It’s a normal part of being human to want really great relationships with others; we are born with a drive to form attachments and connections and this carries throughout our life.
But sometimes we want these great relationships so much that we do things that, though well-intentioned, actually harm our ability to connect with others.
One of the biggest of those things is emotional fusion.
Emotional fusion is characterized by an inability to function without relying on someone else to make you feel good about yourself.
You could also say that it’s passing responsibility for your own feelings and emotions to another person, whether that’s a spouse or romantic partner, a child, a friend, a boss, a coworker, or anyone else in your life. Similar terms would be codependency or enmeshment.
The thing is, most of us are engaging in emotional fusion all the time (myself included) at least to some degree but we don’t always realize that we are doing it. Relationships that are emotionally fused are much less likely to bring satisfaction and personal growth, so it’s important to take a look at how you might be doing it so that you can challenge yourself on it.
Let’s take a look at how this happens and what you can do about it.
What Is Emotional Fusion?
One of the easiest ways to understand emotional fusion is to think about two fundamental human needs: relatedness & autonomy.
Relatedness is that desire to form deep connections and to have great relationships, like we talked about.
Autonomy is a feeling of being able to make your own choices, the freedom to be yourself, and opportunities to develop your own talents.
The thing is, sometimes people think that these two are opposites. Like you can have one or the other but not both. But reality is that when you have both of these things, you’re going to thrive in your relationships and develop into a better version of yourself.
Challenges with Relatedness & Autonomy
So we all need both of these things, but what happens when we’ve got too much of one and not enough of the other?
It’s easy to think about what it looks like to have too much autonomy without the relatedness to balance it out. You’ve probably known people like this. They are self-centered, selfish, at the extreme maybe even narcissists.
But what does it look like to have a whole lot of relatedness without the autonomy piece? That’s when we get emotional fusion.
When you lean so hard into your relationships that you start to lose who you are, when you let your identity be entirely swallowed up in your relationships, when you rely on the approval of others, or when you feel either controlled by others or like you need to control others, you’ve got emotional fusion happening.
Let’s dig a little deeper and look at some examples.
Emotional Fusion Definition: Passing the Buck (So to Speak)
One helpful way to understand the concept of emotional fusion is through the lens of what scholars call Bowen family systems theory.
Just like any system, all pieces of it (in this case all family members) function together as a whole and each part affects the others, like it or not.
Now, recognizing that your relationships, even just a two-person relationship, link you with other people and that one’s actions can influence the other, it’s easy to see that things can get a little tricky pretty fast if even just one part stops functioning well or even has a bad day.
(I’ll tell you that right now in our family we have three teenagers, and you better believe we feel the effects of any one of them being irritable at any given time!)
But when you’re emotionally fused, this is particularly problematic because the other person’s actions are so closely tied to your own feelings that it makes it so neither can function if one is struggling.
Understanding Emotional Fusion in Pictures
Here’s a look at what I’m talking about in pictures:
This drawing represents you and another person. The arrow between you and the other person shows that there’s a relationship between you. (Remember, this can be any relationship—spouse, sibling, boss, friend, parent.)
Now, let’s say you’re frustrated because you got stuck in a really bad traffic jam while you were in a hurry (represented by the “dark cloud” over your head). If you and the other person are emotionally fused, you’re going to try to put some of the angst that you’re feeling onto your partner (represented by the squiggly line on your relationship). For example, this might mean snipping at him when you get home, even though he wasn’t there and has nothing to do with your bad experience.
And because he’s fused to you, he’s going to take your stress and own it and feel that discomfort himself as well. Maybe he’s going to feel responsible for making you feel better. (Which is NOT the same thing as giving you support after a hard day.) And now no one is happy.
What I’ve just described demonstrates an aspect of emotional fusion that Dr. David Scnarch called “borrowed functioning.”
Not having a strong sense of who you are, or in other words, being emotionally fused, can lead to being clingy or to being distant or indifferent. None of these are healthy ways to be in a relationship.
“Borrowed functioning is…like your self is a balloon your partner inflates. While you’re inflated, things seem better. You may look better, feel better, and even act better briefly, but these transfusions of ‘pseudo-self’ don’t hold up. Even if your partner doesn’t deflate you, you ‘leak’ enough to require further inflation before long.” –Dr. David Schnarch, Intimacy & Desire (pg. 44)
When you rely on someone else to keep your balloon inflated, so to speak, you’re less able to form close intimate connections, you’re likely to have more anxiety problems, and you’re likely to stunt your personal growth. (In romantic relationships, emotional fusion can also lead to lower sexual desire and less satisfaction with the sexual relationship.)
