The many faces of emotional fusion
Joe and Stephanie are stuck in constant fighting. Regardless of the issue, the pattern is always the same. Each partner tries to get the other person to agree with his/her point of view which usually results in them being locked in a power struggle. They cannot make any joint decisions and blame each other for being stubborn and uncompromising.
Laura tells me that she finds it hard to sustain friendships because people are so selfish. The problem is not making new friends as she is pleasing and accommodating to their wishes, initially at least. Over time however, her friendships become a ‘one-way street’ at the expense of having her own needs met. Strong feelings of resentment eventually lead her to cut off the unsatisfactory relationship.
Sharon and Mark, a couple who have been married for twenty years are seeking couples therapy in an attempt to salvage their relationship. Sharon says that she’s sick and tired of being Mark’s nurse maid. Five years ago, Mark lost his job and started drinking heavily to cope with the stress and hasn’t stopped since. He has little motivation to find employment or to engage in activities. At the time of Mark’s job loss, Sharon stepped up, taking over his responsibilities and finds she has continued to do so. In fact, the more she does, the less Mark does. She has scolded, pleaded and threatened in an effort to get him to make changes but without success. Mark says, “I guess I’m just a hopeless case…”.
At first glance, It would seem that the above three scenarios have nothing in common. However a closer look will reveal that these scenarios present versions of the same problem. Although expressed in different ways, the individuals in all three scenarios are struggling with ‘emotional fusion’.
Emotional fusion describes a way of relating or a state of emotional merging of individuals which often results in excessive attachment, manipulation, and reactivity. According to Murray Bowen, a psychiatrist and founder of Bowen Family Systems Theory, humans are pulled by two primary psychological drives—the desire for togetherness and the desire for autonomy. He claimed that emotional fusion is the by-product of a failure to achieve a healthy balance, resulting in too much togetherness or too much separateness.
Fusion exists in families, in groups, and in pairs, especially intensely in romantic/marital pairs or parent-child pairs and occurs mainly at an unconscious level. When two people are emotionally fused, they become one, emotionally and functionally. Individual choices are set aside in the service of achieving harmony which enables people avoid the anxiety of feeling separate. However, without sufficient emotional separation, neither person can maintain a grounded and empowered sense of self within the relationship.
Origin of emotional fusion - how does it develop?
Emotional fusion with one’s family of origin often produces the tendency or need to become emotionally fused with others in future relationships. Because children are highly dependent on their parents, it is natural for them to focus excessively on tuning into, and accommodating their care-givers’ needs. As they develop, it is natural and healthy for them to gain more independence, both in action and thought. The desire to accommodate and avoid disappointing a parent and the drive toward independence is normal. But if these two drives are not allowed to co-exist (which occurs when a parent unconsciously or consciously tries to suppress their child’s need for emotional and mental separation) the child becomes emotionally fused to the parent and is unable to function autonomously. Feeling constrained or manipulated by the parent, while simultaneously needing the parent, the child remains substantially merged with the parent, which leads to emotional reactivity in the guise of excessive accommodation or excessive rebelliousness.
What does emotional fusion look like?
There are different and varied facets to emotional fusion but it typically manifests in a romantic relationship or amongst family members in the following ways:
- Excessive accommodation of another’s needs based on a belief that one must meet the needs of others. Strong feelings of guilt ensue if this does not occur.
- A strong need for others to agree to one’s ideas and beliefs. Conversely, there is a pull into taking on the opinion of others without giving thought to one’s own views.
- Assuming responsibility for another’s emotions which results in not doing or saying anything that may be potentially upsetting. There is a tendency to avoid any subject which may trigger tension or conflict.
- Taking responsibility for another’s well-being/happiness which typically manifests in behaviour such as validation (to soothe or mitigate distress), caretaking or ’rescuing’. This is regarded as love, loyalty and caring.
- Comments are often taken very personally which lead to interactions being reaction rich, characterised by blaming and frequent fighting but no resolution of issues.
- A tendency to feel engulfed or overwhelmed by another’s emotions which triggers a strong urge to disengage/distance in order to maintain a sense of self.
- Separation evokes high anxiety. One person may feel betrayed if another wants to do something different or separate. Such choices are often times met with resistance, emotional withdrawal or meltdown.
- A low tolerance for true independence or autonomy. An individual who decides to act for himself/herself is accused of being selfish and made to feel guilty.
Problems with emotional fusion
Emotional fusion has far reaching effects on the lives of its participants. The anxiety produced by this kind of relationship fuels unhealthy patterns of interaction and inhibits individual development and growth.
Repression: The pressure to accommodate other people’s needs and desires lead to repressing one’s conflicting needs, feelings and thoughts. The inability to calmly and firmly withstand the pressure to acquiesce to another person or tolerate another person’s disagreement or disapproval often leads to depression, addiction, belligerence or self-loathing.
A weak sense of identity: Without a clear sense of separateness, there is difficulty distinguishing one’s ideas and beliefs from those of others or one’s feelings from the feelings of another resulting in identification and dependency.
Controlling behaviour: Manipulation (such as silence and withdrawal) and other forms of controlling behaviour are used to pressure each other to express agreement or approval which stifles all spontaneity and goodwill in a relationship. It usually leads to cycles of attack/defend and capitulation, which cause bitterness and deep-seated resentment.
Unhealthy conflict: Arguing is often a manifestation of the unconscious attempt to balance togetherness and separateness. Focusing on the other through argument provides emotional contact, while anger and resistance to the partner’s wishes promote separateness.
