As a couples therapist, I see many couples who are enmeshed, meaning that they have very poor boundaries. This means that both partners are only friends with the same people (or with no people, if partners didn’t agree on which friends were tolerable), they hang out only together, and they have no external interests that aren’t shared.
Often, one or both partners secretly — or openly — feels constricted and trapped within the relationship. However, they struggle with asserting their own needs or desires for independence, because the relationship has developed into this pattern and there seems like no other option is available.
In the earliest stages of dating, when it feels like you and your new partner are the only people on earth, it is normal and even healthy to want to spend all of your time together. This is the infatuation or honeymoon stage, and it can feel very intense and amazing. But this stage doesn’t last forever, and it is unhealthy to try to extend it for the entirety of the relationship.
No matter how in love a couple is, they each need to have a separate life in addition to their shared life, in order to feel whole and healthy.
Most people who are in the honeymoon stage of dating still find the strength to peel themselves away from their new partners to spend time with friends, family, and engage in other interests and activities.
How Past Dysfunction Leads to Co-Dependence
But for some people, especially those who did not learn healthy boundaries at home, such as people raised in more dysfunctional families, it can feel impossible to set any boundaries in the earliest stages of dating.
If their partner is a similar type of person with a similar upbringing (and often, people with dysfunctional upbringings find one another, even if these family histories are not openly discussed), it is easy to see how the couple ends up, years down the line, in a very enmeshed situation. Partners become codependent rather than individual people.
If you have had a history of ending up overly dependent on your partner, sacrificing friends, outside interests, and even work or school for the sake of being around your partner 24/7, then you likely could benefit from learning how to set boundaries with new romantic partners.
Additionally, if you never saw a healthy relationship between parents when growing up, then it is essential that you learn how to set boundaries yourself, before you end up unintentionally replicating whatever unhealthy dynamics you saw as a child.
Setting Boundaries in a New Relationship
The key points to remember when entering a new relationship are that the relationship is not supposed to define you. You were an individual, with your own interests, friends, and obligations before you met your partner, and you will still be that person during and after the relationship. For that reason, you need to be sure to keep some rules in mind.
Some good boundaries include:
* Never skipping out on work or school obligations for the sake of a new relationship.
* Not canceling plans with friends, and engaging in social activities at least once a week without your new partner.
* Not pretending to have all of the same interests as your partner, just so that they don’t go off and do things without you.
* Even if you genuinely want to learn about your partner’s interests, don’t learn about 100% of them right away. Give your partner space to be themselves, and continuing living your life.
What to do if Your Partner is Against Healthy Boundaries
Keep in mind that you may be trying to set up healthy boundaries and your partner may be the one who is pushing for constant contact. In that case, make sure to keep your boundaries intact and tell your new partner that you love spending time with them, but you want to keep your friends and outside interests too.
If this conversation goes poorly, then you may need to reevaluate whether this is the right relationship for you, or if it will push you into old, dysfunctional patterns.
Boundaries Keep You (and Your Relationship) Healthy
Keeping healthy boundaries is an important part of being an independent, healthy adult. If you struggle with this area, seeking help or assistance is a good idea.
Seeking help or assistance help you figure out how to stay true to yourself while also starting a new and exciting relationship. Even (or especially!) if you’re currently single, if you feel that you tend to become enmeshed with partners, a therapist can help you explore why you do this, and work with you on a healthier, more authentic and confident way of being. Relathionships Australia can be contacted on 1300 364 277 or visit relationship.org.au
This piece by Dr. Samantha Rodman was originally published on Talkspace.