How to disentangle oneself from an enmeshed relationship (part 1)

by on August 5, 2014

in Bernice's Articles

Why should we try and disentangle our self from an enmeshed relationship?

The reasons, as I stated in my previous post, are that when psychological separation is missing, the following can occur:

  • A lack of a sense of self
  • A lack of control over one’s life
  • A potential for low self-esteem
  • A feeling of being a ‘victim’ rather than an ‘author’ of one’s life.

I would add to this, that one of the difficulties of being enmeshed as a child is that we do not know any other way to relate to others. It means we take this pattern of relating and do the same to our partner, and child/ren and this can feel very suffocating to the recipient. Especially when this is passed on to ones child/ren, because it does not facilitate them acquiring healthy psychological development.

 So how do we disentangle our selves from an enmeshed relationship?

If you have not already done so I suggest you try my quiz: Do you need to separate psychologically from your parents?

This will help you to see areas in your life that may need changing and can set you on the path of psychological separation. I have outlined why I think only children find it difficult to separate from their parents, and now suggest there are three areas which may need to be addressed: emotional, physical and financial.

 Emotional separation usually begins in adolescence and entails the young person identifying with their peers and at least for a short time ‘rejecting’ their parents. This is important, as it is the way a young person can learn about who they are and how they behave and relate to others. I think for only children this is even more important as they do not have siblings to do some of this early mirroring for them. In a family with siblings one continually gets a ‘view’ of how another person of similar age (ie not an adult) interacts, or of there are several siblings how siblings interact with others, in the presence of parent and without that presence. Of course some of this can be learned though interaction outside of the family and certainly school enables this to happen a great deal. However, many only child adults I have had contact with, have described how difficult it was to feel separate from the constraints parents have put on them to conform to their family values. With no other sibling to share in the adolescent rebellion it is much more likely the only child will not rebel and remain emotionally tied to his or her parent or parents’. This is more likely to happen if the parent finds it hard, due to their own emotional ties, to let the child rebel, or at least have a level of freedom away from the prying eyes of a parent. Even harder if the parents’ see any deviation from the family norm as a personal insult or a not to be tolerated challenge. On the other end of the spectrum it may be that the parent feels so vulnerable, or so in need of the child’s presence, that any move the adolescent makes to remove themselves emotionally will be experienced as a threat to the parent’s very existence and will spark dependency issues focused on that adolescent. This sort of history can be seen developing in the early years between C and her mother in the post Parent or Spouse – who comes first?

 Physical separation is achieved by becoming independent enough to leave home. Not every young person is ready to leave home at a particular time and some do it automatically when they go to college, even if they do come home for the holidays! However as most parents know, however much you enjoy your children growing up and reaching maturity the time comes for them to leave and make their own way in the world. This is sometimes through work, sometimes through marriage or a new relationship.  However if the young person has become enmeshed with a parent there is usually an underlying message: “Don’t leave home”. This may never be spoken but is there nonetheless. The ‘push’ most of us as parents may need to give our young person to leave and become independent can be painful to both sides, but is necessary.

 Financial separation is the way much of the emotional and physical ties are held by parents’. The only child does not share resources with other siblings, so that means that there may be far more for them and home life can seem the easier option. Leaving the nest may seem unnecessarily uncomfortable, particularly if the parents’ are not encouraging this to happen. My own parents were so worried that I would not be independent they gave me money towards a deposit so that I could buy my first flat. Even today with rising house prices this may be one of the great advantages an only child has over those with siblings, but equally I have know many adult onlies who have been unable to leave home because it would ‘kill their mother’, and though obviously untrue it does show the level of emotional power within this particular family. I have also found leaving home can be particularly difficult for sons as well as daughters who find it extremely problematic breaking emotional ties with their mother.

Separation is no easy task as we can see. It also has particular challenges for the only child moving from adolescence to adulthood. In my next post I will look at some of the ways these difficulties can be challenged.

Previous post:

Next post: