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Couple Therapy Part 2: Fusion or Differentiation

In my work with couples for over thirty years, the balance ratio of fusion and differentiation is an important indicator of couple health. Let’s clarify these concepts beginning with fusion. The classic photo of two Americans traveling in similar Hawaiian shirts in Europe engenders the flavor — two matching bookends. Of course, individuals in a couple create resonance together that influences life style choices, plans, activities, outlooks on life and everyday habits. That resonance, as displayed in a variety of ways, helps the couple align and function with ease. The relationship can hum with the rhythm of basic routines, worked-out choices and habits that allow each individual a level of comfort in the similarity and consistency of their acquired lifestyle and tastes.

Problems can emerge when there is an inner psychological pull to give up one’s individuality in order to keep peace in the couple and maintain it — in spite of the personal costs. This type of contamination—resulting in a chronic loss of self — can enter into every aspect of one’s individual life and take it over. Sometimes one partner may be self-centered, dominating and demanding, or act entitled, while the other plays out a coping style marked by compliance and pleasing due to feelings of intimidation. This is one couple dynamic and there are others. Another dynamic is the caretaker/giver who finds a partner who can’t take care of himself, is non-activated and relies on the caretaker to survive, while the caretaker is reassured by the other’s dependency. If our attachment needs are such that we give ourselves over to another then we have gone too far in the merger. Couples are willing to give a lot to each other to maintain the coupledom, as it is a primary source of emotional sustenance, but that giving must be tempered by commitment to self.

David Schnarch, Ph.D. in Passionate Marriage, discusses this problematic couple situation. He states clearly that both the drive for togetherness and the drive for individuality are healthy aspects of any couple. The drive for togetherness includes: partnership, collaboration, transparency, mutual respect, support and surrender to the other in significant ways. This allows for cooperation, giving-in, generosity and trust of the other to have your best interests at heart. The drive for individuality means we exist as separate individuals within the couple, with our own sense of responsibility and destiny — with our own needs, rhythms, desires, and longings. We all have our unique personal beliefs, goals, meaning and identity (hopefully). When togetherness and individuality are balanced, we have a thriving relationship rather than two lost individuals in an emotional fusion.

When we are differentiated, we can follow our own directives even if pressured by friends and family to reorient. We trust ourselves to be our best guide although we are open and can readily take in input non-defensively. Most importantly, we never lose ourselves to another but maintain our personal integrity. That is the foundation of our life and we know where we stand. Because we have established a strong individual foundation, we can be flexible and agreeable if we are not personally compromised. If we disagree, we can hold our position without being overwhelmed with anxiety that we have alienated our partner.

If we feel that we have to sacrifice what is dear to us in order to maintain the relationship, we get into trouble. If the couple is controlled by what Schnarch calls a “single-mind”, then each has given up their individual identities. The fusion fantasy has expectations and demands that become impossible to live with. There are no boundaries, only the expectation of agreement and compliance; “they are controlled by their connection”. This fusion leads to what we call “preoccupied attachment”: constant concern and anxiety about the other – what is he doing thinking and feeling. Or a partner will demand perfect mirroring and feels angry if he doesn’t get it. Both partners pull for constant validation and are angry if it is not forthcoming. They are displaying their lack of inner resources.

The fused state in couples leads to a variety of problems such as a sense of engulfment or alienation as individuals create distance to recapture their individuality. To sustain the fusion, one partner may stop the other from growing, changing or succeeding — as it threatens the fused status quo.

If we did not cultivate independence, autonomy, or what Jung called individuation within our families of origin then we might demand similar enmeshment from our current partners much as our parents expected from us. Many adults never leave home literally or figuratively. They stay fused with parental figures all their adult life. If our parents demanded that we conform to their standards, meet their expectations, or criticized us when we expressed our own uniqueness, we might be prone to fusion in our relationships. Or, if we were ignored and abandoned by parents, we may be overly clingy with mates as we fear abandonment — we feel losing ourselves may be a necessary sacrifice as an antidote to our deep feelings of loss. The anxiety created by autonomy is too much to bear; the feelings of life-long abandonment too pervasive, so we comply, sacrifice, or manipulate the other to provide us with a sense of security. We may protect ourselves by distancing, retreating, and defensive detachment and self-sufficiency – that style prevents us from getting too attached and vulnerable in the first place.

Health is a balance between our drive for connectedness while sustaining our individuality. We become interdependent with our mates if we are distinct individuals. Highly differentiated people can have strong connections, deep bonds and do not require physical or emotional distance to maintain their sense of wholeness. If you inhabit yourself, you do not need to be defensive. Tell the truth about what you feel, disclose your feelings, thoughts and be honest about situations in your life. Allow your partner to absorb those even if she doesn’t agree rather than communicate obliquely to ensure you or your partner is less threatened. Take the risk to be yourself fully and completely in the couple and allow your partner to be who she is and see where you meet. Then both can learn flexibility, ease, tolerance and spaciousness for the real other. In this climate, tenderness has a chance to grow.

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