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IN RELATIONSHIPS, WE LIVE TOGETHER BUT WE MUST IN THE DEEPEST SENSE MAINTAIN OUR OWN SENSE OF SELF.

For years the big buzzword in relationships was “codependency.” I even remember the joke that every time a codependent dies, someone else’s life flashes before his or her eyes. “Codependency” is really the larger term for what happens when people lose their sense of identity within relationships. It is not knowing where you end and your partner begins, and vice versa. People can set up this scenario in multiple relationships, and it is generally not exclusive to a primary love interest, spouse or partner.

The down-and-dirty, nitty-gritty, day-to-day loss of self that happens in your primary love relationship, BFF (best friends forever) connection or parental or sibling entanglement is referred to as “enmeshment.” What a great-sounding word and descriptor for what happens when people are so smushed together that you can’t identify an individual’s thoughts or respective body parts.

Couples who experience enmeshment generally begin to lose connection to outside sources of nourishment beyond this primary relationship. They tend to stop seeing friends and to release outside hobbies and points of interest, and everything becomes about the relationship. All outside information is now processed through the lens of the relationship, not the individuals who once inhabited their own bodies. Couples tend to defer to their partner in decision making and often tell anyone “outside” that they will have to get back to that individual on any requests for their time.

Is “you complete me” really the goal?

Sometimes the enmeshment is not so fanciful and light. It often has a dark side, where individuals are paralyzed inside the walls of the relationship and instead of seeking freedom, they feel helpless, angry and resentful toward their partner, not even realizing why. They are trapped in an endless cycle of righteousness and storytelling that passes itself off as truth, when the only thing that is really happening is their true self is shrinking.

Now that I have painted such a bright, colorful picture that most can relate to, what if anything is the solution to overcoming this extreme loss of self?

There are a few basic steps to stop the shrinking process and reverse the effects on the relationship. It can happen faster when both parties are engaged, and it can still happen when only one person is ready.

Taking yourself back for the good of the relationship

Rule #1: Start speaking your truth. Over time couples tend to shut down and shut up. They become more at ease with their own thoughts than with their words. We can all tend to be right when we live inside our heads. Now, I don’t care if what comes out of your mouth makes any sense to your partner, or perhaps even to you — just start doing it. If it feels awkward, announce that before you speak. It is like recapturing your ability to speak a language fluently after being away from it for a while.

Rule #2: Own your feelings. They belong to you, but they’re just feelings–they’re not who you are. If you are angry, happy, sad, mad, glad, disturbed or overflowing with joy, then your partner needs to know about it. None of these are crimes. The crime is in the withholding.

Rule #3: Don’t let your partner speak for you or allow him or her to insist she knows what you are thinking or feeling about anything. Your thoughts and feelings are yours — share them. And when your partner takes liberty with them, lovingly stop her and let her know what you are really thinking or experiencing. This goes a long way for both of you toward starving the story and engaging in the authenticity of what hopefully brought you together in the first place.

Rule #4: Reconnect to outside sources of joy and fun. This may be a group of friends you used to hang with, a hobby or activity that you gave up without realizing it was happening — doesn’t matter. Bottom line, do not think your primary relationship is all the food you need. If it were, we would all couple up and move to our own island. Enmeshment tends to isolate us from the world. You know who these friends are, what the activities were or what you imagined and never acted on. Time to get going! This can only enrich your primary relationship by taking the pressure off it and allowing you to return with outside sources of stimulation.
This may or may not include a dog or a new car.