I’ve touched on this topic briefly in a couple of blog posts but haven’t attempted to go into much detail because enmeshment and codependency are very complex concepts. Explaining it is even more complex – especially if the people you are sharing this with have never gone through it themselves. That’s not to undermine the intelligence of the lovely people who may be reading this post – to put things into perspective, it took me years to understand and come to terms with the enmeshment and codependency that I had experienced first hand throughout my life!
Firstly, some psychological definitions could prove useful:
“Enmeshment is a psychological term that describes a blurring of boundaries between people, typically family members. Enmeshment often contributes to dysfunction in families and may lead to a lack of autonomy and independence that can become problematic.”
“Codependency – a psychological condition or a relationship in which a person is controlled or manipulated by another who is affected with a pathological condition (such as an addiction to alcohol or heroin); broadly :dependence on the needs of or control by another.”
From my own independent research about psychology when I was 16, I came across these terms and realised that they resonated with me deeply. They provoked me to ask further questions and gain further understanding of my relationship with my father, which had always been a see-saw between idyllic and distressing. It was when I came across a book online that things began to really unravel for me and make sense. It’s called: Silently Seduced: When Parents Make Their Children Partners. If you think that title’s alarming, that’s nothing compared to the term “covert incest” which the author uses throughout the book. I’ll insert an excerpt from the book before I continue to explore my own experiences:
“Covert incest occurs when a child becomes the object of a parent’s affection, love, passion and preoccupation. The parent, motivated by the loneliness and emptiness created by a chronically troubled marriage or relationship, makes the child the surrogate partner. The boundary between caring love and incestuous love is crossed when the relationship exists to meet the needs of the parent rather than those of the child. As the deterioration of the marriage progresses, the dependency on the child grows, and the opposite-sex parent’s response to the child becomes increasingly characterised by desperation, jealousy and a disregard for personal boundaries. The child becomes an object to be manipulated and used so the parent can avoid the pain and reality of a troubled marriage.”
Already it is clear to see the parallels between the sort of relationship being described here and the concepts of enmeshment and codependency. My parents broke up when I was 6. I have virtually no memories of them together, although I’m sure it would have been a progressive breakdown. Because my Dad was a greater source of stability, my brother and I stayed with my him for the most part – but there was some sort of custody agreement allowing us to stay with our mother for part of the week. Growing up, I saw my father as the “good parent” and my mother as the “bad parent”. This was the only way for me to make sense of the divide going on and it was also a line of thinking encouraged by my Dad. He’d tell me of all the horrible things she’d done, painting himself as the victim (all the while he was doing heroin) and I think this was the beginning of my feelings of emotional responsibility for him. My mother had broken him and how could she?? He was such an amazing person and a great Dad! At least this is what I thought.
My father took solace in me. My mother told me recently that she remembers one of my birthday parties when I must have been 6 or 7. At one point my Dad was hugging me and holding onto me really tightly with his eyes screwed shut, obviously out of desperation and emotional need, and my mother was humiliated. This is a perfect example of a display of love that is smothering, although I doubt it bothered me at the time – it was all I knew. I remember playing with my Dad in the sitting room, laying plastic counting cards down on the carpet and walking along them when he said to me: “Promise me we’ll always play like this.” I learnt that he depended on these moments of closeness as much as, if not more than, I did. He also took comfort in me sharing a bed with him. I feel like I wasn’t encourage to sleep in my own bed as much as I should’ve been. There were a few times when I fell asleep on the couch and instead of putting me into my own bed, he put me into his. Sometimes this angered and confused me. Once he sidled up to me in bed, rubbing my shins and when I inched away he moved closer again – “a disregard for personal boundaries”. Despite the confusing feeling of being smothered, I still adored my father and held him in really high esteem – he was the “good parent” after all. But as I grew a bit older, I became embarrassed of how close we were. The special walks we used to take together at night had turned into a chore and something I did to keep him happy. When I started to refuse, he was visibly hurt and upset and he couldn’t let it go. I was starting to express autonomy and was immediately guilted for it.
When I was 13, I found out my Dad used heroin. This was the catalyst for his “good parent” image falling apart and I guess it allowed me to be more realistic about who he really was, as excruciating as that was for me. The trust we shared was irrevocably shattered and I never looked at him in the same light again. The instability of there no longer being a “good parent” to depend on and the advent of me thinking critically about my relationship with my father caused mental health difficulties and, eventually, disordered eating. In the book Silently Seduced, there is a small section which allows the reader to understand whether or not they have experienced a covertly incestuous relationship and one of the criteria is Compulsions/Addictions: “You may find yourself addicted to food, either compulsively overeating, starving yourself, or binging and purging.” “Starving Yourself” is the category I fell into in this case. It started when I was 15. I remember I’d go to work on a Saturday in the bookshop, having not eaten breakfast, and try to get through the whole shift without eating anything. My stomach growled which embarrassed me but not eating the whole day gave me this sense of achievement that was worth it. When I got home, I’d look through the food on my plate and dissociate, moving the cutlery through it, picking at it but ultimately, not finishing it. My Dad was concerned, unaware that he was one of the main factors causing this new bad habit. I wanted to stay at 7 stone, I wanted a stomach so flat it was concave – but most of all I wanted to be in control of something in my life. I wanted to clean the icky feeling of being smothered out of my system.
The sexually-charged aspect of the relationship is something more complicated altogether. It’s taken me years to compile the unsettling memories to explain it. It’s something I’ll leave for another post where I’ll explore the knock-on effect this has had on adult intimacy. I don’t want this post to be a 4000 word essay. 😂
Learning about the unhealthy nature of the relationship and subsequently acknowledging the emotional abuse that took place actually helped to heal my relationship with my mother. She was one of the only people I could talk to openly about it and she understood completely. I learnt that she was aware of how damaging the dynamic was but that my father and I were so inseparable that there was no way she could put an end to it. This helped to diffuse some of my feelings of anger towards her. Healing this relationship has played an important part in me becoming the sort of woman I want to be. I don’t do things to please or impress her the way I did with my Dad and I can allow myself to be my own person.
I eventually stopped speaking to my Dad altogether when I was 17 and I can safely say it is the best thing I’ve ever done. Since then, despite the difficulties we all go through in life, things have improved exponentially. I feel a sense of confidence I never would have felt had I not emotionally separated from him and I have formed my own beliefs and goals irrespective of him.
I hope this post has been a cohesive and well-explained exploration of enmeshment and codependency. It isn’t easy to write about and to truly explain everything would take thousands upon thousands of words. I’m also aware many people will think I’m talking rubbish and that what I’ve explained isn’t unhealthy at all. But all I can say is that it was my experience and I’ve had to deal with the very real consequences of it. I’m also not encouraging everyone to stop speaking to their parents but it is important to assess how people make you feel and to set the standard for how you will allow yourself to be treated. If you don’t set that standard, other people will.
Thanks so much for reading!
– SMUT. xxx ❤
5 thoughts on “Enmeshment + Codependency: A Tangled Web”
Thank you for sharing. Your posts are informative, suportive, well written and brave.
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Wow thanks so much! I really appreciate that, thank you for reading xx
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