Fear of engulfment in an intimate relationship

Please subscribe to Coach Vaillant newsletter for new exclusive content

Differentiating fear of engulfment with codependency and trauma bonding

Codependency is different from fear of engulfment. Codependent people have no sense of self, and have an extreme focus on others as a result. They are needy, terrified of being alone, and cannot function on their own. They have no autonomy. They want people in their lives not because they love them but because they cannot exist as an independent being. They can have anxious attachment though it is not always the case.

Trauma bonding came from bonding with an abusive parent or caretaker. The child had to face constant invalidation of their feelings. Borderline personality disorder and disorganized attachment develop as a result. It is different from fear of engulfment because the person wants to stay attached to their abuser though they may be terrified and resentful. It follows the “I hate you, don’t leave me” pattern. They may have been the scapegoat in a family dynamic.

So what is fear of engulfment?

Fear of engulfment is the fear of getting controlled by the romantic partner or losing yourself in the relationship. It is a very strong fear of being swallowed by the partner. Fear of engulfment comes from enmeshment trauma and acts as a major obstacle in intimate relationships. Their attachment style is the avoidant. They are often over independent or self-reliant as they are so afraid on relying on others to get their needs met. It is difficult for them to receive from other people as they do not want to owe anything in return. They are terrified of trapped-indebtedness. They are suspicious of other people initially as they are perceived as dangerous. They live their intimate relationship in their head instead of their heart. They compare and have often impossible high standards for their partner who can never be enough. They see their partner as someone restricting their freedom. They are overwhelmed by being responsible for someone else’s feelings as they were taught it was their job to fix if their loved one was unhappy, even if it means we are losing ourselves in the process. They are confused between self-love and selfishness so carry a lot of shame about taking care of themselves in a nurturing way. As a result, they often do what they do not want to do in a relationship and resent it later. These people have often a compulsive need to succeed to compensate for the lack of love and connection in their life. They desperately need to prove to themselves that they are lovable and worthy and external success is a way they reassure themselves. They experience a form of social isolation and spend less time than others in social settings. As a result, they get less feedback than others about social clues and develop personality quirks that are often socially inappropriate. Because they were the Golden Child, they experience emotions as an adult that are polar opposites: talented and worthless, blessed and cursed, favored and picked on. As soon as someone wants something from him, his terror of losing himself is activated, and he automatically resists his partner. He does not even think of asking himself if he wants to do whatever the other person wants from him or if it is in his highest good. He just resists. He resists because not being controlled is more important to him than anything. Not being controlled is more important than being loved. The irony is that he is being controlled by his obsession of not being controlled.

The fear of engulfment hides a fear of rejection and abandonment

In truth, the avoidant avoids himself before he avoids others. When the avoidant shuts down to others, it is just a reflection of his inner walls because he is so afraid of being hurt again. He doesn’t want to attach to someone special because he is so afraid of the pain of separation. However, if he doesn’t attach, the relationship is doomed so he keeps experiencing abandonment which comforts him in his conviction that attaching is dangerous. This becomes a vicious cycle. It seems counter intuitive that the Golden (Chosen) Child would feel unlovable however being enmeshed with one parent often provokes the resentment of the other parent and siblings. The avoidant is so afraid of being rejected that he would rather take care of all his needs himself. He makes it impossible for others to provide for him and cater for his needs. He feels threatened by intimacy because of his fear of rejection and getting badly hurt in the process. This connects to childhood trauma. Like everyone, he wants to be loved but he has decided that love is too dangerous. When someone gets too close to him, he gives up on his desire to be loved because he sees it as the only possibility not to get hurt. He shuts down the part of himself that is starving for intimacy. He doesn’t believe his heart is resilient enough to recover and learn from a break-up.

Resulting relationship issues

The adult Golden Child who defended against the invasive parent by
building a wall will not let in their spouse. The love avoidant is typically attracted to the love anxious because she represents his disowned self: the insecure child that had to disconnect not to face the pain of rejection. The partner feels unloved, rejected and uncared for. When they become too starved emotionally, they just leave the relationship. They are often attracted to self-centered partners as well. This is their way of re-creating unconsciously the dynamics of the parent-child relationship. These partners will reflect that other people’s needs are more important than their own, another trauma from their childhood. Or they may attract someone who is just as inattentive and emotionally unavailable as they are so that they may experience what it feels to be with someone who is guarded. It may be very difficult for anyone of their partners to match with their enmeshed parent who is idolized. No one is good enough compared to mum or dad. The favored parent replays the same dynamic in return to show that no partner will ever have a closer relationship than they have. The avoidant is prone to have affairs as it fulfills his desire for physical intimacy and ego rubbing without any emotional commitment. He is very critical of his mates as this allows him not to become too close to them. He always believes there is another better option, someone more beautiful, younger, smarter or wealthier.

