Setting boundaries in enmeshed relationships

Setting Boundaries in Enmeshed Relationships

Key points about boundaries and enmeshed relationships:

  • Boundaries are healthy limits that we set in our relationships to protect our physical, emotional, and mental well-being.
  • Enmeshed relationships are unhealthy relationships in which boundaries are blurred and people are so close that they have trouble seeing themselves as separate, autonomous people.
  • Boundaries are key to developing self-esteem and a strong, individual identity.

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What is an enmeshed relationship?

An enmeshed relationship lacks boundaries. People in enmeshed relationships are so close that they lose their individual identities. Enmeshed relationships can be between parents and children, siblings, romantic partners, or friends.

If you’re in an enmeshed relationship, you may:

  • Have difficulty making decisions on your own.
  • Feel guilty or selfish if you do anything without the other person or that displeases them.
  • Feel like you’re constantly walking on eggshells, afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing.
  • Feel like you have to give up your own needs and wants in order to please the other person.
  • Struggle to set boundaries.

People in enmeshed relationships often become codependent, meaning that they rely on other people for their sense of identity and sacrifice their needs and wants to help or please others. In addition, you may have difficulty maintaining other relationships because you’re so focused on the enmeshed relationship.

Read more about enmeshed relationships in these articles:

What are boundaries?

Boundaries are personal limits that we set to define ourselves and protect our well-being. They can include physical, emotional, and mental boundaries. For example, a physical boundary might be keeping your door closed when you are getting dressed. An emotional boundary might be refusing to answer the phone when you are feeling stressed. And a mental boundary might be refusing to engage in arguments with someone who is being verbally abusive.

Why are boundaries important in enmeshed relationships?

Boundaries are essential in enmeshed relationships because they help to create a sense of space and individuality. When we have healthy boundaries, we are able to be ourselves and express our own needs and wants without feeling guilty or afraid. We are also able to say no to the other person without fear of rejection or abandonment.

Why it’s hard to set boundaries in enmeshed relationships

Setting boundaries in enmeshed relationships can be difficult for a number of reasons.

First, people who grew up in enmeshed families often did not learn how to set boundaries in the first place. They may have been taught that their needs and wants were not important, or that they were selfish for putting their own needs first. This can make it difficult for them to identify and assert their boundaries in adulthood.

Second, people in enmeshed relationships often feel guilty or selfish if they try to set boundaries. They may fear that the other person will be hurt or angry if they say no. They may also worry that setting boundaries will damage the relationship.

Third, enmeshed relationships can be manipulative. The other person may use a variety of tactics to try to get you to cross your boundaries, such as guilt-tripping, shaming, or even threats. This can make it very difficult to stand up for yourself and enforce your boundaries.

Despite the challenges, it is important to set boundaries in enmeshed relationships. Boundaries can help you to protect your physical, emotional, and mental well-being. They can also help you to develop a stronger sense of self and to have more fulfilling relationships.

How to set boundaries in enmeshed relationships

Setting boundaries in a relationship that hasn’t had any can be overwhelming. So, start small. What are some basic boundaries you need in place to feel better about yourself and be more independent outside of your relationship?

Identify what’s most important to you, such as being treated with respect, having time apart, and being able to express your feelings.

Here are some tips for setting boundaries in enmeshed relationships:

  • Identify your boundaries. What are your needs and wants? What are your limits? Once you know what your boundaries are, you can start to communicate them to the other person.
  • Be clear and direct. When communicating your boundaries, be clear about what you need or what you’re asking for. This increases the chances that others will understand and respect your boundaries.  
  • Be consistent. Once you have set a boundary, be consistent in enforcing it. This may mean setting the same boundary repeatedly. Remember that others need time to adjust to your boundaries, especially if you haven’t set boundaries consistently in the past.
  • Be prepared for resistance. The other person may resist your boundaries, especially if they are used to getting their way. Be prepared for this and know that it doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong or hurtful. It simply means that you are taking care of yourself and your own well-being.

Enmeshed patterns are hard to break. So, be patient and persevere in setting boundaries that prioritize your needs and allow you to express yourself, pursue your goals, and have fulfilling relationships.

If you are struggling to set boundaries on your own, get a copy of The Better Boundaries Workbook. It walks you through a step-by-step plan for setting boundaries, how to communicate them, and how to troubleshoot many common stumbling blocks, including setting boundaries with difficult people.

Do you need help phrasing your boundaries so they’re clear and kind?

boundary worksheets

Get a complete set of boundary scripts to help you find just the right words.

Sharon Martin, DSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and author specializing in codependency recovery. For the past 25 years, she’s been helping people-pleasers, perfectionists, and adult children overcome self-doubt and shame, embrace their imperfections, and set boundaries. Dr. Martin writes the popular blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and The Better Boundaries Workbook.

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