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Enmeshment in Marriage and Couples Therapy: Differentiation of Self:

Updated: Jun 6

In this blog post, we will explore the concepts of differentiation of self and enmeshment in marriage and rcouples therapy. I’m a licensed marriage and family therapist and specialize in couples and family systems theory.

I love teaching couples about certain aspects of counseling psychology, and in particular about how differentiation of self plays crucial roles within familial and marital dynamics. Using real-life examples from the TV show “Couples Therapy,” we will delve into how the relationship issues or mental health concerns they come in are related to being in an enmeshed relationship and how that relates to differentiation within a romantic relationship.

Understanding Differentiation of Self

Differentiation of self is the process in which a person reaches psychological maturity and becomes fully differentiated.

On a basic level, this is a person who is able to clearly distinguish between thoughts and feelings while holding onto their sense of Self or identity when in the presence and influence of Other people, especially family members.

differentiation of self and enmeshment

Murray Bowen states that the difference between being fully differentiated is about taking responsibility for one’s feelings and thoughts while staying connected to the other person, without feeling responsible for their partner's emotions. This allows for the potential of deep and healthy connections to others without becoming enmeshed with them and remaining able to stay close in the face of disagreements.

The theory is the lifetime’s work of Doctor Murray Bowen and is based on his study of families and children as a psychiatrist. Bowen’s theory on differentiated individuals is distinct from others in some ways as it provides us with a fantastic way of thinking about our self and all our relationships.

The Scale Of Differentiation of Self

Fully differentiated individuals possess the ability to respond to life’s challenges with calm and deliberation and emotional maturity, rather than reacting impulsively. This capacity stems from a lower level of chronic anxiety, which often drives automatic and reactive behaviors. As levels of differentiation increase in a person, they have less chronic anxiety and more emotional functioning giving them more choices in life.

the scale of differentiation of self

A fully differentiated individual maintains solid personal boundaries, ensuring they are less likely to be influenced by the emotions of others. This stability allows them to stay true to their sense of self, making independent choices rather than being swept up in ‘group think’ or mob mentality unless they consciously decide to engage.

In contrast, an undifferentiated person often experiences their inner world as filled with chronic anxiety. This pervasive anxiety differs from the acute anxiety felt during a panic attack or before a significant exam; it is subtler and often goes unnoticed until its effects manifest in one’s relationships. The lack of clear boundaries in undifferentiated individuals means they are more susceptible to being overwhelmed by the emotions and needs of those around them. This can lead to reactive behaviors driven by the need to alleviate their internal discomfort rather than making thoughtful and measured decisions.

Bowen theory states that fully differentiated individuals can navigate life’s complexities with a composed and reflective mindset, maintaining their individuality even in the face of external pressures. They are better equipped to manage stress and maintain healthy relationships because their sense of self is not easily disrupted by the emotional currents of others.

On the other hand, an undifferentiated person, swayed by chronic anxiety and blurred boundaries, struggles to maintain their individuality and often reacts impulsively to external stimuli. This reactive nature can strain relationships and lead to a cycle of anxiety and emotional turmoil, underscoring the necessity of working towards greater differentiation for emotional and relational well-being.

Thoughts and Feelings:

While it is generally understood that thoughts and emotions are distinct aspects of our mind, and potentially even our brain, Murray Bowen observed that in our daily experiences, these elements often become blurred and confused.

Consider a common scenario: when asked how they are feeling, someone might respond,

“I feel like this sunny weather is really good for me.”

This response is not a direct expression of feeling; rather, it is a thought that conveys a feeling. A more precise expression would be,

“I feel optimistic and playful.”

