The Avoiding - Engulfing - Abandoning - Enmeshment Dance

Why it’s best not to leave it up to the inner protector characters (inner selves) to fix relationship problems


1. Selves that try to deal with abandonment and engulfment                                                                                   

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Even the best adjusted people have some issues about being too alone, too much of the time. (abandonment). They also have discomfort about the opposite situation that is being too close, too often (engulfment or enmeshment). It’s normal to have both, but it is a different matter, for people who are more deeply troubled by these issues.

This is one of those times to remember that the selves are just not equipped to solve complex relationship problems and should you leave issues like these in their hands, you do so at your peril. The outcome is usually the opposite of what you wanted anyway as these examples show:

A. Some one-above selves focus too much on the vulnerability that comes with being controlled or smothered (I can’t be myself) ....

1. Wall builder (avoider) selves confuse intimacy with enmeshment and see distancing as the best way to escape the vulnerability of never being left alone (smothered or engulfed) by an overly clingy opposite partner who is too fearful of abandonment.

2. Critical parent selves see counter attack as the best way to stop being controlled or engulfed. They use negative criticism, judgement or punishment to block engulfment by the other partner

However, these tactics usually raise the other partner’s fear of abandonment and loss of control. That, in turn, increases the chance of that person’s selves acting in ways that will smother, engulf, cling or control even more.

B. Some one-below selves get too energised trying to help ease the vulnerability of being alone .....

1. Love-addict selves don't want to be alone at all. They use positive engulfment, that is over servicing the love contract (27 hours a day, 8 days a week, 369 days a year!) to make it hard for a partner to abandon the relationship, even for a few minutes. This may involve lots of intensity including a clinging kind of love which only an inner self would mistake for real intimacy. Being one-below selves, they may also put up with extremely unpleasant out of control or over-controlling behaviour , sooner than be lose that partner.

2. Abandoned child selves are frightened about being alone so they regularly pressure a partner for reassurance that he or she is not thinking of abandoning the relationship. Only an inner self would believe that a verbal promise obtained this way will stop him or her abandoning the relationship for ever.

3. Wounded child selves are fearful of the pain of being alone so they try to manipulate a partner for example by using fear (threats of suicide) or guilt (over-playing victim role) to stop him or her abandoning the relationship.

Each of these tactics, however, increases the feelings in the other partner of being smothered, engulfed or enmeshed which that person will equate with no longer being loved.

That, in turn, raises the chance of the engulfed partner abandoning or leaving the relationship, especially if they have fears of being controlled.

C. A third group of selves react in other ways when they notice you feel vulnerable ....

1. Anti-pain and anti-fear selves don’t really want you to be alone, but they see prevention as better than cure. Ending the relationship now appears better than a future that seems likely to remain full of repeated pain and vulnerability as a result of being abandoned over and over again.

2. Escapee (Shirley Valentine selves) cannot see any justification for being trapped (enmeshed) any longer in an over controlled or negative relationship and look for ways to get away.

3. Rebel (freedom fighter) selves focus on whatever seems most unfair (to them) in the relationship, whether that’s being engulfed or abandoned. They then try to undermine or sabotage whatever the other partner is doing to stop it happening.

Each of these tactics actually increases the feelings of vulnerability in the other partner.

The Abandonment-Engulfment-Enmeshment Dance Cycle

All this sets up a dysfunctional cycle along the lines shown of the example in the diagram opposite.

Partner A -avoider selves

The ‘selves’ that encourage A to stay out of intimacy developed from early experiences of being engulfed by control or smothered with over-protection. In fact when they are feeling engulfed, an avoider like A may feel a form of terror, similar to that of being physically smothered.

People like A are usually the product of a family where mother or father or both were either over controlling, or too close and too clingy. That is why A developed selves that avoid and resist closeness and intimacy and are capable of blocking control by E.

But avoiding and resisting control is what is going to trigger E's childhood fear of being too alone (abandonment issues) and insecurity about lack of permanency in the relationship (powerless and not good enough issues). The result is a toxic cycle of abandonment and engulfment that goes nowhere.

Partner E - engulfer or clinging selves

Partner E's inner selves are attracted to people like A who have a fear of intimacy and who are triggered into avoiding by clinging behaviour.

Partner ‘E’ has constant fears about being abandoned by partner ‘A’. To help reduce this, E has selves that push A to get closer and press A for more intimacy. They also try to control partner A, in the belief that the more they are under E's domination the less E will feel alone or afraid of being abandoned.

However, control and pressure is just what triggers A’s childhood fears about being too close (engulfment and enmeshment issues) and about being too controlled (safety and security issues). Naturally this causes A to back away or try to escape the relationship. That is the very reaction that panics E who becomes even more needy, clingy, engulfing and smothering.

The Flip Side

The cycle is broken from time to time when A suddenly notices that E has finally given up, has gone into temporary avoidance to escape the pain and is no longer around.

Typically A in a case like this, then temporarily experiences the pain of abandonment and fearing losing E permanently, makes extravagant promises and apologies to get E to come back. A may even get into a little temporary engulfing.

However this is short lived because E is so happy to learn that A ‘really loves me at last’ that they move into even stronger engulfment and totally enmesh A to make sure he or she never escapes again.

Sadly, it is at that point the whole cycle begins all over again until both partners learn that it’s never wise to leave it up to the selves to fix relationship problems like these.

The more vulnerability around any of these areas, the more likely a polarised inner self will come in to try to help. As polarised selves do, each self will suggest widely different solutions. If the person is struggling with both abandonment and engulfment issues she or he may end up with as many as four different selves pulling in different directions.

The inner selves belonging to the other partner in the relationship then get in on the act, reacting in turn as they are triggered by the changing polarity of the situation. It’s not a pretty sight.

If they separate, an addicted partner like A may experience actual withdrawal symptoms related to the loss of their medication. These are often remarkably similar to or worse than the withdrawal symptoms experienced by people going ‘cold turkey’ off heroin!

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