I am often met with clients who, in the throws of an affair, seem completely out of touch with reality. Their spouse can see it, their friends and co-workers can see it, and their therapist tries desperately to help them see it. To them, however, it is a wonderfully titillating, intoxicating relationship that they have dreamed of their entire life. It meets all of their needs easily and simply like the most potent of illegal drugs. They will risk everything for a small taste of it. It is impossibly hard to convince the enmeshed how unrealistic it is because to them, it is REAL.
What Is Enmeshment?
We’ve all experienced enmeshment at some point in our lives. The throws of an affair, is that float-across-the-room, dreamy eyed, heart fluttering, delicious feeling of when we are first attracted to someone. It can last anywhere from a few months to several years before it fades into hum-drum routine life. For most of us, our first experience with enmeshment was when we first met our spouse and we were so “in love” that we turned our heads away from their irritating habits or unappreciative or selfish ways. We were so drunk on enmeshment that we believed we could overlook those traits – for life. Later we look back and have to ask ourselves, “What was I thinking? I saw it. It was right there! Why didn’t I run??!!” Of course we never look back until we’re neck deep in marriage, mortgage, careers, kids, and other life sustaining responsibilities.
Why Is Enmeshment A Problem?
I look at enmeshment as a veil that conceals the truth. It hides all of the flaws, everyone is on best behavior, both are living in a fantasy world where the other person is everything they want them to be. To a man under the spell of enmeshment, his lady friend is sexual and happy and free and fun. She is not bogged down by her “to-do” list or by day-to-day responsibilities. Conversation is easy, not demanding. She is not only willing to play, but she wants to play, something a wife/mother/employee/daughter/friend often simply doesn’t have time to do anymore. He is so excited to be free of the burdens of life that he simply can’t get enough of her.
For a woman drunk on enmeshment, her forbidden male companion listens to her and is empathetic and tells her how beautiful and intelligent she is. Her new lover wants to talk with her every minute he can and hangs on her every word. He tells her everything she has been dying to hear from her husband. He makes her feel special and entitled to put the “to do” list down for awhile and enjoy her life and she laps it up like the most wonderful, luscious dessert she’s ever tasted.
Reality of Enmeshment
For the poor soul who is described in the preceding paragraphs, it looks, feels, tastes, and smells so real, wonderful and perfect. How could anybody argue with something so powerful and mind blowing? How could it possibly be wrong when it feels so right? Well, the answer will come as soon as the newly enmeshed couple takes their relationship to the next level. Once the spouse (or spouses, sadly enough) are out of the picture, the game changes. We’re not in Oz anymore and the veil begins to lift and reveal the ugly truth underneath.
Enmeshment Wears off
As the couple tackles the stress of their changing lives and the baggage that each must bring with them to the relationship, suddenly it’s not the same anymore. The magic of enmeshment starts the slow process of fading into non-existence. It will take some time, but soon they will see their new partner in a foul mood, smell their morning breath, see them clipping their toenails or leaving their underwear on the floor. They are no longer a sketch of a person that can be filled in by imagination; they are a real, live breathing person with real wants and real needs. The truth is out, folks!
I once had a client who came back to see me when she “came to” several months after the enmeshment of the affair had worn off. After working for about six months, I asked, “What could I have said to you when you were in here drunk on enmeshment, neck deep in an affair and divorcing your husband?” I wanted to know how I could reach someone under that spell. The answer was very honest and very simply, “Absolutely nothing. No one could have done anything. I had to find out for myself.” As is usually the case, the path of destruction as we go through it is long and wide and often includes some innocent victims – like children.
If you or your spouse are involved in an affair (emotional, sexual, or otherwise), you need counseling. This is the perfect opportunity to reveal all of the ugly truths in your marriage and to begin the process of recovery.