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Differentiation in relationship

There is a definite theme to the popular language of love. “I can’t live without you” is a line from many, many love songs. In romantic poetry there are expressions such as “she completes me” or “he is my one and only”. Some marriage ceremonies suggest that “two shall become one” via marriage. And then there are all the stories asserting that if one finds the right partner the result is “happily ever after”.

The ideal of blissful union has a strong grip on our culture. It is an ideal that causes some problems in real-life relationships. In emphasizing the experience of “oneness”, it places great value on an experience that, for most people, only happens with any reliability during the initial phase of relationship. That’s the phase called “infatuation” or the “honeymoon”. When people try to make their relationship permanently stay in that state, they usually end up frustrated and disappointed in their relationships and their partners.

Trying to stay in a state of “oneness” in relationship usually results in enmeshment. Enmeshment is similar to the popular term “co-dependence”. It is a relationship style that attempts to eliminate or deny differences between people. It results in people constantly seeking approval from others and denying, hiding, and devaluing aspects of themselves that may be “different”. It causes people to panic when there is disagreement or conflict in a relationship.

Several psychologists, such as David Schnarch (Passionate Marriage) and Ellyn Bader and Pete Pearson (In Search of the Mythical Mate), teach people a different style of relating called differentiation. The concept of differentiation can be particularly important for those whose ideas of relationship were influenced by overly romanticized, unrealistic cultural ideals.

Differentiation acknowledges that you are different people, even within a relationship. You can acknowledge that you have different wants and different perspectives. You can each focus your energy on discovering what you want for yourself, communicating that to your partner, and then having a real conversation about what part your partner will play in getting what you want.

I call differentiation the black belt of relationship skills. When you are well differentiated, it means that you can stay present with and open to the other person while simultaneously remaining present with your own experience and maintaining healthy boundaries. This is not easy! Most of us can work on this all our lives and still have room for improvement.

It seems paradoxical, but being well differentiated actually increases intimacy. That is because being fully yourself and present with your emotional experience allows you to be compassionately honest with your partner, even about things that make you feel vulnerable to reveal.

The differentiation approach asserts that you will not get all of your needs met by your partner all of the time. There is nothing cynical or pessimistic about this; it simply acknowledges that many of our cultural views of relationship are unrealistic. It has been pointed out that in our culture one’s marital partner is expected to fulfill roles that 4 or more people fill in some other cultures: friend, lover, counselor, financial supporter, minister, etc. No one can do all of those things well all the time, and most are not skilled in all those roles even at their best.

Many relationships display a “pursuer/distancer” dynamic. In this dynamic, the pursuer is often said to be needy or clingy by the distancer. It is worth noting that distancers are generally no better at differentiation than pursuers. Often they are distancing because they are unable to stay in contact and stay differentiated. Because of this, they distance in order to keep from feeling vulnerable or to avoid the fear that they will lose themselves.

In healthy differentiation, you take responsibility for knowing what you want and how to get it, and you negotiate with your partner about what he or she is able and willing to provide. Having realistic expectations of your partner won’t eliminate experiences of disappointment, but it will help you feel disappointed less often. It also makes supporting your partner easier, because you know what he or she expects from you, and you have already agreed that it is something you are able and willing to give to him or her.

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