The initial response merges thoughts and feelings, resulting in indirect communication. In therapeutic practice, according to Bowen theory, the goal is to encourage direct communication of feelings.

differentiation of thoughts and feelings

At times, thoughts and feelings can become imbalanced. Individuals who rely heavily on intellectualization may obscure their emotions with thoughts. This phenomenon is particularly noticeable among men, who, as a generalization, often find it challenging to access and express their feelings, tending to be more thought-oriented. Various factors, including family of origin, culture, and gender identity, influence our ability to access and articulate feelings. In therapy, it is common to repeatedly ask clients to identify their feelings or emotional state, because we have a tendency to use thoughts as a habit.

feelings overwhelm thoughts in differentiation of self

Conversely, there are times when individuals become overly emotional, leading to a state where the logical brain shuts down. This is why it is advisable for couples who are arguing to take a break; rational conversation is unlikely to occur when one is too angry or emotionally dysregulated. Enmeshed relationships often lead to a deprivation of emotional support, which is crucial for understanding and validating one's feelings and experiences.

Differentiation : Self and Other:

As I have taught this concept over the years, explaining the distinction between self and other has evolved into a hybrid of Object Relations Theory and Bowen theory around Differentiation of Self but it all works in an enmeshed relationship.

Murray Bowen’s work in family therapy has significantly influenced the understanding of differentiation of self and its application in therapeutic settings and is so important to understand romantic relationships.

Internalized Sense of Self

We possess an internalized sense of self that ideally remains stable over time. A stable internalized sense of self is crucial for maintaining self-esteem, especially in the context of personal autonomy and emotional support. This internal narrative informs us of who we are, our experiences, and our personal history. In the context of trauma, this sense of self can become disrupted due to overwhelming events. Part of the therapeutic process involves reconstructing this narrative to restore order. It is worth noting that individuals with severe psychosis often lack this stable sense of self.

Internalized Sense of Other

In addition to our sense of self, we also carry an internalized sense of ‘other,’ which includes our caregivers, romantic partners, and even pets. In enmeshed relationships, individuals often feel responsible for their partner’s emotions, leading to a blurring of boundaries. For instance, when I am working late at the office, I might lose track of time. However, the internalized sense of my partner or dog might surface, prompting thoughts about their needs, such as feeding or walking the dog.

Enmeshment: Blurring of Self and Other in Family Members and Romantic Relationships.

enmeshment of self and other

When it's hard for a person to set boundaries, an enmeshed relationship can occur. In clinical practice, I often observe that people stop speaking from an ‘I’ position and instead use ‘we,’ or even worse, begin to speak on behalf of the other person.

Prioritizing the Other Over Self and Its Impact on Self-Esteem.

In an enmeshed relationship, cases, our sense of self may diminish or shrink, while the other person becomes more prominent in our thoughts and feelings. Recognizing signs of enmeshment in one's own relationship is crucial for maintaining a healthy balance between self and other.

enmeshment in marriage and self and other

For example, if my partner or dog (the ‘other’) were to take on a larger role in my internal narrative, I might not consider staying late to catch up on work. Instead, I would prioritize their needs over my own, focusing more on the dog than on my personal requirements. In intimate relationships that are enmenshed, there's no emotional space to be remain an individual, even if one party is having alone time on a friday, there's often a preoccupation with the other.

Enmeshment IN MARRIAGE: The Importance of Clarifying Thoughts and Feelings

In couples therapy, precise language is crucial for fostering understanding and connection, especially in the context of enmeshment. Consider this dialogue between partners:

Partner A: "You feel that I need affection. And it’s more about being seen. You’re so in with the boys and cooking, and I appreciate it all to the max. But I feel like I’m a ghost in the house."

Partner B: "And I feel like I’m a robot. That I see, and I acknowledge that 100 percent."

When Partner A says, "You feel that I need attention," it is beneficial to reframe this statement to clarify the distinction between thoughts and feelings. For example, suggesting a more nuanced statement like, "I wonder if what you’re saying is that you think she believes you feel needy for affection," can help untangle the mix of thoughts and feelings. While this may seem overly meticulous, it underscores the importance of separating cognitive processes from emotional experiences.

