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Disentangle: When You've Lost Yourself in Someone Else


Please explain the title of your book. What do you mean by “disentangle”?


I’ll start by telling you how this book came to be. One day as a client was leaving my office she stopped and said, “Nancy, I understand what you are saying when you suggest I get some emotional distance from my husband. But how do you do that?”


That question and my response prompted me to write her a brief list of ideas of how to do that. That list eventually became a handout and ultimately this book.


As I say in the very beginning of the book, disentangling is not necessarily about leaving/ending/divorcing a relationship. It is about how to get some emotional distance from the other person so that we can think and see and have a better connection with our self so that we can make healthier decisions about what is best for us.


When we are entangled we are losing our very connection with our self. We become so preoccupied with the other person and our efforts to engage them or change them or fix them in some way that, as someone recently said to me, “We have no life.”


Can you give us some examples of relationships that need to disentangle?


First I will say that I am not trying to say who is and who is not entangled. For a wide variety of reasons, different balances of self and other work for different people.


The material in my book is for individuals who are finding that they are not doing well in their relationship with someone else. Perhaps they very frustrated with someone else. Perhaps they are exhausted from taking care of someone else. Perhaps they want to do something especially for themselves and are being discouraged or not allowed to do so.

Perhaps they want to “have a life” and have no idea what that would look like.


So with that said, classic examples of entanglements might be:


- The partner of an addict feeling responsible for their partner’s use or their recovery.

- Someone who stays in an abusive relationship believing they can change or fix it.

- Someone who takes care of others to the extent that they have nothing for themselves.

- Someone who is over-controlling of others.


One of the ways I like to put this is that entanglements involve us over-functioning in someone else’s life.


Family relationships are the most important, and often the most volatile relationships we have. How can we tell that we are becoming entangled in a family dynamic?


First I want to say that disentangling is not referring to situations in which abuse or danger is present. Those situations require clear and direct actions on our part. None of the material in Disentangle is about how to live in abusive or harmful situations.


With that said, as we look at our family dynamics, we may be becoming entangled if we:


- Are very preoccupied with the other person.

- If we are dropping things we need to do, places to be, opportunities of our own to help, handle, or manage the other person.

- If we are protecting the other person from the natural consequences of their actions.

- If we are alienating our self from others by driving them away by our controllingness.

- If we are feeling extra depressed or anxious because of our failed efforts to control something we can not control.


What’s the difference between being very involved with a person versus being entangled in an unhealthy way?


I’ll talk formal psychology here for a moment:


In our field, we consider things to be a problem if they cause subjective distress or interfere with social and/or occupational functioning. I like this way of thinking about when a problem exists or not.


Subjective distress means that the person may be feeling some unhappy, uncomfortable feelings. They may be worried, frustrated, or unhappy. They may actually be anxious or depressed in response to their situation with another person.


Interference with functioning may be that they can not get to school or work. They may not be able to complete their daily tasks. They may be spending money they don’t have or letting go of good friendships because of their over-involvement with someone else.


Healthy involvement with others means that we are not experiencing these problems I just described. Healthy involvement does not make us emotionally sick or cause us to have problems with work or with other relationships.


Unhealthy involvement with someone has us preoccupied with someone else to the extent that we are not paying attention to our self, also, and taking care of our own very needs and feelings. Strong emotions may be present for us as well as persistent, intrusive behaviors to manage or control the other.

I can remember being with someone who talked for 30 minutes about their concerns about a number of other people, never pausing to shift the focus to themselves. I then asked them to pause and to offer me some sentences in which they did not mention the name nor refer to anyone else in their sentences other than their self. They found this very hard to do.


You use the word “detachment” to affirm that we are not responsible for the “other’s” issues. But when we are responsible for another (such as a child), should we really be detaching from them? How can we determine the proper time to detach?


I would like to answer this question by first giving you a mental picture of how I think about healthy and unhealthy relationships.


I like to work with circles. I think of each person as being a circle. Each person or circle represents that person’s self.


Enmeshed relationships are where the two circles, representing two people, overlap almost completely. There is almost no differentiation between the two people, and in an enmeshed relationship, they stay locked this way, both persons contributing to this.


Alienated relationships are represented by the two circles not intersecting at all, not having shared space where the circles overlap to even some degree.


