Active Rester

Difference versus Enmeshment in relationship: The “active rester” versus the “passive rester”.

One of the things I pay attention to in couples is something we call “Enmeshment”.

Enmeshment is where one or both parties become or believe they have to become like the other to be acceptable and to have a happy relationship. It can start off with the well-meaning ideas of compromise and making the other person happy. However, enmeshment is really unhealthy for the individual and for the relationship.

Take Joanne and Luke (not their real names). Luke is a busy guy. He likes to have lot’s of things going on keeping him challenged and filling his time. He works hard in his job, runs and organises kids’ clubs and has hobbies he likes to pursue. Growing up he received a strong message in his family that doing nothing was being lazy. Active resting was the only acceptable and “right” way.

Joanne on the other hand is an artist and like most artists, she needs to do nothing to allow the creativity to flow. However, over the many years of her marriage to Luke, she has got the strong message that doing nothing is not ok. He makes comments to her and their girls that are often critical and judging.

So, over the years she has tried to become more like Luke (enmeshment) to be more acceptable to him. However, it is not her natural way or her rhythm. So, she has finally reached a point of burnout. Detaching herself from her natural way to be more like Luke has left her feeling detached from herself and she feels adrift, ungrounded, unsettled, depressed and anxious. This also leads to feelings of detachment in the relationship because only two differentiated individuals can connect when there is someone “other” to connect to.

Many people find themselves in this situation, so desperate to feel connected, make their partner happy and be pleasing to their partner that they change who they are for them. But we must remember that our partners fell in love with us. Unless they are narcissistic or abusive, they are not looking to be in a relationship with a reflection of themselves, they wanted us, who we showed up as when we first started dating.

We must remember that one person’s way is not the only way, there isn’t one right way. We each have our own rhythms, emotional and biological needs that work best for our bodies and minds. I reminded Joanne of this. That Luke’s way is active resting (although, this may have been conditioned by his family so he could have his own work to do to see if it is truly his way), she needs to do things differently and that is ok.

We discussed the different ways of resting and the need to listen to our bodies as a guide. We discussed the ancient wisdom passed down generation about rest from meditation and how highly productive and successful people talk about it as the most life-changing thing they have discovered (I recommend Tim Ferris’s book Tribe of Mentors to hear the many examples of this). They see how doing nothing on a regular basis is a necessary part of being able to stay grounded, motivated, energised, clear in their thinking, and happy.

Other ancient religious practices also view rest as so vital that it is a commandment. For example, the Bible and Torah command a day of rest each week. They also say that fields should not be planted every seventh year, allowing the soil to rest and recuperate the mineral content. Our own biological make-up forces us to rest every day with sleep.

For some people, doing nothing for a time is doing everything they need to be doing for that time. They are re-grounding, reconnecting with themselves, others and nature. They are taking stock and dreaming up the next stage of their lives, coming up with ideas, exploring their options. It is usually time-limited too. Whether it is the 30 minutes of meditating or a year sabbatical, it is a productive time re-centring, re-energising, finding their new goal, figuring out their path forward. This is different from being lazy and entitled. Living off others’ hard work, but it is hard sometimes for those around to see that there is anything going on and can be particularly hard for partners who feel like they are left carrying the financial or emotional weight of the family.

For the productive active “rester”, it can be hard to comprehend how doing nothing is doing something especially if their partner isn’t keeping them up to date with where they are at if they have taken a long break. It is important that these partners understand and accept that their way is not the “right way”, it’s just different. Their partners need to understand that pushing the “passive rester” into their way (active resting), judging, or criticising them will just cause their partner more stress which will require more rest and/or they will eventually burn out, forgetting who they were and have to take a long journey back to finding themselves to be happy and relaxed again. The ”active rester” fell in love with the happy relaxed partner, so pushing their partner to be more like them defeats their own happiness too.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the “passive rester” can slack on their responsibilities. Households still need to be run, parenting still must happen, income still needs to be earned. However, when there are times to rest in the busyness of life, it must be allowed to happen, guilt-free. Gaps in busyness should not be seen as free time to get something done. Having an undercurrent of “we should be doing more” all the time is exhausting for many. However, if you are one of the people it is energising for, great, go for it, achieve, and challenge yourself all you want as much as you want, but keep it in your lane. Don’t pressure or judge others for resting and doing nothing.

Joanne and Luke have some work to do to understand accept each other’s rhythms without trying to adapt to the other persons' way or judge the other person into changing to their way. The first step is to recognise there is no one right way only the way that works for you and you keep that in your lane because it is your way.

This is, however, just one of the many ways we become “enmeshed” in relationships. There are many other ways from taking on the other persons political and religious beliefs, sports teams, and music taste, to day to day things of how things get done around the house or communication styles, or dreams and goals.

Take a moment to check in with yourself. Have you changed things about yourself to please the other person? How is that working for you? Has it been a great growth area and your partner has inspired you to learn something new you were happy to learn or change, or has it closed down a part of yourself leaving you feeling stressed, anxious or drained with the effort it takes to keep it up?