A Passionate vs. a Lackluster Relationship:
The Problem with Emotional Fusion

“Pan Extasy” by Mimi Stuart ©

Do you feel threatened when your partner doesn’t agree with you or behave the way you want?

If so, you may be seeking a type of unity that is both unattainable and undesirable. Although many people in a relationship feel alienated from one another, emotional fusion is more often the problem than insufficient attachment. Emotional fusion occurs when people do not function independently, but are emotionally reactive by being overly acquiescent or rebellious.

Couples use silence, withdrawal, and facial expressions of disapproval to pressure each other to express agreement or approval. These subtle forms of manipulation usually causes people become defensive or to repress feelings and thoughts that are incompatible with those of their partner.

If partners can’t handle having differences of opinion, they miss the opportunity to have energized discussions as two separate individuals. Eventually passion in the relationship disappears, because it can only persist between two separate individuals. While it may seem nice to be in agreement, too much unison usually causes mystery, growth, and passion to fade away and be replaced by predictability and boredom, and/or anger and resentment.

Origin of emotional fusion

Emotional fusion with one’s family of origin often leads to a tendency to fuse with people later in life. When excessive energy is bound in a parent/child relationship, the child becomes emotionally fused to the parent and is unable to function autonomously. Over-attachment, where the child stays substantially merged with the parent, encourages emotional reactivity in the guise of accommodation or provocation. The child thinks, feels, and acts with the parents’ and later the spouse’s potential reactions and feelings in mind.

The child may become a “good boy” or “good girl”, doing and saying exactly what’s wanted, while repressing parts of him or herself that would provoke the parent. Or, the child may become rebellious, often saying and doing precisely the opposite of what the parent desires, in order to try to stake out a sense of individuality.

Often the child alternates between the two extremes rather than developing an organic sense of self based on reflections and experience, not simply one that accommodates or reacts against those on whom the child is dependent.
What’s lacking is an ability to reasonably express thoughts and choose actions without an intention to acquiesce or to rebel against family members.

Both over-accommodation and excessive rebelliousness result from fusion. Emotional fusion replaces adequate separation and real intimacy with a sense of suffocation and/or isolation. If your parent cares about you and gives you adequate space to have your own feelings, thoughts, and some appropriate decision-making power, there’s not much to rebel against. Nor is there an urgent sense to please the parent at any cost.

Repression

The pressured partner may accommodate her partner, while repressing her own conflicting feelings and thoughts. However, ongoing avoidance of discomfort, disapproval, and criticism leads to partners drifting apart, because they are hesitant to share incompatible or new parts of themselves. Soon they no longer have anything to talk about.

Repressed parts of the personality then gather energy in the unconscious, and ultimately seep out in the form of depression, sickness, or secret affairs. Repressed feelings and thoughts can also erupt unexpectedly in anger, violence, and even unexpected divorce.

Anger

Control, anger, and violence can arise from the inability to calmly and firmly withstand the pressure to merge with another person, or from the inability to tolerate another person’s disagreement or disapproval.

Arguing is often a manifestation of the unconscious attempting to balance togetherness and separateness. Focusing on the other through argument provides emotional contact, while anger and resistance to one’s partner’s wishes promote separateness.

Once one becomes emotionally separate, anger is no longer necessary to resist pressures to merge with the other. You can accept the fact that your partner is disappointed or disagrees with you. You can express disagreement or make requests without being angry or scared. Uncomfortable, yes; but angry, no.

Example of Fused Couple: Paul states he does not want Sally to visit her sister. Sally doesn’t go, but is angry for hours or days. Or Sally says she’s going anyway, and Paul stays angry for days.

Example of Differentiated Couple: Paul says he wishes he could go on a trip with her and is sad that she’ll be going without him. Sally says she’s sorry he’ll be lonely, but it’s really important for her to spend some time alone with her sister. Or Sally says that he’s welcome to join her if he can get away.

Partners are equally fused

Partners who stay together for a long time, say a year or more, are generally equally emotionally fused, although they may not think they are. They just express it differently.

For example, it’s not accidental, although it may be unconscious, that a man who seeks his own space chooses a woman who yearns for connection. If she didn’t seek connection, there wouldn’t be any. If he didn’t seek space, there wouldn’t be any. They both need the other to find some sort of balance. Yet, the man may believe that the problem is all hers—she is simply too needy. The woman believes that the problem is all his—he fears intimacy. They’ve both selected the ideal person either to learn from or to blame.

Problems with fusion:

1. No sense of identity

Increased emotional fusion paradoxically creates both a greater need for more togetherness in one person and an urge to flee in the other person. Sometimes one person experiences both. Feelings of being trapped, controlled, and smothered, or isolated, unsupported, and unloved infuse the relationship.