In a Healthy relationship, the two circles or two individuals are free to come together and to overlap as they mutually agree upon. Similarly, they are free to separate themselves some from the other as is healthy for them to do. There is a mutual give-and-take, a flow that respects both self and the other person.


I have most often used this mental picture with adult-to-adult relationships, but it certainly applies to raising our children.


When they are young, the circles of the child and of the parent are importantly very overlapping. We are protecting them, nourishing them, and helping them to grow. They require our involvement in order to become healthy individuals. As they become older and move toward becoming their own person, the circle of the child and that of the parent will naturally go through a process of less and less overlapping, encouraging more independence and a healthy self for the child and a healthy, individuated self for the parent.


So to answer your question, the use of detachment in parenting requires that we consider a couple of things. One is timing. The age and developmental level of the child will help us to know when to start the process of detaching. And the second thing to consider is what are we detaching from? There are actually layers of things from which to detach. As parents there are many things that we need to ask of our children even through their teenage years. Those are things we have to stick with requiring of them. What we may find we need to detach from is whether the child or teen does what we ask with the spirit and speed and specifics with which we want them to do it – whatever it is that we are asking of them. Our tangles can come from wanting them to love doing their homework as much as we used to love doing our homework or from wanting them to have their room as organized as we have our kitchen.


We are all, in fact, individuals with important differences in self and style.


Happily married couples often seem very tied up emotionally? What are warning signs that these couples may need to create more emotional distance from one another?


Again, this work is not about saying who is and who is not entangled. If a couple is happily married and emotionally close, this does not sound like a relationship that is entangled. If there is mutuality in this happy relationship, then they are likely good-to-go.


Emotional distance may need to be created, though, if at least one of the partners feels:

- Over-powered by the relationship.

- Over-controlled by the other person.

- Afraid in the relationship.

- Unable to listen to and respond to their self in the relationship.

- Not respected by the other person.

- Has no time for them self.

- Thinks about the other all the time and wonders/worries what the other is doing.

- Has no idea what to do when the other person is not available to them.


Work relationships are especially dicey, especially when you are entangled with a person who is your superior. How can you disentangle without threatening your livelihood?


There is no doubt that the workplace is a great place to get entangled and to practice disentangling. The workplace is full of things we can and can not control and challenges us constantly to sort in this way.


If work entanglements involve unfair treatment, unethical behaviors, or important miscommunications, it is necessary for us to listen to our self and then assert our self as far in the system as we can, understanding the limits of what is in our control.


Changes in the workplace will either then happen or not. And we are left to decide if we stay or go.


If we listen to our self and our situation and know we can not live with whatever it is that concerns us at work, then we may choose to go.


If we choose to stay, then we do best to return our focus to our own work and keep our attention there, doing the best job we can on what are our assignments.


Please explain your advice to act, not react.


When we are entangled, we are likely in a reactive mode. The other person says or does something and without hardly any thought or space, we volley back at them with our impulsive words and dictates, often saying things we later regret.


When we apply some of the tools of disentangling, we are able to create a space, a buffer zone between what the other person said or did and what we then said or did. We emotionally pause and learn to watch and listen to both them and our self. And then we figure out what we honestly want to say or do in response. We are figuring out how we want to act. We are able to be intentional and true to our self.


We may not be able to do this on the spot. We may have to excuse our self, collect our self, and proceed from there in order to really know how we want to respond to the other person.


Please explain how the 12-step program can help with disentanglement.


The 12-step programs are wonderful, helpful, life-changing programs that have much of their work centered on the Serenity Prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.


Entanglements very often are caused by us trying to control something we can not control. Usually, in this case, this is another person. Whether we are trying to change them, fix them, or get them to love us, we are into territory that is not ours to control.


And at the same time, we are not controlling what we can which is our self. In fact, it is likely we have even lost track of our self.


Al-Anon, Codependents Anonymous, and Adult Children of Alcoholics are 12-step programs that are especially good for people tangled in their relationships.


What is the first thing a person should do when he or she realizes that they are contributing to an unhealthy and entangled relationship?


They might well start looking at and listening to their self ; learning to find out what is true for them.

* * *


Whatever interaction has thrown us off, confused us, or devastated us, we are always working to anchor back within and to our self.

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