In this post I am taking up where I left off in: Why should we try and disentangle our self from an enmeshed relationship?
I am going to describe Dawn as someone who gives us an insight into how difficult it can be to leave home and be independent when the pressure from a parent to stay is considerable. However with support the importance of making this decision at any age is possible and beneficial to all.
Dawn: Going from in-dependence to independence
Living with her mother, Dawn has never felt able to leave home, particularly since her father died. Her mother was widowed in her forties and although Dawn had a brief time apart from her family when she went to college, once she began teaching she found it more convenient to live at home. Her mother actively encouraged this, she did not work and Dawn’s father was away a great deal on business leaving her alone. Dawn worked long hours at school leading many out of school activities, including taking the children away to the school’s field centre, so it seemed a good solution for them both. She has had several relationships but none that led to her moving in with a partner, this seemed mainly because she was attracted to men who also lived at home and the break for them both felt enormous. Dawn is now in her late thirties and has begun to realise that whilst she enjoys her work, she is quickly reaching an age where children are a less likely option. Her mother is now in her seventies and Dawn is aware that her choices in life are diminishing.
When I worked with Dawn, it became clear she felt she had had a happy childhood, much of it spent with her mother who was always willing to play with her and encourage her to learn to play the piano, do a number of sports like swimming and tennis and also funded her love of skiing. She always had one best friend at school who she was very close to, but Dawn never had a wide circle of friends. In fact she admitted she found large groups difficult, although not as a teacher! She preferred the intimacy of one to one contact. Dawn had always imagined she would get married and have a family of her own. She liked children although she acknowledged that she would not have want a large family and did have concerns of how to deal with sibling relationships.
When I met her she had begin to suffer free floating anxiety and had a panic attack the previous week and was unsure why. She is a perfectionist by nature and we soon made the link between her ideal life, as wife and mother, to the one she appeared to be pursuing as the carer to her ageing mother with some independence through work. When we explored what it would be like to stand up to her mother ie putting her own needs first, Dawn immediately said: “Terrible, I couldn’t do it “
I asked her what it would feel like: “Just awful as if I am denying her a place in my life.” She then went on to describe an incident:
“When I was fourteen I wanted to go to a party and stay over night with my friend, when I asked mum she said: ‘Absolutely No”. I was stunned, it didn’t seem such a huge request but she was adamant that I could not leave her. I felt angry and miserable and felt a sense of desolation, a sort of numbness, almost as if I didn’t deserve to have something for me. I had somehow asked the impossible. I know it sounds weird, but it really felt that If I had my way, my mum could not exist, and if she had her way, then I couldn’t.”
This experience had been repeated many times over the years with Dawn feeling that she could only get her needs fulfilled outside of the home which was why her job had become so important to her. However any other person in her life seemed a potential threat to this co-dependent relationship and was the reason that Dawn never followed through with any of her other relationships.
Over the next few months, whilst we worked together, Dawn decided she wanted to make changes in her life. We looked at the areas that she had not really thought about before: her lack of psychological separation from her mother, and how to move from emotional, physical and financial dependence on her mother to a place where she wanted to be. This she described being close to her mother but not living with her, able to be available emotionally but not so that her mother was entirely dependent on her. Fortunately Dawn had, by living at home, saved money so she was able to put down a deposit on a flat in the next road up from her mother. This was a sort of half-way house for her and enabled her to be begin the process of psychological separation, yet she was still near enough to be on-call when needed. However we also looked carefully at the boundaries around this, as I have seen many people move out of home only to find the many restrictions on their time, demanded by a parent, compromised the separation.
Dawn found making boundaries very difficult at first, as she still believed that if she did not do what her mother wanted her world would fall apart. This is not uncommon with people who are enmeshed with a parent or any one else. In this situation it is hard to know what is your need and what is that of the other person. However I would suggest this very confusion is a good indicator of the level of enmeshment. When you can say: ” I need to do this….. for myself, and whilst I am happy to be available to you I need to lead a separate life from yours” or words to this effect, then you know you have broken the bonds that enmesh you.
We explored the guilt and the difficulties Dawn had of saying ‘No’ to her mother and the problems her mother had of expecting Dawn to be there whenever she was free. However in time her mother began to see Dawn was not going to abandon her and she was able to let go and make less demands. Dawn was then able to take time out to see friends and even went away on holiday. The panic attacks did not return and the free floating anxiety diminished.
When I last heard from Dawn, several years later, she had begun a new relationship and was getting married the following year. She came back for one session to talk through whether she would offer mother a granny flat in the new home she was in the process of buying with her partner. After a lot of heart searching she decided against it, at the present time, but still considered it an option for the future. This seemed a good compromise and one where she did not feel guilty, as she was still a short drive from her mother. She also commented that since she left home her mother had also made an effort to go out and have some sort of social life outside her daughter’s.
We can see that Dawn was able to make major changes in her life by acknowledging what she really wanted out of her life for herself. Once she did this she could then make the decisions which enabled her to do this by leaving home and making a new relationship with her mother which ultimately benefitted them both.
In my next post I will look at Daniel and how it struggled with enmeshment.