You may or may not have heard of the term emotional fusion. If you have, you probably know it can be quite a problem in relationships, but maybe you need a better understanding of what emotional fusion is so that you can avoid it.
Or maybe you haven’t heard of it? 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) 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.
A Broad Overview of Emotional Fusion
I was quite the romantic dreamer in my teen years.
I still remember driving down the road with my mom, hearing a sappy love song on the radio, and proclaiming that this was the song that I was going to dance to at my wedding. The thing is, I said this in reference to just about every love song that played (and I certainly hadn’t met the right guy yet).
I loved a cheesy romance movie. I was left swooning when Jack fell for Lucy in While You Were Sleeping, and I couldn’t get enough of the prince choosing Danielle in Ever After. (OK. Let’s be honest. Both of these statements are still true.)
And the list of my crushes through those teenage years is long.
The point is, I desperately dreamed of the day that I’d find love and live happily ever after.
Isn’t there just something appealing about two characters in a book, song, or on the movie screen falling for each other completely?
Perhaps it’s because we all long to be adored like that. Maybe we wish to belong to someone so completely that we can hardly tell where one ends and the other begins.
Merging Two Lives into One
Unfortunately, after the credits roll and real-life hits, the complete merging of two into one that you dreamed of might not be what you expected or quite the “happily ever after” you longed for.
Completely merging yourself with another person can actually stunt your personal growth and hinder your happiness because you lose sight of who you are and might begin to feel boxed in by the relationship. Sure, it feels great in the beginning. But as time passes and you begin to forget who you are outside the context of that relationship, the bliss can fade.
I am NOT saying that two people shouldn’t come together to form a close relationship with commitment and connection. I absolutely believe in that.
What I AM saying, is that if the focus is on fusing yourself with the other person rather than on being (and becoming) your best self and choosing to share that self with another person, things can start to get a little rocky.
When we come to rely on other people too much or allow them to rely on us too much in a way that’s completely unhealthy, our clarity about who we are lessens.
This often happens when we define ourselves by our relationships—mom, husband, sister, best friend.
As we tie our identity to the relationship, we create expectations in our mind for how we should act in that role or what the other person might expect from us. That doesn’t work because our minds become so clouded with these expectations that we are less able to function as ourselves.
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 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. And now no one is happy.
What I’ve just described (and the examples from real life that I’ll share below) demonstrate an aspect of emotional fusion that Dr. David Scnarch called “borrowed functioning.”
Not having a strong sense of who you are and loving yourself 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 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.
What Emotional Fusion Looks Like in Daily Life
Emotional fusion can be a hard concept to understand (and a hard concept to explain) at first, but once you start to understand what it looks like, you’ll see it all around you—in your own relationships and those of others.
Hopefully, it’s starting to make a little bit of sense, but here are some real-life examples that might help illustrate it better.
Couple Life: Relationship Fusion
My husband and I have a wonderful relationship. We’ve been married for 20 years, and we are absolutely each other’s best friend and are very happy. But that certainly doesn’t mean that our relationship is without its challenges, and we’ve done our own fair share of emotional fusion. (Let me be clear—all of us are probably doing this pretty regularly in our relationships.)
Here’s what it sometimes looks like for us:
My husband and I have struggled at times with what we used to call “alpha wolf and drone” (before we knew the term “emotional fusion”). I’m typically more of the alpha wolf in our family who can sometimes be bossy and controlling and like things to be done my way. And he tends to be compliance-based and to want to please me, so he will do just about anything to try to keep me happy so that he can feel good about himself.
For example, if I get stressed out because life feels demanding and the kids are acting up, I tend to turn this towards him and put much of the blame on him in an attempt to alleviate my own angst. It must be his fault that I am feeling stressed, and he needs to take care of it. Maybe if he just did more of the laundry or plugged in a little bit more in parenting, I would feel better about things. I sometimes even get on my high horse and feel like I’m carrying more of the load in the family and so I am entitled to feeling frustrated. (See the alpha wolf analogy here?)
