child are best friends” situation or are you truly parent and child?
- Do you spend time apart and feel secure when you’re alone? Does the other party make you feel guilty if you want to spend time apart?
- Do you have your own identity regarding hobbies, interests, and taste in music or films, or is everything the same as that of the other person?
- Does your emotional state depend on the emotional state of the other person?
- Do you experience stress or anxiety when you are away from that person?
- Do you celebrate your similarities and ignore your differences?
- Do you feel jealous when the other person spends time or interacts with other people?
Want to learn more about enmeshment? This video provides a great explainer:
Like enmeshment, codependency refers to an unhealthy dynamic between two people.
But there are some key differences.
Codependency originally started as a term used by Alcoholics Anonymous to describe the unhealthy relationship dynamics between an alcoholic and the person enabling them.
But the term has evolved a lot since then. Now it’s used more broadly to describe any relationship where one person is overly reliant on another for emotional or psychological support, often to the point of sacrificing their own well-being.
It’s like when you’re so wrapped up in someone else’s issues that you lose sight of your own needs and boundaries.
Characteristics that define codependency include:
- One person’s needs are met while the other’s needs are intentionally pushed aside
- One person takes responsibility for the emotional well-being of both people
- One person dictates the mood, behavior, and thought patterns of both people
- Spending time apart causes anxiety and stress to at least one person
- Relationships outside of the codependent one are treated with extreme prejudice by at least one party
Signs of Codependency
If this sounds similar to enmeshment and you’re feeling slightly confused, you’re not alone.
The two concepts share many elements, but here are some things that could indicate you are dealing with codependency and not enmeshment:
- Do you put your needs aside in favor of the other person?
- Do you sacrifice your desires, interests, or other relationships because it causes conflict with the other person?
- Do you feel like you are constantly walking on eggshells, knowing that if you step out of the role of ‘giver,’ there will be conflict?
- Do you feel like the other person’s entire life revolves around you as a unit, with no other interests and few other relationships?
- Do you experience the other person’s dissatisfaction if your attention is not solely on them?
- Does it feel like there is always some problem, drama, or crisis with the other party that requires you to drop everything to focus on them?
- Do you feel trapped, claustrophobic, or suffocated by the relationship?
For more on codependency, check out this video:
Enmeshment vs. Codependency: Key Differences
Now that we have a clear picture of each of these dysfunctions, we can start to identify areas where they differ.
Roles and Expectations: Enmeshed Relationships
In enmeshed relationships, there are no clear roles or the expected roles are not being fulfilled.
For example, in enmeshed parent-child relationships the parent often fails to act as a mature, responsible adult. Instead, they take on a ‘best friend’ role that puts them on the same level as their child.
The expectations are super unclear.
In these types of relationships, you’re likely to see a mother going to parties with their child, drinking, socializing, and acting like they’re peers. Growing up, these were often the parents who’d let us drink at their house and smoke cigarettes with them on the porch.
Other examples include an adult child who constantly calls their parent and informs them of issues in their own marriage or a husband calling into his wife’s work to speak to her boss about her work schedule.
Roles and Expectations: Codependent Relationships
Codependent relationships are not ill-defined at all. In fact, the roles in codependent relationships are pretty clear.
One person is the caretaker or ‘giver’ who focuses all their effort and time on the ‘taker.’
The giver panders to the whims of the taker, solves their problems, and helps them to achieve their goals.
In contrast, the taker manipulates the giver – consciously or subconsciously – into focusing only on them.
In this type of relationship, the expectations are clear. One party’s needs are more important than the other, and all energy in the relationship is directed toward those needs.
For example, one partner puts his career on hold to help his partner start up a business, but the support is not reciprocated.
Focal Point: Self vs. The Relationship
When it comes to who directs or guides the relationship, or who is the focus in the relationship, the enmeshed parties are more focused on their unit – the relationship itself becomes the main focal point.
The “we’re not mom and daughter, we’re BFFs!” line is a prime example. Enmeshed people will want to protect their special relationship at all costs.
In the codependent relationship, the focus is on the ‘self’ – specifically one ‘self’. The needs, desires, interests, and comfort of the taker are the focus of both individuals in this relationship.
And the ‘self’ of the giver is wholly disregarded.
