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Get More Intimacy With Your Partner

Updated on October 11, 2013

Tools for Relationship

The broad concept of ‘differentiation’ has its roots in biology, where it refers to how cells become different from one another to form into separate kinds of cells for particular functions. The psychologist Murray Bowen borrowed the word and applied it to family therapy, where he used the word to describe the need for individuals to clearly own their own thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, and not depend on others to define themselves. Later, in a landmark book on the uniting of marriage therapy and sex therapy, David Schnarch applied the concept of differentiation to committed adult (marriage) relationships. Though a somewhat tricky concept for the layperson to understand when presented in technical therapy terms, differentiation can be unpacked, understood, and put to good use in fairly short order when translated to practical terms.

Once understood, differentiation can be seen as being pervasive in all aspects of coupled relationships, and from there it can be applied to virtually all relationships. Understanding and using this concept has the power to transform stressed and painful relationships to ones that are calmer, more focused, and satisfying.

Here are some main points to help you understand differentiation in your relationship:

People have two major drives in relationship, to be close together in bonded intimacy (represented by togetherness), and the other is to maintain individuality (represented by needing alone time), These two drives compete. When one partner wants their individuality, the other partner may feel rejected, and act in a way that pushes the other partner away, or punishes them for their distancing. This cycle repeats often. Differentiation as a process helps the individual to not feel threatened by the other’s distancing, or overwhelmed by their desire for closeness. A comfortableness with either can be developed.

Over time, as partners become more important to each other, and they have a greater time investment, they may become anxious about speaking their mind and sharing their concerns and resentments. This produces the ‘walking on eggshells’ effect. Thousands of compromises to personal integrity are made just to keep the peace, or, to avoid what one partner perceives to be a confrontation that has dangerous implications (‘I might make my partner angry, or fed up, and they will leave me.’) Sometimes the pressure build up so great that an explosion of emotional exchange occurs that can be quite damaging. Differentiation as a process helps the individual to manage their own anxiety and speak their mind and heart in a manner that reasonable and measured. As Schnarch so aptly phrases it, the individual is able to ‘hold on to themselves’ and not be overwhelmed by their own or their partner’s emotions during intimate exchange.

There can develop a viscous cycle that Schnarch says has its roots in ‘other validated self esteem’, meaning that individuals tend to measure their self value, worth, attractiveness, and even loveability by how their partner interacts and responds to them. Schnarch states that when one partner is ‘down’, the other may take the leading ‘up’ and then the ‘up’ partner reaches down and pulls their partner ‘up’. Often, the roles then reverse. This constant one up-one down and each depending on the other for their self esteem to be reflected in a positive way creates an atmosphere of false intimacy that does not allow the individuals of couple to grow. They differentiating key is for each individual to be self-validating, not relying on their partner to feel validated.

Finally, Schnarch points to the fact that all of these difficulties can find solutions in differentiation, are common in all relationships, and in fact, are part of what growth in relationship is about. He calls this process of coming to a frustrating, stressed, and about to explode place in relationship ‘emotional gridlock’. When confronted with this, many couples simply call it quits, or try and ignore the stress until it subsides. Still others engage in self destructive and relationship destructive behaviors. Those to work through emotional gridlock come out on the other side with a greater degree of differentiation, health, and enjoyment in their relationship.


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