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When Emotional Fusion Happens

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? 


Thank you so much for all your posts.

I'm here, too. Give me a few days.

Still here Matt.

The last couple of posts I didn't comment. I agreed with those who did comment a dissenting opinion. Those last few posts were difficult for me to read. I used to think a lot like you before my adulterous spouse decided to divorce me. By the way, adultery is a form of severe emotional abuse. Enough said.

This post is perfect for my 17 year old daughter to read and understand. She will relate to this. I hope it will help her identify the unhealthy emotional patterns that she has adopted.

I like your emphasis on the equal opportunity issue that emotional problems exist for both genders. However, I question a bit your claim that the problem is in the people not in the culture. While I do think you can't blame everything on culture, the unmasking issue seems to be emphasized in our culture compared to history. You spent a lot of posts explaining the history of courtship/dating etc.... how things have changed etc.... It seems like you have shifted your explanations using maturity as a risk factor rather than culture.

With all the selected digital photos posted now a days, how can any young person even think of unmasking the real them. Our culture clearly has an impact on how we enter into dating relationships and marriage relationships. Does it take even more maturity than it did in years past to overcome the impact of culture?


Thanks for the feedback. I appreciate you sticking around, and I hope you were not offended by what I said. I realize that I'm young and I could change my mind on all of this stuff, but I have yet to see a good reason to. If you ever want to write more about your experiences (privately or publicly), I'd love to hear from you what you learned. I realize that those are very intimate and difficult thoughts, but as someonoe who is pursuing wisdom (like you clearly are), I think you have things to teach me.

I think you're right to point out the tension between culture and the individual. My thought is that this culture makes it more difficult for individuals to navigate these issues well in part because it is so individualistic--the lack of social structure places an enormous responsibility on individuals to make good decisions. And conversely, I think that the lack of social structures has exposed the ways in which young people are immature. So on the one hand, young people are in a situation where they are expected to make adult-like decisions, but on the other hand we have woefully equipped them to make those good decisions.

So I am close to speaking out of both sides of my mouth, and I realize that. I think culture has shaped the way young people think and act, but on the other hand it has left them in a position where they as individuals have to *be good people* if they want to survive this realm. Hence my focus on the individual and how to experience transformation and having a good decision making process, rather than on what the right way to find a spouse is....



Here's some information (albeit not authoritative) that helps describe what can happen as a result of infidelity. It's a near perfect description of what happened to me. The weirdest thing about my divorce experience is that I found that human behavior is very predictable (and well documented by many sources). Divorce stories are eerily similar. My story is not unique.

I'm not looking for sympathy or a response, just to help give some perspective.

Firstly, am I correct in seeing this emotional fusion you have been talking about in "ffbf" as the basing your identity in the other person? or is one the result of the other?

How do we avoid becoming emotionally fused when we enter into a relationship? I remember you saying something like having our identity in Christ beforehand, but even with this, can't we actually have an identity in both? how do we remain two individuals (in Christ) and not become this (IThou)? especially in marriage. I guess another way asking it might be how do we practice intimacy and closeness without becoming "one"?

another question, in marriage we are supposed to be naked and unashamed. How "naked" should we be in a pre-marriage relationship? (not, of course, in the physical sense :)) surely we should be completely truthful with our girlfriends, but are we supposed to be completely open about every single thing. I think that love can absolutely accept and continue to love after mistakes and evil have been confessed. But this is very scary outside of marriage. Do we risk it? or are there boudaries to be set up with this complete transparency? (this is funny because I feel it is right to be completely transparent with your friends, granted I usually reserve this for my closest and most trusted friends. But is friendship different than significant-othership in this matter?)((is this a part of the emotional boundaries we talked about it, or if it is not a direct part, can it influence it indirectly?)

for the kingdom, for the king!


Great questions. Allow me to take them systematically, with a few "punts" as I will probably address these issues more in later writings.

"Firstly, am I correct in seeing this emotional fusion you have been talking about in "ffbf" as the basing your identity in the other person? or is one the result of the other?" Yes.

"How do we avoid becoming emotionally fused when we enter into a relationship? I remember you saying something like having our identity in Christ beforehand, but even with this, can't we actually have an identity in both?"

I don't think so. Having someone's actions affect your emotions doesn't entail that your identity is then dependent upon that person's actions. The former exists in I/Thou relationships, while in the latter one person is consumed by the other. How do you avoid emotional fusion? In some ways, you can't. I was realizing this week, actually, the ways in which my emotions are currently dependent upon my wife's actions toward me. I hadn't realized that before. I think the only hope is to acknowledge (confess!) the situation and ask the Lord to help you ground yourself in His love, rather than your spouse's. In doing that, you can still be emotional around your spouse, but appropriately so--you can mourn when she mourns and weep when she weeps, and be open to her anger without feeling threatened by it and be happy by her expressions of love without being consumed by them. In other words, it removes people from HAVING to respond to the other person. Emotionally fused people are in relationships where they necessarily have to react in particular ways, since their identity is based on the other person.

"how do we remain two individuals (in Christ) and not become this (IThou)? especially in marriage. I guess another way asking it might be how do we practice intimacy and closeness without becoming "one"?"

Great question. If you are married, you will inevitably discover that the other person has a real will and real emotions that are separate from your own--and if they don't, you will find yourself hating their easy compliance to your wishes and WANT to fight. You can't be happy long in a relationship where two people aren't free to be themselves, which is why the whole structure of marriage is a sanctifying structure--it forces people to learn to free the other from our obligations and expectations. We can make them in our own self-image, but neither of us will be happy very long when that happens.

"another question, in marriage we are supposed to be naked and unashamed. How "naked" should we be in a pre-marriage relationship? (not, of course, in the physical sense :)) surely we should be completely truthful with our girlfriends, but are we supposed to be completely open about every single thing?"

This is a great question. I think I'll almost certainly address these sorts of questions in the last section. I would suggest that you reveal enough so that the other person can make an informed decision, and that you not deceive. And I think there is some development that needs to occur naturally. You might, for instance, reveal more of yourself once you are engaged than you would previously. But outside of sins committed against each other--which need to be confessed and dealt with always--I don't think it's good to view each other as 'spiritual accountability partners' while still dating. I do think the risk is too high, and the reward too minimal.

But then, all this begs the question of how long one should date. I'll address this later, but there are three questions single people need to ask:

1) Am I the marrying type?
2) Is this member of the opposite sex marryable?
3) Is this member of the opposite sex marryable TO ME?

Those three questions, I maintain, do not take long to answer. You should have (1) answered well before you start dating. Two is pretty easy, I think, to identify and people make (3) way more complex than they need to. It's a big decision, yes, but there's a ton of freedom there.

But I'm getting ahead of myself....more to come down the road, I'm sure!


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'from fire by fire' is a place to explore issues of singleness, romance and God. I want to ask better questions about these issues than any you have yet encountered...