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What is Engulfment? When Relationships Become Your Everything

by Andrea M. Darcy

The verb ‘engulf’ refers to something being swallowed up, overwhelmed, or submerged. But when we are using the word in a psychological sense, what is engulfment?

Engulfment can refer to a tendency to over-immerse yourself in relationships. You depend on the other to meet all your needs, even demanding that they do so.

So, to reference the original definition, you are submerging yourself in relationships. And, without realising it, you might be swallowing up the lives of others, overwhelming them in the process (or scaring them off completely).

In fact many people suffer from a fear of engulfment, sabotaging relationships to avoid being so overwhelmed. It’s also possible to swing between both. This can be the case with borderline personality disorder. It sees you engulfing yourself in relationships, only to suddenly fear the sensation, panic, and push the other away.

Classic examples of engulfment

An example of complete engulfment can be seen when someone joins a cult. They lose themselves to the leader and the group, letting the cult meet all their needs and becoming dependent on the cult for their sense of self and identity.

Extreme examples aside, most of us experience engulfment at some point in life.

Engulfment could be seen as part of growing up. A mother, in her attempt to protect and take care of her child, can overwhelm her child with love. As the child grows he or she feel suffocated, wanting their independence and making moves to break free. A healthy mother recognises and accepts this, proud her child is progressing.

Am I in a healthy relationship quiz

And to a certain extent, engulfment happens, however briefly, in all relationships. It can even happen in friendships, or in the workplace. We could, say, start a new job and be temporarily mesmerised by a charismatic boss, only to eventually see that he is human and then focus more on our own performance.

Of course it’s in intimate relationships that engulfment causes the most problems. When the chemical cocktail of love hits, we can dream of doing everything together. For several weeks there might be a period of stopping normal routines and doing just that.

In healthy relationships, each partner then slowly returns to their own hobbies and routines. A balance is struck between being together and being individuals, healthy and interdependent.

The trouble arises when the break and seeking of balance doesn’t happen. When instead, you let the rest of your life fall to the side and become certain that the relationship you are in is the only important thing. You must make the relationship work at all costs. And that cost might be your career, your physical health, your social life and even your financial stability.

But isn’t love itself engulfment?

No. Despite what films and bestselling books might feed us, it’s not love to lose ourselves in a relationship, nor is it healthy.

Love is not about being so blinded by your feelings you arrange your entire life around another.

Love comes when two people fully see, recognise, respect and support each other. But we can’t do any of this well if we’ve lost sight of who we are.

Again, love does involve a period of meshing, but it also involves personal boundaries. Once those fall (or if they never existed in the first place), you are into the territory of codependency, dependency, addictive relationships, and engulfment.

What causes engulfment?

There are many things that can drive us to be the sort who ends up engulfed by our relationships.

Loneliness – If you do not have a supportive family, or a network of friends you can be your authentic self around, this could drive you to meet all your emotional needs just from relationships.

Low self-esteem –  If we feel unloveable, or if our esteem is so low we rarely if ever attract a partner, we can then want to make the relationship that does come along the most important thing.

Feeling misunderstood  – If you grew up in a family you share different values from and were always the outsider, meeting someone who finally understands you can seem so exciting you want to fall into the experience.

Fear of abandonment –  The fear of being pushed away can lead us to do anything to avoid it.

Why would I be more prone to engulfment than others?

Engulfment happens when we have negative core beliefs about ourselves. Core beliefs are the assumptions we make as a child then continue to see as fact until we learn to question and change them.

If you suffer from engulfment, you might have beliefs such as:

  • I am responsible for other people’s happiness
  • It’s selfish to put myself before others
  • I have to earn and deserve love/ It’s my job to love others
  • If I don’t do what other people want they will reject me
  • Nobody would like the real me so I have to be what the other person wants
  • I only exist and have value if others love me.

These sorts of beliefs can be learned from childhood trauma like abuse, neglect, or loss of a parent or loved one.

If your childhood had no noticeable trauma, it could be down to the sort of parenting where you were encouraged to be ‘good’ and ignored when you weren’t. This sort of dynamic leaves a child constantly pleasing others in an attempt to feel loved. This leads to being an adult with a poor sense of self who seeks it obsessively via relationships.

Personality disorders can be another reason some of us are prone to engulfment issues. Having a personality disorder means we consistently see the world from a different perspective than most other people, and have since young adulthood. Personality disorders that can see us losing ourselves in relationships can include borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, and dependent personality disorder.

Fear of engulfment 

Does the above sound like someone you have been involved with? Since then, have you vowed to never again let anyone so close? Or do you find you never engage in relationships because you are terrified of losing your self, or feeling trapped?

Fear of engulfment is a common cause people struggle with intimacy and relationships. If you’d like to know more about fear of engulfment, sign up to our blog to receive an alert when we run the connected piece in this series, “Fear of Engulfment – When Relationships Leave You Feeling Trapped”.

Worried you have a tendency towards engulfment? Or that fear of engulfment is ruining your relationships? Harley Therapy connects you with experienced and friendly counsellors and therapists across the UK who can help you relate to others in healthier ways. Not in the UK? Try an online therapist, wherever you are. 

Do you still have a question about ‘what is engulfment’? Or do you want to share your personal experience with engulfment with other readers? Use the public comment box below. 

Andrea M. DarcyAndrea M. Darcy is a writer and mentor who has penned thousand of articles on mental health and relationships. Find her @am_darcy

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Blog Topics: Personality Disorders, Relationships

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