Mothers, smothers, & lovers. (A tale of abandonment and engulfment.)

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By Angelica Shiels Psy.D.

Duane and Mary often fought about the same thing over and over:  Duane was distant and unresponsive to Mary’s emotional and physical advances; Mary relentlessly  smothered Duane with her demands for conversation and intimacy.  This couple, like many couples, were caught in the abandonment-engulfment cycle or relationships.  The more Mary pursued closeness, the more Duane felt engulfed; the More Duane protected himself from engulfment, the more Mary felt abandoned.

Generally, people with a strong sensitivity to feeling abandoned/rejected find themselves with a partner with a strong sensitivity to feeling smothered (and vice-versa).  They fit together like pieces of a puzzle, tempting to heal each other’s wounds, equip each-other with more balanced coping skills, and make each-other whole.

Like many (but not all) people who are sensitive to engulfment, Duane may have his upbringing to thank for his sensitivity.  Often, when a parent attempts to meet her own emotional needs through their child, that child grows to become an engulfment-sensitive adult.  This adult will likely exhibit an avoidant attachment style, where real intimacy and vulnerability is feared and avoided, as it makes him succeptable to the pain of being exploited and overlooked.

Duane grew up in a household with a workaholic father, brother with special needs, and mother who attempted to shore-up her needs for companionship and adequacy through her son.  His mother was, on the surface, loving and generous, but ultimately extended affection and consideration only as a means for herself to appear as a “good person,” thus completely overlooking Duane’s particular perspectives and needs. Duane’s mother’s (often controlling) involvement in his life did not allow him the vital developmental experience of having his own individual perspectives and needs honored.  In that process of mother-son enmeshment, Duane never fully developed a sense of ownership for his own life and awareness of his own, individual self.

A person who’s unique identity, needs, and perspectives are ignored, in the name of forging a parent’s identity instead, may adapt narcissistic/selfish traits as a way to establish a falsely-solid sense of self and ensure that his needs are met (and in response to the parent outwardly catering to the child.). This type of person is also commonly attracted to people with borderline traits as the borderline personality is reminiscent of the caregiver who had an intense, yet at its core selfish, “love” of him, but did not have an identity independent of him– This being dramatically idealized at the same time as truly overlooked, is a relational comfort zone.

And, like many people sensitive to abandonment, Mary experienced inconsistent approval and acceptance in her childhood.  She was teased by peers and siblings and often overlooked by emotionally neglectful parents.  She was also ridiculed by her school peers, and often times lost in her large family of siblings. Therefore, Mary grew into an adult who was anxiously attached, expecting and fearing rejection/abandonment in her relationships. Mary defended against this rejection/abandonment by latching onto other people.  If other people needed her and pursued her, she was safe from the pain of abandonment.  When her pursuit of her detached husband’s unconditional attachment left her feeling dejected and terrified of his amandonment, she filled her life with children who needed and relied on her.

A person who experiences inconsistent approval and acceptance may adapt a flimsy self-concept outside of the approval and interaction of others– They may experience a mindset of “who am I without him?,” may become extreme people-pleasers, may value being needed/liked more than they value the actual caring for others, and may tend to dramatically idealize or devalue others.  A person with Mary’s early experiences may protect against abandonment/rejection with aggressive; passive-aggressive, or manipulative behaviors, meant to keep the other person needing to be with her.   Many of these doting and care-taking characteristics are attractive to an person like Duane who has only ever been seen or considered in this self-serving fashion.  And someone like Duane’s need to be needed is extremely attractive to someone like Mary.  Side-note, many of the relationship patterns and characteristics adapted by people who experience inconsistent approval and acceptance are considered to be borderline personality traits.

What is the solution to the abandonment-engulfment cycle?

Mary– AKA the anxiously-attached, borderline-ish, sensitive-to-abandonment/rejection person– was tasked with becoming comfortable fluidly shifting back and forth between independence/separateness and togetherness/intimacy.

Duane– AKA the avoidatly-attached, narcissitic-ish, sensitive-to-engulfent person– was ALSO tasked with become comfortable fluidly shifting back and forth from independence to togetherness (although his “pull” was in the opposite direction, toward independence and isolation).

These tasks require:

– A commitment to forging up a solid identity (aware, intentional, and assertive communication, ownership for one’s own behaviors and decisions.)

– A commitment to self-soothing instead of acting-out or acting aggressively/passive-aggressively when triggered by fear of abandonment (for Mary) or engulfment (For Duane).

– A commitment to understanding and healing the other person’s attachment injuries through intentional dialogue and discontinuing any defenses of one’s own sensitivity that unnecessarily trigger the other’s sensitivity.

– A commitment to doing very brave things that are outside of one’s comfort zone, such as acknowledging tough stuff, LISTENING when one wants to defend, being vulnerable, and doing things that one’s hind-brain inaccurately says is threatening one’s identity/togetherness.

– If both people are brave enough, all of this can be accomplished.  Imago therapy can help navigate some of the emotional and behavioral pitfalls, some of which, as explained, are deep-rooted, having been established from childhood.

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