Engulfment / Enmeshment

An unhealthy and overwhelming level of attention and dependency on another person, which comes from imagining or believing one exists only within the context of that relationship.

Feeling Swallowed Up

Engulfment is a distortion of reality, in which the status of a relationship is given inappropriate levels of priority over other physical and emotional needs. The Personality-Disordered person believes there is a sense of crisis around the relationship, and a "fix-it-at-all-costs" strategy is deployed to deal with any perceived weaknesses in the relationship - real or imagined.

People who practice engulfment sometimes put immense pressure on family, friends and partners to behave as if the Personality-Disordered person is at the center of their world. They may demand time, resources, commitment and devotion from a Non beyond what is healthy. Relationships with outsiders, family and friends may be seen as threats and be frowned upon. Work, hobbies and interests which take a Nons attention and energy away may appear threatening to them. Acts of independence by that person may be met with begging, argument, threats, even acts of retribution and violence.

Ironically, when a person deploys an engulfment approach to managing a relationship they are more likely to become less attractive to the other person and drive them further away emotionally as they speak, act and make decisions in ways that are increasingly dysfunctional. As a result, engulfment is often visible in a cyclical or intermittent basis rather than on a continuous basis as the emotional temperature of the relationship ebbs and flows. It is sometimes the case that a person with a Personality Disorder will follow a cyclical pattern between engulfment and rejection which is known as Push-Pull.

What It Looks Like

  • A man tells a woman he would kill himself if she left him.
  • A mother refuses to take care of herself and expects her children to assume the parental role.
  • A young adult becomes desperate to marry a person he or she has only recently met.
  • A man stalks or becomes violent towards a woman after she tries to end the relationship

How it Feels

Engulfment can be a frightening, threatening and exhausting experience for the victim.

People who are on the receiving end of engulfment may find themselves compromising other relationships or competing interests in order to “keep the peace”. They may fear the consequences of displaying independent thought or action. They may fear violence, intimidation or rage if they do not give the person what they want. They may long to leave the relationship and also be afraid of the consequences if they do.

If you are on the receiving end of engulfment you may feel your own life ebbing away as you focus your energy and attention on giving another person what they demand. You may find yourself longing for a “two-way street” relationship where your efforts are reciprocated. You may fantasize about being free. You may feel a commitment or obligation to your relationship and feel that loyalty and honor require you to stay in the relationship and try to help the person to a better place.

What NOT to do

Don’t ignore any acts of violence or threats of violence or self-harm. Avoid the tendency to write off threatening language as “just talk”. Most victims of domestic violence have written off incidents and haven’t seen “the worst” yet. Report it to the authorities immediately every time. That is the only effective way to protect yourself and make it stop.
Don’t give up any healthy relationships with family, friends and acquaintances or let them slip away because of pressure from another person.
Don’t give up a good job, good habits, career, hobbies or interests for the sake of another person. What is good for you makes you stronger and is good for your loved-ones. True love never asks a person to sacrifice something that is good for them.
Don’t go it alone or keep what you are experiencing a secret. Engulfment abuse thrives on isolating a person.

What TO do

  • Learn what you can about the personality disorder your loved-one suffers from, and how that is likely to affect their behavior, their thoughts and their moods.
  • Talk about it! Talk to trusted friends and family about what you are dealing with. It helps to get a reality check from people who can perhaps see things in a different light.
  • Hope for the best and plan for the worst. Develop an emergency plan for any scenario that may include violence or abuse being directed towards or your children.
  • Report all acts of violence, threats of violence or self-harm to the authorities immediately, and every time.
  • Maintain your healthy lifestyle and healthy relationships. You will need them. Explain to your loved one gently, if necessary that you have made your decision and that is that and then move ahead. If they really do love you they will be happy to support you in what is good for you.