First of all, thank you for providing the wonderful resource. I would prefer if the following question is modified if you are going to share it on the web.
I am an attorney, currently in a serious relationship for almost 2 years that seems to have come to a standstill. I'm interested in moving forward towards marriage, but I have significant concerns about my boyfriend's home situation, and am not comfortable with engagement right now.
My boyfriend and his father are extremely close, and it took me almost 2 years to recognize this as "textbook" enmeshment. The father is extremely needy of his only child's attention, and essentially unable to function as an independent adult. He is very isolated, has no friends (other than my boyfriend), and does not seek companionship. The two are in constant (every 2-3 hours) telephone contact. The father frequently belittles his ex-wife (the mother of my boyfriend) to the point that my boyfriend has nothing but contempt for the woman. Their divorce was 7 years ago, but she is still blamed for anything- quite literally called "the root of all evil". While I've never met her, this struck me as very unusual from the beginning (sharing excessive details about their divorce with his son).
Most recently, my boyfriend and I went on a vacation, which we had planned for months. Upon return, we had hell to pay from the father. All kinds of irrational things were said- for example, he stated that we were his only contact, and it was unfair for us not to have left an international contact number. He claimed that he could have died and nobody would have known. Unfortunately, I stepped where my feet do not belong, and pointed out the fact that he has several siblings that live in town, and his concerns about dying spontaneously during our week of vacation are completely unfounded.
While I clearly overstepped my boundaries, I now see this as a very classic father-son enmeshment/co-dependency, with probably parental alienation of the mother. I'm worried that our relationship cannot continue to grow, and I don't know how to mention any of this to my boyfriend. Do you have any suggestions about how I can approach this situation? It is difficult for me to seek advice from my local community without jeopardizing anonymity.
Your input and advice are greatly appreciated,
Thank you for your kind words about my website. Judging from the amount of mail I have been receiving, and the popularity of my site, the opportunity to ask a psychologist questions about life and about the art of living is one that people need and appreciate. Since others will have situations similar to yours, I will disguise your identity in order that your question might be published on my site, and so made available to others who have questions they would like to ask a psychologist about co-dependency and psychological enmeshment.
Judging from what you have told me about your relationship with your boyfriend, this is, as you say, a textbook case of enmeshment. For those who are not familiar with this word, the term "enmeshment" comes from family systems theory, popularized by Salvador Minuchin in his 1978 book, Psychosomatic Families: Anorexia Nervosa in Context, (Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press), in which he refers to a condition in which two or more people weave their lives and identities around one another so tightly that it is difficult for any one of them to function independently. The opposite extreme way of relating, detachment, refers to a condition in which the people are so independent in their functioning that it is difficult to figure out how they are related to one another. Healthy relationships are thought to be described by the space between enmeshment and detachment. In other words, the best relationships take place between those with independent personalities, those who have a firm sense of one's own separate existence, one's own value, one's own abilities. Ideally, these would be people who are not too terribly intertwined, and yet can function interdependently too: mattering to one another, caring for one another, sharing with one another, and helping one another meet the challenges of living.
Seen from this perspective, it is clear that the relationship between your boyfriend and his father is not a healthy one. Thank your lucky stars that you have been able to discern this for yourself at this relatively early stage in your relationship with this man. Imagine how much worse things would be now if you already were married, perhaps with a family of your own, and then came to this understanding. Now, the question remains: how to deal with this complicated situation?
It is important that you understand that the problem behavior is not located within your boyfriend's father's personality, but rather that this is a shared personality disorder, sometimes referred to as "co-dependency," which is located at the intersection of the personality of your boyfriend's father, and of your boyfriend's own personality (when I say "personality," I mean his way of relating to the world). In other words, your boyfriend, being enmeshed with a co-dependent person who is obsessed with controlling his behavior even to the point of trying to deny him a carefree vacation, is part and parcel of this co-dependent personality disorder, not separate from it in any way whatsoever.
In fact, your boyfriend, being involved in this co-dependent dyad, most likely also does not have a firm sense of his own value and abilities, and this leads me to wonder to what extent you, yourself, may suffer from this lack of self-worth and self-realization. After all, you have chosen to be involved in this situation, and you have remained involved with it for some time now. Please take an honest look at this, and if you see problems, get the therapy you need to clear them up.
As things stand now, if you go further with this relationship, your future is easy to divine: you will be dealing permanently not with one person--your boyfriend--but rather with a co-dependent dyad, father-son, in everything you do, and in everything you hope to do. In other words, if you continue this love affair with your boyfriend as it now stands, you are likely to end up frustrated and extremely unhappy regardless of how gratifying sex and other intimacies between you and your boyfriend may have been so far.
As I see it, you have two viable options. First, you can break it off with your boyfriend. To gain the courage to to this, simply look at the situation with clear eyes and ask yourself if you are ready to live for years with no privacy, no real intimacy, and a constant struggle with what is, in effect, a relationship not with one person, your boyfriend, but rather with a psychologically handicapped dyad. If the answer is no, perhaps you could just let it go, and move on. If you were my patient, I probably would counsel you to consider moving in that direction. But judging from your letter in which you wrote, "I'm interested in moving forward towards marriage," I imagine that you will not follow that path, and that is OK too, as long as you do not let things rest as they now are.
In other words, the other viable option is to put the matter to your boyfriend in no uncertain terms, so that he will understand that his relationship to his father is terribly unhealthy, and that if he wants to continue moving forward into a shared life with you, he will have to make a change--a change that, no doubt, will require a period of intensive psychotherapy, and considerable suffering.
In my professional opinion, the middle ground, where you try to deal with this co-dependent relationship without rocking the boat, without putting the matter clearly and unambiguously to your boyfriend, would be a form slow masochistic suicide for you. Sorry, but on this page, I calls 'em as I sees 'em.
A recent film, called "Love Actually," presented this kind of co-dependent relationship, not between a father and son, but between siblings. In this film, a young woman is in love with her coworker. After months of shyness, she eventually ends up bringing him home for sex, she is overjoyed to have him there, and they begin to make love. Unfortunately, their intimacy is interrupted by telephone calls from the woman's brother, an institutionalized, mentally ill man, with whom the woman is so enmeshed that feels she must answer his phone calls regardless of what she is doing at the time.
I suggest that you rent a video or dvd of this film and, without preamble, simply watch it with your boyfriend as if it were simply an evening's entertainment. Afterwards, you could mention and try to explore the particular vignette to which I refer, with a view towards leading your boyfriend towards the idea that his relationship with his father is similar to the problem dramatized in the movie. If he rejects this, you are in trouble. If he is able to accept it, at least in theory, tell him that you love him, and wish to support him in getting the therapy he needs to break out of his sick, co-dependent relationship with his father. And then, be prepared for at least a couple of years of pain and suffering.
I hope this will help you, and I wish you the best in handling this painful and difficult challenge.
Thanks to your support, "ask dr-robert" has become the world's number one ask the psychologist site.
Pass it on:
(all infomation remains private)
Or, if you find the site worth sharing, link to dr-robert.com from your webpage, newsgroup, discussion forum, or blog.
return to ask dr-robert archives
page last modified February 28, 2006
copyright robert saltzman 2004 all rights reserved