I often hear complaints from women that they don’t even know who they are anymore. They’ve been married for ten or twenty years, raised children, had careers, and somehow they’ve lost their core sense of self. They think the solution is to leave the relationship to find their true selves.
What they are experiencing is emotional fusion, and the cure lies in the process of differentiation. David Schnarch, in Passionate Marriage, refers to the process of differentiation as a “process by which we become more uniquely ourselves by maintaining ourselves in relationship with those we love.”
Emotional fusion is often mistaken for love. It is not; it is love’s poor step-sister. Emotional fusion occurs in nearly every relationship to some degree. Beginning with our family of origin, we are taught at an early age which behaviors are acceptable and will result in our parents expressing their love for us. We learn to mold ourselves into the person our parents want us to be. When we rebel, we are attempting to differentiate ourselves, which is healthy and necessary for emotional growth. Depending on the level of emotional fusion in your family of origin, either those rebellious moments will be squelched completely, you will be encouraged to express yourself in harmless ways, or something in between.
By the time we are old enough to engage in romantic relationships, our individual sense of self has been fused to our role within the family unit. We then bring that reflected sense of self into the romantic relationship, carrying with us all of the unexpressed parts of ourselves stuffed in the back of our emotional closet. In rare cases, we emerge from childhood with a strong individual sense of self. More frequently, we have a weak sense of self and build upon that with each successive romantic relationship.
At some point, we rebel at this reflected sense of self. Our souls deeply desire to authentically express who we really are. This often happens with women in their forties and fifties who feel like they have to leave their relationship to find themselves. This longing for authentic expression becomes more painful than the sense of security, safety and fusion (which we mistake for love) we get from remaining in the relationship.
The problem with leaving the relationship to find yourself is this: you are still enmeshed in an other-reflected sense of self. What typically happens is that you leave the relationship and “fall in love” again within six months. It’s not love; it’s fusion. You become enmeshed once more, but while in the honeymoon phase, you either don’t notice the fusion or don’t care.
The only complete way to heal from emotional fusion is this process of differentiation. By definition, it means you remain in the relationship and use it as a tool for identifying your sense of self. In this method, you use the relationship to show you how you are fused and unwind yourself from there. You look at all the ways your partner irritates you to uncover what you make those things mean about who you are as a person.
The problem with leaving your relationship to heal from fusion is that eventually you’ll want to be in another relationship. Even if you commit to remaining single and working with a coach or therapist for at least a year, some of the wounds of fusion can only be healed while in a relationship. Theory will only take you so far; then you have to practice it.
Differentiation is the process of learning to love the unique person you are. Are you ready to give it a try?