Preventing Enmeshment in Relationships in Recovery

I specialize in working with people who have Addiction. These are people who are interested in learning more about themselves and engaging in a process of recovery. This health and wellness journey takes many twists and turns along the way. One place that it typically moves into is a focus on relationships. You may have two people who are growing and changing who are eager to share their journey with each other, perhaps even help each other out along the way. This may be family members, spouses, friends, or people who meet at mutual support meetings or in other supportive environments. This opens up the question of how do you be there for this person and truly help them without crossing over into enmeshment?

First, let’s clarify what enmeshment is. Enmeshment is where there is a loss of self in the context of the relationship with another. When people are enmeshed, they focus on the other person’s needs, goals, feelings, issues, and desires at the expense of their own. People who are enmeshed lose connection with who they are and have difficulty identifying and sharing their own needs, thoughts, opinions, and feelings. Enmeshment is harmful for all parties as it takes away authenticity and honesty.

How is enmeshment harmful? It not only robs authenticity from the relationship, it also fuels Addiction. People can be used like drugs for escape, reward, and relief. The brain can find validation, sympathy, control, rescue, approval, and/or disapproval as a distraction from life and a hit of dopamine without the need for any external substance. Without even knowing it, the brain may be using relationships for a hit while the person is trying to pursue abstinence and recovery from other substances and/or behaviours.

With the vulnerability to enmeshment being so strong, how does one maintain or establish interdependence in relationships? A general rule of thumb I encourage is to only take processed feelings and issues to your spouse and family members. This way there is not the temptation to look for them to become a sponsor or therapist and they can sit in their appropriate role of person who loves and cares about you. Sharing what you are already aware of builds emotional intimacy without stepping into enmeshment.

With friends and recovery supports, you will be doing raw processing with them. However, as you do this, pay attention to your feelings and to how they are supporting you. If they are providing advice, answers, solutions, telling you what you should do, judgment, control, sympathy, rescuing, or caretaking, then this may not be an appropriate person to use as a support because they are not able to be empathetic, objective, and detached. Look for people where you feel safe and comfortable and who offer empathetic responses like, “That sounds difficult, I hear you are feeling ______” and who encourage you to support yourself. “What do you think you can do to look after yourself? Do you need any help? How can you support yourself right now? What do you need in this situation?”

Have a variety of people in your life that you can turn to for processing and support rather than putting all of the focus on one or two relationships, as this also helps reduce the risk of enmeshment.

If you are struggling with this issue, I would encourage you to look into professional as well as mutual support in your area, using programs such as Codependents Anonymous (CoDA) to learn more about boundaries and how to move away from enmeshment to healthy support.

By Paige Abbott, Registered Psychologist