Through a Jungian Lens

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An Entangled Mess Beneath a Picture Perfect Surface

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Two - separate yet entangled, enmeshed

Enmeshed – relationships in which boundaries between self and other are blurred and what results is a tangled mess beneath the surface while to all outward appearances the world sees two separate beings

Nice Guys frequently find themselves in these kind of entangled relationships. In an enmeshed relationship it is confusing to figure out who exactly owns which mood, which position, which belief for the other person is quickly drawn into the mood, belief or position. If one becomes depressed, both are depressed. If one decides on a life-style change (such as diet), both embrace the life-style change. Often, from the outside, it appears as though the relationship is the perfect relationship where both parties are a perfect fit in all ways.

The enmeshing Nice Guy makes his partner his emotional center. His world revolves around her. She is more important than his work, his buddies, his hobbies. He will do whatever it takes to make her happy. He will give her gifts, try to fix her problems, and arrange his schedule to be with her. He will gladly sacrifice his wants and needs to win her love. He will even tolerate her bad moods, rage attacks, addictions, and emotional or sexual unavailability – all because he “loves her so much.” (Glover, No More Mr. Nice Guy, p. 114)

There is a problem with this. For all of his effort and intention, the Nice Guy isn’t really there for his partner. He is there to meet his unmet needs of childhood. And as a result, as Glover puts it:

“The Nice Guy’s pursuing and enmeshing behavior is an attempt to hook up an emotional hose to his partner. This hose is used to suck the life out of her and fill an empty place inside of him. The Nice Guy’s partner unconsciously picks up on this agenda and works like hell to make sure the Nice Guy can’t get close enough to hook up the hose.” (p. 114)

And what results is a relationship that fights against itself, a relationship of unidentified unconscious conflict where intimacy between the individuals has no chance to authentically appear. But what is perhaps even more dysfunctional is the missing intimacy with the self. Filling the hole makes the Nice Guy oblivious to all the things about himself that are functional, the parts that work. The task for the Nice Guy is to discover those hidden parts of himself that are bubbling under the surface. What does he really want from life, what does he need to feel “complete?” This last part is the hardest to discover for childhood and life patterns have taught him that an “other” is the key to being complete. Yet, the real path to wholeness is to discover the missing pieces within and not put that burden on another person. Once that work is done, there is a chance for real, intimate and healthy relationship.


4 Responses

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  1. Robert,
    Enmeshment is a useful and descriptive term, however the concept can be pursued further, and, I hope, more clarity provided regarding the nature of enmeshment. The core problem in enmeshment is a certain type of bond, and it is the nature of that bond that the clarity if found. In “The Inner World of Trauma,” Kalshed tells of the nature of the bond; the bond is a fantasy, a defensive mechanism. What must be kept in mind here is that it is the bond to the fantasy that is at the heart of the problem. Kalsched frames it this way:

    “Like the Queen who refuses to choose and embodies a melancholic disposition, we often find in psychotherapy with the victims of early trauma, a kind of inner addiction to fantasy which leaves them in a permanent state of melancholy. In these patients, aggressive energies which should be available for adaptation are thwarted in their outward expression and take the form of archaic self-attack and self-criticism. Thus, suffering from terrible and incessant inner persecution, these patients seek out “heavenly” states, such as fusional identification with others. or they “space out” into diffused undifferentiated states of melancholic self?soothing in order to stay unembodied and away from the traumatic affect. These patients often spend time alone crying, but their tears are a peculiar form of self?soothing. They are crying and holding themselves at the same time. They do not know how to cry with others. Sadness and wistful longing are a continual ache in their hearts. But none of this ever brings any empathy from outside because these patients often do not know what they are crying about and whenever they try to communicate it to others, it breaks down. It is all a very complicated, intricately nuanced sad story they are telling themselves but it remains self-contained, inflated, disembodied ,and one-dimensional. And the tragic irony is that all this suffering is designed to prevent another kind of suffering – the suffering of coming into being in time and space which always entails a sacrifice of fantasy.”(pp. 205-206)

    A non-Jungian who has written a book about the nature of this bond is Robert Firestone, the book is “The Fantasy Bond.” Here is a quote from “The Fantasy Bond,”:

    “The basic tenet of my theoretical approach is the concept of a fantasy bond (Firestone, 1984). The “primary fantasy bond” is an illusion of connection, originally an imaginary fusion or joining with the mother’s body, most particularly the breast. It is a core defense and is protected by other patterns of thoughts and behaviors (secondary fantasies). The term “fantasy bond” describes both the original imaginary connection formed during childhood and the transference of this internal image of oneness to significant figures in the adult’s intimate associations. The process of forming a fantasy bond leads to a subsequent deterioration in the adult’s personal relationships. The function of resistance is to protect the individual from the anxiety that arises whenever this fantasy bond is threatened. .
    It is important to differentiate this specific use of the word “bond” from its other uses in psychological and popular literature. It is not “bond” as in “bonding” (maternal-infant attachment) in a positive sense nor does it refer to a relationship that includes loyalty, devotion, and genuine love. Our concept of the fantasy bond uses bond rather in the sense of bondage, or limitation of freedom.”(pp.36-37)

    Again, in situations such as enmeshment bear in mind it is NOT the person, the situation or the outer object that is the source of the dysfunction, but the bond to the fantasy itself. Marion Woodman’s “Addiction to Perfection,” describes many of the problems caused by this bond.

    John Ferric

    April 13, 2012 at 9:44 am

    • John, as always your words instill a wonder within me. Your breadth of awareness of the masculine psyche, your ability to quickly reference an idea with words from Jung and from many others teaches me and necessarily humbles me. I learn much from you, my friend here on the blog site and off this blog site as well. Thank you. 🙂


      April 19, 2012 at 8:55 am

  2. Thank you Robert for your wise thoughts on enmeshment, something I’ve struggled with repeatedly over the years.

    Thank you John for the book excerpts. The Kalsched and Woodman books are favorites of mine, full of underlines and dog-earred pages. I’ve never heard of the Firestone book, and plan to get it from my library.


    April 13, 2012 at 11:36 am

    • It is good to have you here, Lee, adding words that are personal and that let me know I have been heard. Affirmation is vital to the process as otherwise one just ends up getting lost in one’s own shadows and black holes insanely talking to one’s distorted sense of self. Thank you. 🙂


      April 19, 2012 at 8:57 am

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