Emotional Fusion and Differentiation of Self

race horse no riderMORE ON FUSION

Emotional fusion refers to an emotional intertwining between people and or between people and other animals or between people and objects. This is an attachment that is a part of all relationships, but varies in quantity depending on two variables: the level of chronic anxiety and the level of differentiation of self of the individuals involved. A high a degree of fusion or attachment reflects a high degree of sensitivity of people to each other and when sufficiently intense takes one of two forms: “I can’t do without you” or “I can’t stand to be around you.” Regardless of the external form fusion takes, it reflects a state of “we-ness” in that people believe, to some extent, that they must feel alike, think alike, and behave alike.

Anger and over-compliance are two sides of the same coin. Both are the result of fusion or the inability to function, the result of having thoughts and actions determined by others.

The following is from The Bowen Family Center and written by Michael Kerr, MD.


Families and other social groups tremendously affect how people think, feel, and act, but individuals vary in their susceptibility to a “group think” and groups vary in the amount of pressure they exert for conformity. These differences between individuals and between groups reflect differences in people’s levels of differentiation of self. The less developed a person’s “self,” the more impact others have on his functioning and the more he tries to control, actively or passively, the functioning of others. The basic building blocks of a “self” are inborn, but an individual’s family relationships during childhood and adolescence primarily determine how much “self” he develops. Once established, the level of “self” rarely changes unless a person makes a structured and long-term effort to change it.

People with a poorly differentiated “self” depend so heavily on the acceptance and approval of others that either they quickly adjust what they think, say, and do to please others or they dogmatically proclaim what others should be like and pressure them to conform. Bullies depend on approval and acceptance as much as chameleons, but bullies push others to agree with them rather than their agreeing with others. Disagreement threatens a bully as much as it threatens a chameleon. An extreme rebel is a poorly differentiated person too, but he pretends to be a “self” by routinely opposing the positions of others.

A person with a well-differentiated “self” recognizes his realistic dependence on others, but he can stay calm and clear headed enough in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotionality. Thoughtfully acquired principles help guide decision-making about important family and social issues, making him less at the mercy of the feelings of the moment. What he decides and what he says matches what he does. He can act selflessly, but his acting in the best interests of the group is a thoughtful choice, not a response to relationship pressures. Confident in his thinking, he can either support another’s view without being a disciple or reject another view without polarizing the differences. He defines himself without being pushy and deals with pressure to yield without being wishy-washy.

Every human society has its well-differentiated people, poorly differentiated people, and people at many gradations between these extremes. Consequently, the families and other groups that make up a society differ in the intensity of their emotional interdependence depending on the differentiation levels of their members. The more intense the interdependence, the less the group’s capacity to adapt to potentially stressful events without a marked escalation of chronic anxiety. Everyone is subject to problems in his work and personal life, but less differentiated people and families are vulnerable to periods of heightened chronic anxiety which contributes to their having a disproportionate share of society’s most serious problems.


The example of the Michael, Martha, Amy triangle reflects how a lack of differentiation of self plays out in a family unit; in their case, a moderately differentiated unit. (Triangles example ) The description that follows is of how this triangle would play out if Michael, Martha, and Amy were more differentiated people.

Michael and Martha were quite happy during the first two years of their marriage. He liked making the major decisions, but did not assume he knew “best.” He always told Martha what he was thinking and he listened carefully to her ideas. Their exchanges were usually thoughtful and led to decisions that respected the vital interests of both people. Martha had always been attracted to Michael’s sense of responsibility and willingness to make decisions, but she also lived by a principle that she was responsible for thinking things through for herself and telling Michael what she thought. She did not assume Michael usually knew “best.”

Analysis: Because the level of stress on a marriage is often less during the early years, particularly before the births of children and the addition of other responsibilities, the less adaptive moderately differentiated marriage and the more adaptive well-differentiated marriage can look similar because the tension level is low. Stress is necessary to expose the limits of a family’s adaptive capacity.

Martha conceived during the third year of the marriage and had a fairly smooth pregnancy. She had a few physical problems, but dealt with them with equanimity. She was somewhat anxious about being an adequate mother but felt she could manage these fears.

When she talked to Michael about her fears, she did not expect that he would solve them for her, but she thought more clearly about her fears when she talked them out with him. He listened but was not patronizing. He recognized his own fears about the coming changes in their lives and acknowledged them to Martha.

Analysis: The stresses associated with the real and anticipated changes of the pregnancy trigger some anxiety in both Michael and Martha, but their interaction does not escalate the anxiety and make it chronic. Martha had somewhat heightened needs and expectations of Michael, but she takes responsibility for managing her anxiety and has realistic expectations about what he can do for her. Michael does not get particularly reactive to Martha’s expectations and recognizes he is anxious too. Each remains a resource to the other.

A female infant was born after a fairly smooth labor. They named her Amy. Martha weathered the delivery fairly well and was ready to go home when her doctor discharged her. The infant care over the next few months was physically exhausting for Martha, but she was not heavily burdened by anxieties about the baby or about her adequacy as a mother. She continued to talk to Michael about her thoughts and feelings and still did not feel he was supposed to do something to make her feel better. Although Michael had increasing work pressures he remained emotionally available to her, even if only by phone at times. He worried about work issues, but did not ruminate about them to Martha. When she asked how it was going, he responded fairly factually and appreciated her interest. He occasionally wished Martha would not get anxious about things, but realized she could manage. He was not compelled to “fix” things for her.

Analysis: Sure of herself as a person, Martha is able to relate to Amy without feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities and demands and without unfounded fears about the child’s well-being. Sure of himself, Michael can meet the reality demands of his job without feeling guilty that he is neglecting Martha. Each spouse recognizes the pressure the other is under and neither makes a “federal case” about being neglected. Each is sufficiently confident in the other’s loyalty and commitment that neither needs much reassurance about it. By the parents relating comfortably to each other, Amy is not triangled into marital tensions. She does not have a void to fill in her mother’s life related to distance between her parents.

After a few months, Michael and Martha were able to find time to do some things by themselves. Martha found that her anxieties about being a mother toned down and she did not worry much about Amy. As Amy grew, Martha did not perceive her as an insecure child that needed special attention. She was positive about Amy, but not constantly praising her in the name of reinforcing Amy’s self-image. Michael and Martha discussed their thoughts and feelings about Amy, but they were not preoccupied with her. They were pleased to have her and took pleasure in watching her develop. Amy grew to be a responsible young child. She sensed the limits of what was realistic for her parents to do for her and respected those limits. There were few demands and no tantrums. Michael did not feel critical of Amy very often and Martha did not defend Amy to him when he was critical. Martha figured Michael and Amy could manage their relationship. Amy seemed equally comfortable with both of her parents and relished exploring her environment.

Analysis: Michael and Martha can see Amy as a separate and distinct person. The beginning differentiation between Amy and her parents is evident when Amy is a young child. They have adapted quite successfully to the anxieties they each experienced associated with the addition of a child and the increased demands in Michael’s work life. Their high levels of differentiation allow the three of them to be in close contact with little triangling.



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