Engulfment In Intimacy: What It Is & How To Cope

While most people strive to establish a fulfilling and lasting romantic relationship, most have wondered whether they have lost their sense of individuality by becoming a couple. It’s not uncommon to feel like you’re sacrificing your individuality for the sake of the relationship and your partner. 

While you may be dealing with actual codependency, these feelings may just be prompted by your unfounded fears. They may also be a signal of tapping into some intimacy problems in your relationship. Continue reading to learn more about relationship engulfment, its potential causes, and healthy solutions to this problem.

What Are Signs Of Relationship Engulfment?

Engulfment or enmeshment denotes a state in a relationship where boundaries are unclear or practically non-existent. Here are some tell-tale signs that may indicate you’re dealing with engulfment in your relationship:

  • Emotions may become blurred, to the point of not discerning between positive and negative, healthy and unhealthy, and your own and the other person’s feelings. You may unconsciously seek negativity and instability, as it “feels like home” from untreated family of origin attachment wounds. 
  • Individuality feels like selfishness. Attempts to think and act independently are sabotaged by guilt, criticism, and anxiety. You may put your own identity aside, as your partner defines who you are. 
  • You’re focused on pleasing others, where you truly believe that your feelings and needs aren’t equally important. This is more likely to make you susceptible to all kinds of manipulation and people-pleasing behavior.
  • How you feel depends on another person. While you may think you’re just being empathetic, letting your partner’s feelings influence your own to the extent that your mood reflects theirs at times isn’t healthy.
  • You feel like you have to play the role. For example, it can be a role of a caregiver, a victim of circumstances, or a savior of your emotionally unstable partner. It may make you feel like you don’t have a right to take a break or make room for some personal space as things may fall apart without your help.
  • You fear conflict. You employ different tactics to appease your partner. If you do enter a conflict, you may either withdraw as you don’t know how to voice your disagreement, or act out of affect, without considering the consequences fully. 
  • It’s up to you to fix things. Whatever goes wrong, you may feel the duty to roll up your sleeves and repair the damage. For example, if there’s a disagreement, you may be quick to compromise your values and wishes.

What Is The Difference Between Enmeshment And Codependency?

A codependent person enables or rescues another person who acts out in a variety of ways. They can be physically or emotionally abusive toward you, neglectful or distant, or abuse substances as a way to cope with their unresolved trauma. 

Enmeshment can be seen as one of the aspects of codependency. It’s not only about reliance or being consumed by your partner. Your sense of self and identity can become deeply intertwined with them. You may adopt the way they talk and behave, take their set of beliefs as your own, and ignore your initial likes and dislikes to appease them. Even though their demands may not be expressed outright, you’re susceptible to their cues and do everything you can to keep them by your side.

What Is Enmeshment Or Engulfment Trauma

What Is Enmeshment Or Engulfment Trauma?

While emotional neglect is known to be harmful in childhood, too much parental attention and care may also do harm. This is the primary meaning of engulfment or enmeshment trauma. One example is “helicopter parenting”, where parents become overbearing and controlling, trying to cater to all needs and prevent any negative outcome. Given that this is usually impossible, an overprotected child can grow up with a strong feeling of inadequacy and guilt. 

Another example is when a child is put into a pseudo-parental role, having to cater to the emotional needs of one of the parents. For example, a mom could be complaining to her daughter about her spouse, expecting counsel and support. This can be further complicated by emotional neglect or abuse by one of the parental figures. This inversion of familial roles can lead to difficulties establishing secure attachment in your adult relationships.  

An adult that was stripped away from their opportunity to be adequately cared for in childhood is likely to seek dysfunctional and narcissistic partners, as that’s the type of relationship they have most experience with. However, you may also develop a completely opposite strategy in dealing with intimacy, abandoning partners or friends whenever they get too close, which may be equally unhealthy. 

What Does Fear Of Engulfment Look Like?

If you didn’t grow up in an enmeshed household and your parents neglected your needs for affection and care, you could find it difficult later on to accept closeness, interdependence, and intimacy. 

This can also result from childhood engulfment trauma or even a relationship-related trauma in adulthood that can cause you to shift your attachment pattern. You may start to fear any type of emotional relationship as invasive, unfair, or generally harmful for you. This may lead you to develop avoidant attachment style characteristics and face difficulties in maintaining long-term relationships. 

Fortunately, you may work on steadily reconnecting and investing more time and energy in your relationship in a way that doesn’t jeopardize your sense of independence, yet it might be a long journey to take. 

What Is The Difference Between Enmeshment And Codependency

How Do You Overcome Enmeshment In Intimacy?

Whether you fear feeling engulfed or you have a history of codependency and enmeshment in your intimate relationships, there are ways to be better prepared, become aware of these patterns, and learn how to handle them:

  1. Set Internal Boundaries 

Clear internal boundaries are one of the essential tenets of a healthy relationship. However, if you haven’t learned how to set them, you may need some time to first map out situations where you usually don’t draw the line. You may want to learn when to say “No” and how to negotiate your needs. 

  1. Discover Yourself 

While selflessness might sound noble and altruistic, it’s not the same as a lack of a strong sense of self. If you’re constantly seeking guidance, approval, or validation from the person to who you emotionally cater, you’re likely to lose your identity in the process.

  1. Overcome Guilt

This is not an easy task, as it requires breaking away from the expectations of your parents, partner, and close friends. Set your goals, focus on your needs, and keep the bigger picture in mind. You may soon develop a new role for yourself and play by your own script. 

  1. Get Support

Breaking an enmeshed or codependent pattern of behavior doesn’t mean that you have to be left to your own devices. Seek support from family members and friends that went through a similar situation, or talk to a professional. If you’re both willing to work together on becoming a functional, healthy couple, find an environment where you can talk about everything openly and without shame. 

What Are Signs Of Relationship Engulfment

Who Offers Experience-Based Relationship Intimacy Coaching Exercises? 

Our relationship coaches are at your service if you aim to PIVOT from your old mindset and adopt a new perspective on your marriage or long-term relationship. Whether you wish to discuss intimacy in your marriage as a couple in our Glasshouse environment or get acquainted with your emotional functioning in an individual coaching setting, we have you covered. 

We can help you work on reconnecting, developing healthy strategies to grow as a couple, find creative ways to revive excitement and passion in your marriage and many more. Reach out to us to find out how you can benefit from our Glasshouse retreat!

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