Engulfment and Attachment Theory: Understanding the Impact on Relationships

Engulfment and Attachment Theory: Understanding the Impact on Relationships

Have you ever gotten 6 months into a relationship before realizing you’ve not made as much effort to see your friends as you used to? Or that you’ve stopped doing a hobby you previously loved?

If this sounds familiar, you could have experienced engulfment: When you become so immersed in a relationship that you lose interest in other aspects of your life. 

Engulfment can happen to any of us, but research suggests some of us may be more at risk than others, depending on our attachment style

To answer all of your questions on engulfment and attachment theory, this article will cover:

  • What engulfment is
  • Causes of engulfment
  • The link between engulfment and attachment theory
  • Signs of engulfment in a relationship 
  • How to break free from engulfment

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What is Engulfment?

In non-psychological terms, engulfment means to be immersed in something. One way to picture it is to imagine either being underwater or trapped in quicksand–not exactly the most relaxing images. Well, engulfment in relationships has a similar meaning. Engulfment is when we become over-immersed in our relationships, so much so that we rely on the other person to meet our needs. We may also stop engaging in our own interests and hobbies and sometimes take on those of the other person’s instead. 

When we’re engulfed, it’s common to believe that we would struggle to exist without the other person. We might also feel lost or that we don’t really know ourselves, as engulfment can cause us to temporarily lose a sense of our identity. As a result, engulfment can leave us feeling useless, incompetent, or dependent on the other person. If this goes on for a long time, we may even experience enmeshment or engulfment trauma. But more on this later. 

Engulfment can be a two-way street: We can be engulfed by someone and simultaneously engulf another. In a relationship where both people are engulfed, this is called enmeshment. An enmeshed relationship lacks healthy boundaries, and both partners’ emotions become intertwined. 

What Causes Engulfment?

According to research, in order to form a secure attachment, children must be confident that their caregivers can handle–and will still love them after– the occasions when they withdraw or show negative feelings. 

Secure children can separate from their caregiver without fearing abandonment and return to them without fearing engulfment. However, when their caregiver doesn’t respond to them with perceived unconditional love, or when the caregiver’s anxieties or criticisms make the child less confident in exploring their environment, the child can become engulfed. 

Negative early experiences such as these can leave the child with a fear of abandonment, low self-esteem, and a sense of loneliness and feeling misunderstood–all of which could increase the risk of experiencing engulfment in later relationships. 

Yet, early experiences aren’t always the cause of engulfment. Engulfment can also happen later in life. One clear example of this is in the case of adult carers; research shows that adult children caring for a parent with illnesses such as Alzheimer’s can lead to engulfment, resulting in less social and leisure time with friends and family and, ultimately, a loss of self.

Evidently, there isn’t just one clear-cut cause of engulfment. However, you may be more at risk of engulfment in your adult life if you experienced difficulties with your relationships as a child. So, this brings us to the potential link between engulfment and attachment theory. How do the two relate?

The Correlation Between Engulfment and Attachment Theory

Evidence suggests that some people are more likely to experience engulfment than others. Although the research into the exact link between engulfment and attachment theory is limited, it may be possible to better understand the correlation between both by looking at a similar concept we mentioned earlier: enmeshment. 

Attachment Anxiety and Engulfment

Research indicates that attachment is linked to family enmeshment. Namely, how children who experienced family enmeshment often develop an anxious attachment style. Moreover, evidence also suggests that anxiously attached people are more likely to form enmeshed families, creating a cycle of both anxious attachment and enmeshment. 

Other areas of anxious attachment may also be linked to engulfment. For example, children with an anxious attachment style are typically less likely to explore the world; they tend to stay closer to their caregivers and generally show more fear in their environment. This reluctance to explore may be related to engulfment, as the caregiver may instill fear in their child, preventing them from straying away from the caregiver-child relationship. However, more research is needed to confirm this assumption. 

Attachment Avoidance and Engulfment

Based on the previous information, there is a tenuous link between anxious attachment and engulfment–but what about avoidant attachment? Well, research looking into avoidant attachment and engulfment highlights some different findings: Avoidant attachment is most commonly associated with a fear of engulfment, not engulfment itself. 