In enmeshed relationships, emotional fusion often leads to a loss of personal autonomy and self-differentiation, making it challenging to maintain healthy boundaries. The feeling Partner A is attempting to convey emerges as a thought: "I feel like a ghost." This metaphorical expression is powerful and evocative, but it lacks specificity regarding the underlying emotions. Instead of correcting this statement, it is more productive to explore what "feeling like a ghost" actually entails. Does it mean feeling invisible, neglected, ignored, unloved, or unseen?

By encouraging Partner A to articulate these specific feelings, the emotional message becomes clearer and more impactful. This clarity can potentially elicit a more empathetic and understanding response from Partner B.

In the therapy session, Orna, the therapist, intervenes:

Orna: "No, I heard Drew say that when you say he needs affection, you’re not hearing him. He’s saying he feels like a ghost, like you don’t see him."

Partner B: "I understand that."

Orna: "Well, you did not convey that. Your response was, 'I feel like a robot.'"

Partner B: "And that is an issue. It’s always, but this, it’s not, like, it’s… It goes both ways."

The principle behind using "I feel" statements is to directly express emotions, which fosters a deeper emotional connection. If Partner A had used specific feeling words, it might have been more challenging for Partner B to respond with a deflective statement like "I feel like a robot." Even if such a response were given, it would be easier to delve into the emotional reactions elicited by these statements. The goal is to understand whether the partner was moved by the expressed feelings and if there was a greater understanding of the emotional landscape.

Dr. Guralnik employs a similar approach, seeking to clarify the emotional states of both partners. Through the lens of differentiation, the focus is on encouraging the expression of emotions using "I feel" statements more actively. This practice not only clarifies individual emotions but also fosters a space where romantic partners can engage in meaningful and empathetic dialogue.

By emphasizing the use of feeling words, therapists can guide couples toward more profound emotional understanding and healthier communication dynamics.

In the broader context of contemporary family therapy and counseling psychology, promoting differentiation of self is crucial. It helps individuals develop emotional intelligence and emotional maturity, allowing them to maintain healthy boundaries and lower emotional reactivity when necessary. This process encourages self-reflection and personal growth, ultimately contributing to better mental health and well-being in intimate relationships.

The Blurring of Thoughts and Feelings in Enmeshed Relationships.

In the context of enmeshment, the boundaries between thoughts and feelings often become blurred, complicating effective communication and leading to emotional fusion. Consider the statement, "I feel like you put me between a rock and a hard place sometimes." This expression clearly indicates significant emotional distress within the family system, yet it presents as a thought rather than a direct articulation of specific feelings.

The metaphor of being "between a rock and a hard place" powerfully conveys the experience of feeling trapped in an enmeshed relationship. However, for meaningful dialogue and emotional support, it is crucial to unpack this metaphor and identify the underlying feelings. The distress likely includes a mix of frustration and hurt, but these emotions need to be explicitly expressed to make sense of the partner's emotional state. For instance, if the predominant emotion is anger, it should be articulated directly to enhance understanding and resolution.

In an enmeshed relationship, one partner might continually question the other, saying things like, "You're always asking me these hypotheticals—what if this had happened, what if that had happened—and I don't want to patronize you. I want to be honest, but I also don't know, so then I'm as honest as I can be, and then you're hurt. But it is hurtful." This narrative suggests that the partner feels harassed by the constant questioning, which may stem from the other partner’s chronic anxiety.

This situation exemplifies how enmeshment can manifest through one partner using the other to manage their anxiety. The anxious partner seeks validation and reassurance through constant questioning, believing that obtaining a specific answer will alleviate their distress. This reliance on the other person for emotional regulation highlights the fusion of self and other—a core characteristic of enmeshed relationships.

Effective management of anxiety in such intimate relationships involves recognizing and separating thoughts and feelings. For instance, an anxious individual might acknowledge, "I’m feeling anxious because I don't have the answer, and I think getting the answer will calm me down." Instead of solely relying on their partner for reassurance, they could explore other ways to soothe their anxiety or seek information independently. This approach is crucial for personal growth and maintaining healthy boundaries.

