Did you know a solution to emotional reactivity, emotional fusion or codependence is emotional independence? But what exactly is emotional independence?
When people struggle with asserting their needs and desires within personal relationships they may be in an emotionally fused state. This unhealthy merger has many names: codependence, symbiosis, enmeshment, emotional fusion, and undifferentiation. The latter term was coined by Murray Bowen, a psychiatric family therapist who practiced in the US from 1950 to 1990. The concept of “differentiation,” in what has become known as Bowen family therapy, is the level of emotional independence a person can achieve within a family system. In other words, the more differentiation an individual obtains, the more the individual is independent, less emotionally reactive, and more able to appreciate each family member as a separate being with thoughts, feelings, and desires independent of the relationship. It is important to note that this is a popular concept in Western culture, but isn’t as applicable or even desired in other cultures that stress family and community above the individual (e.g., many Asian cultures).
According to Bowen, people struggle with two competing forces: togetherness and individuality. Too much togetherness, and we lose our sense-of-self; too much individuality, and we aren’t emotionally attached. Emotionally independent people are able to have meaningful connections to other people without compromising their own authentic selves. They are able to hold on to themselves (their feelings, desires, thoughts) within their relationships with other people. In undifferentiated or emotionally fused relationships, the individuals involved may struggle to tell the difference between their thoughts and feelings and those of the other person (or people). They may not be able to tolerate the anxiety of hearing their loved ones express negative emotions and may even perceive these sentiments as threats to the relationship. The following clinical example helps illustrate some of the challenges with emotional fusion or codependence.
Clinical Vignette: Emotional Codependence
Mark and Karen have been married for 7 years and have a 2-year-old son. One of the issues they struggle with is their sex life after having their son. Mark has had to work over-time more in the last two years to pay for childcare costs and Karen has returned to work full-time, but also must manage more of the childcare duties because Mark is working. Mark tells the couple’s therapist that he would like to be more sexual with his wife, but sometimes when she suggests it he is just too tired from working and she reacts with little “digs” that bother him, such as, “if we are just going to be roommates, then you need to do more around the house to help out.” He said that he tries to find other times to initiate sex with his wife when he isn’t so tired, but she gives clues that she isn’t interested (i.e., says she isn’t feeling well or is too drained from taking care of their son), so he doesn’t keep pursuing the issue. By the time they entered therapy, they report it has been over 6 months since they have been intimate together.
Both Mark and Karen would like to be intimate with each other, but because they are so emotionally fused or codependent, it is hard for them not to react to the other person’s perceived rejection as a threat to the relationship and pull back more to protect themselves. During therapy, Karen revealed that when Mark would turn her down for sex, she didn’t believe him when he said he was just tired. She believed that he wasn’t attracted to her postpartum body, a huge source of insecurity for her, and she thought he was going to leave her for someone else just like her father did to her mother shortly after she was born. On the other hand, Mark was struggling with redefining their roles post-birth. He felt like it was his responsibility to be the provider for their family and meet all of his wife’s needs. Since having the baby, he felt like he wasn’t able to make his wife happy no matter what he tried, so he would just give up. He told the therapist he just felt like he “just kept failing” and wasn’t being “appreciated or valued,” which in turn made him want to spend more time away from home. His biggest fear is that he would end up a workaholic, absentee father just like his dad.
Often in emotionally fused or codependent relationships, people respond to perceived threats with defensiveness, guilt tripping, passive-aggressiveness, or even aggression. A more productive approach is to accept that each person has a right to his or her feelings, thoughts, experiences and desires. It is not the responsibility of the other person in the relationship to fix or change those feelings and experiences. In healthy or constructive relationships, there are stable boundaries between the individuals and they come together to find solutions that benefit both the individual needs of the people involved, which will ultimately promote the growth of the larger relationship system.
Benefits of Emotional Independence
Had Mark and Karen been emotionally independent, they might have been able to separate out their own insecurities from their partner’s behaviors and they may have been able to tell each other their fears and concerns. The first time Mark turned her down for sex, Karen could have said, “I understand you are tired. I miss you and want to be connected with you. Maybe we can schedule time this weekend when you are more rested.” Additionally, Mark could have been more direct with Karen and say, “There are times that I really want to have sex with you, but I feel like you are giving me signals that you aren’t interested in me or that you are mad at me. I’m not sure if I’m mis-reading the situation, but I want to work on this with you.” By letting her know that he desired her and was dealing with his own issues (“have I become my father?”), it might have helped Karen to reveal her insecurities about her body and desirability. By owning their own desires and respecting the feelings of the other person, they are more equipped to reconnect with each other and air out any miscommunications or challenges. Ultimately, by being emotionally independent, they are able to grow closer together.
Becoming an emotionally independent person can be challenging for some people considering family history and cultural messages. Additionally, not everyone wants to be emotionally independent. There are some benefits to being in an emotionally fused or codependent relationship. It can heighten the sense of importance for each person and create an intense bond quickly. Many new relationships often go through a “honeymoon” phase where they experience different levels of fusion. They are so consumed with getting to know the other person, spending all their time together, and acquiescing or compromising a lot of personal desires to please the other person, that they may lose a part of themselves in the process. Over time, this level of “we-ness” may compromise each person’s ability to grow independently of the relationship.
On the other hand, some of the benefits of emotional independence are decreased emotional reactivity; increased opportunities for connection and intimacy; and increased opportunities for individual growth and development.
If you are struggling with emotional fusion or codependence and you would like to create more emotional independence, there are numerous ways you can go about doing it, including scheduling an appointment with one of our therapists to help guide you in the process.