This finding isn’t entirely surprising when we consider the main fears underlying avoidant attachment; a fear of being dependent, intimacy, and feeling trapped in a relationship. Essentially, when we think about it, this is what engulfment is. 

When it comes to disorganized attachment, the feelings towards engulfment tend to be a combination of both anxious and avoidant attachers. On some occasions, a disorganized attacher might fear love and intimacy, causing them to become overwhelmed and try to avoid engulfment. But, on other occasions, they might be driven by an intense fear of abandonment, seeking to engulf their partner to avoid this.

Hopefully, by this point,you’re clearer on the potential link between your attachment style and engulfment. But how can you know if engulfment is happening in your relationship? One way we can figure this out is by looking for the signs. 

What Are the Signs of Engulfment in a Relationship?

The signs of engulfment differ depending on whether you’re being engulfed or engulfing your partner. Let’s take a look at the signs of engulfment in both instances.

Signs That You’re Being Engulfed

When you’re being engulfed by your partner, it’s common to experience feelings of dependency, vulnerability, and inadequacy. You may feel dependent on your spouse for your happiness, particularly when you’re feeling sad, anxious, or angry. 

If you’re anxiously attached, you may also notice yourself suppressing your needs to meet those of your partner’s, which could lead to people-pleasing behaviors. One way to look out for this is when you are making a decision together; those who are engulfed might frequently find themselves saying:

  • “I don’t mind.”
  • “You choose.”
  • “Whatever you want, I’m not bothered.”

Engulfment trauma results from when engulfment has been going on for a long time. As a result of engulfment trauma, you may lose a sense of self, which could make the types of responses above more prevalent, as you may struggle to know what you want. 

If you experienced engulfment when you were younger, you might naturally suppress your “true” self. This can stem from fears of abandonment for asking for what you want or need, or that people won’t love you if you reveal your “true” self. This fear can translate into people-pleasing behaviors and presenting the side of yourself that you think your partner wants to see, increasing the risk of engulfment in your relationship. 

Signs That You’re Engulfing Your Partner

If you’re an anxious or disorganized attacher, you may find yourself attempting to engulf your partner. This can happen due to a fear of abandonment and not being good enough for the person to wish to stay in the relationship for the long-term. In such instances, engulfment can serve as a way to lock a partner down, which can help reassure us that they’re not going anywhere.

Common signs that you’re engulfing your partner are:

Feeling responsible for your partner’s emotions: The person being engulfed will often become dependent on their partner. If you’re the engulfer, this can lead to you feeling responsible for their emotions.  

Fear of abandonment: If you notice a fear of abandonment in yourself, this could be (but is not always) a sign of enmeshment. Particularly if you’re anxiously attached, a fear of abandonment could lead you to attempt to engulf your partner in order to stop them from leaving. 

Only feeling worthy when someone else depends on you: Two of the main causes of engulfment are feelings of loneliness and low self-esteem. While engulfment can have many negative consequences, it may also occasionally feel good for the engulfer, as your partner’s dependence on you can make you feel important or relied upon. 

The Effects of Engulfment on Individuals

The effects of engulfment can differ depending on your attachment style. For example, engulfment may initially provide an anxiously attached person with reassurance if their partner is dependent on them, they may feel like they’re less likely to abandon them. 

However, this positive feeling is typically short-lived. This intense dependence on one another can cause a sense of suffocation and unhappiness as you both lose a sense of your own identity and struggle to know what you want. You may also feel guilty for wanting to do anything without your partner and resentful of the dependence, which can cause unhappiness in the long run. 

For an avoidant attacher, engulfment may feel frightening, threatening, or even traumatic. Avoidant attachers are less likely to become engulfed for this reason, as they may avoid relationships when their partner attempts to engulf them.

Examples of Engulfment

Engulfment in the anxious caregiver-child relationship

A mother with an anxious attachment style may worry excessively about her child. As a result, she might watch over her child carefully, noticing their every move and trying to prevent them from hurting themselves or getting into danger. This overparenting can increase the child’s anxiety levels, causing them to believe that the world is unsafe and become overly dependent on their mother to provide safety and reassurance.

