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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

Random Thoughts from So What I Really Meant

"Wisdom of Laughter" — Einstein by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“Wisdom of Laughter” — Einstein by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Passion

Passion is the feeling of exhilaration in the face of mystery. It arises from the heat generated by the intermingling of two people pursuing their own individual passions. So if partners sacrifice their own personal passions, interests, and friends for the sake of their relationship, that relationship will probably lose its passion.

Jealousy

A jealous partner may have experienced abandonment in his or her life and be easily triggered. Getting angry won’t help the situation. Be considerate and reassuring, but don’t start constricting your life to pander to the jealous partner’s fears, if they are unreasonable. Tell the jealous person that the suspicions are hurtful and are causing you to feel defensive and suggest focusing on his or her positive desires instead.

Feeling controlled

Those who are susceptible to being controlled need to stop fearing the other person’s reactions. That doesn’t mean becoming confrontational. You simply cannot let the fear of another person’s anger dictate your willingness to stand up for your values and needs. Calm, candid, honest communication is best to avoid developing a relationship based on fear and resentment.

Perfectionism

There is no reason you can’t have both the desire to excel and the ability to accept and enjoy the moment, which may be less than perfect. Laughter is much better for your health and your relationships than the anxiety of having to control for the perfect outcome. You rarely hear about the perfect dinner party, but an over-spiced, smoke-filled, ridiculously-problematic dinner tale gets a lot of mileage in laughter-filled stories long after the smoke clears.

Stress

Focus primarily on difficulties you can do something about. Taking control requires taking positive steps to deal with challenges, not ignoring the problems, suppressing the stress, or allowing yourself to be consumed by stress.

Taking control includes prioritizing situations in your life, changing your situation, and changing your perspective, and, just as important, relieving the mounting tension in healthy ways such as exercising, relaxing with friends or family, and developing a sense of humor. In cases where you cannot take physical action, you can take action by consciously changing your attitude and the way you think about the situation.

Difficult times

Feelings of fear and worry are important signals meant to get our attention in times of danger. Once we are alerted to difficulties, however, we need to harness fear and worry in favor of our personal power. The most useful powers in times of difficulty include courage, love, and clear thinking.

Experiencing vulnerability, including fear and sadness, is a crucial part of being able to feel empathy and love. However, we should not allow feelings and vulnerability to take over and engulf us in panic. Worry and anxiety are contagious and paralyzing. It is the power of our capabilities, our thinking, our courage, and our optimism that can best handle the inevitable difficulties of life.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Watch “Pursuing your passions in relationship.”

Watch “How to Deal with Controlling People.”

Emotional Fusion: “Whenever I’m in a long-term relationship, I lose all of my passions, desires, and goals in life, simply to make the other person happy.”

“Sorcery” by Mimi Stuart ©

“I have always been very, very close with my mom. However, her constant complaining and negative attitude has always taken a huge toll on me. When I was younger I would have violent outbursts and hit objects because I became so frustrated. The concept of emotional fusion might explain my inability to be in real intimate relationships. Whenever I’m in a long-term relationship, I lose all of my passions, desires, and goals in life, simply to make the other person happy. I was wondering if you had any advice going forward regarding intimate relationships as it is something I crave yet am utterly and completely terrified to enter one again.”

Emotional Fusion

Yes, it sounds like emotional fusion may be the issue. When you are a child and dependent on a parent, especially when there is only one primary parent taking care of you or you feel very close to that parent, it is natural to focus excessively on tuning into and accommodating your parent’s needs.

As you grow up from childhood to adolescence and into young adulthood, it is natural and healthy to gain more independence, both in action and thought. A self-centered or unhappy parent is likely to feel threatened by a child’s natural drive for independence, and thus, become volatile and controlling. The child, as a result, will feel constrained or manipulated by the parent, while simultaneously needing the parent. These contrasting emotions create a great deal of inner conflict, which can lead to outbursts, tantrums, or depression.

Both drives are natural: 1) the desire to accommodate and avoid disappointing the parent, and 2) the drive toward independence and attaining your own happiness. But if these two drives are not allowed to coexist, the result will be great tumult and frustration. These drives will conflict when a parent unconsciously or consciously tries to suppress their child’s independence and need for emotional separation. The child senses that independence in emotions, thoughts or actions is risky and dangerous, which leads to feelings of resentment, anger, guilt, or depression.

Ideally, a parent balances rules with freedom, that is, having boundaries and guidelines with compassionately allowing their children to develop emotional and mental separation and autonomy. Of course, there is no such thing as an ideal parent. Some may tend to smother their children in some respects while others tend to neglect them, at least to some degree. The greater the parent’s emotional reactivity is to the child’s emotions and actions, the greater the emotional fusion.

Future relationships

A person who is emotionally fused with their parent while growing up will tend to become emotionally fused with others in future relationships. They tend to assume they are responsible for the other person’s happiness. As a result, they lose sight of their own desires and goals.

It is fine to want your partner to be happy, but when it becomes your primary motivation, you fall into a no-win trap. Your happiness and vitality become dependent on the other person’s happiness, which puts an undue burden on both you and the other person, because you cannot make another person happy. You are aiming for something which you do not control, and actually shouldn’t control. Also, there is often an unspoken expectation that the other person owes you, and should make you happy in return, which leads to further disappointment and resentment.

Advice

My advice is to start imagining specific past situations where you have either submitted to doing something you didn’t want to do, responded with anger, or felt a distinct loss of enthusiasm and vitality. Then think of a new way you could have responded using a calm and considered approach, while honoring your own needs. It is generally not good to dwell on the past. But by considering real examples, which tend to repeat themselves, you can practice and prepare yourself for the next time you find yourself in a similar situation.

The goal is to learn to speak up for yourself while still respecting the other person, but leaving it up to them how they will feel and respond. Let go of your desire to insure that the other person will be happy and pleased with everything you say and do. Be considerate without becoming responsible for their reactions and emotions.

Examples

Do you put up with ongoing complaints? Then practice your response. For example, “I’m so sorry you are unhappy. Let me know if there’s something specific I can do. But when you keep telling me how unhappy you are, it also brings me down, and it’s not helpful for either of us.” If that person gets angry, repeat yourself once, and then say, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” and drop it or leave.

Do you spend too much time together, or do you give up doing things you love to do? Then find a way to do what is important to you, and express yourself without feeling guilty. For example, “Thanks for inviting me, but I need to get some exercise,” or “I have a project I’m working on at home,” or “I have been out too much lately.”

Do you focus too much on what the other person wants? Then become hyper aware of your tendency to neglect your own needs while focusing excessively on the other person’s needs. Express and pursue your desires with a matter of fact quality, “Sorry I can’t be there tonight. I need to catch up on sleep,” or “I was looking forward to practicing the guitar,” or “I need to rest and chill.” Anyone who easily disregards your needs is not someone you should lavish your attention on.

Do you feel that you have to fix things when the other person is sad, frustrated, or in pain? Be kind and compassionate, but resist your impulse to be responsible for fixing another person’s problems and moods. Use a firm, kind, calm voice, make no excuses, assign no guilt or blame. Wish them will while respecting your own space and needs. Use words like, “I wish/hope/want you to be happy/feel better/have a good evening,… but I need/would like/want to get some rest/see my old friend/catch up on reading….”

If the other person gets angry or feels hurt when you state your needs, then you may need to disengage from that relationship. A relationship that requires you to suppress your own needs to satisfy another person’s is not reciprocal or ultimately, sustainable. Alternatively, a relationship in which each person is primarily responsible for expressing and pursuing their own desires while being considerate of the other person fosters freedom, vitality, accountability, and long-term sustainability.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD