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Narcissistic Abuse and Codependency: Breaking the Enmeshment Cycle

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Being partnered with an abuser can be as disorienting as it is devastating, creating challenges that are not always immediately apparent.

Victims of narcissistic abuse, subjected to varying levels of manipulation and control, often find themselves slipping into patterns of codependency, defined as maintaining a relationship that is one-sided or abusive in nature.[1]

Such interactions can set the stage for a relationship that perpetuates self-neglect. Recognizing the signs of unhealthy relational patterns can help you break the cycle.

What is Codependency?

Codependency is a complex and often subtle pattern of behavior that involves an excessive reliance on others for your validation, self-worth, and a sense of identity. It’s characterized by an intense desire to please, fix, or rescue others, even at the expense of one’s own well-being. Codependent individuals often prioritize others’ needs over their own, which can result in a skewed sense of self and an unbalanced relationship dynamic.[2]

At its core, codependency often arises from a person’s fear of rejection, abandonment, or conflict.[3] This fear drives individuals to mold themselves into what they believe others want them to be rather than embracing their truest, most authentic selves, leading to feelings of emptiness, anxiety, and an overwhelming need for external validation.

Codependency can have several points of origin, including upbringing, family dynamics, and past traumas. It’s also important to note that codependency is not limited to romantic relationships—it can also manifest in friendships, family dynamics, and professional settings.

What is Enmeshment?

Enmeshment is a complex aspect of codependency that revolves around blurred or nonexistent boundaries within relationships. In an enmeshed relationship, both parties struggle to distinguish where their own thoughts, emotions, and needs begin and end, leading to a merging of identities and ongoing need to define themselves by one another.

This phenomenon can be particularly pronounced in codependent and abusive relationships, where the desire to please others and gain approval can lead to a loss of individuality.

Enmeshment often involves a high degree of emotional dependence on the other person, with each individual relying on the other to fulfill emotional and psychological needs.[4] This can result in a sense of incompleteness when apart, as well as heightened anxiety and insecurity.

Signs of Enmeshment

  • Lack of independence: Difficulty making decisions or pursuing personal interests without seeking the other person’s approval or input.
  • Emotional matching: Experiencing intense emotional highs and lows directly linked to the other person’s emotional state and outlook.
  • A loss of identity: Feeling as though your sense of self is intertwined with the other person’s identity, making it hard to define who you are outside of the relationship.
  • Constant togetherness: Spending an excessive amount of time together, to the point where you feel uncomfortable or anxious when apart.
  • A limited social circle: Having few or no relationships outside of the relationship in question.
  • Difficulty setting boundaries and saying no: Struggling to establish and maintain healthy boundaries between yourself and the other person or difficulty saying no to the other’s requests.
  • Neglecting your personal needs: Setting aside your own needs, desires, and goals to prioritize the other person’s well-being.
  • Always feeling responsible: Assuming the role of caretaker or fixer, often feeling responsible for the other person’s happiness.
  • An inability to disagree: Avoiding disagreements or conflicts at all costs, fearing that expressing differing opinions will lead to rejection, abandonment, or further abuse.

Is Enmeshment Abuse?

Enmeshment is not necessarily abuse in and of itself, though it can absolutely be a function or result of an abusive relationship.

Abuse involves a pattern of behaviors aimed at exerting power and control over another person, including intentional harm, manipulation, and verbal/emotional/physical/sexual abuse.[5] Abuse is characterized by a disregard for the other person’s well-being and autonomy, with the primary goal of maintaining dominance. Narcissistic abusers often attempt to validate their own self-worth by minimizing others.[6]

The blurred boundaries and dependency issues within an enmeshed relationship can make it difficult for individuals to recognize such abusive behaviors and prioritize their own well-being.

