Healing a  Relationship

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Successful  Relationship  Secrets ABANDONMENT AND ENGULFMENT ISSUES Top Ten Relationship  Issues Number 2

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 experience some of each feeling some of the time, but it is a different matter for people who are deeply troubled by either of these issues.

This is one of those times to remember that we are just not equipped to solve every complex relationship problems by ourselves. Nor can you just ignore powerful issues like these and hope they will settle down of their own accord. You do so at your peril. The outcome is usually the opposite of what you wanted anyway.


A. Some parts of your personality (inner 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 parts of your personality (inner 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!) These selves make it as hard as possible 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 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 might actually have the power to  prevent a partner abandoning the relationship.

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 sub-personalities (inner 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) see no  justification for being trapped (enmeshed) any longer in an over controlled or negative relationship and look for ways to get away (fast).

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 the abandonment or engulfment happening. Each of these tactics actually increases the feelings of vulnerability in the other partner.

The Aban (abandonment issues - engulfing - pursuing)   vs  Engul ( Engulfment issues - avoiding - distancing) - dance cycle

This pattern is often described as a kind of dance a dysfunctional cycle along the lines explained in the examples below.

In a relationship like this, each partner describes themselves as controlled by the other. However, what one is experiencing as "control" is almost totally opposite what the other is experiencing.  One of them is focused on trying to prevent their partner from abandoning them. Let's call that partner "Aban”.  The opposite partner whose control issues are about trying to avoid being smothered or engulfed we will call "Engul".

Typically when Aban experiences  a sense of being abandoned or alone he or she panics and starts working overtime to force Engul to come closer.  As a result, Engul with strong engulfment issues becomes agitated about being over-controlled by Aban.  Engul will feel he or she is losing  individual identity. The more Aban tries to keep Engul close to them, the more Engul will feel  smothered or controlled by Aban. This increases the chance that Engul will naturally try to spend even less time with Aban in order to maintain his or her (Engul's) sense of identity.

Since they do not like being controlled themselves an Engul partner trying to protect their individuality may have a fear that they will appear as "too controlling"  So they tend to avoid methods of control like manipulation that they regard as "dishonest". An Aban partner on the other hand may be inclined to use almost any technique including manipulation to try to force Engul to come closer.

Partner Engul - avoider and distancer selves - fear of engulfment

The ‘inner selves’ that encourage Engul 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, people like Engul may feel a form of terror, similar to that of being physically smothered and need to create physical distance to reduce the fear.  People like Engul 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 Engul developed inner selves that avoid and resist closeness and intimacy and are also capable of blocking control by Aban.

But distancing, avoiding and resisting control is what is going to trigger Aban'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 Aban - pursuing, clinging or engulfing inner selves

Partner Aban's inner selves are often attracted to people like Engul yet they are the very people have a fear of intimacy and who are triggered into distancing by pursuing behaviour.   Partner Aban has constant fears about being abandoned by partner Engul. To help reduce this, Aban has selves that pursue Engul to try to get closer and press him or her for more intimacy. They also try to control partner Engul, in the belief that the more Engul is under Aban's domination the less Aban will feel alone or afraid of being abandoned.

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

The flip side

The cycle is broken from time to time when Engul suddenly notices that Aban has finally given up, has flipped into temporary avoidance (emotional anorexia) to escape the pain and is no longer around.  Typically Engul in a case like this, then temporarily experiences the pain of abandonment and fearing losing Aban permanently, makes extravagant promises and apologies to get Aban to come back.

Engul may even get into a little temporary engulfing. (emotional bulimia) However this is short lived because Aban is so happy to learn that Engul ‘really loves me at last’ that they move into even stronger engulfment and totally enmesh Engul even more than previously 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 inner selves to fix relationship problems like these.

If they do separate, a ‘love addicted’ partner like Aban may experience actual withdrawal symptoms related to the loss of Engul whose presence was actually like a pain-killing ‘medication’. These symptoms are often remarkably similar to, or worse than, withdrawal symptoms of people going ‘cold turkey’ off heroin! 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 same 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.

This diagram comes from http://undermuchgrace.blogspot.com

It  is an adaptation of Pia Mellody's illustration of the cycle and it will help you to follow the whole complex backwards and forwards dance.  Have a look at Cindy’s site.  http://undermuchgrace.blogspot.com    

Very interesting content and well worth viewing.

Thanks Cindy and of course Pia Mellody too.

See also

The Magic restaurant where I explain more about this

Grown -up relationships and different levels of Individual freedom

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