Forgiveness for enmeshment

Sometimes — actually, often — life arranges for us the perfect storm of conflict, trouble, and reactive behavior on our part, especially when we are engaged in familial or romantic relationships of attachment and enmeshment.

This is a good definition of enmeshment:

“The term is…applied more generally to engulfing codependent relationships where an unhealthy symbiosis is in existence.

Salvador Minuchin introduced the concept of enmeshment to describe families where personal boundaries were diffuse, …and over-concern for others led to a loss of autonomous development. Enmeshed in parental needs, trapped in a discrepant role function, a child may lose its capacity for self-direction, its own distinctiveness, under the weight of psychic incest; and, if family pressures increase, may end up becoming the identified patient or family scapegoat.”

This “unhealthy symbiosis” in relationships seems to always lead to the partners scapegoating each other. The blame, which is a form of violence, can escalate into physical violence. In the early years of my relationship to my wife, I was the overtly, physically violent one, and she was covertly, verbally violent in the way that she would provoke me by continuing to push for an answer that would satisfy her. Violence begets violence, it takes two to make an argument or fight, and both are responsible, not one or the other. Neither she nor I seemed to understand our equality in this matter. We were both angry and unreasonable at the same time, we were both pouring gasoline on the fire.

Much later, after doing many conversations with mentors, therapists, and support groups, I admitted to myself that I needed to blow up in order to verify my worthlessness. When my wife admitted to herself that she needed to provoke me in order to verify her worthlessness, we were able to “negotiate” an agreement to end the cycle of violence by working on our own issues separately, not playing therapist or coach for each other, but both aiming for the same goal. We went to separate 12-step meetings, had separate counselors and sponsors. Constructive negotiation is neither the extraction of an admission of guilt nor the suppression of anger. It is learning to manage, redirect, and express anger constructively — a very long, tedious, and humbling process — and all parties to the conflict have to be ready to do that work.

Only by understanding the source of our own violence can we forgive and free ourselves from its cyclical repetition. The very first step is to create the time and space for that understanding to emerge. We need to get some help in setting clear boundaries of separation, seek routines and disciplines that reinforce autonomy and self-care, and practice abstinence from all relationship attachments until there is a solid self-awareness of one’s self-destructive, violent patterns of unconscious behavior.

If we don’t enter this recovery path, we know, we wish, we could have done better, been more responsible, but we’re not increasing the probability of new behavior, we’re just feeling guilty. When we carry this self-flagellation for a very long time, it doesn’t help. I never knew that carrying excessive shame and guilt, believing that I was so much worse than others, was a form of arrogance until I saw that in practice what I would do to avoid my own guilt, to preserve my identity in chaotic situations, was to focus on the faults of others, i.e. be arrogant. It was a distraction from what I thought would be my own painful destruction if I ever admitted that I screwed up. It was a defense mechanism of my ego. How often have we heard ourselves say, “I am who I am, and if you don’t like it, get over it?” In this way the probability of new behavior is decreased, and guilt becomes “the gift that keeps on giving” as we create more reasons for it.

This defense of shame, guilt and arrogance actually creates a prison. I am set free by accepting and learning from my mistakes, granting to myself a degree of self-forgiveness. Can you forgive yourself? This is the best gift that life, full of mistakes and errors, can give to us, this opportunity to let go of imperfection. When blame has no place and forgiveness moves in, what follows in the very next moment (as you may have discovered and forgot) is empathy for the mistakes of others. Nobody is especially bad or wrong, we are all equal in that regard. We want this equality and sometimes cannot bring ourselves to it. In fact, all notions of right and wrong-doing simply create barriers to our growth and development as human souls. When we acknowledge and accept our own transgressions with a little bit of tender humility, then others reflect back to us the same love and forgiveness. The equality for which we yearn appears.

We become most strong in the places where we heal our wounds of worthlessness. However, healing requires us to be aware of the pain that we have held in denial for years. Breathe respect into your pain, respect for the generations of wounded parents and children that preceded you and were never healed. Feel the pain completely, and it will begin to fall away. Do for yourself what you would do for your very best life-long friend, because that is who you are, like it or not. You have to live with yourself, so do it with integrity. You will not be happy with yourself all the time, yet you will gradually achieve a kind of deep serenity that is priceless.

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