DIFFERENTIATION

The concept of differentiation is central to the work I do with couples. Here are a couple of definitions:

Differentiation is the active, ongoing process of defining self, revealing self, clarifying boundaries, and managing the anxiety that comes from risking either greater intimacy or potential separation.
Murray Bowen defined differentiation as the degree of resilience to the interpersonal contagion of anxiety.

This article discusses why we need to develop skills for differentiation, and some of the ways couples can do this.


It is important to distinguish between individuality – which these definitions may sound like -  and differentiation. Individuality is how we develop as a person, and connected to self esteem – what is it that makes us who we are? Differentiation is what occurs in relationships with our parents, partners and close friends. Differentiation is not about being separate from our partner it is being who you are in the presence of who they are. If you are someone who often reflects on how you are more connected to yourself and happier when you are not in a significant relationship you may have developed your individuality but have difficulty with differentiation.

There are several main skills necessary for differentiation to develop.

Differentiation of Self requires the ongoing ability to identify and express important aspects of yourself….thoughts, feelings, wants and desires. Awareness of self is important and this is where individuality can be useful in the ability to identify what is going on in our internal world. Differentiation requires an expression of that internal world to the other.


Differentiation of the other is the ability to be curious about your partner’s self disclosure while managing your own reactions. To be present and loving in the face of your partners strong feelings and reactions to you. One skill that helps is the ability to maintain a bigger picture of who your partner is over time, instead of seeing their reaction in the moment as the whole of them.

Differentiation is important to relationships for the following reasons;

  • Partners and relationships evolve. There is a continuous richness and complexity that is experienced within oneself as well as the relationship.
  • Prevents partners compromising core values and beliefs. Learning to understand and support what is important to both people. In the popular culture there is an emphasis on compromise in relationships. What this can encourage is a desire to fix differences and find a solution too quickly  so both partners end up merging and there is boundary confusion.
  • Maintaining attachment. You can not feel connected to someone who is undefined or vague. Nor will you feel understood if you don’t express yourself clearly.
  • Working effectively with conflict/differences. Often when we are in conflict our emotions can take over and affect each other. Learning to manage this more effectively and not take things personally. Negotiating effective outcomes makes conflict a way of  promoting more understanding and trust.
  • Deepening intimacy. Being deeply connected in our differences requires being empathic without losing our sense of self.  Remaining curious to who our partner is rather than trying to make them the same as us continues to deepen intimacy. Sexual intimacy remains vibrant and passionate. One sure way to kill passion is to avoid conflict.

When the sun is shining it is much easier to feel connected to your partner. When we are in agreement it is easy to express oneself as there is little risk of conflict.  This is often the way at the beginning of relationships.  But when we are stressed, irritable and tired then the work of differentiation really begins. Anxiety arises when we disagree or want different things.. Our differences can threaten our security in the relationship.  Perhaps my partner wont love who I am if they find out that I see things differently from them.


At this point couples often acquiesce to avoid conflict or will fight to hold onto their identity and try and force their partner to merge. In these ways couples are resisting differentiation. There are certainly some differences that can cause the relationship to end such as wanting children or not wanting children, so the risk is real. However, if you do not do the work of differentiation your relationship can become stagnant and tense or lead to abusive and angry fighting. Both create  more distance that erodes their self esteem.


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