“Toni” was a new therapy client who had — for a long time — been unhappy in her relationship, and at the same time unable to end it.
Toni was no weakling; it wasn’t about that. She was confident and decisive pretty much everywhere else in her life. One of her responsibilities at work, for instance, was firing employees who failed to measure up. Toni had surprised me with her take-no-prisoners attitude. “Not a problem,” she said. “People should be in jobs they’re good at. If I fire you for incompetence, I just did you a favor.”
But her marriage to Sam was different. While she had lost her passion for him, she felt a kind of pity still that left her unable to move on. “He can’t make it without me,” was the way she put it. It was true that Sam had a mild form of a degenerative muscle disease that could someday turn aggressive and put him in a wheelchair. But that wasn’t the main thing. Toni felt trapped, even without this worst-case scenario. She was afraid that without her, Sam would spiral down emotionally, becoming isolated and depressed, and this thought immobilized her. “Sometimes I imagine what would happen if he just died suddenly in a car crash,” She told me. “I’m ashamed. But it would be so easy for me.”
What Toni is describing is usually the final chapter in a kind of relationship that is both over-close and under-communicative. Couples in this kind of relationship feel each other’s feelings deeply and take responsibility for them, but have few good ways to talk about them together. Over the years, this can lead to a strange kind of isolation, where the antenna of each partner is receiving the signals of unhappiness, but both are afraid to open up the difficult conversations.
Toni, like many women in this kind of relationship, had channeled her unhappiness into work and a network of close women friends, who sympathized with her complaints and supported her. Sam had few close friends, and seemed to suffer mostly in silence.
Before coming to me, Toni had worked with a therapist who defined her problem as “enmeshment” with Sam. Enmeshment is a concept from family therapy that describes a situation where members have lost track of their separate identities and family roles. Enmeshed families are the opposite of emotionally cut-off and distant families, another dysfunctional family dynamic where members fail to communicate about emotionally significant events in their lives. Highly enmeshed families, unlike their cut-off cousins, typically communicate too much about emotionally charged events in their lives. They may have little ability to distinguish who is responsible for what in the family system, so arguing, backbiting, gossip, high drama and big emotions are the rule of the day. Murray Bowen, a family therapy pioneer, described enmeshed family members as unable to perceive where “I” end and “you” begin.
Toni came from exactly this kind of high-conflict, high-drama, enmeshed family environment. Sam’s family, on the other hand, was the emotionally distant and cut-off type. In the beginning, her emotional expressiveness was the big attraction that Toni held for Sam, while Sam’s emotional containment seemed like a refreshing sign of strength to Toni. It was only later that the relationship began to leave Sam feeling emotionally inadequate and Toni feeling alone.
As Toni’s initial expressiveness faded gradually over the years in the face of Sam’s silent inwardness, she became increasingly reluctant to share anything but superficial feelings. For example, not only could she not bring herself to tell Sam of her desire to leave him, Toni also kept from him all her negative feelings, including her anger at being trapped, her boredom and her loneliness and longing for a happier life. It wasn’t that Toni was unaware or even unable to find good words for these feelings. It was that she couldn’t bear the silent hurt on Sam’s face when she expressed them. This left her in an emotional cul-de-sac, feeling terrible about her anger at him, neither moving toward him nor moving away.
Toni had worked with her former therapist to recognize the limits of her responsibility to Sam. She accepted now that she had her own life to live and could not be the sole focus of his. But the thought of Sam’s pain if she divorced him continued to paralyze her. Two or three decades ago, a family systems therapist might have invited the whole extended family — maybe both families — into therapy with the intention of breaking down the enmeshment in the couple by changing the larger family dynamics. Family therapists today think more eclectically. They work effectively with individuals, couples and families, and their methods are often informed by new thinking from far-ranging disciplines such as cognitive science, psychoanalysis, mindfulness practices, behavioral work (especially for panic or phobias), evolutionary psychology or neuroscience.
For instance, there is a corollary in neuroscience for the kind of enmeshment Toni describes in her relationship with Sam. Recent brain scan studies (over the last decade) have established that human brains resonate with each other in various ways. One example, very recent research from Michael Lombardo of Cambridge and his team, demonstrates that the neural firing patterns across widespread areas in the brain that register thoughts and feelings about ourselves are in many cases identical to those that register thoughts and feelings about others.
These parallel processes in the brain suggest a neurological basis for empathy, defined as the experience of someone else’s feelings as if they were our own. Enmeshment, in turn, can be thought of as a situation where one or both members in the relationship cannot “switch off” the experience of the other’s emotions (or empathy), so there is little ability to differentiate between my feelings and yours. When the empathy switch is stuck in the “on” position, in other words, we experience enmeshment. It’s not clear where I begin and you end, to put it in Bowen’s terms.
This would be interesting, but not necessarily helpful, if that were all there was to learn from scanning the brain. It turns out that there is another brain process that actually blocks this enmeshment effect, or switches it off. This blocking mechanism, without too much of a stretch, can be thought of as the boundary-setting process, where individuals consciously or unconsciously construct the fences that separate us, define us, differentiate us from our significant others.
Neuroscientists Jean Decety and Claus Lamm locate this “off” switch in a brain segment called the temporoparietal junction (TPJ), an area associated with the ability to distinguish self from other. This “off” switch is what allows us to say no to people we care about, and to take care of ourselves, even when it means causing pain to others.
Taken together, these two concepts from neuroscience suggest a new understanding of the important concept of enmeshment. Rather than thinking of it as a quality that can contaminate a couple’s relationship, it might more accurately be thought of as a natural feature of human connectedness, but with the “off” switch missing. Enmeshed couples, in this model, have a reduced ability to shut down their empathy functions. And here is the good news — this off switch can be trained and strengthened using behavioral techniques. In my work, I have noticed that it is by practicing and gaining confidence in the “off” switch for empathy that most people find the safety and strength to flip the switch “on.”
So, when Toni made it clear to me that she just couldn’t bring herself to divorce Sam, I suggested another track: What if she committed to a time-limited process of reconnecting with Sam, which would include a large component of being honest about her loneliness, hurt and anger in the relationship? We would do this together, the three of us, paying particular attention to the feelings coming up in Toni as she described these negative emotions in order to differentiate which feelings were Toni’s and which belonged to Sam. What if we focused on boundary-building (getting her fingers fully around the empathy “off” switch) so that no matter the short-term outcome, both Toni and Sam would be building emotional resources and skills for the future?
What worked for Toni won’t be right for everyone. But I can’t tell you how often I speak to partners who are paralyzed by guilt or pity and stuck in this kind of relational spin cycle with their mates. They want out, but they just can’t bring themselves to leave. Sometimes these partners are looking for permission from me to exit the relationship — permission that I have no power to grant or withhold. More often, they are just stuck between a rock and a hard place and can’t seem to move forward.
To these clients I often recommend the following: If you can’t jump away from the relationship, jump into it, even if you can only commit for a time. Anything is better than the emotional limbo of indecision, as the months and years roll past.
But (at the risk of being naively positive), it may turn out that your inability to close the empathy window has impaired your ability to open it. And that the clarity you gain from learning where you end and your partner begins may be all you need to find your way forward, inside the relationship or outside it.
— Russell Collins, Psy.D., is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.