It’s somewhat fitting that codependency and enmeshment are so frequently confused with one another, and used interchangeably as terms. Both are disorders of the identity, and both revolve around the submission of the self to someone else. With each, there is a blurring of boundaries, unreasonable expectations, and a closeness that borders on unhealthy.
A Strange Sense of Self
In the case of a codependent relationship, the codependent person usually feels responsible for their partner and sacrifices their own needs and well-being for the other person. That said, most codependents remain aware of their needs. They resent the sacrifices they choose to make for others, even though that self-sacrificing behavior is how they gain a sense of self-worth.
In an enmeshed relationship, the boundaries between the parties are so blurred that they are incapable of functioning without each other. Individuals may no longer have a sense of their own wants or needs. An enmeshed person may sacrifice their own well-being, but they do so without having a real sense of their own wants or needs.
- The codependent is an individual who derives their self-worth from enabling others.
- An enmeshed individual is someone who enables others because they have no sense of self.
While this may seem like a subtle distinction, it is an important one. A codependent individual may clearly see the imbalance in their relationship—they may even resent it. People who are dealing with enmeshment may be unable to see the imbalance in the relationship.
An individual can be in an enmeshed relationship without being codependent, but codependents often find themselves gravitating toward enmeshment. An enmeshed relationship is one in which the individuals can no longer differentiate their emotions. If one person is angry, so is the other; if one is sad, so is the other. If one wants ice cream, the other wants them to have ice cream.
As a result of their childhood traumas and unhealthy parent-child relationships, codependents often take on people-pleasing behaviors and responsibility for managing the emotions of everyone around them, but especially their partners or children.
In an enmeshed relationship:
- You rely on others for validation and self-worth.
- You are uncomfortable putting yourself first.
- It may be difficult or impossible to make decisions on your own.
- You may lack boundaries; privacy is not respected, and may even be a source of conflict.
- Independent friendships and relationships may feel threatening or inspire feelings of guilt.
- Unhealthy & dysfunctional behaviors are supported or overlooked.
A hallmark of enmeshment is the loss of autonomy. When asked to make an important decision independent of others, or to consider your own needs, it produces a feeling of discomfort.
Questions to Consider
Here are some questions you may want to consider to help you determine whether or not your relationship may have become enmeshed:
- Do you have space for your own thoughts & feelings?
- Are you able to think about your own needs without worrying about others?
- Can you list your own hobbies & interests outside the relationship?
- Would you be comfortable pursuing those interests independently?
- Do you feel responsible for managing the emotional well-being of someone else?
- Do you have friends or family outside the relationship you engage with frequently?
- Are you uncomfortable being apart from your partner?
Remember, codependency and enmeshment are connected, but not identical. The critical thing for you to consider is how healthy you or your partner’s independent sense of self is.
Codependency and enmeshment are complex patterns of behavior that affect relationships and can be difficult to overcome on your own. If you think you may be codependent or enmeshed, consider reaching out to a trained therapist who can help you navigate restoring your sense of self. Schedule a consultation today if you’re interested in learning more about codependency in dating and relationship counseling.