Love Lingers Here: Intimate Enduring Relationships. X. Forming a Relationship
Enmeshment and Disengagement
Family psychologists would identify the relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy as “enmeshed”—in contrast to relationships in which there is virtually no interaction between the couple, which are identified as “disengaged.” Initially, most relationships are rather heavily enmeshed. In essence, when we fall in love we tend to move backwards in terms of our own way of functioning in the world. Psychologists describe this as the process of “regression.” However, this is a good form of regression (called “regression in the service of the ego”) that parallels the regression occurring in acts of creativity, inspiration, spiritual reflection and many forms of psychological healing.
The initial enmeshment or regression’ helps build the fire and engage the mystery in any relationship, as well as providing wonderful material for the couple’s founding story. We must always protect and feed the deep fantasies that are to be found in each partner’s recollections as well as joint recollection of these forming experiences. Later, couples typically become somewhat more disengaged as the reality of their individual needs and differences set in. Boundaries must be established in part so that each partner can get on with their own individual life in conjunction with their life together. Some disengagement is
Inevitable—unless, of course, a couple wants to reenact Heathcliff and Cathy!
These concepts about enmeshment and disengagement make sense when one is looking back upon a relationship that has gone through many different stages and transformation. We can look back with some detached wisdom and insight—and with wistful nostalgia—at the excitement, passion and of this infatuation and first stage of love. But what does it feel like when one is in the midst of this enthralling stage? With the help of Dorothy Tennov’s description of “limerence” (the experience of falling in love) and the stories told by the people we interviewed, several principle phenomena come clearly to the fore.
First, when we fall in love, everything else takes a back seat. Dan was unable to concentrate on the conference he was to lead after meeting Mary. Second, we long for the other person’s affections when we fall in love. We are highly vulnerable and tend to be guarded in displaying our own feelings of love and our own true self. An elaborate dance of hide and seek takes place. Old ghosts tend to be resurrected when we fall in love — especially in our adult years. We enter each relationship (hopefully) with greater wisdom, but the experience of falling in love becomes increasingly painful, for it evokes images of former loves, both successful and disastrous. The act of falling in love is accompanied also by a great intensity of all feelings: sexual, aesthetic, emotional, spiritual Everything become more vivid and intense, especially when we are in the presence of our loved one.