Back from a long hiatus...lots of reasons for it, no excuses. I'll try to keep them to a minimum from here on out. The summer is coming, which is typically a slower time for my job.
When we left off, we were discussing the role of emotional fusion in romantic relationships. I'm pretty convinced that every young romance deals with this to some degree, especially young college students, many of whom are trying to establish an identity separate from their parents. But how does one know whether emotional fusion is an issue? This is my attempt to articulate some of the problems that arise in a relationship from it...
One of the best tests of whether a couple is emotionally fused or not is how they handle conflict. Emotionally fused relationships often struggle to live in any sort of disagreement. Because individuals in emotionally fused couples define intimacy as “getting what I want” they will often listen only to those messages that make them feel loved. But as therapist David Schnarch puts it,
"Communication is no assurance of intimacy if you can’t stand the message. “Good communication” is often mistaken for your partner perceiving you the way you want to be seen or understood. “We don’t communicate” is code for “I refuse to accept that message—send me a different one! How dare you see me [or the issue] that way!” People attempt to put boundaries on their ‘nakedness’ with the other people, wanting only to hear good things about themselves. They want the fig leaves to remain up. When the fig leaves come off and criticism comes out, they will often react defensively or with a similar assault. The primal response of “fight or flight” takes over, causing needy individuals to withdraw in denial or attack in anger.
Managing conflict, then, is a crucial skill for any relationship. It is essential to be open an honest with our frustrations and feelings, but not necessarily as we are feeling them. One of the best things my wife and I did while we were dating was take “Laguna trips.” We would drive to Laguna Beach once a month and sit and talk about the frustrations we had felt and the problems in the relationship that we discerned. They were difficult conversations, but the structured and intentional setting helped us manage the conflict. And what’s more, I knew that when my wife did say something that was bothering her, she had thought about it for a long time and wasn’t saying it to hurt me or harm me. Though it didn’t feel like it, I knew that she told me because she wanted to help me grow in holiness and love.
What I realized during those same “Laguna trips,” though, is that emotionally fused individuals are not particularly good at receiving criticism. Because my identity was wrapped up in my girlfriend, criticism felt like she didn’t love me. Because my sense of self was tied to her perspective, I wanted to feel loved, and hearing about her frustrations just didn’t do it for me. Remember, for emotionally fused individuals, intimacy often means ‘getting what I want.’ I began to realize that I was resistant to criticism in part because I was concerned it would lead to rejection (as it had so many times prior). I wanted her to see me as good and perfect—to see only the fig leaves—and her (often very true!) criticisms revealed the deeper sins I wanted to hide from her. Each “Laguna trip” was a test of courage for me: would I open myself and acknowledge the sins my girlfriend already saw? Or would I feel threatened and resist her by attempting to persuade her that she was wrong in her assessment?
Not surprisingly, one of the major struggles of young relationships is jealousy. And not surprisingly, emotionally fused relationships are often jealous relationships. Because the identity of each person is in the other, any potential rejection is seen as a threat that must be cut off. Every effort is often made to protect the other person from leaving, an attitude that breeds suspicion and fear. For insecure people, conversations between our partners and other attractive and engaging people can remind us of the possibility of betrayal. Envy and jealousy are the only possibilities in this sort of environment.
Another major struggle for new relationships is “distance.” In chapter two, I mentioned that some relationships become “joined-at-the-hip.” Any type of distance in the relationship becomes troublesome. Because the couple is emotionally fused, they want to constantly feel loved by the other, which means constantly being around the other. But “I-Thou” relationships, such as Adam and Eve had before the fall, necessarily have distance. There is a dash between the “I” and “Thou,” a dash that indicates difference and unlikeness. “I” is not “Thou,” and because “I” doesn’t need “Thou,” they can be apart from each other, both physically and relationally. But for emotionally fused individuals, emotional (and physical!) distance is difficult. Boundaries indicate distance, but boundaries exist to prevent us from getting what we want, which makes emotionally fused people feel unloved. Distance means distinction, and distinction means potential rejection. And rejection is, well, highly undesirable.
It is for this reason that many young people will often complain about feeling ‘suffocated’ in their relationships. They are, whether they know it or not, emotionally fused to the other person. The key lines to listen for are, “I just need my space” or “I need my freedom.” It is a sure sign that the boundaries between the two individuals have been blurred, that they have traded their “I-Thou” relationship for emotional fusion. The painful irony of emotional fusion is that it devours both people, not just one. As each person struggles to maintain a sense of identity that is not dependant upon the other person, the relationship will often swing from being “joined-at-the-hip” to total isolation, and back again. “Breaking up” never solves the central issue, which is the problem that made the relationship turn bad to begin with. And as a result, after a period of time individuals will often gravitate back toward the same person or a similar person.
There is one final indicator. Just like Adam and Eve clothed themselves in fig leaves, individuals who are emotionally fused will also practice what is known as “self-presentation.” Unlike the self-disclosure required for intimacy, self-presentation seeks to protect the inner depths of a person by presenting only those aspects that the other might consider valuable. As David Schnarch puts it,
To accomplish this less than virtuous goal, you start misrepresenting, omitting, and shading information about who you really are (self-presentation), rather than disclosing the full range of yourself (intimacy). Self-presentation is the opposite of intimacy; it is a charade rather than an unmasking. The problem of self-presentation is often attributed to dating. But the problem is deeper than the system—it is an indication of a genuine lack of maturity and wholeness by those who are dating. Fundamentally, it is a problem in the people, not in the culture.
The need to “self-present” is, in fact, painfully obvious in realms beyond romance. It seems clear that in youth culture and beyond, acceptance is often measured by something as shallow as wearing the right clothes or having the right hairstyle. We place an extraordinary amount of significance on looking and dressing a certain way. But our addiction to fashion is simply an indication that we are dependant upon others for love. Because we are persuaded that beauty and value lie in the eyes of the beholder, young men and women must move heaven and earth to appear beautiful to that beholder. Though much has been made of this problem for women, young men are spending increasing amounts of time in the weight room in order to achieve ‘the look.’ Without it, they run the risk of not getting women, who are starting to prefer younger, better looking men. The important point is that emotional problems are equal-opportunity. They do not privilege one gender over another.
Exit question: anyone still there?