In our current series on the characteristics of healthy families, we’re on our fourth of twelve competencies. In healthy families, there is a minimum of fusion, and distance is not used to solve problems.
First let’s define fusion. Fusion refers to the emotional stuck-together-ness that occurs when people fail to distinguish between the subjective feeling process and the objective thinking process. When emotions are not tempered by intellectual processing, people and families get stuck in reactive and automatic processes and behaviors.
Thinking and Feeling
People and families with the greatest fusion between feeling and thinking function the poorest, and those with greater skill in distinguishing between these two guidance systems have a greater capacity for flexibility and adaptability when coping with life’s stressors. Such individuals and families exhibit the most freedom from emotional, physical and social problems.
Consequently, healthy families model and teach the difference between these operating systems and encourage each member to identify who they are while differentiating themselves within the group. This is much different than differentiating from the group.
Differentiating From vs. Differentiating Within
Differentiating from the group is one way that people in unhealthy families try to define themselves. Consider the stereotypical rebel, who is just acting out fusion in disguise. True differentiation refers to defining oneself against oneself, not against anyone else–it requires that we identify the values that resonate within us, regardless of whether they resonate with others, and carries with it a sense of personal solidity and stability, rather than reactivity and resentment.
Defining oneself is best done in periods of calm, so that when life’s stressors come our way, we have already identified our principles and can rely on them to help us through difficult times. Defining oneself is not merely identifying with one group or another, but critically thinking about the values even of the groups we choose to belong to.
Differentiating within the group allows us to be different than our loved ones without needing their approval. We can be who we are and remain emotionally close with others who hold different intellectual values. (For a more complete definition of differentiation, see posts titled, “…Solid Self 1.0” and “…Solid Self 1.1.”)
Distance Steals from the Future
Requiring family members to adopt the same values in order to gain approval is characteristic of fused families, and such families set up their members to use distance to diminish tension. Of course, distance doesn’t solve the problem of fusion; it only provides a temporary relief of tension, while kicking the unresolved issue down the road. In this way, we steal from the future by seeking a Band-Aid remedy in the present.
The more the requirement for cohesiveness, the more emotional (and often physical) distance will appeal as a “solution.” When avoiding the issues doesn’t deliver the expected outcome of diminishing them, however, disillusion and more distance will set in. Before long, cutoff will have occurred. (See yesterday’s post, and the one titled, “…Emotional Cutoff.”)
Getting Your Head Together
Sometimes when an emotional process hijacks an intellectual one, distance may be necessary to collect one’s thoughts before re-engaging a relationship. When one party chooses a distance as a reprieve, s/he needs to be sure that all parties understand that the distance isn’t meant to avoid the issue, and that s/he will be able to come back to the table after a defined period of time. Then, after that period of time has passed, the person who called for the time-out needs to honor the commitment to the relationship by initiating the discussion again…or calling for a reasonable extension of the reprieve. (See post titled, “…How to Do Conflict Well.”)
In this way, distance serves to foster re-connection and communication, rather than avoidance and cut-off, but it must be executed artfully…a difficult skill to develop.
Create a Supportive Environment Together
In the end, the trick to diminishing fusion and cutoff is to encourage each member of the family to live out their unique make-up and capacity. Healthy families relish creating an environment together in which all family members can do so.