The concept of differentiation is central to the work we 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 may sound to many of you like developing more independence of your partner, but it is different. Individuality/independence is how we develop as a person, and what is it that makes us who we are? Differentiation is what occurs in relationships with parents, partners and close friends. Differentiation is about 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 in the ability to identify what is going on in your 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 partner’s 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. A continuous richness and complexity 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. This can lead to a desire to fix differences and find a solution too quickly 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, your 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 your differences requires being empathic without losing our sense of self. Remaining curious to who your partner is rather than being the same, continues to deepen intimacy. Sexual intimacy remains vibrant and passionate. One sure way to kill passion is to avoid conflict.
It is easy to feel connected to your partner when you are in agreement and aligned in your goals and needs. It is easy to express yourself when there is little risk of conflict. This is often the way at the beginning of relationships. But when you are stressed, irritable and tired then the work of differentiation really begins. Anxiety arises when you disagree or want different things. Differences threaten your security in the relationship. Perhaps my partner won’t love me if they find out that I see things differently.
At this point you can acquiesce to avoid conflict or fight to hold onto your identity and try and force you 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 self esteem.