Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Love, Marriage, and Enmeshment

Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, had an interesting piece in the NY Times today. Last month, the Census Bureau released statistics showing that traditional, married-couple households, are now in the minority. This is her response. She observes that we are overly dependent on our spouses, and this is a new thing in the history of marriage:

Until 100 years ago, most societies agreed that it was dangerously antisocial, even pathologically self-absorbed, to elevate marital affection and nuclear-family ties above commitments to neighbors, extended kin, civic duty and religion.

According to Coontz, the idealization of the nuclear family in the early twentieth century brought us to the current situation:

By the early 20th century, though, the sea change in the culture wrought by the industrial economy had loosened social obligations to neighbors and kin, giving rise to the idea that individuals could meet their deepest needs only through romantic love, culminating in marriage. Under the influence of Freudianism, society began to view intense same-sex ties with suspicion and people were urged to reject the emotional claims of friends and relatives who might compete with a spouse for time and affection.

The insistence that marriage and parenthood could satisfy all an individual's needs reached a peak in the cult of togetherness among middle-class suburban Americans in the 1950s. Women were told that marriage and motherhood offered them complete fulfillment. Men were encouraged to let their wives take care of their social lives.

Coontz is describing what therapists call "enmeshment," and it's terribly destructive to a marriage. Partners in a healthy marriage maintain a balance between engaging their partner and remaining individuals. They maintain a rewarding relationship, but still have a sense of their own individuality. This keeps the relationship stable. In contrast, partners in an enmeshed marriage experience two contradictory impulses.

On the one hand, enmeshed partners get very close to each other. Since they have only a few people in their social universe, a conflict with the partner means conflict throughout the universe. Losing that one person means losing one's entire social universe. That's pretty scary, and the tendency is to paper over conflicts, to give up your own identity to please the partner, and to draw ever closer to him or her.

But then, on the other hand, getting that close to someone represents a loss of individuality. Enmeshed partners begin to resent each other for not being perfect and not being able to provide everything they want. Then, a small problem arises, and starts a fight. The fight rapidly spins out of control as all the resentments against the partner emerge. After the partners are totally exhausted, they withdraw from each other for a while. But then, fears of losing their social universe start to arise again and they paper over their differences and the whole cycle starts again.

Some causes of enmeshment are characterological. People with personality disorders often have poor boundaries. They have trouble maintaining a healthy balance between engaging their partner and maintaining their own separateness. Most of my marital therapy clients don't have that problem. I think they often suffer from a problem at the intersection between family and society. For one thing, as Coontz rightly points out, working couples have little time for independent socialization. What time they do have, they choose to spend with the family. Reasonably enough, they don't want to slight their children or partner by not giving them enough time. I think there is more to it than that.

More and more we raise our children to be dependent on adults. Because of suburban living, our children may not live within walking distance of a park. Because of large schools, their friends may live miles away. So, children must rely on their parents to take them to places to play and to socialize. Children are less likely to go to the park and play a pickup baseball game. Instead, they are members of a baseball league. Organized leagues mean more than just times for the game, the children must also participate in practices. Parents have to drive the children to their activities and we all know the complaints of busy parents who spend their evenings chauffeuring their children around. Frequently, the father drives to one set of activities and the mother to another.

All this takes parents away from each other and further reduces time for independent socializing. They focus exclusively on their family, and are left resenting their spouses for not fulfilling all of what they want. There is a solution to this problem. As Coontz points out:

The solution is not to revive the failed marital experiment of the 1950s, as so many commentators noting the decline in married-couple households seem to want. Nor is it to lower our expectations that we'll find fulfillment and friendship in marriage.

After all, the 1950's and 1960's a time of a rising divorce rate. Maybe Coontz has put her finger on why. She continues:

Paradoxically, we can strengthen our marriages the most by not expecting them to be our sole refuge from the pressures of the modern work force. Instead we need to restructure both work and social life so we can reach out and build ties with others, including people who are single or divorced. That indeed would be a return to marital tradition--not the 1950s model, but the pre-20th-century model that has a much more enduring pedigree.

So, marriages are really products of the community. Healthy marriages are part of a healthy community.


Susan said...

This is a great post. I have been trying to explain, to an enmeshed couple, how their "closeness" is hurting them and the family and they just don't see it. It's the second marriage for both and they are alienating their children and the first spouses because of their "us against the world" viewpoint. Very sad. Thanks for this post about it. Explains it very well!

Anonymous said...

This is very helpful, and is also applicable when working with grieving spouses. Thank you.

Jaime said...

This is enlightening information. I have long been wary of "experts" trying to explain marital and community dynamics because I feel their data and language are often mechanistic---they aren't natural and personal like marriage and social relationships are. But I have learned that the marriage/family therapy field does indeed have a lot of pioneer voices, and I'm interested in picking up Coontz's book now.


blog49 said...
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marriage counselor said...

Thank you for introducing the construct “an enmeshed couple” to my knowledge I will read deeper. I just want to leave a reminder that a couples existing knowledge are sometimes the best place to seek solutions.
Love Marriage
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Marriage Counseling said...
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Bill said...

Very odd that the words "communicate" and "communication" never appear in the discussion, the quotes, or the comments. My spouse and I have been working hard to deal with the multiple demands of multiple kids (one with demanding emotional special needs). Our couples counselor has never described us as enmeshed, although the scenario of fight cycles in paragraph 8 sounds very familiar to me. The critical healing we have been doing has been intentional communication with a defined structure: "I noticed that... It makes me think... Thinking this way makes me feel..." The listener responds by reiterating the "noticer's" statements, that says whether or not s/he cares about the bad feeling, and if s/he does, asks what s/he can do to help make the situation better. It truly works for us, if we can make the time for it. Socializing outside the family actually detracts from the time necessary to do this type of communication, and if there are feelings to be communicated that are put off, they fester and the structure of communication breaks down.

It's a very delicate balance for us: family, one-on-one relationship, social involvement. One that we still haven't found a way to constantly keep in balance, but we are improving.

Free Operant said...


Thanks for a great comment. Your formula, "Thinking this way makes me feel..." is excellent. It makes you responsible for your feelings and puts the thoughts and feelings into a cognitive therapy framework. So, it sounds like you have a good therapist.

However, in my post, I was saying that enmeshment happens when a couple has only themselves to fulfill all their need for social contact. (See Susan's comment above.)

If you are concerned about enmeshment then try to branch out and develop more social contacts, both as a couple and as individuals. I know this is difficult, especially when raising kids. I've been there myself.

Coontz's book points out how the structure of modern society encourages enmeshment and discourages healthy engagement, so it might be a good resource for you.

Good luck.

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marriage and sex said...

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Anonymous said...

What is the point of this topic? It doesn't matter, because the only SOLUTION is to change our 2011 society or to add more hours to the 24 hour day. (It is what it is.) Just another case of psychology sci-fy. I don't need credentials for this opinion (although I have them - sigh).
It will be deleted anyway.

Free Operant said...

What is the point of this post? It's to help couples understand the need to reach out to others. We cannot be all things to each other.

You're right about not having enough hours in the day. I spent about 10 minutes with my wife after work today. In a few minutes, I'm going to go out with a neighbor and set traps for feral cats in the neighborhood. When I'm done with that, I'll be cleaning house.

This is why I don't blog anymore....

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