What are the childhood traumas that created the fear of engulfment?

Girl Hiding in Corner

I was deeply enmeshed with my mother as a child. She had deep abandonment traumas because she was raised in the foster care system. I was parentified to meet all of her emotional needs. I was the Golden Child. Then, when I was 9, she left me behind to start a new life and I was left with my absent father for 18 months. Considering this background, this is no surprise that I have had such a hard time with the fear of engulfment in my romantic life. We become intimacy phobic when intimacy and closeness were associated with pain in the past. As the Golden Child, we learn to deny our own needs to the benefit of our parent. We understand that our parent’s life is better when we ask for nothing and our parent feels better because they believe they have risen a model child. Here are some of the signs that you were enmeshed:

  • The child is a source of emotional support for the parent, and is the parent’s best friend
  • The parent shares age inappropriate information with the child
  • The parent says in confidence that he is the favorite, most talented of lovable child
  • The child connection with other children is discouraged
  • The child feels guilty when he spends too much time away from the parent
  • The child unique and positive qualities are not reinforced
  • The child independence is discouraged
  • They are very porous boundaries between the child and the adult
  • One parent was chronically lonely, angry or depressed
  • The parents live an isolated life with few friends
  • The child feels responsible for the parent
  • The child is parentified
  • The parent is over-involved in the child’s life
  • The parent pretends to be self-sacrificing
  • The child is not provided with a structure and limits that guaranties his safety
  • The parent is incapable of taking care of his adult needs
  • One or both parents had substance abuse problems
  • The boyfriend of girlfriend is never good enough for the parent
  • The parents were divorced, widowed or did not get along
  • There was a lack of money that caused parents and children to stay home with each other more than it is healthy

In summary, the parent is ignoring the needs of the child. The parent uses the child to satisfy needs that should be met instead by other adults – romance, companionship, intimacy, advice, problem solving and ego fulfillment. Children cannot handle that much psychological pressure as they are not equipped to fulfill adults’ intimacy needs. When the parent says “You are such an easy child”, it is meant “Don’t feel any negative emotions”. When the parent says “You are so special”, it is meant “Be what I need you to be. I have needs you have to satisfy”. Their future love life will suffer immensely as a result. The child is not given the attention he needs to grow-up as a healthy emotional being. There is simply not enough adequate protection, guidance, structure, affection, nurturing and discipline. Their development stops and they get stuck in a narcissist stage of development. The cycle of disconnection continues as we treat our loved ones as we were once treated. Because the enmeshed relationship is all-encompassing, we recreate the need for this intense fusion at the beginning of the relationship that quickly erodes to meet with resistance.

Solutions to break away from enmeshment

Because the enmeshment started with the parent-child relationship, we need to realign our relationship with our parents. The relationship with our parents is very important because it influences the rest of our relationships. We need to relate to our parents from our adult part rather than the child in us that feels controlled. We set clear boundaries with our parents when it is necessary without feeling overly disappointed if they fail to honor them. We become objective about who they are, their qualities but also their shortcomings. We accept them as they are without compromising ourselves in the process. We are supportive but not to our detriment. We stop blaming them for our difficulties as we empower ourselves to make the necessary changes in our lives. We understand that the aspects in them that trigger us the most, are the ones that caused the most psychological damage in us. They also trigger us the most because they mirror unsavory aspects of us that we are too ashamed to see.

If we have children, we can deprogram the enmeshment by raising our children differently. We keep reassuring our child of our unconditional love. We refuse all forms of emotional manipulation through guilt or coercion. We may use the Love and Logic educational method instead to encourage them to take good and positive actions. We do not hesitate to apologize and explain why when we make mistakes as parents. We practice what we preach. We only share with them information that they can handle given their age and maturity. We encourage their independence without making them feel pushed away. We respect their free will without giving up on our important responsibilities as a parent.

The most important work we can do is however with our romantic partner. We commit to an authentic relationship where we overcome our shame to express our true feelings in a constructive way. We transcend our fear of rejection to be truthful. We face the guilt of hurting our partner by sharing our authentic truth. We are attuned and compassionate in the process, not cold and disconnected. We express our boundaries with clarity and in the most gentle way. We refuse any form of manipulation and calculation for our own little benefit. We make space for the aspects of us that are afraid of intimacy and we explore the traumas and the hurt that are behind. This will catalyze our healing. We treat the other person as we would like to be treated. We commit to listen to our own feelings, and to listen to this inner compass no matter what the consequences may be.

Your ideal partner is the one that represents your repressed inner child. Instead of shutting them down as we have done in our early life to survive emotionally, we reverse the process to celebrate them. We give them everything our inner child did not receive. By loving them this way, this immature part that is the seat of our soul can grow again. Then we can become whole and wake up to a life that feels good.