6 Pieces of Relationship Advice for People Struggling With Enmeshment

Ashley Broadwater

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A couple is disagreeing about something.Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels

Have you ever taken on a parental role as a child? Or defined yourself by your relationship with your significant other? Or, because of a lack of boundaries, felt confused about where you ended and someone else began?

Those are all signs of enmeshment. But don’t worry — you’re not alone. I’ve struggled with this too.

Enmeshment is when two or more people, usually within a family, are overly involved in each other’s lives, leading to unhealthy interactions and an inability to discern oneself from another.

What’s tricky about enmeshment, though, is it can feel fully healthy and positive. It’s easy to confuse its situations with closeness, maturity, selflessness, and compassion. And in some ways, we can find similarities.

However, enmeshment can have serious, negative effects. Kids may grow up too soon or not have the time to realize who they are as unique individuals. They may struggle with low self-esteem and a fear of abandonment; they may not know how to handle conflict effectively. While enmeshment is most common in families and is something kids tend to struggle with, the challenges and effects faced can come into adulthood since they’re hard to get rid of.

If you’re looking for advice on how to handle this phenomenon, I’ve listed six tips below that helped me in my enmeshed relationships. I hope they help you too!

1. Respect your role in the relationship

What I mean here is this: Know who you are and who you are not. Know what your role is and don’t worry about fulfilling other roles.

For example, maybe you’re someone’s girlfriend — but that doesn’t mean you’re also their therapist. Maybe you’re a teenager living at home with your parents — but that doesn’t mean you need to be in charge of all the adult responsibilities. Maybe you’re a friend or a sibling — but that doesn’t mean you also need to be their doctor (or should act as one).

When I co-led training sessions on how to be an ally to people with eating disorders, we talked about a variation of this piece of advice. What we emphasized throughout the whole training was this: You are the friend, or the family member, or the roommate, not the therapist, doctor, or nutritionist. And while you can’t provide professional help, you can fill the role of a friend, family member, or roommate — which is just as important and valuable.

Don’t feel bad about not fulfilling other roles — you’re not supposed to.

2. Set boundaries, knowing it will help

Setting boundaries in an enmeshed relationship can be scary for several reasons. We may worry our loved ones will become upset with us. We may not even know what our boundaries “should” be and when we’re “allowed” to say no. First, I want you to validate that and know it’s not your fault.

Then, I encourage you to remind yourself that you’re allowed to have boundaries. In healthy relationships, boundaries are both set and respected. Setting boundaries doesn’t make you a bad person, and it won’t (or shouldn’t) cause someone to dislike you. And as my therapist told me, we’re right to set boundaries, even when others don’t respond in a respectful or positive way. Plus, after thinking more about the conversation, you may realize they weren’t as upset as you thought they were.

Once you’re ready to set a boundary, first think about your feelings and values. What situations make you uncomfortable? What do you need to be happy? Where’s the line between what is okay and what isn’t okay? Once you figure that out as best as you can — don’t worry about being exactly right or perfect, as you can change your boundaries at any time — you can say something like, “I really like it when you do X, but I feel uncomfortable when you do Y.”

3. Take care of yourself first

In our society, I believe we often confuse “self-care” with “selfishness,” believing it’s not okay to take care of ourselves first. When I’m struggling with this sentiment and feel bad about myself, I like to remember this saying:

“You can’t pour from an empty cup.”

For both our own sake and to help others more effectively, we have to take care of ourselves first. We have to attend to our own mental health and physical health, or we won’t have the strength to do so for others.

So take a nap. Finish your chores later. Do something you love. Say no. Go to therapy. Talk to a friend. Read in a bubble bath. Do what you need to do.

When you’re setting boundaries, I encourage you to remember this reminder. You deserve to take care of yourself first and foremost, and that doesn’t make you selfish — it makes you healthy and human.

