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    Fusers and Isolators

    By Tom Moon, MFT

    Andy and Eddie have been together for eight years and have a deep love for each other. They rarely fight, and when they do, it’s usually over minor issues. But they both acknowledge that when they do argue, their lives are disrupted for days and they almost never come to any resolution of the issues. Their most recent conflict began when Andy scheduled them for some weekend events with friends without talking to Eddie first. Eddie reacted with intense anger.

    Inwardly, he felt controlled, manipulated, owned, and suffocated. He responded to those feelings by announcing that he was going away to be alone for the weekend and that Andy could do whatever he wanted by himself. His response threw Andy into a panic. He interpreted Eddie’s reaction as a threat to end the relationship, and responded by becoming clingy, manipulative, and demanding. Instead of trying to negotiate a more mutually satisfactory way to spend the weekend together, he became entrenched in his own position, and told Eddie: “If you really loved me, you’d be happy when I make plans for us.” That statement so infuriated Eddie that he left the house and stayed with a friend overnight.

    What’s really going on here? I believe that both of these guys are caught in a common relationship deadlock known as the Fuser/Isolator pattern. In this relationship, Andy is the “fuser” and Eddie is the “isolator.”

    Fusers typically grew up with an intense need for attachment because their early family relationships were characterized by instability and abandonment. As a result, they obtain their primary sense of safety and security in the world by maintaining close emotional contact with others. Anything that separates or threatens to create separation, even brief or minor events such as an argument, can trigger their terror of abandonment, which is equivalent to death for them.

    Because they’re terrified of abandonment, fusers are willing to forego expressing their own needs in deference to the other. They are often conflict-avoidant “people pleasers” in their relationships. When problems arise, they try to move as quickly as possible to closure in order to relieve their anxiety. If that fails, they sometimes resort to guilt-tripping and other manipulations to get their partners to meet their needs.

    Isolators, on the other hand, typically grew up with at least one intrusive parent who controlled their every move and had no respect for their need for independence or boundaries. Adult isolators can be threatened by commitment, because it mobilizes their fear of engulfment and smothering. When conflict arises, isolators need space and separation in order to relieve their anxiety. At their worst, they can experience the legitimate needs of partners for contact and communication as outrageous demands.

    Both Andy and Eddie are trying to get their legitimate needs met in the only way they know how, by using the coping patterns they developed when they were young. Unfortunately, these are immature and rigid responses that are inadequate ways of dealing with the complexities of adult relationships. Their reactions re-open old wounds in each other, and they each respond to their increasing anxiety by becoming more entrenched in their familiar positions. Their current struggle isn’t just about communication or how to spend a weekend. It has morphed into a desperate fight for love on Andy’s part, and for Eddie, an equally desperate fight to preserve his autonomy.

    The only way out of a deadlock like this is through insight and conscious awareness. When Andy and Eddie take their respective “stands,” they’re both in a kind of trance. They react automatically from past conditioning, with intense emotion and with little reflection. In the heat of the argument, each sees the other as the bad guy. In a sense, each man’s wounds are interacting with the other man’s wounds. But the real “enemy” isn’t the other guy; it’s the Fuser/Isolator pattern that keeps them mutually deadlocked.

    Conscious reflection and discussion can create the opportunity to go beyond repeating old traumas by enlisting their adult minds in the project of finding more mutually satisfying responses to them. Their shared task is to come to a deeper understanding of their respective childhood experiences and to a fuller understanding of the different meanings that each of them is projecting onto the situations they are fighting over. The development of insight is their road to mutual forgiveness and deeper intimacy.

    Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. For more information, please visit his website