Beth checked the social apps on her phone again, even though it'd only been three minutes since her last look. But this time, payoff.
Anita reacted to your post
As she tapped through the notification and the little red heart appeared, a wave of pleasure and relief swept through her body. She savored the dopamine rush for a moment--until the doubt kicked in. Sure, the heart was better than a regular "like", but did she just give those out haphazardly?
In mere moments the bliss had vanished, and Beth was scrolling through posts again. With increasing dread she came upon a thread of comments between Anita and another young woman who Beth knew only peripherally. Back and forth the two of them had been conversing, out in public for everyone to see, adorning each other's comments with hearts and laughing emojis.
Devastated, Beth slammed the phone down.
Why didn't Anita respond to her posts that way? Why the long, involved conversation with someone else but only the briefest of responses for her? Clearly the deep affection she felt for Anita wasn't mutual. She sank into a depression that claimed the rest of her day.
During the car ride home, Brad realizes it's happening again. Obviously Lisa is angry. She sits in the passenger seat, arms folded, staring deliberately away from him, once in a while making a big, frustrated sigh. He knows he's supposed to ask what was wrong--that he has to. His dread builds until they pull into the garage.
He finally pulls the trigger: "Hey, everything ok?"
She turns wide, infuriated eyes on him, and he realizes his error. How could he not know? Of course there was no way he could, but that doesn't matter. It's clear he's in for another evening of shouting, accusing, crying, and comforting that will leave him feeling humiliated and drained.
Brad's friends ask him why he puts up with this. His family wonders, too. The truth is, there's a part of this roller coaster that's absolutely ecstatic. He hangs on, waiting for those times of intimacy and excitement to come. Lisa is an emotional speedboat hurtling through storms, and he's hanging on like a skier dangling helplessly behind, just trying to keep above water. He feels exhausted and trapped.
What is Emotional Entanglement?
Entanglement happens when the boundaries in a relationship are blurred, and the emotional well-being of one or both participants is dependent upon the other in a way that sacrifices psychological health and autonomy. What makes these unhealthy relationships so confusing are the parts of the cycle when intense pleasure or illusory fulfillment occur. This can create the illusion that leaving the unhealthy behind would require forever neglecting our desire for the good stuff.
These enmeshed relationships can be between partners, friends, siblings, or parent and child. They are characterized by:
happiness, contentment, and pleasure being contingent on the other person
intense anxiety or inability to be happy when there's no access to or control over the other person
unequal partnership; caretaker/victim roles
jealousy and panic when the other person is investing in others
lack of interest in other relationships or aspects of life that don't involve the other person
using fights, meltdowns, or "silent treatment" to punish or control the other person
This unhealthy relationship is painful and exhausting for everyone involved, but also somehow magnetic. The reality is that both participants are drawn to this enmeshment because it's addressing a psychological need, albeit in an ultimately unfulfilling way.
What Drives Emotional Entanglement?
Perhaps you identify to some degree with one of the characters described in these stories. Maybe it's Beth's desperation for engagement and affection, or Brad's compulsion to carry someone else's emotional well-being. What drives people to seek out these intense yet hurtful entanglements?
Lisa lacks the ability to own her emotional well-being, to know her own needs and care for herself. Brad feel she must accept full responsibility for others' emotions; he has a compulsion to "save" people from crisis. Their different emotional issues naturally attract each other.
Beth struggles with having a sense of her own intrinsic value, and she's drawn to try to obtain it from someone else. She sees something in Anita that tells her she's someone who could provide that, but this puts her emotional health entirely in the other woman's hands, thus the obsession over the social media posts.
Now if Anita doesn't keep healthy boundaries, or even has a "savior complex" like Brad's, she might be drawn into an enmeshed relationship. But if not, Beth will likely end up pushing her away, and the resulting shame will reinforce her inability to love herself.
The answer lies within our stories, and what they may fail to have equipped us with emotionally and relationally. In our characters' background and upbringing you would likely find:
isolation and/or neglect
intense emotional expression in the home
being expected to be a parent's emotional caregiver
emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
modeling of the patterns they now perpetuate
Ultimately, emotional entanglement grows out of our not knowing how to take care of our own needs, not believing in our ability to do so, or not even knowing what they are. It certainly doesn't help that there are so many messages in our culture telling us that a romantic relationship is a solution to all our insecurities. I've seen too many movies where these exact types of relationships are glorified as the ideal (because it's easy for screenwriters to omit or romanticize the hurtful and abusive parts).
These cycles never fulfill the desires that draw us into them. They may seem to at some points along the way, but since they never give us what's really missing--the ability to love and care for ourselves--it always comes back to pain.
The Way Out
Through my own journey as well as my counseling practice, I've found that while breaking out of a pattern of emotional entanglement is difficult and painful, it's not nearly has bad as staying stuck in it. You can break free--and it's worth it. The first step is deciding that it's what you need and want to do.
The remedy is ultimately a deep exploration and reframing of your story. That looks like:
exploring the relationships you've had and observed
identifying the core emotional wounds in your story
identifying the beliefs that formed out of those wounds
tracing your unhelpful thought/behavior patterns back to those beliefs
learning how to love and care for yourself at each point in your story
What keeps us from breaking free of these painful cycles is the fear that we can never find what we're looking for in those relationships anywhere else--but this is absolutely not true. As you unpack your story and begin building the skills of self care, sooner than you expect you'll find yourself wondering why you didn't get out sooner.
As a client once told me after working through these issues, "It's like waking up from a nightmare, realizing everything is going to be okay."
Mike Ensley, MA, LPC is a nationally board-certified professional counselor in Loveland, Colorado.