The process of creating a “self”
A relationship, by definition, requires more than one person. It is the state of being related to another. If two persons become emotionally and functionally one, there is no relationship. For us to relate in an effective and satisfying way to one another, we must first know who we are as individuals. This, in turn, informs us about what we bring to a relationship. If we cannot stand on our own, buoyed by a strong sense of our own identity, we cannot stand together with any strength or integrity.
Murray Bowen, a psychiatrist and pioneer in the field of Family Therapy, has heavily influenced my thinking in this regard. Bowen’s work centered on the concept of “differentiation” as a critical goal in human development. Bowen stressed the importance of creating a well-differentiated sense of “self”; a clear idea of who we are and who we choose to be in relationship to others. Once we are clear about who we are, we are ready to explore who we are together.
If we are well differentiated, we are able to identify who we are and what we think, feel and believe, and are able to state this in a clear, calm manner. If we are well differentiated, we can take “I position” stands and not blame our emotional responses on the behaviors of others. If we are well differentiated, we are able to remain clear headed in the face of conflict and respond/act on the basis of our beliefs. If we are well differentiated, we can be in the presence of others who are experiencing strong emotions without becoming engulfed by those emotions. We can reflect on what we are hearing and observing, but still remain calm enough to reflect upon the response we choose to offer. We define ourselves, rather than being defined by others.
If we are well differentiated, we can also tolerate separateness. It does not cause us to feel anxious, but becomes an opportunity for reflection and growth. If we are apart from others, we do not feel lost, lonely or “undefined.” We do not rush to fill the void, demanding that our partner or others “be there” for us. Our sense of self remains strong.
If we do not achieve adequate differentiation, we remain emotionally “fused.” If we are emotionally fused, feelings overwhelm thinking. We become overwhelmed and confused and have difficulty distinguishing our ideas and beliefs from those of others or our feelings from the feelings of another. We can assume that others must agree with us, or we can feel irresistibly pulled into taking on the ideas and beliefs of others. Hence, if we are emotionally fused, we may attempt to draw others into our subjective experience, demanding that they feel and react the same way. Or we may adapt to what others think and say without giving thought to what we think or how we might wish to respond. In the world of the fused person, this is regarded as love, loyalty and understanding. In the world of mental health, fusion is not confused with love, loyalty and understanding. If we are emotionally fused, we lack the clarity to listen carefully, reflect thoughtfully and approach situations from a position of empathy. Without this ability, there is a limited capacity for love and understanding. Instead, we experience identification and dependency. The anxiety produced by this kind of relationship continues to fuel unhealthy patterns of interaction.
Another manifestation of emotional fusion can be the creation of a “distance/pursuer” dynamic. In this scenario, one person over-functions while the other under-functions. The over-functioning partner attempts to keep the relationship going by compensating for the inadequacies of the under-functioning partner, even offering excuses for this person. The over-functioning partner also typically attempts to coerce or bully the under-functioning partner into meeting his/her needs, often with poor results. In contrast, the under-functioning partner typically takes a passive stance, making half-hearted attempts to meet the requests/demands of the over-functioning partner, or ignoring these requests/demands altogether.
A third manifestation of fusion and the emotional reactivity this generates is emotional disengagement. If we are emotionally fused, we have difficulty tolerating our own emotions and the strong emotions of others. While this may create conflict and chaos in our relationships, it can just as easily generate the strong desire to emotionally disengage. When this occurs, we create distance in relationships or cut the other person off entirely. We can feel that this is a calm, rational stance. After all, we are no longer affected by the crazy, unreasonable behavior of the other, right? Unfortunately, this act is fruitless. Emotional cut offs don’t reflect healthy independence. They are a form of pseudo-independence that is created when closeness is too threatening. For the pseudo-independent person, closeness is anxiety-provoking because it is not possible to become close without losing one’s sense of “self.” If we disengage, we are still emotionally reactive, both because the original relationship problem has not been resolved and because it is highly likely that our reactivity will simply transpose itself upon another relationship.
If we choose to disengage, we may also decide to ease our emotional tension by directing our focus elsewhere. We may drink too much, have an affair, discuss our relationship problems at length with our friends and confidants (but not with the person who is the locus of the unhappiness), form intense attachments with our children as a way of avoiding our partner or spouse or turn to our parents hoping they will be our allies. Unfortunately, while these tactics might ease our feeling of tension, they will do nothing to address or resolve the existing relationship problem. And, again, they do not have an impact upon our emotional reactivity. It will continue to thrive, finding another relationship in which to put down roots.
Martha Jackson Oppeneer, D.Min., LMFT