Can you be *too* close to someone?

A step beyond codependency, enmeshment is a term that refers to any relationship, romantic or otherwise, that results in an ’emotional merging’ of two people to the exclusion of all others. Psychologist and relationships expert Briony Leo explains how this is not something to aspire to. 

It’s a universal truth that too much of a good thing is usually destructive. Too much chocolate, too much exercise, even too much water can be disastrous.

The same goes for relationships in that closeness can cross the line into harmful territory; a term known in psychology as ‘enmeshment’.

What is enmeshment?

In the simplest terms, this is an unhealthily close relationship between two people that could be romantic, plutonic, or between a parent and child.

“Whatever the situation, the people are very closely linked, in that each relies on the other for most things,” explains psychologist Briony Leo, to the point where they have “merged emotionally”.

Commonly, it can evolve between mother and child as an extension of that “that time in infancy” when it was necessary for the two to be so close.

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“This has lots of issues later on when that child becomes an adult and needs to leave home and they can struggle with reaching normal milestones such as making friends, having a relationship, or progressing in their career,” says Leo.

In romances or friendships, “they choose to spend all their time together to the exclusion of other relationships… They may be reluctant to make small decisions without their partner’s input, and struggle if they need to spend time away.”

Why this is unhealthy

Human relationships need oxygen to breathe from time to time, says Leo, and this level of codependency is unhealthy because there are no other sources of feedback or input. This can be particularly damaging to a child’s development.

“In parent/child relationships it is really negative because the child doesn’t get the chance to develop their own identity,” says Leo, “they are constantly defining themselves on the terms of the enmeshed parent, and will struggle greatly with guilt and anxiety if they choose to pursue their own dreams and life.”

In romantic relationships, it can become toxic quickly because, at its core, enmeshment is insecurity and separation anxiety.

“An enmeshed relationship can get toxic quickly, especially if one of the people is trying to set boundaries or get some distance,” says Leo.

“Some abusive partners deliberately use enmeshment (making their partner dependent on them and insisting on closeness at all costs) to cut them off from their supports, but a lot of the time it develops naturally when two people with high emotional needs get into a relationship.”

Can these sorts of relationships be fixed?

Yes, but it can be tricky and both parties need to be motivated to change.

As Leo notes: “Often, intervention from outside can seem like a threat to the relationship so therapists need to be careful in addressing the ‘pros and cons’ of changing the relationship dynamic.”

For parents, it’s important for them to address their own trauma and attachment issues, which will lead them to realise their enmeshed relationship is not healthy for their child and change can follow.

Couples, meanwhile, can also benefit from counselling to also understand why we become enmeshed.

“Again, an enmeshed couple might not actually want to change since their emotional needs are met by their partner, so there needs to be a ‘reason’ or a catalyst,” says Leo.

“Perhaps this is one partner receiving treatment for depression, or the illness of another partner that leads to a discussion about other supports.”