Cutting Off From Fusion

Cutting Off From Fusion

Whose Life Is It Anyway?

‘F*ck you! I don’t care what you think’
is rebellion and reactivity, not differentiation.”

— Betty Carter

Goals of growing one’s self up include (1) the attainment of both financial and emotional self-sufficiency (i.e. being able to live on your own and avoid fusion) while (2) staying connected to the emotionally important people in your life (steering clear of cutoffs) and (3) creating the opportunity to develop a healthy intimate partner relationship that doesn’t require the negation of the first two.

Impediments to this process are defined by most, if not all of Bowen Theory’s eight interlocking concepts. For this discussion I will focus on Differentiation of Self, Nuclear Family Emotional System, Family Projection Process and Emotional Cutoff, not necessarily in that order.

People with less solid self fail to focus on their own needs, wants, core values and beliefs. Instead they become relationship focused, which generates more chronic anxiety as one becomes more sensitive to what the other thinks, feels, and does. Fusion and cutoffs result from some combination of low levels of differentiation, high ambient levels of chronic anxiety, and acute stressors. They can temporarily stabilize a system, but also ensure that nothing ever gets resolved.

The one ring that rules them all is work on Differentiation of Self. The family you grew up in is probably the most valuable resource you have for understanding your own emotional reactivity. Work on differentiation of self in one’s family of origin is the fundamental underpinning to growing oneself up as an adult in any crisis or transition. Self-differentiation is about setting appropriate limits and boundaries, staying connected to one’s extended family of origin while maintaining emotional independence and self-sufficiency.

Ronald B. Cohen discusses Differentiation of Self, Nuclear Family Emotional System, Family Projection Process and Emotional Cutoff.If you think you are enlightened, spend a weekend with your parents (see Family Projection Process). And if you can’t without either becoming fused and enmeshed, or conflicted, distant, cut-off and non-communicative, then you haven’t sufficiently engaged in the process of differentiation of self to maximize your own emotional well being.

“Digging up your roots is the positive opposite of burying your past.” Family members often fail one another in important and painful ways, yet they remain family forever and must find their way forward together. The way to develop differentiation is not to Cut Off, but to see other family members for who they are and stay connected with them despite their shortcomings.

In The Family Life Cycle, Carter and McGoldrick wrote, “Obviously, family members frequently act as if this were not so – they cut each other off because of conflicts or because they claim to have “nothing in common.” But when family members act as though family relationships were optional they do so to the detriment of their own sense of identity, and of the richness of their emotional and social context.”

Many will dismiss the value of this work and say, “Why Bother?” It’s just so much easier to cut the toxic people out of your life and never talk to them again. The truth is you can’t divorce your family of origin. They are always there and whether you are enmeshed in terms of never being able to leave home or cut off emotionally and/or physically, your behavior is responsive and reactive rather than pro-active and functional.  Either way you are still completely entrapped in the Nuclear Family Emotional System and tied up in not being your own person.

Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST) posits that working on self-differentiation in one’s family of origin is always available, is uniquely applicable, productive and effective regardless of the situation, and cannot be sabotaged by those who choose not to participate. By attending to our own “stuff” we always have the opportunity to make things better. Working with a BFST-trained Relationship Consultant can help you maintain autonomous thinking in the context of emotionally significant relationships.

Best of luck on your unfolding journey of a lifetime.

Please share your thoughts and experiences about the connections between autonomy and interdependence in the “Leave a Reply” box below. To request more information and/or schedule an initial consultation, click here. If you found this post helpful, please don’t keep it a secret. You are encouraged to click on the buttons at the bottom of the page and share this article with your own networks. Looking forward to continuing the conversation.

Ronald B Cohen, MD, PC Ronald B. Cohen, MD
Bowen Family Systems Coach
1 Barstow Road, Suite P-10
Great Neck, NY 11021
(516) 466-7530

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  1. Laura Nolan on March 21, 2015 at 5:01 pm said:

    Thanks for your article.
    The concept of differentiation rings true in my experiences. Certainly the place that one is born and raised is the place that one’s mind is formed and developed as attachment theory shows. The experiences of the original family eventually become internalized as a template for relationships that inform the person of how to relate to others. Whatever difficulties which were present in the original family will continue to be a problem for the person as an adult. By a person going back to the family of origin to work out those problems, the person will provide adjustment to his or her template for relationships and this will affect and give an effect upon his or her current family and extended relationships.
    I especially like the quote, “Digging up your roots is the positive opposite of burying your past.”

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on March 23, 2015 at 1:54 pm said:

      Hi Laura,

      The Multigenerational Transmission Process describes how the Family Projection Process operates from generation to generation. “Any set of parents, however, is merely the current embodiment of forces or processes that have been active for many generations before them” (Papero 1990). The greater the amount of unresolved family emotional attachments the more difficult it is to function at a high level. Neither physical distance nor emotional cutoffs are effective. The task is to learn about your family in a different way, to take a larger, systemic, multi-generational perspective. The goal is to develop a unique one-to-one relationship with every member of the family.

      Change in one part of the family will be reflected by compensatory changes in other parts of the system. A change in the relationship system between important members of the family on one level will result in changes in the interrelationships between all of the members of the family system in a general manner. The multigenerational transmission process describes the patterns that develop as parents pass on rules, roles, relationship requirements and rituals of one’s family of origin to their children and grandchildren.

      The goal is to solve problems in current relationships so as not to leave a damaging legacy for the next generation. Family of origin relationship patterns influence and govern the individual. The Tao Te Ching says, “Going on means going far. Going far means returning.”


      — Ron

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