By Rebecca Sperber, published in, August 2014
Is it possible for wonderful experiences like marriage and romantic intimacy to go horribly wrong by having too much closeness? Can being loved and loving someone begin to feel like a noose or isolation chamber? The answer to both questions is YES. There is an insidious process involved. In the beginning the typical couple is in bliss and in a bubble of romantic love. They finish each other’s sentences, like all the same things and appear to others to be the perfect couple.
However, too much of these “good parts” become suspect when other people in the couple’s life begin to feel disregarded and unimportant, and when the blissful lovers themselves (one or both partners) begin to feel the negative repercussions of isolation, and the restrictive aspect of how they function as a couple. Couples that “enmesh” in this way often distance themselves from pre-existing relationships in order to strengthen their bond and the “specialness” of their union. Based in insecurities, these choices to isolate and enmesh create both self alienation and social alienation, which in time will lead to alienation from each other.
THE OVERLY-CONNECTED RELATIONSHIP PROCESS
In the early stages of attachment, this couple operates in a self-centered and arrogant manner to the neglect of everyone around them. The integrity of prior relationships becomes a low priority to these individuals. The isolation, the cocooning with each other to the exclusion of others, feels like a warm, security blanket. Because other relationships can be seen as a threat to the couples bond, it is safe to say that this kind of early part of a relationship is foundationally insecure.
THE CAUSES OF THE ‘OVERLY-CLOSE’ PATTERN OF ATTACHMENT
People who find themselves attaching to romantic partners in this enmeshed way often have similar negative childhood experiences in common. Childhood abuse, abandonment, or neglect, result in damage to self esteem and set a person up for a hunger for a strong, positive attachment to another human being in order to feel worthy as a person. This need can become a craving that is so powerful that judgment and perspective on accurate self needs and wants become unclear. Thus, choosing a partner becomes based on the need to not be alone and to be validated as a person because someone wants to be with you.
When early attachments with parents are weak or abusive, emotional and physical needs go unmet, a child grows up anxious and disconnected and longs for an attachment where they can feel loved and secure. Mature reasoning and deep self knowledge does not evolve in this environment of deprivation.
So when people meet in these psychological states, they become close quickly, seeking an intense, positive connection that they have never experienced. So they attach in an atmosphere of immaturity and emotional hunger, and the pattern of isolation and enmeshment is established and personal identity gets lost within the forming of the relationship. Los Angeles based psychotherapist Jack Soll, MFT, explains that “this loss of self within a relationship is called “co-dependency” and can cause a level of damage to the self that can lead to severe depression and anxiety. A relationship cannot get to a healthy state if either person in the relationship is functioning in this enmeshed, isolated way.” This codependent state then becomes a place where two people who are not fully formed, begin to feel whole in the codependent way they have defined their relationship.
IMPACT ON FRIENDS AND FAMILY
Friends and loved ones feel the distancing immediately as these couples establish their place in the family. The needs and wants of the couple begin to be consistently asserted as most important over all others. Less time is given, and less interest is shown, to family and friends. Conflict often ensues as people confront the couple with their feelings of hurt and anger and confusion. The couple will usually band together, and label everyone who is confronting them as needy or disrespectful to them as a couple. They will often “lay down the law” about each of them always being “number 1” to the other, often meaning that the needs and wants of pre-existing, intimate relationships are not much of a priority anymore, especially if it involves compromising in any way what either member of the couple might prefer.
These couples will often claim that their attachments to others feel less important. That in their distancing process, they do not particularly miss their friends and families, because they have each other. They will make some room for other people, and enjoy it, based all on their terms, without much consideration of the needs or wants of others. The ideas of pleasing others and compromising within relationships is applied exclusively within their relationship with each other.
In a healthy relationship, the above mentioned patterns do not occur. Family and friends are seen as enhancements, not threats to the life of a healthy couple. But for the insecure person, watching their partner getting needs met from others can feel hurtful and threatening to the stability of their relationship. Even if one partner in the relationship does not feel this form of intense insecurity, the enmeshment and pathological loyalty will not allow them to judge or dissent from the demands or expectations of their partner.