The problem is that neither partner can maintain his or her sense of identity in the presence of the other. When one disagrees or neglects the other, the other takes it personally and becomes reactive by withdrawing coldly or picking a fight. Alternatively, partners may quickly accommodate each other, repressing their own feelings and thoughts, which eventually leads to resentment or a diminished sense of self.

2. Needing emotional validation

Most relationship difficulties result from attempting to avoid anxiety. Often, when we’re anxious, we seek validation from others. Others then feel obliged to give us validation, because they feel uncomfortable with our anxiety. Validation is an attempt to soothe the other’s anxiety in order to soothe our own. Such validation differs from compassion and appreciation, which are freely-given expressions of kindness, enjoyment and gratitude toward the other, rather than attempts to mitigate distress.

3. Diminishing boundaries

With increased fusion, boundaries between people dissolve, and anxiety becomes increasingly infectious. “As boundaries dissolve, there is increased pressure on people to think, feel, and act in ways that will enhance one another’s emotional well-being” (Kerr and Bowen, p. 77). Well-being cannot be provided by another person without diminishing that person’s selfhood and independence. So, the expectation of providing for someone’s well-being ironically increases pressure, anxiety, and disappointment.

4. Controlling behavior

If your sense of identity or well-being depends on what your partner thinks, it’s natural to try to control your partner. Above all, it becomes critical to minimize anxiety and to continue securely in the emotional attachment. Controlling behavior, however, stifles all spontaneity and freshness in a relationship.

For example, people who complain of sexual boredom often feel threatened by the display of new sexual behavior by their partners and therefore ridicule or reject such attempts, which are ways of trying to control a person. Or they may hesitate to try something new themselves for fear of their partners’ disapproval.

Differentiation

To resolve the anguish of emotional fusion, individuals need to become more highly-differentiated, that is, emotionally separate, and therefore, less reactive. Differentiation will (a) permit a person to get intensely involved without becoming infected with the other person’s anxiety, and (b) eliminate the need to withdraw or control the partner to modulate a person’s own emotional well-being. Even if only one person becomes less reactive, the relationship will improve.

Ironically, emotional objectivity and separateness allow us to be more intimate and passionate. Someone who is differentiated doesn’t fear intimacy or solitude. While we want to be considerate of others in our interactions, we don’t want to negate ourselves by endowing others with too much power. When we are not excessively worried about another’s reactions, we can be truly intimate, that is, we can express ourselves, our thoughts, and our emotions more freely and deeply. When we are more confident in ourselves and less hindered by our partner’s anxiety, we can grow emotionally, sexually, and intellectually, often enticing our partners to do the same. When someone is confident with a positive attitude, rather than cautious, fearful of rejection, or controlling, that person becomes more attractive and is able to ignite passion more easily.

When we take care of and are responsible for our own emotions, we can be intimate without pressuring others to validate or soothe us or to do what we want. By not allowing other people’s anxiety to infect us, we remain emotionally separate and objective, which paradoxically allows for greater connection and intense intimacy. Relationships are desired for enjoyment, not to be controlled to fulfill a need.

Existential aloneness

Underlying emotional fusion is caused by a fear of being separate and alone in the world. As we face and accept our own existential separateness, our tolerance for being alone increases. Our disappointment in others diminishes, because we relinquish unattainable expectations that our partners will save us from our basic separateness and mortality. Paradoxically, our oneness with others, not just our partners, increases as we accept our separateness.

Solution

We need to recognize how our reactivity toward others is driven by our own anxiety and sense of aloneness. Part of this process is realizing that we can never be fully united in thought and feeling with another person. Once we genuinely accept our existential separation from others, we can more fully enjoy the fleeting connection with others, without grasping to get more of it, and without resisting it to avoid the pain of its eventual loss.

Passion requires being in the moment and letting go of fear and control. While there is a place in long-term relationships for planning and thinking about the future, there is also a place for being free of those thoughts and letting spontaneity and desire reign. Passion is a feeling of being alive, alert and excited in the midst of the unknown. By breaking away from predictable routine and control over your partner or over yourself , you can allow a little unpredictability back into the relationship. Embracing the unknown—or anxiety—with a positive attitude, you can turn it into excitement, desire, and passion.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “I never get to go skiing anymore because of my partner.”

Recommended References:

Kerr, M. & Bowen, M. (1988). Family Evaluation: The role of the family as an emotional unit that governs individual behavior and development. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York.

Schnarch, D. (1991). Constructing the sexual crucible: Paradigm-shift in sexual and marital therapy. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Embracing Each Other, by Drs. Hal and Sidra Stone

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The Most Appealing Way to Take a Compliment

“Power of Pink” by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Why People Give Compliments

Some compliments are more meaningful than others. The best ones are specific, genuine, and address something that requires effort or skill. Others are less meaningful, because they are general, manipulative, or address a quality that you were born with, such as being tall.

