Signs You're In An Enmeshed Relationship (& Why It's Unhealthy)

When does being close to your significant other become too close for comfort? If you're in an enmeshed relationship, your closeness could be covering up deeper issues. Enmeshment, a term coined by therapist Salvador Minuchin, is where two or more people become so attached that it's hard to separate them as individuals. It's often thought of as a type of codependency, where people in the relationship adopt roles that keep them dangerously dependent on each other.

Enmeshment can occur in family relationships and friendships, but it might be most pervasive in romantic relationships. After all, society often idealizes tight-knit, we-over-me couples. To some extent, it can be healthy to work together as a team and set aside personal desires for the sake of the relationship. However, when staying connected to your S.O. requires dialing down your own identity and needs, you're setting yourself up for an enmeshed partnership. Here are the warning signs of enmeshment and how to disentangle yourself from the toxic dynamic.

You share each other's feelings

"When my significant other is upset, I'm upset." "My partner's good days are my good days — I'm just happy when they're happy." These kinds of phrases may sound sweet, but they can often reflect an unhealthy enmeshment. Kimberly Perlin, a licensed clinical social worker, described enmeshed relationships to Psych Central: "Each partner becomes emotionally overwhelmed when their partner is upset ... They respond as if the emotion or situation is happening directly to them. They cannot relax until their partner is 'OK.'"

At first glance, this may seem to signal genuine empathy in a relationship, but mirroring and managing your S.O.'s emotions without checking in with your own can quickly lead to a loss of self-identity. "You find it difficult to know how you really feel and what you want," psychologist Bethany Howsley told Mamamia. "On the contrary, if you do know, you may find it difficult to express your needs, thoughts, feelings, and opinions to your loved ones."

Over time, you might bury your own emotions altogether and focus solely on rescuing your partner from their bad moods and down days. While a bit of selflessness can be a plus in a relationship, it's crucial to remain in touch with your own feelings and emotional needs too.

You constantly look for your partner's approval

Healthy couples generally learn how to make decisions together, but if you struggle to decide anything on your own, you and your partner may be enmeshed. As Dr. Steven Mahan, Clinical Psychologist and Operational Lead at The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, shared with Glamour, "A person who is enmeshed with a significant other (such as a friend, parent, romantic partner, or relative) may struggle to function on their own or make their own choices without seeking constant support, reassurance, and/or validation, and have a desperate need to be emotionally close to their significant other."

When your relationship is enmeshed, choosing to go on a girls' vacation without your S.O. or brainstorming your career path without your partner's input can seem like a threat to the relationship. You may believe that to remain strong and secure as a couple, you must always agree and validate each other's choices. And when you're not on the same page, you yield to your partner's opinion to keep the peace.

Remember, it's okay to disagree and even make choices that your partner doesn't understand, as long as it doesn't hurt the other person (for instance, it wouldn't be appropriate to opt for an open relationship without your S.O.'s consent). No matter how close you two may be, you should always be the one in the driver's seat of your own life.

There are no boundaries or privacy in the relationship

Perhaps more than anything else, boundaries separate healthy relationships from enmeshed ones. In essence, boundaries honor your personal identity and needs. When you and your partner are fused together in an enmeshed relationship, it's easy to lose sight of where you end and they begin. You may invite your S.O. into every nook and cranny of your life, leaving nothing for yourself.

Sure, it sounds romantic to say that your partner knows everything about you — or even that they know you better than you know yourself. But in truth, privacy and personal space allow you each to maintain your own personhood distinct from the relationship. Hatty J. Lee, a therapist and mental health author, explained to Well+Good, "People often believe that you need to share everything in order to experience intimacy or closeness, but I tell my clients to listen to their bodies and consider whether you feel safe or comfortable revealing whatever it is you're about to reveal." If you feel pressured to always open up, or if you expect your partner to share everything with you, consider it a warning sign of enmeshment.

You've abandoned old interests and goals

You know that moment on a first date when you discover that you both love the same band? Or the bonding experience of laughing together at the same movie punchlines? Or better yet — what about when you realize you have the same goals of starting a family or moving to a new city? It's natural to want to share interests and aspirations with your loved one, but no two people will ever be exactly alike. In an enmeshed relationship, however, you may try to mirror your partner as much as possible, to the point of casting aside your old hobbies or dreams for the future.