The conversation continues with the partner expressing frustration: "I know, but like, I don't, like, I don't know, so like, if anything, I'm going to air—But that is the truth. Yeah. I literally don't know it is hurtful and listen, so that's what's going on. You want to be honest which is brave? Yeah, but it always messes me up. It doesn't mess you up. It means you have to bear the consequences. I know. It's like you want to be honest, but you can't stand what's coming back at you."

This exchange further illustrates the fusion of self and other in enmeshed relationships. In such a dynamic, one partner might avoid expressing their true needs or cancel plans to prevent the other from experiencing disappointment. This avoidance stems from feeling responsible for the other’s emotions, often at the expense of their own needs and personal autonomy.

In a fully differentiated scenario, each partner maintains a clear sense of self and other. For example, if I genuinely apologize for not being able to attend your dinner party and you express disappointment, I recognize that these are your feelings and natural human responses. While I do not enjoy causing disappointment, I understand that your feelings are not my burden to bear. Conversely, in an enmeshed relationship, I might feel compelled to avoid conflict and disappointment by sacrificing my own needs, such as ghosting you or attending the event despite other commitments.

This distinction underscores the importance of differentiation of self in fostering healthy relationships. Differentiated individuals tend to maintain healthy separation and boundaries, recognizing the distinction between their own emotions and their partner's emotional state. By maintaining clear boundaries and recognizing the separation of self and other, individuals can navigate emotional interactions with greater clarity and less reactivity, ultimately leading to more authentic and fulfilling connections. This approach not only enhances personal well-being but also contributes to the overall health of the relationship.

Managing Anxiety and Emotional Fusion In An Enmeshed Relationship.

In the context of enmeshment, it's crucial to understand how anxiety and the blurring of self and other can impact communication and relationship dynamics. Here’s an illustrative example from a couple therapy session:

Partner A: "Give her the reason why you say that."

Partner B: "Because you don't want me calling you at work."

Partner A: "Why don't you call me at work?"

Partner B: "Because work is very important to you."

Partner A: "He will call 20 times a day, right, and she expects me to pick up 20 times. And every single time, it's nothing important. And if I don't answer that phone..."

Orna: "Well, I guess it's important just in the sense of establishing a connection."

Partner A: "We just spoke."

In this scenario, the frequent calls reflect an anxious focus on the other partner, which is a hallmark of enmeshed relationships. The behavior of calling repeatedly is not merely about establishing a connection; it is an action riddled with anxiety, highlighting the lack of personal autonomy and the blurring of emotional boundaries.

Bowen’s theory explains this through the family projection process, where parents might anxiously focus on their child to distract from their own issues. This anxious focus can impair the child's development and make them more susceptible to clinical issues. Similarly, in romantic relationships, an anxious focus on a partner can lead to increased tension and misunderstandings.

When Partner B calls repeatedly, the anxiety intensifies because the calls are not answered. This creates a cycle of anxiety and reactivity. Partner B’s anxious thoughts might include fears like, "He’s cheating on me again" or "He always does this to me," leading to more anxious and frustrated feelings, and inevitably, more calls.

Effective therapy for such couples involves helping them regulate their own anxiety and emotions without assuming it’s their partner’s responsibility. For instance, when Partner B doesn't receive an answer, they need to reflect on their thoughts and feelings. Asking oneself, "What am I thinking? What am I feeling? Are my thoughts focused on self or other?" can help in gaining clarity.

The work for this couple involves building introspection and emotional intelligence. When Partner B feels anxious, they need to recognize this state and choose a more measured response. This process of differentiation of self helps in maintaining healthy boundaries and reducing emotional fusion. By inserting a pause before reacting, individuals can better manage their emotional state, leading to healthier communication and a more balanced relationship system.

In contemporary family therapy, promoting self-differentiation is key. It allows individuals to develop emotional maturity and maintain a clear sense of self, even in stressful situations. This not only improves personal well-being but also enhances the overall health of the relationship, making it possible for partners to support each other without becoming enmeshed.

differentiation of self and enmeshment in marriage

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