I often hear complaints from women that they
don’t even know who they are anymore.
They’ve been married for ten or twenty years, raised children, had
careers, and somehow they’ve lost their core sense of self. They think the solution is to leave the
relationship to find their true selves.
What they are experiencing is emotional fusion,
and the cure lies in the process of differentiation. David Schnarch, in Passionate Marriage,
refers to the process of differentiation as a “process by which we become more
uniquely ourselves by maintaining ourselves in relationship with those we love.”
Emotional fusion is often mistaken for
love. It is not; it is love’s poor
step-sister. Emotional fusion occurs in
nearly every relationship to some degree.
Beginning with our family of origin, we are taught at an early age which
behaviors are acceptable and will result in our parents expressing their love
for us. We learn to mold ourselves into
the person our parents want us to be.
When we rebel, we are attempting to differentiate ourselves, which is
healthy and necessary for emotional growth.
Depending on the level of emotional fusion in your family of origin,
either those rebellious moments will be squelched completely, you will be
encouraged to express yourself in harmless ways, or something in between.
By the time we are old enough to engage in
romantic relationships, our individual sense of self has been fused to our role
within the family unit. We then bring
that reflected sense of self into the romantic relationship, carrying with us
all of the unexpressed parts of ourselves stuffed in the back of our emotional
closet. In rare cases, we emerge from
childhood with a strong individual sense of self. More frequently, we have a weak sense of self
and build upon that with each successive romantic relationship.
At some point, we rebel at this reflected
sense of self. Our souls deeply desire
to authentically express who we really are. This often happens with women in their 40’s
and 50’s who feel like they have to leave their relationship to find
themselves. This longing for authentic
expression becomes more painful than the sense of security, safety and fusion
(which we mistake for love) we get from remaining in the relationship.
The problem with leaving the relationship to
find yourself is this: you are still
enmeshed in an other-reflected sense of self.
What typically happens is that you leave the relationship and “fall in
love” again within six months. It’s not
love; it’s fusion. You become enmeshed
once more, but while in the honeymoon phase, you either don’t notice the fusion
or don’t care.
The only complete way to heal from emotional
fusion is this process of differentiation.
By definition, it means you remain in the relationship and use it as a
tool for identifying your sense of self.
In this method, you use the relationship to show you how you are fused
and unwind yourself from there. You look
at all the ways your partner irritates you to uncover what you make those
things mean about who you are as a person.
The problem with leaving your relationship
to heal from fusion is that eventually you’ll want to be in another
relationship. Even if you commit to
remaining single and working with a coach or therapist for at least a year, some
of the wounds of fusion can only be healed while in a relationship. Theory will only take you so far; then you
have to practice it.
Differentiation is the process of learning
to love the unique person you are. Are
you ready to give it a try?