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Why Differentiation Is So Important For Good Relationships?

At the best of times, our close relationships – with parents, partners, other family members, friends, and work colleagues – can be challenging. Yet it’s in the crucible of relationships that we grow and change and find our identities.

We hope that our relationships will bring us joy and peace and satisfaction. But in times of stress, we may find ourselves falling back into a kind of re-enactment of less healthy attitudes, thoughts, and behaviours where we repeat the unhealed dramas of our families of origin.

Perhaps this is even truer while living through an extraordinary pandemic which brings its own pressures, changes, and stresses. What if we could reframe our relational experiences, even ‘re-write’ the scripts of our lives, by improving our responses to each other by becoming the kind of partners, parents, siblings, friends, and workmates we aspire to be in order to build the kind of life we aspire to create?

What if we could reframe our relational experiences, even ‘re-write’ the scripts of our lives, by improving our responses to each other?

Maybe it’s a truism that we can’t force anyone else to change against their will. But we can indeed change ourselves.

It's about choosing personal development and growth which is 'crucial to greater intimacy and satisfaction in relationships' (The Couples Institue). We can think about the way we think, let go of thoughts that bring us down – recognizing that a thought is not a fact. We can get in touch with and influence our feelings; give ourselves space and time to learn to respond thoughtfully rather than react habitually. We can break ineffective communication patterns and develop better ones.

Where does the notion of ‘differentiation’ come into this vision of a lifelong journey toward becoming more fully the people we were intended to be – growing into the ability to love and accept the ones close to us, and help them on their journeys in becoming more fully the persons they truly are?

What is – and isn’t – differentiation?

In the field of psychology, 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. It’s the ability to be in touch with and express your personal thoughts, feelings, values, wishes, etc while also being close to another person who matters to you, who may not share these thoughts and feelings.

Murray Bowen, M.D. a psychiatrist who developed ‘family systems theory’ described differentiation as the courage to define self, be as invested in the welfare of the family as in self; who is neither angry nor dogmatic, whose energy goes to changing self rather than telling others what they should do, who can know and respect the multiple opinions of others and modify self in response to the strengths of the group, and is not influenced by the irresponsible opinions of others.

Differentiation isn’t a kind of false independence where partners chose not to rely on or deeply engage with one another. Although they may assert their independence from their partner, they have not been able to strike a healthy balance between attachment and togetherness (the pull to be loved and belong) and autonomy and individuality (the pull to be themselves apart from their partner; take it or leave it). It seems these individuals have skipped over some important tasks and milestones of positive relational growth and development.

Why it matters

Ellyn Bader, Ph.D. and Peter Pearson, Ph.D. of The Couples Institute assert that ‘differentiation matters a lot because it’s the route to sustained intimacy.’ They define intimacy in two ways. First, as commonly understood, intimacy happens when couples connect sexually or emotionally.

There’s a second kind of intimacy, however, that is perhaps less well recognized but just as important. Ellyn and Pete claim that in ‘moments of truth’ of clear differentiation, when partners honestly speak their minds and come from their hearts – moments of intimacy also happen.

When attitudes of respect, openness, and perseverance prevail, people can relax and be who they are, feel more free and authentic, and rest in the truth that both partners are in the relationship for the long term. In short, they know they’re with safe and loving people where both partners are free to grow and develop within the trust and commitment of their relationship.

This kind of differentiation matters because it’s peace-making in the world. It starts with our personal, ‘small’ worlds of family and children. These lucky youngsters will have the advantage of learning some powerful lessons very early in life. When we grow up, this personal development also pays dividends in our workplaces with strengthened ‘emotional intelligence’ – the ability to understand, use, and manage our emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges, and defuse conflict.

This kind of differentiation matters because it’s peace-making in the world.

Your relationship is going somewhere

Over many decades of working with couples, Ellyn and Pete observed that couples tend to progress along certain developmental stages, if all goes well:

  • Bonding: ‘We are a couple’;

  • Differentiation: ‘We are different’’;

  • Exploration: ‘I want to be independent’;

  • Reconnection: ‘Moving close, moving away’;

  • Synergy: ‘One plus one is greater than two’.

