Do you sometimes wonder who you are without your partner or feel drained by worrying about them all the time? It’s easy to lose ourselves in a romantic relationship and entirely define ourselves as the partner, girlfriend, wife of someone else rather than the person we have grown to be who is also in a relationship. And that is sometime combined with a sense of duty to worry for the other person and be in tune with every aspect of their emotional patterns.
Let’s examine what’s behind it and how you can regain a sense of self without compromising your family cohesion.
Enmeshment: dysfunctional stability
Relationships need a certain amount of stability to work properly and to endure. But stability isn’t always a sign of a well-functioning, healthy relationship, it can be masking serious issues that hurt at least on of the individual in the relationship, and by extension the relationship itself.
The concept of enmeshment was introduced by family therapist Salvador Munuchin, who observed that individuals in certain families lack healthy boundaries and autonomy, which shows up as worry and excessive concern for the emotional well-being of other members in the family unit. Enmeshment in a romantic relationship refers to co-dependent behaviour, where one or both individual become so emotionally involved with their partner’s feelings that they sacrifice their own identity and autonomy.
A similar pattern that might come to mind is people pleasing, in this case they are pleasing their partner by foregoing their own needs. Being in tune with another’s needs every waking hour means they lose sight of who they are or what their needs are, and they might reinforce this behaviour by minimising the issue, accepting it as normal, or expecting a better a future.
Let’s look at some example thoughts of a enmeshed individual:
- “He might not be kind to me all the time, but I love him and care for him.”
- “He doesn’t acknowledge the things I do, but it’s probably normal. No one ever did.”
- “One day they’ll know what I’ve done for them.”
The reason behind enmeshment
Whilst co-dependent tendencies could start at any age, for example by getting in a relationship with someone form the dark triad (psychopath, narcissist, Machiavellian) who gradually and systematically erodes their partner’s self-esteem, sense of identity, and might make them question reality, the pattern often beings in childhood.
Growing up is often romanticised, but in reality it isn’t easy. Children are not equipped to deal with most of life’s challenges and they are definitely lacking in intricate emotional management skills. Sadly, many children are brought up by emotionally immature adults. These adult children are unable to manage their own emotions appropriately, so they outsource the task. Some children cope with the demand of having to deal with these emotions by trying to take care of their parent (or primary caregivers) by doing all the things that will appease them, listening to them, taking on household chores, or simply making themselves invisible.
They end up taking on the role of the caretaker: the person who will deal with everything, who everyone can count on, who only exists to do something for someone else. That behaviour becomes a personality trait, an identity that will also impact how and what sort of a partner they choose.
Enmeshment and neediness
If you know people pleasers, you’ll know that they will say yes several times or no in a way that really feels like a maybe, which might shockingly culminate in a forceful, angry no, or sometimes shouting and throwing of plates.
Enmeshed people often have very low self-esteem. Their sense of personal worth is highly dependent on external validation. Pleasing others isn’t an entirely selfless act. They reinforce their narrative for their existence and the role of a caretaker within the relationship. There is a neediness to it, as worrying for the other, helping them, trying to take over the emotional part of their partner’s life is a need, not a choice.
But we cannot control the world around us or the emotions of the other, and if we try we set ourselves up for failure and frustration. The need to take care of the other is not satisfying. That’s because this isn’t a healthy relationship dynamic, it’s something that helped them cope at one point in their life and now it keeps them stuck in an unfulfilling relationship.
The need for autonomy
Two of our basic needs are belonging and autonomy in every relationship. It’s a paradox because they are opposing needs. But they can work together surprisingly well.
Whether we come from a highly individualistic or collectivistic culture, we share this basic need: we are social creatures who need to belong to a community. The nature of the bonding or the philosophy that accompanies it might be different, but we all want to be a part of something greater than ourselves, at the micro level, usually to have a romantic partner.
But we also need autonomy, how we gain it and what priority it gets will depend very much on the culture and social aspects we assimilated over the years.
Let’s look at a few examples of how you can keep your autonomy:
- Keep in touch with your old friends, and have separate friends groups as well.
- Say it if you don’t want to do something and if need be find a compromise.
- Don’t give up on your hobbies, nor do you need to include them in everything.
- Alternate between who chooses what to do and do things separately as well.
- Go on a holiday or weekend trip alone, and let them do the same.
- If you have more than one bedroom, sleep separately from time to time.
- You don’t need to share all your fleeting thoughts or emotions with them, nor do they.
- Don’t expect them to go shopping with you if they don’t like doing that, or whatever other activity you like and they don’t.
- Tell them if you don’t want to do something and encourage them to do it alone or with a friend.
- If you have children and want a career create the circumstances for it.
You will still belong, and it might surprise you, but creating some distance can strengthen the relationship. You might find that you have new topics to talk about and it can also reignite passion for each other.
How to use embodiment to regain your sense of self
Embodiment is how you are and how you show up in a situation. It’s a way of including the body in the conversation and building self-awareness through looking at the body not just the narrative of who we are and how we navigate life.
Knowledge is power, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to change. To build autonomy, healthy boundaries, and regain our identity in a relationship we need to practice something else.
Focus on the body next time you’re with your partner.
- Are you leaning forward or maybe leaning back?
- Has your breath changed at all?
- As you’re standing next to them, do you feel balanced or slightly unbalanced? Are you standing next to them or a little in front, a little behind them?
- Do you tend to follow their lead?
- Do you feel your arms strong or are they hanging limp?
- Have your movements been affected?
- Is your movement dominated playfulness, slowness, passion, or acceptance?
- What do you do in your body when you say no or you would like to say no?
Then, think about what might be a small adjustment that you could practice daily and after a couple of weeks apply in their presence.
How we behave is not who we are or who you need to be for the rest of our life. Our behaviours are highly malleable but they do require commitment, practice, and application before they become automatic and feel natural.
Finding our sense of self starts with self-awareness: knowing how we are in a social context, and if we want to change an aspect of our life (romantic or otherwise) we practice something else until it no longer needs practicing because it becomes an integral part of the fabric of our life.
Do you want to take this further with personalised support?
If you’re interested in honing your embodied relational intelligence skills to build a loving, mature, and enduring romantic relationship either with your current partner or the one you commit to next, reach out or simply buy one of my coaching and or hypnotherapy services and I’ll meet you on Zoom.