At the same time, the taker sees their partner as an extension of themselves, so there isn’t an ‘other’ self for them to consider. They assume the giver’s focus should be on them and often get upset if it isn’t.
Boundaries in Enmeshed Relationships
Inconsistent or inappropriate boundaries are common in both cases, but how boundaries fit in is slightly different.
With enmeshed relationships, the boundaries between the parties are either nonexistent or blurry, easily stretched, changed, or crossed.
In these relationships, neither party feels awkward about crossing boundaries – in fact, the experience of being over-involved and inappropriately close is something they are accustomed to.
They may often say things like, “We don’t have secrets from each other,” or “Anything you say to me can be said to them because we are so close.”
Boundaries in Codependent Relationships
By contrast, codependent relationships may have boundaries, but they usually only apply to the taker.
This means the taker is allowed to have boundaries. They can choose not to share things with the giver, and draw lines about certain subjects, people, behaviors, and the like. It’s expected that the giver respects these.
But the taker doesn’t have the same respect for the giver. The giver doesn’t get to have boundaries.
If the taker is free to be all in their business and dictate the terms of their relationships entirely.
For example, let’s say the taker feels like their partner isn’t spending enough time with them and notice they come home from work a little later than usual.
They may reach out to colleagues or friends of the giver to ask if they know why the giver is acting ‘out of character.’ They may even go so far as to contact the boss to raise concerns.
The main boundary in the codependent relationship is around the unit that comprises that relationship: no one is allowed out, and no one is allowed in.
This can lead to isolation and a singular focus on each other, which is wholly by design.
The more the taker can separate the giver from others, the more reliant they become.
In both cases, emotional reliance plays a significant role, but for enmeshed individuals, emotional reliance is a two-way street.
All parties rely on the other for cues to how they should feel, think, or react. When one party feels a certain way, the other party feels the same in response.
For codependent people, emotional reliance is just as intense but takes a different form.
The taker is emotionally reliant on the giver for things like validation, support, and care.
The giver becomes emotionally reliant on the taker for any sense of happiness or fulfillment. As long as they’re meeting their partner’s needs, they feel great.
If the taker is in a good mood, the giver will feel good, too. But if the taker is in distress, the giver’s stress responses increase, too, and they will put in great effort to improve their mood. They shift into “fix it” mode.
Self-Identity in Enmeshed Relationships
Being an independent person with your own goals, interests, and desires is essential to a healthy relationship. In both enmeshment and codependency, the sense of self becomes warped.
Since boundaries are so blurred and roles are confused in an enmeshed relationship, self-identity becomes blurry too.
In a lot of enmeshed parent-child relationships, this forced merging of different people into one ‘unit’ stops children from developing their own identities, opinions, and interests. They become little “mini-me’s” but not in a cute way.
It also prevents them from being confident in making decisions and doing anything autonomously.
In enmeshed relationships, the identity of the parties are replaced by a singular identity that applies to all parties. “If you marry my son, you’re marrying me, too” is an excellent example of an enmeshed parent who cannot separate themselves from their child.
If you want to see this dynamic in action, flip on TLC’s “I Love A Mama’s Boy.”
Self-Identity in Codependent Relationships
Codependent relationships also cause a loss of identity.
But in this case, the giver gives up their identity for the sake of the taker’s needs. That’s what defines the entire relationship.
Since their needs and wants are prioritized, the giver’s identity (together with their interests, goals, friends, and opinions) falls away, and they are forced to take on the other party’s identity.
But the taker’s self-identity also changes. Their identity within the relationship is what’s important to them.
They cannot separate themselves from the other person, and they only feel valued or important in the context of the codependent relationship.
You may hear someone introduce themselves by saying, “I’m so-and-so’s better half,” or “Hi, I’m so-and-so’s girlfriend.”
While they have an identity, that identity is rooted so firmly in the relationship with the other codependent person that they struggle to see themselves outside of it.
How Do People Become Codependent or Enmeshed?
There are a few theories about what causes unhealthy relationship dynamics, but most professionals agree that how we’re raised and the role of our caregivers during our developmental years have the most significant effect.
Relationship dynamics are learned not just by modeling but also through experience.
Here are a few ways people can become codependent or enmeshed:
- Upbringing and childhood experiences: The relationships we see growing up inform how we relate to others later in life. Children who witness dysfunctional relationships are far more likely to repeat those patterns, especially if they don’t have healthy relationships to compare them to.
- Attachment styles and parenting: Regardless of who your primary caregiver was, if you had anxious, fearful, or avoidant attachments to them, it would affect your ability to form secure attachments as an adult. Anxious attachment styles have similar characteristics to codependent and enmeshed relationships.
- The impact of trauma: Trauma significantly affects our ability to form secure and healthy relationships, and trauma that affects our ability to trust others (think of the effects of abuse or neglect on a child) will naturally leave us struggling to relate to others appropriately.
Similarly, exposure to trauma that makes you fear being alone can lead to clinginess and an inability to function independently.
If we can experience healthy relationships first-hand during our developmental years, some of those experiences I just mentioned may be mitigated.
There are a number of studies out there that suggest having access to just one trusted adult can greatly reduce harmful outcomes for children who experience trauma and adversity.
But for those who have experienced only dysfunction, the outcomes are more challenging.
The Impact of Enmeshment and Codependency
The impact of these relationship dynamics stretches to more than being uncomfortable, losing your identity, or not being able to do what you want on your own.
The consequences of being in a dysfunctional relationship are wide-ranging:
- Emotional consequences: Not having your own identity, being restricted in expressing yourself, and not having any autonomy can lead to depression and feelings of guilt for wanting more for yourself. We also know that people in enmeshed or codependent relationships have high anxiety levels and often struggle with other mental health conditions.
- Physical consequences: These relationships often create excessive levels of stress for everyone involved. This can lead to a host of health issues such as insomnia, loss of appetite (or binge eating), headaches, gastric problems, and physical aches and pains. Anxiety disorders like skin picking, hair pulling, or nail biting are also associated with high stress levels.
- Social consequences: In both these relationship dynamics, the relationship becomes the center of the universe for the people involved, which often means they become isolated from others and socially withdraw from anything that could threaten their unit. It’s not healthy to have just one or two people in your life, especially for those who lack a strong sense of self.
Breaking the Cycle: Overcoming Enmeshment and Codependency
If you’ve picked up on some unhealthy dynamics in your own life and you want to break the cycle, there are some ways you can change the trajectory of your relationships.
1. Setting and Respecting Boundaries
Boundaries are absolutely necessary for maintaining your individuality, independence, and autonomy in a relationship.
Think about a healthy relationship as two whole individuals coming together to add value to each other’s life.
This is a much healthier picture to have in mind, rather than the often-romanticized image of two halves coming together to form one whole.
As sweet as the idea is of someone ‘completing you,’ the notion implies that you are not worthy as an individual on your own.
Having boundaries will ensure you can invest in yourself as much as you can in your loved ones – there is enough love to go around.
If you’re unaccustomed to considering your own needs, wants, and desires, this will probably feel foreign to you.
You may not even know where to start.
“What do I like to do?”
It’ll take some time and personal exploration, but it’s also a necessary step. If you’re really struggling to figure out what you want from life, it’s worth talking to someone like a therapist or coach. They can help you navigate this new landscape.
2. Communication Strategies
Effective communication is the key to setting boundaries. You have to be able to verbalize your needs and outline clear expectations with the other person.
But there’s not some secret switch you can flip to achieve this. Learning how to speak up for yourself confidently and in a way that others can “hear” you is an acquired skill.
It’s not easy to get others to hear your intention. They may take it personally and feel hurt, or even try to gaslight you into retreating back into your old relationship dynamics.
Again, this is when considering professional help is key.
3. Seeking Help
To be honest, if you want to make significant improvements, you probably need to work with someone.
There are lots of different support types available to you.
You can do couple’s counseling, family counseling, individual counseling, or a combination of these.
A professional can help you communicate with your loved one more effectively and also deal with the underlying issues that drove you into this relationship dynamic in the first place.
You might also consider support groups for codependent and enmeshed relationships.
The most widely known is Codependents Anonymous.
Whichever path you choose, the important thing is that you recognize the relationship is unhealthy and are willing to take steps toward change.
It’s not a quick path, but you can get there!
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