A lack of empathy: Emotional fusion inhibits one’s capacity to listen carefully, reflect thoughtfully and to approach situations from a position of empathy. Without this ability, there is a limited capacity for understanding and joint decision-making.
Diminished boundaries: Boundaries between people dissolve and anxiety becomes increasingly infectious. Increased pressure on an individual to provide for another’s well-being results in problems such as co-dependency.
Emotional distancing: Ongoing avoidance of discomfort, disapproval, and criticism leads to partners not sharing incompatible parts of themselves. Soon they no longer have anything to talk about and the relationship drifts apart.
Fight or flight: Increased emotional fusion paradoxically creates both a greater need for more togetherness in one person and an urge to flee in the other person because of feelings of being trapped, controlled, and smothered. Sometimes one person experiences both.
The underlying problem of emotional fusion is that neither person can maintain his or her sense of self in the presence of the other. According to Murray Bowen, to resolve the anguish of emotional fusion, individuals need to become more highly-differentiated which he viewed as a critical goal in human development. Being differentiated involves having a clear idea of who we are, what we think, feel and believe and being able to state this in a clear, calm manner. By defining ourselves rather than being defined by others, there is no need to try to convince or convert others to our way of thinking.
Differentiationenables a person to get intensely involved in a relationship without becoming infected with the other person’s anxiety thereby eliminating the need to withdraw or control the other person to regulate his/her own emotional well-being. It allows flexible connection even in the presence of others who are experiencing strong emotions without becoming engulfed by those emotions. Because our sense of self remains strong, it also means that we can tolerate separateness when we are apart from others as we do not feel lost, lonely or anxious. Differentiation therefore allows us to experience flexible connection with moments of intense closeness and moments of secure separateness.
Loss of intimacy and passion in couple relationships
Although partners in a troubled relationship often report feeling alienated from each other, emotional fusion is more often the problem than insufficient attachment. If partners cannot handle having differences of opinion, they miss the opportunity to have energized discussions as two separate individuals. Eventually passion in the relationship disappears. While it may seem nice to be in agreement, too much unity usually causes mystery, growth, and passion to fade away and be replaced by predictability and boredom, and/or anger and resentment. When emotional neediness is high, we often forget that relationships are desired for freedom and enjoyment, not to be used and controlled to fulfill a need.
Paradoxically, emotional separateness allows for greater connection, intense intimacy and passion. When we take care of, and are responsible for our own emotions and are not excessively worried about another’s reactions or needs, we can be truly intimate, that is, we can express ourselves, our thoughts, and our emotions more freely and fully which often facilitates our partner to do the same.
Breaking out of emotional fusion
Joe and Stephanie - Too much togetherness
This couple appear to be stuck in an emotional three-legged race resulting in neither person being able to move unless the other agrees to do so. It’s no wonder that they are blaming each other for their failure to make progress with decision-making. To break out of this cycle, they need to stop participating in the ‘dance’ of trying to control and manipulate each other. They also need to learn to respect and tolerate differing opinions and to let go of requiring agreement and validation.
Change will occur even if only one of them becomes more emotionally separate, that is, if one partner learns to speak up for himself/herself while allowing the other person to do the same. By remaining caring and empathic without becoming responsible for their partner’s reactions and emotions, the high reactivity that fuels this type of interactional dynamic will diminish over time. The couple’s ability to work together as team will improve consistent with their increasing capacity to maintain their individual sense/s of self.
Laura – Emotional cut-off
The high reactivity which emotional fusion generates often leads to cutting-off a relationship. If we are emotionally fused, we become allergic to the strong emotions of others. When this occurs, we create distance in relationships or cut the other person off entirely. Whilst this may feel like a calm, rational stance (after all, we are no longer affected by the unreasonable behaviour of the other right?), emotional cut offs don’t reflect healthy independence. This is not to say that we should not set a limit or hold a boundary when confronted with inappropriate or abusive behaviour, however,acut-off is a form of pseudo-independence that is created when closeness is too threatening. For the pseudo-independent person, closeness is anxiety-provoking because it is not possible to become close without losing one’s sense of self. While Laura’s pattern of disengagement may ease the emotional tension she experiences in the short term, this tactic will do nothing to address or resolve the existing relationship problem. Furthermore, her reactivity is simply transposing itself on her next friendship. In order to forge friendships that are reciprocal and ultimately, sustainable, Laura will need to take responsibility for expressing and pursuing her own needs, wishes and desires within the relationship while still being considerate of the other person.
Sharon and Mark - Over-functioning/under-functioning
This couple’s dynamic is a third manifestation of emotional fusion. In this scenario, one person over-functions while the other under-functions. The over-functioning participant attempts to keep the relationship going by compensating for the inadequacies of the under-functioning partner, becoming obsessed with changing him or her, often with poor results. In contrast, the under-functioning partner typically takes a passive stance, making half-hearted attempts to meet the requests/demands of the over-functioning partner, or ignoring these requests/demands altogether. Neither person can focus on themselves. Assuming Sharon is serious about breaking out of this pattern, she (as the over-functioner) will need to make the initial move towards change. She can start by shifting the focus from Mark to herself. Over-functioners typically neglect their own needs, well-being and life goals as a consequence of over-focusing on another. If she starts putting more energy into looking after herself whilst remaining caring of Mark without trying to solve his problems or rescue him from his emotional difficulties, he will experience the freedom and opportunity to take responsibility for his own life and to develop a more solid sense of self and empowerment. Sharon’s disappointment in Mark will also diminish as she learns to meet her own needs rather than pressuring, and depending on him to fulfil them.
*The people in the above case studies are fictional characters but their issues are drawn from clinical experience.