NEGATIVE PATTERNS THAT STRENGTHEN THE ISOLATION AND ENMESHMENT
When feeling insecure, a partner will establish controlling and manipulating behaviors that will alienate others from their loved ones. Demands such as only seeing friends and family as a couple are common. Other negative patterns of relating that happen are 1) bad mouthing people, 2) feigning physical illness, and 3) lying. Bad mouthing is an attempt to turn the partner against others. It is intended to destroy any positive, pre-existing perceptions and turn them into perceptions that cause others to be seen as threatening or disrespectful to the relationship. Feigning illness is a strategy used to tie a partner to the side of the other. The goal here is to either create no time for other people, or to create guilt or anxiety if they choose to see others. Lying behavior is connected to both bad mouthing and feigning illness in that it is used to control.
Attempts by friends and family to point out these negative behaviors usually fall on deaf ears, until the time when one of the partners becomes aware of their own emotionally suffering within the restrictive and isolated construct of the relationship. Once his or her awareness surfaces, the relationship enters a state of destabilization. The emergence of a strong sense of self in one partner, makes it impossible for the couple to maintain its former isolated, dysfunctional equilibrium.
Friends and family should continue to keep their distance with the couple during this time, unless the couple begin to reach out in ways that are emotionally welcoming.
The conflict level will be high if both partners do not shift into the mode of change simultaneously. Patterns of arguing and distancing become prevalent, replacing the former enmeshed, placated state of functioning. The partner still wanting to stay enmeshed will fight hard to re-create the romantic bubble, but will be met with resistance by the partner wanting to break free. Patterns of denigrating the family or friends, to re-establish their image of the “ideal and only” person of value in their life, will occur. However, if the partner who wakes up to his or her pain stays the course, either of two things will happen. The relationship will remain in conflict and ultimately break up, or the resistant partner will open up to the possibility that the isolated, enmeshed way of functioning was unhealthy and will not be allowed to continue. If this acquiescence is done out of a true, healthy realization, that positive change can occur. If it is done out of fear of abandonment and insecurity, the relationship will have little chance of surviving.
New Patterns of Communication Within and Outside of the Relationship
The couple will have to develop new ways of communicating. They will have to include the expression of honest feelings, wants and needs. They will have to establish a balance between being empathic towards each other while making sure that what they need is not minimized or ignored. The new pattern must include discussions about what led them to enmeshing the way they did, excluding or turning against others, and neglecting their own personal needs for the sake of the relationship. They will have to learn constructive conflict resolution skills to redefine their bond from needing to be a perfectly agreeable union, to something more real and therefore more solid. They will need to negotiate and compromise in areas where they disagree to insure that both of them feel equally important and empowered.
Each partner will also have to allow for the other to have conversations with others that do not always involve either their presence or knowledge. This relates to the issue of maintaining a certain level of healthy privacy within the relationship. For example, if someone wants to talk to their mother about a feeling or issue that they feel will be of benefit to them, they do not need permission from their partner, nor do they need to disclose the conversation to their partner. In a healthy relationship, there is respect for privacy and for the meaningfulness of other relationships in each others lives.
A Strong “Self” Leads To A Strong Relationship
Knowing and accepting oneself is the foundation of healthy self-esteem and self-worth. Any pattern of negative self-criticism, abuse or deprivation lowers self-esteem makes one vulnerable to making a poor choice in a partner. A weakly formed self is attracted to a situation where they can follow the lead of someone else, without the ability to discriminate whether that direction is positive or authentic for whom they really are. High self-esteem allows a person to set boundaries in their relationships because a person with self-esteem is not to be run by the fear of rejection. Their self-worth allows them to place their personal needs, wants and values above whether or not someone will reject them.
Once enmeshed couples begin to de-stabilize, re-evaluate, and re-organize how they function as a couple, there is hope for a transformation to a healthy and ultimately happier way of life. The couple’s ability to support each other’s individuality and separateness, and to tolerate and enjoy the re-entry of friends and family into their lives is a sign that security, not insecurity will now define the relationship.
Rebecca Sperber is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice for more than 20 years. Rebecca works with individuals, couples, families and groups dealing with communication, conflict resolution and emotional coping skills. Areas of specialty include depression, anxiety, addiction recovery, marriage counseling, codependency, autism, and dating and relationships. Visit her website to find out more: https://www.rebeccasperbermft.com.
Rebecca Sperber, M.S., MFT