Like any living entity, relationships change. They can mature and develop and become something beautiful. Or sadly, relationships can get stuck at certain stages of development, stagnate, and self-harm or self destruct. Clearly, the stage of differentiation where persons learn to recognize, negotiate, and navigate their differences is a critical stage of development where most but not all problems occur.

How to increase your level of differentiation

Ellyn and Pete describe five stages that clarify how differentiation evolves. This is work that can be done in couple’s therapy – or with partners working together to help each other:

  1. Assist each partner to internally reflect and begin to recognize their own thoughts, feelings, and desires.

  2. Support each partner in exposing their thoughts, feelings, and desires with each other congruently without blame.

  3. Ask what each is learning about their partner. As differentiation evolves, they will develop an awareness of the other as separate and different from them.

  4. Invite each partner to respond effectively to these differences. As they develop an increased ability to listen, hear, and learn, they will stop taking issues so personally.

  5. Lastly, encourage each partner to reach out and support the changes the other desires. When they can do this, they stop rebelling, resenting, or being passive. Instead, they co-create a relationship that includes changes they each desire.

An example...

Once upon a time, I had the magical opportunity to work for a few months in a small country in Central America called Belize. I travelled to Belize as a fledgling public health educator, eager to partner with village health care workers to help combat an outbreak of malaria (in cooperation with a team of Americans from the Deep South). In short order, I fell in love with the country. The warm-hearted people, relaxed pace of life, and verdant sub-tropical environment charmed me as a stressed-out ‘refugee’ coming from a frenetic, driven culture, looking for respite.

It didn’t take long, however, as a Canadian who grew up in western Canada, to become aware of some differences with my American colleagues, the sub-tropical environment, and to a lesser degree, the Belizean culture. The bugs began to bite; the torrential rainfall flooded rivers and destroyed roads; the differences in values, beliefs, and lifestyles around me emerged. I began to learn of the tragic conflicts and woundedness in the history of countries surrounding Belize.

The honeymoon was over! But my affection for this small country remained. I came to terms with the good and the bad, negotiated a way of living with the differences – and learned a whole lot about who I am (and am not), what I want and need, and how to reach out and ‘co-create’ life in community with others who are different from me. I’d return to Belize many times over the next couple of decades to unwind and visit dear friends – always respecting the differences, yet growing and learning in my understanding of the culture and people.

Other cross-cultural experiences followed, each treasured as an opportunity to grow and change, be challenged and learn to work in different communities. In short, although I would not have called these experiences opportunities for ‘differentiation’, I now believe they were.

Only in relationship…

Dr. Assael Romanelli, Ph.D., a clinical social worker, writes of ways we can progress in the art of differentiation. He affirms that it’s only in the rough and tumble of intimate relationships that we grow in our capacity for differentiation. It’s a matter of knowing, accepting, and loving ourselves – all the good, bad, and even ugly parts of ourselves. We stop suppressing, denying, or dissociating parts of ourselves that we see as unacceptable. We learn to become comfortable ‘in our own skins.’ We find healing in honesty and openness, love and commitment.

Over time, there’s an increasing steadiness in responding to others. We learn to stay calmer and grounded, even when our close people get triggered, anxious, or emotionally flooded. When we get triggered, we learn ways to self-soothe and regulate ourselves. We better understand what we ourselves uniquely need in life to maintain and promote our own mental and social health.

Lastly, we learn to go the distance in relationships. We hang in there, believing that through all the ‘fights, misunderstandings, aggression, despair, love, admiration, highs and lows, unavoidable ruptures and repairs’ something good and true will emerge if we persevere.


Joy Gillett is the newest therapist to join the Arbour team. She meets with individuals and couples to help them grow in their understanding of themselves and in their relationships. You can read her about page here: Meet Joy


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