There was no reason for Ana to believe that her relationship with her boyfriend would turn out the way it did. When they were simply friends hanging out, he was impossibly distant and blasé – uncaring and indifferent.
“But when we got together, things changed, and how,” the 22-year-old spiritual teacher told VICE. “There was a lot of unintentional control and he’d keep saying how much we were in sync. But soon ‘we are in sync’ changed to how we are ‘one being’ entirely.”
At first, his behaviours seemed harmless to Ana. After all, haven’t films and Mills & Boon paperbacks taught us that love is supposed to be the ultimate union of two souls forever welded for eternity?
Only Ana’s boyfriend really meant it when he said he views them as a single entity. The extent of his belief was revealed to her in many ways: how he “could not comprehend” why she wouldn’t like his favourite dish in a restaurant; how he felt like he was “arguing with himself” when there was an argument between them because he saw them as one; the insistence to talk to her over the phone for hours on end despite living just two blocks away.
Ana slowly realised that she was in an enmeshed relationship.
According to psychiatrist Era Dutta, enmeshed relationships can be understood by the keyword “mesh” in it. “It’s a relationship between two people where everything is too entangled, there is no individual space, and you end up doing things you don’t necessarily like,” she told VICE.
She said that such relationships initially make people feel like they’re immensely loved by the other person until the toxic nature of the enmeshed relationship becomes apparent.
“It can border on being toxic for either one but usually both the individuals [are] involved,” Dutta said. “And as with all things in psychiatry, the why of enmeshed relationships can often be traced back to our relationship with our own parents.”
Dutta explained that in some cases, parents end up exerting excessive control over practically every aspect of their children’s lives. And when the child is finally ready to face the world, these parents end up instilling fear of the unknown, of untrusting friends, and how everyone’s out to get them. Always walking on eggshells, the child further retreats back to their parents, thus deepening their enmeshed relationship and moulding their own idea of what a genuine bond should look like – two or more people merging into one in a hermetically sealed chamber.
A study across two years with preschoolers and their parents/guardians, supported by the National Institutes of Health, found a strong link between enmeshed relationships at home and how the child socialises outside. The study concluded that “higher levels of enmeshment” in maternal relationships meant an “increase in children’s externalizing problems” with high instability.
“Externalising” means viewing problems as separate matters that need to be understood individually.
According to the experts who conducted the study, “emotionally incestuous” parents may appear loving and devoted and may spend a great deal of time with their children, lavishing them with praise and material gifts – but eventually, their love proves to be only a means to satisfy their own needs.
With Shivani, a 24-year-old public relations manager who wanted to withhold her last name for privacy reasons, the enmeshment took a darker turn. And it was closely interlinked with her boyfriend’s enmeshed relationship with his parents.
It was her first relationship in the early years of college. She had accepted her boyfriend’s toxic approach that true love meant calling five times a day, always keeping your partner updated about every single move, and prioritising each other over everything else – even if it meant alienating friends and family in the process.
But things came to a head when her boyfriend forcefully kissed her at a college event. Much like Ana’s boyfriend, the fact that Shivani could have any agency over her own desires was inconceivable to him. “Later, my best friend sat me down and told me this was not love at all,” Shivani said.
When Shivani started questioning her boyfriend about his behaviours, she realised that he had lacked emotional support growing up. He was very close to his mother but instead of her playing the part of the guardian, it was she who depended on him for comfort and love.
“So, I ended up being his sole source of comfort,” said Shivani. “He derived his self-worth and sense of identity through the relationship. These patterns became clearer to me only later in hindsight.” She finally broke it off with him.
While Shivani discovered the full extent of her enmeshed relationship only later, Dutta pointed out lessons that everyone can pick up from this experience – most importantly not alienating your friends when you are in a romantic relationship. “Often, your friends or other trusted support systems will tell you if you are in an enmeshed relationship because they will see a radical shift in you,” she said.
Dutta said that another way of spotting if you are in one is noticing if you have started seeing the world the way your partner does and forming opinions based on their views.
“You will increasingly listen to their favourite songs and eat the food they like. Maybe you are forcing yourself to watch arthouse films over the commercial ones that you actually like? Ask yourself if all these new identity traits you’ve picked up are actually fitting into the core idea of who you are. You will also notice that the relationship has become dull because everything is one and predictable. In most cases, your therapist will tell you if you are in an enmeshed relationship.”
Intimacy coach Pallavi Barnwal said that the first question she asks her clients who are in enmeshed relationships is how differences were resolved in their homes, particularly when they were children.
“The answer is often that their dad or mother solved them,” she told VICE. “So, from the very beginning, the agency of the other partner is not recognised. Families also like to use ‘we’ and ‘our’ a lot (when talking about family secrets and pride) and this becomes a learned behaviour that people then end up recreating in their romantic relationships.”
Barnwal said that in a dysfunctional family, there is “no room for a child’s private diary” because everything is open to scrutiny. “So, you find that even in romantic relationships, they want to scrutinise everything, know and be a part of everything in your life. Nothing is off-limits.”
This lack of agency was underlined in Bijoy’s relationship with his boyfriend, who would end up emotionally manipulating him into doing things with his grand gestures of love. “He was new to the city and stayed far away,” the 28-year-old urban planner said. “But he would still travel more than three hours every day just to be with me. I couldn’t say no. I felt like he had abducted my personal space and pushed me into a corner. Often, while I was in the middle of a hectic Monday, he would skip classes to see me, prodding me to go to a museum or watch a film.”
In such cases where an individual feels they are up against a wall, the first step to regulating or stopping such an enmeshed relationship, Barnwal said, is figuring out whether you even want the person in your life, minus the enmeshment.
“If you do, then you must interrogate what you were getting out of it,” she said. “We can understand this through secondary gains, whereby every toxic action has a secondary gain. If you smoke, the secondary gain might be stress relief; the same goes for overeating too. You need to ask yourself: Is this enmeshed relationship fulfilling your own distorted idea of wanting love and constant validation? [Or] are you with them only out of habit and because you are afraid of being lonely?”
If you’re answering yes to any of these, Barnwal suggested finding newer ways of enriching your life.
“Maybe spend more time with your parents, read a book, develop new hobbies or just adopt a pet. If you find yourself constantly seeking validation, visit a therapist and unlearn those patterns.” She suggested finding healthy alternatives to those secondary gains you got from your relationship. “You have to broaden the scope of your life beyond just relationships and people that drain you.”