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The Trap of Enmeshment

Discover why finding balance between connectedness and differentiation is one of the most important elements of a successful relationship.

Baby, now that I’ve found you

I won’t let you go

I built my world around you

I need you so

Baby even though

You don’t need me

You don’t need me no, no

–Baby, Now That I’ve Found You” by Alison Krauss

Do you remember the story about Brer Rabbit and the tar baby? One day, Brer Fox devises a plan to catch Brer Rabbit. He creates a figure out of sticky tar and dresses it to look like a boy. When Brer Rabbit happens by, he kindly greets the boy. Angry that the boy doesn’t respond, Brer Rabbit bops him in the face. His paw gets caught, so he punches the boy again, further trapping himself in the tar. When his thrashing has him thoroughly stuck, Brer Fox jumps out, ready to devour him. Of course, as these stories go, Brer Rabbit tricks Brer Fox into letting him free.

It’s a great children’s story, but the idea of being “stuck” accurately describes many of our most intimate relationships. Everywhere, people have become emotionally glued to those around them, but unlike Brer Rabbit, no amount of ingenuity seems to free them.

You’ve seen this in bickering couples and parents held hostage by screaming children in the produce aisle. These folks are absolutely trapped in repetitious, emotionally regressive cycles. Stuck people are your friends, too: the gal who throws herself at the first guy to look her way and the serial-dater who is impervious to the good advice of his mates.

While we’re at it, let’s toss in mama’s boys and bad grrlz, hopeless romantics and happily-ever-after dreamers, many of whom are emotionally fattened by the Hollywood spin machine and a complicit Christian culture that often propagates a soul-mate theology.

Christian writer Henri Nouwen explains that many relationship difficulties stem from loneliness and a twisted love that becomes possessive:

When we feel lonely we keep looking for a person or persons who can take our loneliness away. Our lonely hearts cry out, “Please hold me, touch me, speak to me, pay attention to me.” But soon we discover that the person we expect to take our loneliness away cannot give us what we ask for. Often that person feels oppressed by our demands and runs away, leaving us in despair. As long as we approach another person from our loneliness, no mature human relationship can develop. Clinging to one another in loneliness is suffocating and eventually becomes destructive.

Of course, none of us set out to become the gum on someone’s shoe, but life has a way of leading down those paths anyway. Eldest child, youngest child, only child, unwanted child, picked-on child, “perfect” child, child of divorce, neglected or abused child — all of us are wounded in some way which limits our ability to give and receive love the way God intended. We all struggle to find our true identity, what counselors call our core sense of self.

When our core sense of self is damaged or underdeveloped we are more susceptible to emotional fusion with others and has us handing responsibility for our happiness over to everyone around us. This “enmeshment” further stems from our inability to moderate the forces of individuality and togetherness that mark every relationship we have. Too much individuality leads a person to disconnect from those around him; too much togetherness and a person begins to feel life is determined by those around her, helplessly dependent on others’ emotional vibes.

This has huge implications for marriage-minded folks. Finding balance between connectedness and differentiation is, according to many marriage and family therapists, one of the most important elements of a successful relationship. Failure to understand the trap of enmeshment is going to make marriage difficult for the gals who have subscribed to bridal magazines since age 12 and the guys who see marriage as the Olympic-size pool to quench the desires they’ve struggled to manage since puberty. Put simply, no one else can shoulder the load for your fulfillment.

True Intimacy

Jerry Maguire may believe that “you complete me,” but St. Augustine of Carthage long ago realized that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. Without knowing about modern psychology, Augustine taps into the ancient truth of our being. Our identity — our sense of who we are — fuels everything in our lives. And that identity can only come from God, no matter how noble, pure and right our relationship desires are.

The solution to emotionally-fused relationships may surprise you. It doesn’t involve expensive retreats, date nights or tips to increase romance — all of which are designed to bridge the intimacy gap by increasing the force of togetherness. Rather, the key to lasting relationship success comes by creating distance between couples in order to strengthen each person’s core sense of self.

Again, Nouwen is so perceptive. He writes, “When we invade another’s space and do not allow the other to be his or her own free person, we cause great suffering in our relationships. But when we give another space to move…true intimacy becomes possible.”

Psychologist Edwin Friedman, an expert in family systems theory, said that his goal in marriage counseling was to get people to separate so they didn’t need to “separate.” This process of “differentiation” helps people to stop trying to change the negative aspects of others. Rather, they are taught to focus more on the aspects of life they can control, which are usually limited to their own behavior and reactions to life challenges.

Focusing on one’s self may appear to be “selfish,” but it is absolutely critical to healthy relationships and is the foundation for real intimacy. Consider marriage. When you commit to love, honor and cherish another for life, who is making that commitment? To join together well, we must be whole persons. The Bible speaks of marriage as two becoming one flesh. It doesn’t say that two half parts together make a whole couple.

Further, when marriage and parenting call you to give of yourself — and you will sacrifice plenty in these relationships — you need a self to give away. Truly selfish people aren’t too full of themselves; they actually don’t have enough self and have resorted to taking it from others.

Jesus, Our Example

Although marriage and family therapists have only recently understood these relationship dynamics, these twin aspects of our being — separateness and connectedness — are written into us before time.

The creation story in Genesis 1 describes how God created humankind in His image and likeness. “Male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). The politically correct fashion of today views sexual differentiation as irrelevant, but God is having none of it. He intentionally created humankind as a way of expressing the truth about His very being.

We worship a God eternally present as three distinct persons — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — who interact in the oneness of perfect loving communion. The Trinity is the ideal balance of individuality and union.

We reflect this triune image as male and female individuals, as well as in our wondrous capacity for emotional, sexual and spiritual union with others. Sometimes couples are additionally blessed by the creation of a new life within the one-flesh union (our own earthly trinity), just as God designed.

Jesus, who is fully God and fully man (not half parts of each, as hundreds of years of church councils have hammered out), also provides a model for balancing separateness and connectedness in daily life. He is the quintessential well-differentiated self, immediately present and connected to those around Him but not defined by them. Even as everyone else — including His closest friends — grew anxious, Jesus remained calm. To the very end He understood who He was and stayed true to His identity, even praying for those who tortured Him. Jesus willingly gave His full self for the life of His bride, the church, yet never lost His self as He gave himself away.

Of course, this kind of balance will never fully be ours, but we can spend each day gaining greater health to guide us through all stages of life — single, married, raising children, widowed or divorced. Thankfully we can chart our course by the compass of John the Beloved’s words that “there is no fear in love” and the map that St. Paul so often gives to newlyweds:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

This we know in part, writes Paul, but someday we will know the full truth that the only thing possessed by love is itself.

Copyright 2012 Christopher Riordan. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Christopher Riordan

“Christopher Riordan” is a pseudonym. The author lives in the Midwest. He spends his free time reading the same book 10 times in a row and hunting small socks behind his sofas.

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