When I ask couples what brings them to therapy, a common answer is "We don't communicate". Given that couples communicate all the time even when they don't like the messages being sent, often what they are really referring to is discomfort with conflict and not being able to tolerate that their partner has a different opinion.
If a couple is operating out of a need for approval and validation, or from a fear of rejection, it is difficult to have discussions or even arguments as two separate, unique individuals. This describes a couple who are "emotionally fused".
What is fusion?
Fusion is the process of combining two or more distinct entities into a new whole. This concept is universally applied in romantic relationships, a common phrase being "I've found my other half."
What is emotional fusion?
Emotional fusion is defined as the emotional oneness or 'stuck togetherness' between family members. It can be measured by the degree to which an individual invests energy into a significant relationship and by the extent to which a person's functioning in a relationship is a reaction to another. Evidence for fusion is seen in high sensitivity to others. In fused relationships, individual choices are set aside in the service of achieving harmony within the system. Another indicator of emotional fusion is reactive distancing, when a person emotionally cuts himself or herself off from the tension of the relationship.
Fusion exists in families both extended and nuclear, in groups, and in pairs (especially intensely in marital pairs and parent-child pairs). Intimate couple relationships (which will be the focus of this post) are particularly vulnerable to the intensity of emotional fusion.
What does an emotionally fused couple relationship look like?
Emotional fusion manifests in many ways, some of which are often equated with care-giving and love. They include the following:
- Each partner has a sense of responsibility for the other's reactions.
- It is considered wrong to do or say anything that upsets the other person.
- There is a belief (which is often openly expressed), that each partner is there to meet the needs of the other.
- Both partners take what the other says personally.
- There is little tolerance for a difference in opinion. Individual thoughts and feelings are disputed and invalidated.
- The relationship is reaction-rich that is, the partners react immediately (as if with a reflex, knee jerk response) to the perceived demands of the other person. Each partner triggers certain behaviours in the other.
- There is a tendency to over-focus on the other person including investing time and energy in an attempt to change them.
- True autonomy is not allowed. If one partner tries to change by acting differently, it is seen as a threat and strong pressure is exerted on him or her to change back.
The pitfalls of emotional fusion:
The greater a couple's tendency to fuse, the less flexibility they will have in adapting to life stress resulting ultimately in a less stable relationship. This is because emotionally fused people are more prone to neediness. As they usually have a sense of emptiness and feelings of inadequacy, they look to their partner to mirror to them their sense of identity. They require constant validation, becoming what they think others want them to be. This results in a great deal of insincere behaviour that cannot be sustained in the long-term often leading to feelings of detachment and even resentment.
How does emotional fusion happen?
The vulnerability to emotional fusion is shaped in the family of origin of each partner. If a person grows up in a family environment that interfered with their perceived ability to separate and to function independently, he or she may have learnt to be emotionally fused with others. Such individuals may become overly dependent as adults, relying on others to reflect and mirror what they need to see and hear in order to maintain their sense of self. Growing up in a fused family creates the tendency or need to seek fused relationships with others, in particular, one's partner.
What can be done about emotional fusion?
The ability to develop and hold onto a sense of self is called "differentiation." Differentiation is described as the capacity of the individual to function autonomously by making self-directed choices while remaining emotionally connected to the intensity of a significant relationship. In practical terms, it is about discovering a way of tolerating the pull to fusion and concurrently maintaining emotional autonomy while relating closely one's partner.
Highly differentiated people have an ability to self-soothe which allows them to able to be vulnerable in relationships, tolerate conflict and to take ownership for their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. They do not make others responsible for them. Because their strength and identity does not come from others, they are in a relationship out of choice rather than need.
Differentiation is the base from which healthy intimacy can be enjoyed. Put another way, without a strong and separate "I" there can be no emotionally satisfying "We."
If you are interested in our relationship counselling services, don't hesitate to contact us for a consultation.