By: Mary Grace Garis.
Have your thoughts, emotions, and activities become completely entangled with those of another person? Have you been kneecapping your independence out of fear of hurting your partner’s feeling? You might be experiencing emotional fusion, a psychological enmeshing that’s part of Bowen’s Family System Theory. Some experts believe emotional fusion more common under circumstances such as, I don’t know, a pandemic that keeps us inside all the time. If it’s happening to you, it might be time to perform an emotional operation.
When living through a pandemic together, it might feel like it’s you and your loved one against the world. You might even feel like you’re merging into a singular entity for survival (and then worrying about provoking the other for fear of losing that bond). A certain status quo will develop, and anything that might seem like a threat to that structure—new friends, taking a workout class solo, anything asserting independence—might be sabotaged.
People who are predisposed to this strain of codependency usually adopt anti-independent behaviors early in life. “Emotional fusion can happen when someone grew up in a family that did not promote or allow independence,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT. “Often, these children grow up needing others to dictate how they feel or how they move in the world. There is no sense of an internal compass that allows them to direct themselves. They often times look to others to reflect who they are and maintain their sense of self and self-esteem.”
Some people are certainly more susceptible to emotional fusion. But now, in month a million of the COVID-19 pandemic, every household has become a small country. We spend so much time with our partners, our family members, our roommates, and we’re literally in survival mode. This can intensify emotional enmeshing, and over time, your own opinions, independence, and sense of identity can feel lost.
“When spending so much time with each other during quarantine, it’s easy to become emotionally infused with your partner,” says Thompson. “As there isn’t much else going on out in the world, partners often times feel that they should be spending every moment together and start to get hurt when a partner goes outside and initiates connection with someone else. It’s important to retain some sense of independence, even during quarantine and in a loving and connected partnership.”
The signs of emotional fusion to look for
1. Feeling responsible for your partners emotions
This isn’t regulated to simply wanting to make someone happy—like, you want to make your partner smile, and you definitely want to recognize someone’s feelings. With emotional fusion, you sort of live with a concern about rocking the boat.
“Emotional fusion can look like having a deep sense of responsibility for your partners reactions,” says Thompson. “You can also feel like you shouldn’t do or say anything that will upset your partner.”
It’s all about making decisions strictly based how your partner may feels. If it helps, think about micro-decisions (“Should I got for a walk by myself?”), not life-altering choices (“I wonder if Jane would be upset if I moved to Peru”). If you’re holding yourself back from taking a mid-day stroll because your partner’s working and might feel left out, that’s a fusion problem.
2. Taking on the responses and reactions as someone else
“When partners are emotionally fused they feel like their partner’s responses become their own and they can often take things very personally,” says Thompson.
I’m laughing because my roommate and I do a superficial version of this; we mark our likes and dislikes with “we” (i.e., “We love The Weeknd,””Do we want to get a TikTok?” “Oh my god, we HATE the winter”). That’s probably cute to a hard end point. But emotional fusion is akin to that—you suddenly adopt the viewpoint of “we” on everything.
You might become outraged if they’re outraged, get upset if they’re upset, and so on. If your partner does feel betrayed that you took a walk and reacted badly, you might adopt the immediate feeling of “oh man, I’m such an asshole, I broke the chain, we’re not supposed to do walks separately.” You did nothing wrong, friend. It’s a 15 minute stroll! We all have to see the sun sometime!
3. One party is highly reactive when someone wants to do their own thing
When you’re experiencing emotional fusion, someone or both of you get really stung when someone wants to do anything, anything separate from the other person.
“Allowing true independence is often times met with resistance or emotional withdrawal or meltdown in your partner,” says Thompson. “There may be a feeling of betrayal if your partner wants to do some thing without you.”
Does this sound like a dynamic you have in your household? Well, the first thing you want to do is investigate the origin of this emotional fusion, do a little inner work with yourself or a mental health professional. Get to the bottom of why it’s happening, and see if you can get a deeper understanding so that you can work on shifting and changing it. Once you figure out what’s causing the fusion, it’ll help you know what to do next.
And then? Make concrete steps towards asserting your independence.
“Start making plans with other friends that do not involve your partner,” says Thompson. “Take time away from your partner in ways that feel good and pleasing to you. Notice when talking to your partner if you are super invested in how they feel and think and try to detach yourself before asking their opinion or advice. Find ways to ground and settle yourself and ask yourself often ‘what do I want’ and ‘how do I feel.'”
Of course, the roots might be too deep to handle on your own—if you believe you need emotional surgery, you might want to consider seeing a therapist or counselor. But know that it is very possible to get yourself unstuck from someone and enjoy a healthier, freeing relationship.
Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist