Enmeshment, Codependency, and Collusion

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The term enmeshment has been widely used in the family therapy literature since it was popularized by the work of Salvador Minuchin Salvador Minuchin (1978) ("Psychosomatic Families: Anorexia Nervosa in Context. Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press.")

"Enmeshment refers to an extreme form of proximity and intensity in family interactions...In a highly enmeshed, overinvolved family, changes within one family member or in the relationship between two family members reverberate throughout the system... On an individual level, interpersonal differentiation in an enmeshed system is poor...in enmeshed families the individual gets lost in the system. The boundaries that define individual autonomy are so weak that functioning in individually differentiated ways is radically handicapped (Minuchin, et al, 1978, p.30)."

Minuchin described the lack of clear ego boundaries between family members which produced a form of fusion, a condition that interfered with a clear sense of self. Much like parental alienation, the phenomenon of enmeshment may be found in varying degrees of intensity, with corresponding degrees of negative impact on child development.

Enmeshment In Co-dependency

Enmeshment has come to be a popularly used term when speaking about co-dependence. Co-dependence is defined as, being psychologically influenced or controlled by, reliant upon, or needing another person to fulfill one's own needs or to complete oneself. Originally being co-dependent originated from the recovery movement in Alcoholic Anon. Co-dependents, in that sense were defined as those who were dependent upon or in relationship to or with someone addicted to alcohol or drugs.

Now, generally, people are defined as being co-dependent if they are in a situation where they are psychologically mutally reliant on someone else to meet needs for them that they "should" be able to meet for themselves.

"A co-dependent person is one who has let another person's behaviour affect him or her, ans who is obsessed with controlling that person's behaviour" (Melody Beattie, in her book, "Codependent No More".

What is enmeshment?

"We're enmeshed when we use an individual for our identity, sense of value, worth, well-being, safety, purpose, and security. Instead of two people present, we become one identity. More simply, enmeshment is present when our sense of wholeness comes from another person.

We hear enmeshment phrases everyday such as, "I'd die without you," "You're my everything," "Without you, I'm nothing," "I need you," or "You make me whole." Many of us find our identity and self-worth by becoming the mate, parent, or friend of a successful and/or prestigious individual, or we find the need to fix and caretake individuals to give us a sense of purpose.

Enmeshment doesn't allow for individuality, wholeness, personal empowerment, healthy relationships with ourselves or others, and, most importantly, a relationship with our Higher Power."

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What is Collusion?

Collusion usually takes place in a relational dynamic where there is abuse. The first act of abuse in these types of collusive relational dynamics is, more often than not, an abuse of power by one of the participants in a relationship.

All types of abuse, in our world today, and namely sexually abuse is on the increase. Yes, it's reported more frequently or more sexual abuse victims now get help and tell someone but that is not the only reason we hear so much more about it.

Collusion is often the result of an unhealthy and boundary-violating relationship that begins between a clergy member and someone in his congregation or a mental health professional who has any sexual contact and/or relationship with a client or former client.

These types of relationships are abusive from the very start. The person in a position of trust and authority who manipulates and/or seduces his or her victim is a predator. More often than not these predators have personality disorders - most common among them - Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder. Particularly difficult to deal with are those who actually have both Borderline Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. These two personality disorders when co-morbid in an individual more or less feed off of each other making everything worse for those trying to relate to them and those who are often being abused and victimized by them. These predators prey on those that they can use and manipulate to gratify their own wants and needs. It is always about them - it is never about the victim.

Collusion can be defined as a secret activity undertaken by two or more people for the purpose of fraud. The fraud in the case of inter-personal relationships that are by their very nature an abuse of power and sexually abusive when those in trusted positions of authority break the rules and boundaries and ethical responsibility of their "roles". These relationships are often based upon toxic trauma bonds, are toxic and unhealthy from the get-go.

Often the victim of a narcissistic predator experiences this collusion - the result of enmeshing in a codependent way with an abuser - in a way that will re-play past trauma - trauma triggered in the present by the very nature of the abusive predator who was the person in the position of authority. It is important not to blame yourself if you are the victim of collusion. It is more important that you recognize what is happeneing if this resonates with you and that you talk to someone you can trust about this. Don't keep it a secret anymore. Tell someone. That's the first step to helping yourself out.

Those predators who seek to collude seek to abuse and use others often presenting what is actually a relationship of sorts whose foundation is intrigue, connivance, and complicity. The abuser knows way better. The victim is by the very nature of having been a member of the clergy's flock or a patient of a mental health professional, vulnerable.

Often those who fall prey to these narcissistic predators have been abused in their childhoods, often raised in dysfunctional families where codependence and enmeshment are rampant. It is in these types of toxic environments that children are taught not to value themselves and are not taught much, if anything about boundaries.

