“I can’t live with her and I can’t live without her.”

"Marilyn Silver Screen" by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“Marilyn Silver Screen” by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

When someone drives you crazy, yet you can’t stand the idea of being apart, then you are probably too emotionally fused with that person. This is also known as being codependent. Emotional fusion creates two paradoxical feelings—a need for more emotional contact and a desire to get away. An emotionally-fused relationship becomes infused with contrary feelings of being trapped, controlled, and smothered, and being isolated, unsupported, and unloved.

The problem is that neither partner can maintain his or her sense of identity and groundedness in the presence of the other.
Both people take everything personally and become reactive by withdrawing coldly or picking a fight. They swing between attack and capitulation. Bitterness and frustration cause them to withdraw from each other, but when apart, they feel unbalanced and empty. Any connection at this point, even bitter fighting, makes them feel more alive than when alone.


To resolve the anguish of emotional fusion, individuals need to become more highly-differentiated, that is, emotionally separate, and therefore, less reactive.

Differentiation will

1. permit you to get intensely involved with another person—emotionally, intellectually, physically—without becoming infected with the other person’s anxiety, and

2. eliminate the need to withdraw from or control the other person to modulate your own emotional well-being.

Ironically, becoming more emotionally objective and separate allows you to become more intimate. Although you may think that falling apart with anxiety shows that you care, it is actually a self-centered and ineffective way to respond to your own anxiety. It causes people to focus more on you instead of the problem at hand.

Someone who is differentiated may care just as deeply or more so about another person or a difficult situation but is able to contain his or her emotions. This allows a person to bring rationality and wisdom to the a situation rather than simply cause more anxiety that spirals out of control.

Even if only one person becomes less reactive, the situation will improve.

While you want to be considerate of those close to you, you do not want to be excessively worried about their reactions. True intimacy means you can express yourself, your thoughts, and your emotions freely and deeply without emotional manipulation. When you retain some objectivity and stay calm in the face of another person’s anxiety, you can grow emotionally and intellectually, often enticing the other person to do the same.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “Passion vs. Predictability: The Problem with Emotional Fusion.”

Read “Ten Keys to a Great Relationship: ‘The magic is gone.’”

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2 thoughts on ““I can’t live with her and I can’t live without her.”

  1. Michael

    My wife and I have this issue. However, any examples to explain the emotional separation or differentiation would help. I do understand the general meaning of differentiation from business management perspective where one business differentiates its products and services from others. From a personal stand point what do you mean by differentiation?

    1. Alison Post author

      Differentiation in a personal relationship means realizing that someone else’s emotions and desires are not yours. You actually can care more deeply for someone if you are less emotionally reactive. Emotional reactivity includes getting angry, becoming cold and withdrawn, and being overly-accommodating to pacify the other person.

      So if your wife says hotly and with some jealousy, “I saw you looking at her,” you don’t immediately get angry, defensive, or apologetic. Instead you keep cool, and perhaps you say, “You’re the one I care about. It’s hurtful to suggest anything else.” Not buying into her emotional heat is key. You wouldn’t use a tone of voice that is hostile or pleading.

      Or if your wife is angry or uses guilt to try to get you not to do something you want to do–something that’s reasonable like going to play golf or visiting your brother–you don’t have to get angry, defensive, or become compliant. You can be compassionate without being controlled. You might just say, “I love to play golf/see my brother. I would hope you’d want me to do something that makes me happy. I would want the same for you.” Keep calm and reasonable yet do not allow yourself to be controlled by her fears. If you do, you are walking down the path toward resentment. Some consideration in a relationship is necessary but you shouldn’t start giving up reasonable things that you love to do and you shouldn’t want your spouse to do the same.

      Another example. Say your wife never wants to have sex anymore. While you wouldn’t want to go against her wishes and become forceful, there’s a point where you would would to say, “I want to be in a relationship where there is mutual physical intimacy. I want to be desired. Are you willing to put some effort into this?” If not, you might want to rethink that relationship. When there’s a lack of emotional separation, you would simply accommodate the other person at the cost of your own desires going underground, which is terrible for the long-term health of a relationship. By not simply going along with the other person’s every feeling (becoming a doormat), but respecting your own desires, you engender respect from the other person, which in itself often fosters passion.

      I have a few posts about differentiation, which you can find in a search on my blog.

      Thanks for your question.

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