How to Break the Enmeshment Cycle

Breaking free from the enmeshment cycle requires a deliberate, committed effort to reclaim your autonomy, foster your individuality, and establish new and healthy boundaries. Here are some steps you can take to untangle yourself from enmeshment and heal from narcissistic abuse and codependency:

  • Make time for self-reflection: Recognize the signs of enmeshment and acknowledge its impact on your life. Consider your needs, desires, and ideal boundaries in a relationship, and determine how well they match your current situation.
  • Seek professional support: Consider working with a licensed, experienced therapist to help you better understand your situation and help you gain new insights to navigate the process.
  • Work on setting clear boundaries: Practice saying “no” and prioritizing your own needs.
  • Cultivate your interests: Reconnect with hobbies, interests, and passions that may have gone by the wayside to rebuild a sense of self outside your relationship.
  • Develop your support network: Cultivate new or previous relationships with friends and family that encourage your growth and well-being.
  • Practice self-care: Prioritize routines that nurture your physical, emotional, and mental well-being.
  • Set new personal goals: Set and pursue personal goals that align with your values and aspirations to grow your sense of purpose and independence.
  • Practice internal validation: Develop new self-validation affirmations that empower you to recognize your worth without needing external approval.
  • Be patient with yourself: Breaking the enmeshment cycle is a journey that takes both time and effort. Be sure to give yourself some grace as you navigate the process.

Frequently Asked Questions About Narcissistic Abuse, Codependency, and Enmeshment

What is the connection between narcissistic abuse and codependency?

Narcissistic abuse can often lead to codependency due to the manipulative tactics utilized by the abuser.

Victims of narcissistic abuse may develop a heightened desire to please and appease their abuser, sacrificing their own needs and well-being in the process. This dynamic can create an ongoing cycle where the victim’s sense of self becomes enmeshed with the abuser’s needs and demands, fostering codependent behaviors.

Can enmeshment become abusive?

Enmeshment can create an environment where abusive behaviors are more likely to occur. Enmeshment blurs boundaries and encourages dependency, making it difficult for individuals to recognize and protect themselves from potentially abusive behaviors. Enmeshment can also enable unhealthy power dynamics that facilitate emotional manipulation and control.

How do I know if I’m in an enmeshed relationship?

Signs of an enmeshed relationship include difficulty making decisions independently, emotional highs and lows that mirror the other person’s emotions, feeling incomplete without the other person, and frequently sacrificing personal goals for the sake of the relationship.

If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialists can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.

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About the Author: Eliza Eich is the founder of the Lark app, an app that helps those experiencing emotional abuse, psychological abuse, narcissistic abuse, and other types of abuse break the trauma bond, regain their strength and sense of self, and heal.


  1. [1] Rosenberg, R. (2022, September 12). The dance between codependents and Narcissists. Counseling Today. https://ct.counseling.org/2014/03/the-dance-between-codependents-and-narcissists/ on August 28th, 2023
  2. [2] MediLexicon International. (n.d.). Codependent relationships: Symptoms, warning signs, and behavior. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319873 on August 28th, 2023
  3. [3] Codependency. Mental Health America. (n.d.). https://www.mhanational.org/co-dependency on August 28th, 2023
  4. [4] Coe, J. L., Davies, P. T., & Sturge-Apple, M. L. (2018, April). Family cohesion and enmeshment moderate associations between maternal relationship instability and children’s externalizing problems. Journal of family psychology : JFP : journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5926812/ on August 28th, 2023
  5. [5] Understand relationship abuse. The Hotline. (2023, June 30). https://www.thehotline.org/identify-abuse/understand-relationship-abuse/ on August 28th, 2023
  6. [6] Nevicka, B., De Hoogh, A. H. B., Den Hartog, D. N., & Belschak, F. D. (2018, March 14). Narcissistic leaders and their victims: Followers low on self-esteem and low on core self-evaluations suffer most. Frontiers. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00422/full on August 28th, 2023

Photo by Odonata Wellnesscenter: https://www.pexels.com/photo/man-and-woman-sitting-on-sidewalk-226166/

The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios.

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