Engulfment in the critical caregiver-child relationship

A critical mother who experienced punitive caregiving from her parents may watch her child’s actions very closely, directing them to do everything a certain way. If her child doesn’t meet these expectations, she takes over and does it for them instead of helping them to learn how to do it. This often causes the child to become dependent on their critical mother and develop inner beliefs that they’re “not good enough” and incapable of doing anything correctly.

Engulfment in a romantic relationship

This might arise from a situation such as relocating to move in with your partner. When you move, you leave your friends and family behind and don’t know anyone other than your partner where you now live. You used to do your hobbies and interests with your friends, so all of a sudden, you stop doing these, too. It feels like you and your partner do everything together, and you’re not sure what you enjoy doing anymore.

Engulfment as an adult carer

This form of engulfment could result from caring for a caregiver who has recently fallen ill. They need a lot of support, requiring constant care, so you begin to notice that you have less time to see your friends and have less “me time.” As your caring role increases, you may be unable to go to work or do anything besides your caring duties.

How to Break Free From Engulfment

When you’re in the midst of engulfment in your relationship, it may feel like there’s no way out. But don’t fret–below, we explore 5 ways to break free from engulfment. 

1. Get to Know Your Attachment Style

When we understand our early attachment experiences and how they influence our daily thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, we can begin to address and change these. 

If you’re anxiously attached, think about your fear of abandonment. Where does it come from? How does this feed into your current relationships? 

If you’re avoidantly attached, consider your fear of intimacy and dependence. What early experiences do this relate to? And how is it preventing you from experiencing healthy intimacy now?

2. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Whether you’re the engulfer or the one being engulfed, communication is a vital step to break free from engulfment.

If you’re the engulfer, tell your partner your fears. Communicating can automatically make you less likely to act on these worries, which can reduce your drive to engulf. 

If you’re the person being engulfed, communicate how you feel with your partner. As fear of abandonment is often deep-rooted in our early experiences, your partner may not be aware that they’re craving engulfment. To do this, use “I” statements, such as “I feel that I have become dependent on you” or “I feel guilty for doing anything by myself.” This reduces blaming, which can make your partner less likely to feel hurt or defensive.

3. Begin Doing Things Just For You

Engulfment can reduce your independence, making you less likely to do things just for you. If you’ve experienced engulfment for a long time, you might not know what you want to do or what you like.

However, taking small steps to do things just for you can help you break free from engulfment. Start by reconnecting with hobbies and activities you used to be interested in, even if it’s been a long time since you did these. Then, consider journaling as a way to get back in touch with your feelings and interests. You could jot down what brought you joy each day, what interested you, and what activities made you feel more alive.

But remember, regaining your independence after engulfment can be a slow process, so be patient with yourself. Remember to celebrate the small wins as you go along.

4. Set Boundaries and Stick to Them

Boundaries are an important part of being independent and having our needs met in a relationship. Therefore, to overcome engulfment in your relationship, you need to establish boundaries. 

Here are some examples of healthy boundaries to break free from engulfment:

  • Time to pursue your own interests
  • Personal space
  • Open communication
  • Occasionally seeing friends on your own
  • Independence to pursue hobbies and interests

It’s important to note that these are just examples. Boundaries look different for everyone, so consider what’s important to you and communicate your boundaries with your partner.

5. Heal from Engulfment Trauma in Therapy

Therapy can help us to understand how our early experiences can feed into our current thoughts and behaviors. While you can explore this on your own, a therapist will help you to uncover the experiences and emotions that sit outside of your conscious awareness.

A healthy relationship with your therapist can also give you an idea of what healthy boundaries look like–a lesson you can use in your other relationships.

Final Words on Engulfment and Attachment Theory

Engulfment can leave us feeling dependent, vulnerable, and like we don’t know who we are anymore. However, you may be at a lower risk of engulfment, depending on your attachment style. 

Using what we know about attachment styles and the limited research that exists on engulfment, we can deduce that those with an anxious attachment style may be more at risk of engulfment in later relationships. In contrast, avoidant attachers are typically less likely to experience engulfment because of a fear of intimacy and dependence. 

Whether you’re the engulfer or the person being engulfed, this intense immersement can have a big impact on your thoughts, feelings, and self-esteem. But there’s a way out: Through getting to know your attachment style, communicating openly and honestly, beginning to do things just for you, setting boundaries, and through therapy, you can break free from engulfment. 

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