“A healthy relationship is based on respect, not power or control.”

-Rose Caiola

Finding bonding and balance on the relationship spectrum

The first time I fell in love, I spent 18 months learning about relationships from an emotionally unavailable architect, who was the child of alcoholics. By 30 he had grown into a smart, funny, charismatic, accomplished, emotional wasteland of a man. Moreover, he was terrified to lose his individuality. In fact, he went to great lengths to make sure that we remained completely separate in our relationship. He wouldn’t leave clothes or personal effects at my apartment and was reluctant for me to leave more than a toothbrush at his. For the first year, he wouldn’t even allow me to spend the night at his pad.

The Winter Coat episode, however, illuminated just exactly how large a problem I faced. While browsing in a store one Sunday afternoon, he saw a winter coat that he wanted. After brief consideration, he refused to make the purchase: “Your coat is similar in style, cut and fabric. I wouldn’t want people to think we dress alike.” He replaced the coat on the rack and exited the store. It took me six more months to wise up and get out. This man didn’t want to be lovingly connected to a woman, coat or no coat.

If I’d known back then about the difference between being bonded and enmeshed, I might have been able to explain to my love that he had nothing to fear. I, too, cherish my individuality and avidly seek to maintain it even in a loving relationship.

It was only years later that I discovered the work of Salvador Minuchin, the architect of Structural Family Therapy and defined enmeshment as “the blending of two individuals’ realities as though they were one person.” In the first rush of love, it may seem as if being completely alike, engaged and spending all your time together benefits a relationship and the lovers in it; the truth is that in the long-term, being more bonded than enmeshed is the healthier fit.

Emotionally unavailable vs. emotionally sustainable

While in enmeshed relationships partners expect each other to mirror thoughts and emotions, according to Dr Offra Gerstein, “Healthily bonded pairs welcome the individual differences in their thoughts, feelings and attitudes and regard them as enriching their individual perspectives, stimulating their intellectual discourse and enhancing their emotional intimacy in their forever evolving life views.”

Recognizing the difference between being bonded and enmeshed is easy from a distance. Putting your own relationship through these questions can be harder, but reveals clues.

Does either partner:

  • Feel an extreme need for consistently holding the same thoughts, opinions and choices?
  • Lack respect for the other’s attitudes, opinions and desires?
  • Believe that difference harms the relationship?
  • Disregard the other’s feelings, thoughts and actions when different from his own?

For many people the attraction of being in love comes with real fears, including the fear of losing oneself in the relationship. “How do I retain who I am while I become the person in love with you?” is a valid question to ask. The answer has to do with how the relationship is approached and created.

For example, in a bonded relationship each partner:

  • Maintains contact and connection with friends and family.
  • Sets aside alone time for self-connection.
  • Experiences happiness and self-esteem from sources outside the romance.
  • Resists the temptation to inadvertently absorb or mirror a partner’s emotions.
  • Depends on sources beyond the relationship to reduce feelings of loneliness.

Margarita Tartakovsky, MS, explains, “Healthy emotional and physical boundaries are the basis of healthy relationships.” To achieve this state, she recommends seeking professional help when necessary, setting small boundaries by emphasizing the love while identifying limits for behaviors, creating connections for oneself and others that allow practice for finding sustenance and fulfillment outside of the relationship.

If the foundation of a romance finds its basis in allowing and respecting the differences and celebrating the similarities between partners, then both parties can feel secure in maintaining a sense of individuality even within the scope of a relationship. That’s when a coat is just a coat—not a harbinger of lost individuality but a symbol of congruence between two separate people choosing to expand and discover who they are while they fall in love.

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