4. Communicate your feelings respectfully and firmly

Relationships are all about communication. Communication is a tool that can help us improve our relationships so they’re more happy and healthy. But what exact purposes can communication serve? Below are some examples:

  • Communication can let our partners know what feels uncomfortable so they know better and won’t do it again.
  • Communication can help us feel heard in our experiences and feelings.
  • Communication can help us better understand how the other person works.
  • Communication can help us express love.
  • Communication can help us settle disagreements and compromise in healthy ways.

Without effective communication, we’d feel misunderstood and unloved. We wouldn’t be able to handle and move past arguments. With these reminders, I encourage you to communicate with the person or people you’re enmeshed with so you all, individually and collectively, can have a happier, healthier, longer-lasting relationship.

One of the most helpful communication skills I’ll always suggest is called an “I statement.” It’s a part of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and it sounds something like this: “I feel ___ when you ___ because ___. I would appreciate it if you could ___ instead.” Plan out what you’d like to say and then say it. Remember, you’re allowed to say this even if the other person doesn’t take it well!

5. Give yourself judgment-free compassion

When you realize you’re in an enmeshed relationship, you may judge yourself a little. You may feel guilty for putting up with the toxicity for so long. You may feel sad for the time that feels lost, or you may feel mad for not realizing what was happening earlier.

Those are all normal feelings to have, but they aren’t helpful or accurate. You did nothing wrong, and you didn’t know better — neither of which is your fault or indicates something bad in you. Something I have to remind myself often is feelings aren’t facts.

What can also help is self-compassion. It’s about letting our negative thoughts float away as we embrace love and kindness, talking to ourselves like we’d talk to a friend. It’s being understanding of our difficult situations and empathetic towards what we’ve gone through.

To practice self-compassion, you can say these statements to yourself or post them around your room:

  • “I had a tough experience, but that doesn’t mean I’m a bad person.”
  • “I’m doing my best, and that is enough.”
  • “I am strong, brave, and resilient.”
  • “I can handle this pain and get through it.”
  • “I can make difficult decisions and have a happier, healthier future, all while not judging myself.”
  • “I’m allowed to slip up — I just need to get back up after.”

6. Remember you can handle difficult emotions

Sometimes, when one of my loved ones is experiencing pain, I feel like I can’t handle it. I worry incessantly and anxiously try to help; I experience stomach cramps, a racing heartbeat, and I can’t stop fidgeting.

My therapist has noticed this and helped me realize it. She said something like, “It seems as though when these things happen, you have this feeling that you can’t handle it — but you can.” And since then, that’s what I’ve tried to remind myself: I can handle this distress. I can feel okay and get through it. I can notice the hurt, feel it, tolerate it, and move past it. And so can you.

If you need help with this, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) has a module called distress tolerance, and it contains some skills that can make this process easier for you. From self-soothing activities to radical acceptance and more, here’s a worksheet with some DBT tools you can practice.

Takeaways

Remember, recognizing we’re in an enmeshed relationship and working to handle it is tough. Setting boundaries, for example, can be scary, and that requires us to know which ones we’re even “allowed” to set. But since enmeshment can negatively affect our self-esteem, the way we handle conflicts, and our individualization, taking steps toward a healthier relationship is important. You have at least 10 rights in a relationship, and you deserve to be with someone who meets them all.

As someone who’s experienced enmeshment and has worked to lessen it (fairly successfully), I have six pieces of advice:

  1. Know your role and that you don’t need to fulfill any others.
  2. Set boundaries with as much confidence as you can muster.
  3. Take care of yourself first, remembering doing so isn’t selfish.
  4. Communicate your feelings with “I statements.”
  5. Give yourself empathy and be understanding, letting judgmental thoughts float away.
  6. Remember that you can handle pain, and distress tolerance skills can help.

I have faith in you and wish you the best!

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A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, I'm an Atlanta-based freelance writer with fun news to share on local entertainment, mental health, dating, and more.

Atlanta, GA
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