Passion vs. Predictability: 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 a greater feeling of both a 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 controlled to fulfill a need.

Existential aloneness

Underlying emotional fusion is 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

10 thoughts on “Passion vs. Predictability: The Problem with Emotional Fusion

  1. Oleg

    My girlfriend and I broke up a few days ago. We had been dating for almost 4 months however, I asked her out almost a year ago, before I knew she had a boyfriend. When she told me we decided to just be friends. We got pretty close….she tried to set me up with some of her friends and we both I think enjoyed interacting with each other on a platonic level. Her boyfriend broke up with her…she immediately reached out to me, and even though I was so happy, I wanted to give her time to decide if she wanted to be with me because I did not want to be her rebound. We kept talking, got even closer and eventually started dating. Things have been moving very quickly, we had even talked about moving to her hometown together. However, the last month things have been getting really volatile. I would either feel like I was always emotionally reactive, or suppressed/accomodating and in the process inadvertently hurting her. After reading this article I think I am realizing exactly what was happening. The thing is that when I think about my ex, as much pain as it causes me, all I can think of now is how I want her to be happy, and want to try and make it work. When we last talked things were cordial towards the end, we both said that we love each other and that we will give each other space. Is this something that will keep happening if we were to get back together, or is this an easy fix? I don’t think that we got together in the first place for the wrong reasons. I think she is an amazing, compassionate, funny, intelligent person and when we last talked even through the hurt and anger she told me that “I am the most loveable person she knows”. I know that no matter what I should let time heal and let us think more rationally not emotionally but should I accept that for whatever reason our personalities just don’t vibe and I should try to move on. Not sure what to do.

    Reply
    1. Alison Post author

      Hi, Thank you for your question.

      From what you’ve said, one of the keys might be learning to avoid suppressing your important feelings, but without becoming volatile. If you express or respond to your irritations or your desires and needs earlier, before they become too powerful, you can express yourself with more neutrality and compassion, and be more effective.

      Make sure you don’t feel guilty for your desires and needs. Place at least equal emphasis on your own happiness. It becomes boring to be with someone who is too accommodating and only trying to make you happy. I mean it’s nice to so but only if it’s balanced.

      Do you ever wonder why the bad boys in movies are the most desirable. It’s because they are more exciting. They will never become too accommodating. Now I’m not saying that you should become selfish, brooding, and a total bad boy. But you can definitely be considerate of your partner without focusing too much of your energy on just making her happy.

      I think if you learn to express your feelings and needs in a positive way and to balance separateness and togetherness while going out with or even living with someone, you won’t end up getting into the painful cycle of being together and then needing space or breaking up. If you can continue to pursue your passions (or develop some new interests), see other friends and family with or without her, and spend some time alone, without being rude or withdrawing suddenly, then your relationship will keep more of its spark than if you do everything together and become totally accommodating.

      If you would like, you could give me a couple of ordinary examples of you becoming emotionally reactive and hurting your girlfriend. Then I could give you better and more specific advice on how to handle those types of situations. Often the examples may seem trivial in retrospect, but if we can find an underlying thread, like a desire to be appreciated or a fear of standing up for oneself, then we can look at specific ways to improve the similar episodes in the future.

      Best, Alison

      Reply
  2. natasha

    I am a student. I came across fusion in my family therapy class and I sort of self identified that I was highly fused. This article was amazing at simplifying emotional fusion and explaining it from every angle. Thank you.

    Reply
  3. Andrea

    Wow. Thank you. You put out in the universe information that people would pay big bucks to understand. Went through over a year of counseling and I did not discover this emotional fusion concept. I’m inspired.

    Reply

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