The Opposite of Emotional Fusion
In contrast, those with a strong sense of self are able to identify and acknowledge their own wishes and desires, do what they think is best, and share themselves without a constant need to be validated by others.
A person who has a strong sense of self (and is not emotionally fused with another) will be more capable of regulating her or his own emotions instead of trying to pass their anxiety or discomfort to another person.
And the other person won’t pick up the discomfort either.
Each will be capable of owning their own issues. BUT, this of course doesn’t mean they can’t support each other through trials or discomfort.
Of course they do that! They just don’t take ownership for one another’s feelings. They DO take ownership of their own actions and feelings.
Do I Have a Fused Relationship?
Remember that emotional fusion can happen in any relationship—marriage or romantic relationships, friendships, parenting, with your parents or siblings, or at work.
Most of us (maybe all of us) are engaging in emotional fusion pretty regularly, so if you are, that’s ok! You’re normal.
In fact, if you’re NOT seeing ways that you do this, take some time to watch yourself this week and notice signs of it. Recognizing it is the most important step to stopping it.
Then, learning to strengthen your sense of self will help you move out of fusion in your relationships. This means being willing to take responsibility for yourself—your desires and wishes, your strengths and shortcomings, your own discomfort or stress—rather than putting it off on other people.
Having a strong sense of self means having a clear idea of who you are without a need to have that self-concept propped up by others. When you have a stable sense of self, you are willing to see yourself completely, flaws, strengths, and everything in between, and you can authentically share who you are with another. In allowing others to see your whole soul, deep intimacy can develop.
Emotional Fusion Inventory
Consider some of these statements (taken from a Fusion with Others scale) and rate yourself on how characteristic of you they seem:
- When my spouse/partner/another person criticizes me, it bothers me for days
- I feel a need for approval from virtually everyone in my life
- I often agree with others (spouse, kids, friends) just to appease them
- I often feel unsure when others are not around to help me make a decision
- I always want other people to like me and approve of me
- I want to live up to my parent’s (or other people’s) expectations of me
- I usually need a lot of encouragement from others when starting a big job or task
- I feel it’s important to hear my parents’ (or other’s) opinions before making decisions
This can just give you an idea of some areas you might be experiencing emotional fusion (it’s certainly not all-encompassing). You can also just pay attention in your daily life to see where you see yourself doing some of these things.
What to Do About It
- The most important thing that you can do is begin to recognize areas of emotional fusion in your life, and then challenge yourself on them. Ask yourself why you are behaving as you do in that fused relationship and how you can change it.
- Learn to have a stronger sense of self by worrying less about what others think and instead, being the best you that you know how to be.
- Learn to take ownership of what you can own and to NOT take ownership of what’s not yours to own. As you do this, you will slowly feel more content and be able to grow more as a person, which will in turn help you connect with others in more meaningful ways.
Creating Connection in Relationships
Remember how I said that emotional fusion is one of the things that we do that, though possibly well-intentioned, damages our relationships? If you want to create great relationships in your life, taking a good look at the other ways you might be inadvertently harming your relationships can also be helpful.
I’ve created a free guide that walks you through 3 common barriers to connection so that you can start to overcome those and really thrive in your life.
Grab Your Free Guide to Great Connection here:
Want a really deep dive on this? Try the Authentically YOU course where we take a big look at a lot of ways that we are all acting from emotional fusion at times:
As you learn to move out of emotional fusion, you’re going to find that your relationships become much stronger and more connective! It’s a beautiful thing to find that as you take more responsibility for yourself, your connection with others only gets better. It’s challenging to move out of this, but you can do it!
 Bowen, M. (1978) Family therapy in clinical practice. New York: Jason Aronson
 Schnarch, D. M. (2009). Intimacy and desire: Awaken the passion in your relationship. New York, NY: Beaufort Books.
 Ferreira, L. C., Narciso, I., & Novo, R. F. (2012). Intimacy, sexual desire and differentiation in couplehood: A theoretical and methodological review. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 38(3), 263-280.
 Lampis, J., Cataudella, S., Speziale, R., & Elat, S. (2020). The role of differentiation of self dimensions in the anxiety problems. The Family Journal, 28(1), 90-97.
 Schnarch, D. M. (2009). Intimacy and desire: Awaken the passion in your relationship. New York, NY: Beaufort Books.
 Ferreira, L. C., Narciso, I., Novo, R. F., & Pereira, C. R. (2014). Predicting couple satisfaction: The role of differentiation of self, sexual desire and intimacy in heterosexual individuals. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 29(4), 390-404.
 Skowron, E. A., & Schmitt, T. A. (2003). Assessing interpersonal fusion: Reliability and validity of a new DSI fusion with others subscale. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 29(2), 209-222.