These abusive relationships often start out with the "professional" (in whatever field) who is in that trusted position with authority telling you how special you are (in many different and even round-about ways) - how you are just the person they were waiting for or had always hoped against hope of having in their lives and being loved or desired by. This is the beginning of the seductive set-up. They compliment the vulnerable right out of what little protection they may have been able to muster. Then, relatively quickly, what comes next is their grandiose and "authorative" manipulation wherein they lecture and brow-beat you about how important they are and how important their careers are - they leave you feeling so special because you think, wow, if his or her career is this important to him or her, and he or she would risk that for me - that must mean they really love me - It's a classic set-up. I know, I've been there - I've been victimzed this way. And after the career is held up as everything you are then manipulated and guilted into agreeing to be a part of this "relationship" and you are expected to keep the secret. Herein begins the collusion.

Collusion is so emotionally damaging, for anyone, but even moreso for those who were the victims of abuse, especially sexual abuse as children.

No matter what happens in the "relationship" or sexual encounters you are expected to keep silent about it and to not tell anyone. This alone will eat at your soul in a most damaging way. As you begin to encounter the reality of the abusive situation that you have ended up in the next worst thing that happens is in that silence your sense of shame and of having blame in your victimization can and will grow.

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These narcissistic predators leave their victims with their values and ethics sabotaged, their self-esteem undermined or annihilated, and their emotions manipulated, minimized, trivialized, and often ignored. After all it is all about the narcissistic predator. It is all about abuse of power in that the narcissistic predator feels entitled to wield this power over you and turn your own trust for them against you - belittling you so as to keep you under his or her thumb. It is a lonely and excruciating painful and damaging place to be.

"... codependence inclined students may exhibit tendencies toward self-defeating and covert patterns of narcissistic relating (e.g., rejection sensitivity, attachments to painful relationships, shame-proneness, caretaking to earn relationship). Additionally, this study raises the possibility that codependency might be as closely related to fears of intimacy and being hurt in relationship as it is related to a preoccupied concern over maintaining or controlling a security relationship. These results, together with the negative relationship between codependency and overt narcissism, lend preliminary support for Cermak's conceptualization of codependency as a complement to narcissism." (Source: Journal of College Student Psychotherapy Volume: 20 Issue: 4

Because codependency is often driven by traits that predicate your acceptance hinging upon your taking care of someone else, or needing someone else to take care of you, fixing that someone else, or seeking someone else to fix you, being there for them and trying to rescue them - or trying to coerce someone else into being there for you and hoping they can rescue you - what emerges are usually very needy and unsatiable needs on the part of one person or both in a relationship who are codependent. Trying to rescue someone else or trying to be rescued amounts to enabling behaviour in ways and to extremes that see people end up neglecting themselves. There is often collusion in this regard also. These toxic relationships, whether with an abusing "professional" who is really a narcissistic predator or with other personality-disordered people, or other codependents have this unwritten rule, if you will, to them.

This unwritten, unspoken, and often unconscious codependent creed goes something like this, "I will not give you what you really need, I can't. I am too busy trying to get what I need and deserve from you. I can give you a bit of this and that if you like but nothing that requires honest emotional investment because I am not emotionally available. I am really just empty. I am really all about smoke and mirrors. I love you so much though. I'd never hurt you. But then again, how would I know if I hurt you because I am substance addicted and oblivious to conscience or the feelings you have anyway you know? You, on the other hand, you are emotionally available and luckily for you I am here to demand and take endlessly from your compassion and empathic stores of emotion. You can chase me if you like but you won't catch me. What will happen is that the more you chase, the more I will get you and as I get you, you will get more caught up in trying to fix me then caring about yourself. I have you right where I want you."

© A.J. Mahari September 24, 2007 - All right reserved.

A.J.'s Life/Mental Health BPD & Emotional Mastery Coaching

A.J. Mahari is a Life Coach Mental Health Coach Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) Coach who also coaches loved ones of those with BPD and an Emotional Mastery Coach

What does all of this mean? It means that A.J. Mahari coaches people in these specific areas as well as general life coaching as well. The only reason for the different "titles" in front of coach, is to denote the population of clients that I work with. If I am coaching clients with mental health issues and challenges I am in those sessions a Mental Health Coach. The same for the other areas of my coaching expertise. All of my work as a coach, in the areas I coach clients in, focuses on similar aspects of people's lives, concerns, and journeys but with different approaches on my part. I work with clients to help them create healthy positive life-affirming change in their lives - to help them identify and achieve their goals and dreams. Part of that process involves education and a lot of this sacred process involves listening to my clients and asking questions that help my clients to open new avenues of thought and self-exploration. The cornerstones or touchstones of my coaching involve actively listening to you through the compassion, understanding, validation and non-judgmental and eclectic approaches I employ to help you to find what it is that you most want and need in your own life.

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Last up-dated January 31, 2010