It’s about emotional processes.
I often think of the concepts of emotional distance and fusion as opposites, but are they? Dr. Bowen borrowed the concepts of fusion and differentiation from biological processes. Differentiation is the process of cells being fully functioning yet connected. A cell operates both independently yet with a level of interdependence with other cells. Fusion describes a necessary but less mature state of cellular development. Dr. Bowen wrote about a pattern of emotional functioning where individuals went through cycles of closeness and distance. I think it’s important to remember that these terms relate to the emotional functioning and emotional processes that take place in any relationship. I think it’s important to remember that fusion is emotional fusion.
Fusion – not connected, not separate
An emotionally “fused” person is reactive to the thoughts, feelings, and actions of others. Subjectivity, emotion, and feelings influence their thinking process. Emotional fusion results in behaviours that exist along a continuum. On one end, it’s “I can’t live without you,” and on the other, it’s “I can’t live with you”. On one end, a person will do anything to keep the relationship going. But reactivity in the relationship can make it hard to live with a person. Think of a bad dance partner that won’t let you lead. It would be exhausting, right? For most couples, a relationship where one person leads badly doesn’t work for at least one of the two. Unless one is happy to lead and the other is happy to follow – no matter what. So how does “I can’t live without you” work?
Emotional distance – not connected, but separate
On the other end, an individual will do anything to avoid the relationship. This avoidance is emotional distance. Getting emotionally distant lowers the discomfort created by an individual’s inability to be emotionally separate while in the relationship. The discomfort of giving up self in emotional fusion leads to one wanting some emotional distance to hold on to self. This can manifest as conflict, not taking part in activities, getting too drunk to be present, getting sick, or seeking physical distance. But just like fusion, the underlying level of immaturity, reactivity, or level of differentiation hasn’t changed, only the level of immediate discomfort.
Differentiation – connected but separate
How does one not give up dancing? By being a better-defined dance partner! Differentiation is my ability to be responsible for myself while recognizing my interdependence with others. The path to greater differentiation includes becoming more accountable for myself and less expecting others to be responsible for me. To the degree that I want or need others to make me feel worthy, safe, accepted, important – in short, to be responsible for my insecurities and anxiety, I will “need” a relationship. I will go along, i.e. emotionally fuse, to keep the relationship harmonious. However, over time, my neediness and insecurity can lead to a lot of reactivity and tension.
A more differentiated individual will have a better emotional connection because there is less fusion and distance. A good emotional connection is where either individual is free to communicate and discuss whatever they desire. Both emotional fusion and emotional distance prevent a good emotional connection.
Use reactivity as information
A less fused, more differentiated person is less reactive to the feelings, thoughts, and actions of others. Their thinking processes are more rational and thoughtful. They are more aware of the difference between facts versus opinions. They are more aware of how feelings influence their thinking and actions. These individuals would use feelings as information while not assuming they are facts. For example, I may feel that my partner is angry with me, but that might not be factually true. But since I am curious about the feeling and have a good emotional connection, I am free to discuss this with my partner.
No matter where one is on the continuum of differentiation, the work is the same. Working at defining a self in my important relationships is never-ending! I can improve my emotional connection with others. I can also get better at being a more responsible self while appreciating my interdependence with others and the planet. After all, who wants to give up dancing?
Posted by Dave Galloway
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Here is a good video from the Family Matters YouTube channel.
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