In either case, when people give compliments, they are generally attempting to make a connection with you or to make you feel good. They feel good when they have a positive effect and when they are acknowledged. So whether the compliment is really meaningful or not, consider the other person’s feelings, and avoid focusing simply on whether you feel embarrassed and whether you deserve the compliment.

How Not to Respond to a Compliment

Imagine how a person might feel if you respond to a compliment with dismissiveness or a negative remark about yourself. For example,

“You look fantastic!”

“No I don’t. I look terrible.”

Your response is unfriendly and unappreciative. In negating the compliment, you lose vitality and desirability. More importantly, the person giving the compliment feels rebuffed.

Some people fear that they will come across as arrogant if they accept a compliment too readily. However, accepting a compliment does not mean letting it go to your head. If you know yourself, then your self-worth will not be based on casual external feedback.

There is also no need to argue against the validity or motivation of a compliment. If we do not let it inflate our ego, we do not have to worry about someone’s dubious intentions. Even if the compliment is given in an attempt to manipulate you, graciously accepting it does not mean you will let it influence your actions.

How to Take a Compliment

Taking a moment to feel gratitude when you are treated well is a gift for the person giving the compliment. Why not enjoy soaking in kind words like a few rays of sunshine? People enjoy knowing they have made someone else feel good. Letting your appreciation show with a smile, a twinkle of the eye, and a “Thank you” encourages people to continue to look for the good in both you and others.

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.

~Leo F. Buscaglia

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “Parental Boasting for Self-Esteem:
‘Honey, I was just telling the Jones how smart and athletic you are.'”

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Shaming Others: “What is wrong with you? You are good for nothing!”

"Blue Tune" by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

People who live with a sense of deep shame can become consumed by despair as a result of the feeling that they are flawed and unworthy. Excessive shame is difficult to bear, and often leads to self-destructive behavior, addiction, depression, and in some cases, suicide.

Even when people who feel deep shame are doing well, they may continue to expect others to be disappointed in them. Their shame sometimes leads to self-sabotaging behavior, which results in their getting the negative response they feel they deserve. Thus, it is difficult to deal with people whose reckless behavior is partly due to their belief that they do not deserve any better.

We want to motivate them to change by pointing out how mistaken their actions are. We want to set boundaries and protect ourselves from their reckless behavior. Yet we have to be careful that our intentions do not get expressed with contempt. Harmful behavior should be met with repercussions. We should set boundaries, enforce consequences, and communicate our disappointment, but it is not effective, helpful, or kind to shame and humiliate another person.

Expressing your own feelings about someone’s behavior while setting boundaries is fundamentally different from judging that person as a worthless individual: “What is wrong with you—you good for nothing!” Similarly, showing compassion while setting boundaries is very different from trying to artificially boost someone’s self-esteem with permissive indulgence.

Expressing disappointment in a situation should be factual rather than judgmental. Communicating your own feelings and intentions to set boundaries is more effective and humane than making negative or humiliating judgments:

“When you did such and such, I was disappointed and angry. I’m asking you to….”

“I can’t trust to you follow through at this point. So I will no longer….”

“I don’t think that my ‘help’ is really helping you. In fact it seems to be doing the opposite. So I can’t continue, but I truly wish the best for you.”

People who feel deep shame need to be loved, valued, and spoken to honestly rather than judged or coddled. They should be held accountable for their actions without being humiliated. Often a therapist can help them stop their negative self-criticism and restore in them a feeling of self-worth.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

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Pursuing passions or partnership?
““You should spend more time with me instead of going fishing!””

"Long Drive" — Jim Furyk by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“Long Drive” — Jim Furyk by Mimi Stuart ©

Should you push your partner to stop pursuing their passions?

People often push their partner to stop pursuing their interests in favor of spending more time together as a couple. The pursuing partner may genuinely want to spend more time together or he or she may be reacting to feelings of jealousy or insecurity. Feelings of insecurity in particular will cause someone to try to control the other person and become possessive.

Some partners find it uncomfortable to deal with their partner’s insecurities. So they prefer to accommodate them. Often it is their own anxiety in face of a partner who is upset that they cannot tolerate. As a result, when their partner pressures them to give up their interests, they give in quickly in order to avoid conflict.

Long-term problems of appeasement

When your partner appeases you, you may feel temporary relief. However, ongoing appeasement will create long-term problems. The result of repressing one’s own desires can result in a gradual deadening of the soul, growing resentment, boredom, and a loss of passion within the relationship.

When your partner continuously appeases you at the expense of their own interests, they will lose some of their passion for life and for you. Moreover, as appeasement becomes the norm, you will both feel increasingly burdened by an obligation to appease each other. As a result, one or both of you will become more and more vulnerable to the other person’s manipulation.

Long-term intimacy and accommodation

True intimacy evolves when you don’t manipulate your partner to accommodate your needs and desires. Long-term passionate intimacy requires that two people have a strong enough sense of self that each can spend time separately pursuing their own individual interests.

To sustain a long-term passionate relationship, you need to balance two primary drives — the desire for togetherness and the desire for autonomy. While everyone has a different ideal balance point, it is clear that the extremes of too much togetherness or too much independence each generate their own problems.

If you really love someone, you do not want that person to stop pursuing their passions and interests. Nor should you want to make that person feel guilty for pursuing them. It’s not much fun spending time with someone who feels stifled and held back. The very reason you love a person has a lot to do with their vitality and individual interests. So it is both wise and loving to encourage them to continue to pursue their interests.

Empower yourself

When you feel threatened by your partner spending time apart from you, rather than controlling your partner, find a way to empower yourself and the relationship.

1. Desire the best for your partner.

You will have a better relationship if your partner is happy. It reflects well on you and you will be more attracted to your partner if your partner is passionate about life rather than unhappy about it.

2. Be curious about your partner’s interests.

You don’t want to become a couple that has nothing to talk about. Don’t feel resentment about your partner’s fishing, golfing, or reading. Instead, ask about their interests, their progress, and other details. Find genuine joy in what they appreciate about their pursuits and passions.

3. Pursue something you enjoy.

Start pursuing your own passions. If you don’t have any, try out different activities, sports, or hobbies, or take some classes. The experience of trying new things will make your life richer. When you keep your life engaged, you enhance your life, which also makes you more interesting to be with. Taking on challenges builds a healthy confidence and joie de vivre. Even failed pursuits make for great stories. All of this will lead you to a more interesting and passionate relationship.

4. Make your time together more enjoyable.

Plan activities together that your partner will want to participate in. Spending some time together is important. Rather than spending that time complaining about your partner’s passions, think about pursuits that you can do together that may be interesting or pleasant for both of you. Talk to your partner about what your interests and passions are.

While it is important to spend some time together, couples keep their relationships alive when they do not spend all their time together. When you encourage your partner to pursue their passions, they will be grateful to be with someone who is truly loving.

Loving someone means respecting their autonomy and wanting them to be truly happy.

Alison Poulsen, PhD

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New Book Announcement:
“Desire & Desirability: Transform the Pursuer/Distancer Dynamic into a Mutual Loving Relationship”

Desire & Desirability
Transform the Pursuer/Distancer Dynamic into a Mutual Loving Relationship

Over the past seven years, I have had the pleasure of responding to many questions and comments from readers of my blog “So what I really meant….” I have been struck by how frequently readers express the value of understanding the Pursuer/Distancer dynamic and the benefit of learning how to overcome it. This inspired me to write this book called “Desire & Desirability.”

Often in a relationship one partner seeks more intimacy than the other. When the Pursuer seeks too much connection or attachment, the Distancer can feel trapped and anxious about losing his or her independence, which may ultimately lead to withdrawal from the relationship leaving the Pursuer heartbroken.

Perfect balance in a relationship is impossible to achieve, yet we can learn to modify our behavior to move toward better symmetry. Real-life examples described in this book illustrate ways to transform your desire based on need into desirability based on fullness. The examples focus primarily on couples in romantic relationships but the principles discussed hold true for all types of relationships including those between friends, co-workers, and parents and children.

It is my hope that understanding the strategies laid out in “Desire & Desirability” will give you the tools to empower you to sustain a more balanced, reciprocal, and fulfilling relationship.

I want to thank my readers for the many thoughtful comments and questions sent over the years that have inspired me to think about relationship and psychological challenges in new and deeper ways.

Click Photo for LINK

The Limits of Parental Indulgence

"Sergio's Finish" by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

“I feel terrible about not being able to buy my kids what their friends have. But I can’t afford to buy them new ipods and shoes right now.”

Your value as a parent lies in what you communicate to your children and the values that you convey, not in what you purchase for them. You are not doing your kids any favors by buying them everything that they want or that their friends have. You are doing them a favor by not doing so and explaining to them why not.

Even when parents can afford things, they are giving more to their kids by NOT teaching them to feel entitled to have everything they want. Learning delayed gratification and planning for the future are valuable gifts that will go a long way in encouraging capability and independence.

Simply say,

“Right now we need to save money for the mortgage, emergencies, retirement, and your college.”

Or

“It’s important to have money put away to ensure that we will survive another potential downturn. Twenty dollars here, a hundred dollars there, add up surprisingly fast.”

It’s all in your attitude that says they’ll be fine without the new merchandise. If you don’t show anxiety about their wanting things or about their being “without,” then they will learn to live more comfortably with desiring things and not having them right away.

You can also suggest to them that they can save up for what they want themselves. If children learn both to wait and to work for what they want, they will end up appreciating the items more, or they will lose interest in acquiring them all together.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

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