Bernice responds to “Parent or Spouse” concerning enmeshment and guilt

by on May 16, 2014

in Bernice responds

Dear C,   Thank you for your email, it raises a lot of issues which I will attempt to answer.

The four main issues I see are:  Enmeshment, Guilt, Conflict, Anger.

However all of the last three are linked specifically to enmeshment so I will look at this first.

From your email I think the biggest problem you face is the fact that neither you nor your mother have been able to form an identity separate from each other. This is always more difficult when a ‘family’ consists of only two members. Even in a so called average family of two parents and 2-3 children this can be difficult especially when a parent has not separated emotionally from their own parent or seeks their identity through merging with their child or children.

I have written about what I describe as enmeshment between an only child and one or more of their parents’. In your case this is particularly marked and you illustrate this when you write: “I am her reason to be alive. Thanks to my existence she was able to accomplish everything she has; thanks to her, I have every single thing I have and the person I am.”

 In other words you are both so entangled that you have become one unit and cannot really see where one person begins and the other ends. The difficulty with this is that you then feel completely responsible for the other person’s happiness and the other person feels responsible for yours. Added to this, if the other person is not happy you do not feel you can be either, and vice versa. This truly is enmeshment and one of the consequences is the impossibility of having another relationship outside of this one, as neither of you are emotionally free of the other to be able to build a separate relationship with a third person. (I believe your mother experienced that from what you have written.) It is like being an emotional ‘conjoined’ twin, not a physical joining but a joining which is almost as intrusive; as you are unable to do anything for yourself without feeling beholden to the other person and responsible for their feelings.

The film ‘Grey Gardens’ is a good example of this type of enmeshment. Grey Gardens is a film about the lives of Edith Bouvier Beale (Little Edie) and her mother Edith Ewing Bouvier (Big Edie). The emotional incest which is revealed during the film shows that Big Edie is really only concerned with her on needs and insidiously disables Little Edie to such a extent that so she no longer functions independently. (You can  watch the Grey Gardens trailer on You Tube). The mother and daughter, who even share the same first name, have a relationship that is so intense that eventually they are unable to function without each other, despite continual conflict, and isolate themselves completely to maintain that relationship. In this type of scenario it feels as if you are so dependent on the other person that without them you would die. It means your whole life has to be fashioned around the other person and the times when you are away from each other you literally feel only half yourself. Emotionally this can feel very traumatic and lead to unbearable anxiety that can only be alleviated by being in touch with the other person.  I have a sense of this when you write:

“My problem is that I don’t know how to split myself…. I need my mom in my life. I need her close to me; I need to see her every day. In fact, I see her every single day..”

Guilt is very much linked to this sense of not being a separate individual. It is a result of feeling part of the other person so that you feel responsible for them in every area of their life. Feelings of guilt are a useful gauge in a healthy relationship as they can help us to know when we have hurt another person through our words or actions. However the guilt you feel when you say:

“I see her every single day and if she is in Colombia we talk twice a day and if we don’t I feel guiltyI feel guilty when she is in NY and I don’t spend at least one day of the weekend with her. I feel guilty trying to be with mom when my husband just wants to be with me and friends. I feel guilty trying to explain this to my husband when he is not a single child and grew up so separate from his mom.”

Here you show that you feel responsible for both your mother’s and husband’s happiness. Often only-child adults are accused of only thinking of themselves, but whilst this may be true in some cases, the converse is often the case: when a person is so focused on the other people in their life they have no sense of themselves. When that occurs it is impossible to know what to do, as you have no inner grounding or sense of the person you are, to be able to make choices. As a result there is a tendency to just try and please everyone, which of course is impossible, and that leads to a sense of guilt because it does not and cannot work.

A good way of gauging whether you need to separate psychologically from a parent is to do my  quiz. When you have completed that you may wish to find some ways of dealing with the lack of psychological separation in Cutting the Ties.

In my next post I will continue by looking at conflict and anger and offer some ways of changing the ways to deal with these problems.

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