"You will increasingly listen to their favorite songs and eat the food they like," psychiatrist Era Dutta told Vice. "Maybe you are forcing yourself to watch arthouse films over the commercial ones that you actually like?" Dutta suggests taking note of how you've changed since starting your relationship and asking yourself if your new interests and personality traits feel authentic to who you really are or are just an attempt at staying attached to your partner.

You can't function when you're fighting

In an enmeshed partnership, conflict is often viewed as the ultimate threat. If you and your significant other are butting heads or you've run into a disagreement, you might feel like your entire world is falling apart. While it's normal to be stressed about major arguments, it's not a good idea to revolve your life around your partner and the current state of your relationship.

In many cases, this leads to conflict avoidance. People may avoid conflict for a number of reasons, such as fearing being misunderstood or lacking confidence in discussing their emotions. If you're in an enmeshed relationship, though, you likely avoid conflict to maintain harmony and, ultimately, the relationship — even at the cost of your well-being. After all, conflict avoidance doesn't really get rid of relationship problems. Instead, it often only leads to greater resentment and dissatisfaction later on.

You've sacrificed friends for your partner

Let's be honest: A new romantic relationship can take up a lot of time and energy. When you're getting to know each other and making space in your calendar for dates, other priorities — like friendships — can admittedly fall by the wayside. That might be why, as researchers found in 2010, people lose an average of two friends when starting a romantic relationship (via BBC).

Reshuffling your social life might just be the cost of admission to falling in love, but enmeshed relationships tend to take this a step further. Kimberly Perlin described enmeshed couples to Psych Central, saying, "They often do not have independent friendships outside the relationship. Either the friend is 'our friend,' or they are not a friend."

If you always put your romantic relationship first, you might be tempted to give up a friend because your partner doesn't like them or because they prefer to hang out without your plus-one. Similarly, you may expect your S.O. to let go of anyone you don't approve of. This can appear to draw you and your partner closer in an us-against-the-world kind of way, but it can leave you feeling alone and isolated if your relationship doesn't last.

Why being too close can be toxic

From songs about borderline-obsessive love to movie couples who sacrifice it all for their relationship, pop culture is full of examples of enmeshment. But just because it makes for a swoon-worthy storyline doesn't mean it's healthy. Dr. Steven Mahan explained to Glamour, "Enmeshment prevents our ability to feel confident and safe whilst being autonomous in our own behaviors and decisions. It starves us of a willingness to pursue our own interests."

Moreover, your mental health will likely take a hit in an enmeshed union. Marie Fraser, a clinical hypnotherapist, told Stylist that without a strong sense of personal identity, "We may face issues such as neediness, social anxiety, toxic relationships, depression, low self-worth and co-dependency to name but a few." She added, "Ultimately, enmeshment is a form of control that can dissolve a person's own emotional identity and individuality."

Simply put, enmeshment is never a good thing, but it can become especially toxic when it disguises manipulation and abuse as love and intimacy.

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.

How to escape enmeshment

It's crucial to free yourself from toxic entanglements, whether you do so by creating new relationship patterns or leaving the partnership entirely. First, it helps to dig into the insecurities and triggers that drive you to seek closeness. "For example, if you recognize that you have trouble being alone without a partner or feel threatened by your partner's autonomy, you can practice soothing yourself in those moments," Alicia Muñoz, a licensed professional counselor, shared with MindBodyGreen. Journal, meditate, or go for a walk to regulate your feelings without over-relying on the relationship.

The Gottman Institute, a relationship research institute, also suggests doing some soul-searching to identify your personal values, interests, and emotions. Before reflexively agreeing with your S.O., ask yourself how you really feel about an issue or what goals you actually want to pursue in life. It's okay — and even healthy — if your thoughts and feelings sometimes diverge from your partner's.

Finally, unraveling enmeshment requires the participation of both people. With that said, your partner may not be on board initially. "You can expect that the other person will not be happy about this and will push back," therapist Kimberly Panganiban told Fatherly. "This is because change is hard and scary and most people rebel at first to a dynamic change in a relationship." Set clear boundaries and expectations going forward. If your S.O. continues to resist, it may be best to go your separate ways.