On the flip side, he struggles to make decisions or choices for himself. When he wakes up on a Saturday morning, rather than having an idea of what he wants to do with the day, he looks to me for guidance and tries to please me and then looks for my reassurance that he’s living up to what he perceives as my standards. In this way, he is putting his well-being and even his desires and responsibility for himself on me and hoping I will provide the validation he needs to keep going. If I don’t provide that consistently, his functioning and well-being decline. (Hence our referencing of a drone-like worker bee.)
This is a prime example of emotional fusion. One of us is taking what Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife calls the “one-up position” (me) and the other (him) is taking the “one-down” position.
Breaking the Pattern
You may see yourself in one or the other of these roles or you may commiserate more with one or the other of us, but in reality, we are both equally responsible for what’s happening. We are doing it mutually and playing off each other and creating a situation in which we rely on each other to maintain our own happiness instead of being responsible for ourselves (borrowed functioning). Neither of us is in the right and it doesn’t make for a strong relationship when we allow these tendencies in ourselves to take over.
We are each relying on the other to make ourselves feel good (or to make us believe we are good), rather than working on being our best selves and having ownership of ourselves.
Luckily, we are both aware of what we are doing and have been working on confronting our weaknesses and taking responsibility for our own choices in this relationship. As we each work on dealing with our own anxiety, stress, or discomfort rather than pushing it off on the other person, we’ve grown even closer as a couple (and as individuals).
Of course that doesn’t mean that we don’t support each other in our challenges or stress. Of course we do! I love to have a good conversation with each other about our challenges and struggles and to help each other out.
But what we are trying NOT to do is to make the other person the owner of our feelings.
Fusion in Friendship
Now, remember that emotional fusion can happen in relationships other than just with your romantic partner. Here’s an example of how this might happen with a friendship.
A good friend of mine (we will call her Jane) told me about an experience that she had in a friendship a few years ago that I think might feel familiar to others at least on some level.
Jane had recently moved to a new area and was a little bit lonely and looking to find some new friends for herself and her family. When someone (we will call her Mia) came into her life that was fun to be around, had kids around the same age, and was a willing participant in many fun activities with her, Jane jumped at the chance for this friendship and the two became very close.
Over the years they did almost everything together and their kids became like siblings at times. They traveled together, the kids played sports together, and they texted and talked non-stop.
But what Jane didn’t let everyone know/see was that this friendship was actually feeling a little bit rough for her.
There were certain unspoken rules that Jane was “supposed” to follow in the friendship and when she didn’t, she was punished by Mia, either verbally or with a cold shoulder.
Also, Jane was giving too much to the friendship and she knew it—a lot more giving was happening than receiving for Jane and that started to take a toll.
But Jane treasured the feeling of having a close friend and being somebody’s “go-to person” and because Jane’s identity had become so tied up in that friendship, it was hard to break it off.
This is another classic example of emotional fusion.
Jane was fusing herself with Mia because she wanted someone who she could build a close relationship with. Jane felt good about herself when she supported Mia through hard things, like it gave her purpose and a sense of identity. She didn’t know who she would be without that friendship.
It’s important to note though, that the relationship was stifling her so much that she was losing who she was anyway.
For Mia, she was allowing Jane to do everything for her and enjoying the attention (without returning it) and sending her own angst and discomfort Jane’s way when things weren’t perfect because she didn’t want to feel those feelings herself. She’d punish and push Jane away. She’d test the boundaries to see if Jane would come back to her.
Just like the story about my own relationship with my husband, both partners in this relationship were at fault and were engaging in high levels of emotional fusion. They were using each other for their own needs and identity, and it wasn’t healthy.
When Jane chose to stand her ground and set up some healthy boundaries, the friendship broke apart.
Do I Have a Fused Relationship?
Did either of those stories sound at all familiar to you? Have you had relationships like that? (A lot of people also do this with their parents or siblings. And parents can sure do it with their kids too.)
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 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 parents’ 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’ 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.
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:
 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.