In my previous post I looked at how Dawn was able to separate emotionally, physically and financially from her mother. I will now explore Daniel’s experience. He also had problems with psychological separation from both his parents, but in a different way with each, as he fought to retain a sense of self and not be caught in the middle of his parents’ relationship.
Daniel: Caught in the web of enmeshment
Daniel is in his forties but has never left home and works for his father in the family business. His father relies on him quite heavily and it is difficult for Daniel to have an adult-to-adult relationship with him as his son. This has made their relationship problematic over the years, particularly after his parents’ divorce. Daniel lives with his mother who is very dependent on him for all sorts of support, and in many ways Daniel has become her ‘partner’ from an emotional and physical perspective – the latter refers to his doing much of the bill paying, house maintenance and driving.
In many ways Daniel is more desperate than even Dawn to change his life. He is so enmeshed with both his parents, that he feels as if he has never really grown up in their eyes. He also has the added problem that despite his parents’ divorce, he is often used as a go-between, as all three are bound up with the family business in different ways which results in complex financial arrangements.
Daniel suffers from anxiety which often becomes acute and means he is less and less able to have a satisfactory social life. He wants to move out of his mother’s house but is increasingly concerned that this would make his anxiety worse. He is particularly afraid of his mother’s reaction if he should do this. Even if he goes out for the day she often calls him to see where he is and is very intrusive if he has a friend around.
Daniel and I met, and after a few sessions exploring how he might leave his mother, it became apparent that Daniel is living a double life. The ‘home-Daniel’ lives his life as his parents expect. He is their ‘golden’ child and is expected to follow their values and ideals. He does this quite successfully most of the time, but the other ‘private-Daniel’ is quite different. This Daniel leads a secret life where all the things his parents frown upon are indulged: drink, drugs, and promiscuity. However the tension in following this double life is behind much of the anxiety he is experiencing. The thought of leaving his mother or moving away from the family business is extremely frightening. So much of Daniels identity is bound up in these relationships and without them he feels he can not not know who he is. He does not like the’ private-Daniel’ and feels ashamed of what that Daniel does, whilst recognising this is his way of getting some personal space. Unfortunately not in a particularly healthy way or a way he himself can approve.
Many months passed as we look at the fears and anxiety, the sabotaging behaviours and the level of enmeshment Daniel is experiencing in his life.
When he tentatively suggests to his mother he is thinking of getting a place of his own, she becomes extremely distressed and tells him he can not possibly leave her to live on her own. Conversations go something like this:
“Daniel, I have looked after you all these years don’t you think its time you looked after me?”
D: “Of course, but I also want to have a place of my own, I will still see you and I wont be far away”
At this point his mother usually leaves the room and refuses to speak to him.
This makes Daniel feel guilty and leads him to ‘escape’ back into his private world, which unfortunately does nothing to appease his guilt.
What appears to be the heart of the problem I have described before in my post: Parent or Spouse – who comes first? When the emotional ties are so close that both parties do not feel they can live without the other, this sets up something called the “Drama Triangle’. Each person goes around the triangle of victim, persecutor and rescuer (not a real rescuer but someone trying to get their own needs met by disempowering the other person in the triangle). Sometimes a person will feel the ‘victim’ of the other’s behaviour and as a result may ‘persecute’ or ‘ rescue’ (manipulate by trying to ‘do the best’ for that person but is not actually meeting that person’s needs but their own). A victim will often turn persecutor or rescuer, the shoe is now on the other foot, as the other person feels victim.
Daniel describs this silent treatment as being intolerable. “It feels” he says “as if my mother has withdrawn herself from me so that I no longer exist. I am either a part of her or I am nothing.”
This withdrawal Daniel experiences as intense shame. He feels on the one hand, as if he is a small boy who has no right to an opinion let alone a separate existence, and on the other an overwhelming rage that his very existence seems to be in question. This sense of not feeling worthy enough to exist is devastating and feels to him like a sort of psychological annihilation. In a way it is, because it is an annihilation of the self. We know ourselves through the mirror of our first carer, usually our mother. However if what is reflected back to us is primarily their needs, we get a sense that if we do not fulfil them, then we ourselves cannot survive. This is why both Dawn, Daniel and others find these feelings so devastating, and separation is so difficult. At the heart of the drama triangle is the question: ‘What is being avoided?’. Usually avoidance is because something is too difficult or too painful to acknowledge or confront. However once what ever this is can be addressed, at least by one party, it is possible to move forward. In Daniel’s case he needs to hold onto the reality that it is okay to be a separate individual and make choices in his own life which are independent of a parent. Once he can acknowledge this he can move to the stage of breaking out of the reoccurring drama.
The pattern of confrontation by Daniel, followed by withdrawal by his mother has been the mother-son pattern for many years. Once Daniel can understand a little of what is happening and realise that his own behaviour is a significant part of what is being played out, he is able to begin to make changes. He has to acknowledge that by taking his independence he is never going to get his mother’s approval, as she only wants the Daniel who is going to meet her needs, not his own. In this way she has the power of approval over Daniel and it is only when Daniel realises this, can he step aside and accept that his mother’s approval will never be forthcoming. He must accept that he has to move on with his life without it, and by doing so he can finally take back his power. He is then able to break out of the drama triangle and with a great deal of trepidation leave home. Once away from his mother he can establish a more adult-to-adult relationship with her and this also improves his relationship with his father, as he no longer feels caught in the middle of his parents problematic divorce.
In my next post I will look at How to break the ties of enmeshment