What is Differentiation?

One of the most important, but least talked about concepts in relationships is Differentiation. What IS differentiation?

We want to love and to be love. We seek relationships, belonging, partnership.

We fall in love and we happily proclaim to the world that we are now a couple. We can't believe how similar we are, we finish each other's sentences (and sandwiches, if you watched "Frozen"). It looks like all our needs are met, finally. It's easy. It's "perfect".

Except of course, it is not. Sooner or later, we hit our first disillusionment. We discover we are more different than we are similar. Needs are no longer met and it's often painful. We haven't learned yet how to communicate, how to share what we feel, want and need. We don't know how to listen without being triggered. We often hit a power struggle stage, full of conflict, or, we avoid conflict at all cost, hoping the honeymoon stage will last longer (forever?).

Sometimes this is when we give up and leave, hoping the next relationship will be better. Sometimes this is when we give up on ourselves, and emotionally distance, in self protection.

Sometimes we stay stuck in that stage way too long. Couples who fight, fight until the bitter end, hoping that maybe eventually my partner will change, will hear me, will understand, will give me what I need. The conflict eventually will wear them out. Couples who are afraid to rock the boat avoid conflict at all cost until they no longer really know who they are, and a certain sense of dread takes over the relationship. On the surface - it looks good, they are not fighting. Underneath - there's nothing there.

Differentiation is what helps you stay and work though the tension - it's inherent in a healthy relationship, it's perfectly normal. Nothing is wrong. We just don't know how to deal with this stage and how to grow together.

It's the lack of differentiation that's often the root of most couple's problems. It's not the fight of the day, it's not even their differences. It's how they handle them.

Dr. David Schnarch shares in his book "Passionate Marriage": “Giving up your individuality to be together is as defeating in the long run as giving up your relationship to maintain your individuality. Either way, you end up being less of a person with less of a relationship.

Let's go to the beginning. The definitions.

Differentiation: The ability to be both 'a part of' and 'apart from' significant relationships. Ability to be both an “I” and a “We” without sacrificing one for the other.

"Differentiation is the active, ongoing process of looking inside and defining yourself, revealing yourself, clarifying boundaries, and managing the anxiety of either risking more intimacy or potential separation or distance. Many of us fear that if we are truthful and reveal ourselves, it will threaten the relationship and the partner will be upset and abandon us. Differentiation has to do with the willingness to risk, to grow, to challenge ourselves and our partners, and this is directly related to the amount of vitality that is in our relationship.” Ellyn Bader, PhD.

"Differentiation is your degree of resilience to the interpersonal contagiousness of another person’s anxiety or other strong feelings.” Murray Bowen, PhD.

And here's my favourite:

Differentiation is your ability to maintain your sense of self when you are emotionally and/or physically close to others, especially as they become increasingly important to you. Differentiation permits you to maintain your own course when loved ones pressure you to agree, to conform.

Well differentiated people can agree without feeling like they’re losing themselves and disagree without feeling angry and embittered. They can stay connected through a disagreement and not have to leave it to hold onto a sense of themselves.

Notice that the opposite of differentiation is neither connection nor lack of connection. Think of it as a higher order process that involved balancing both togetherness and separateness, connection and autonomy. " David Schnarch, Ph.D

So what does it mean in real life?

We are different :) Duh! Of course we are. And yet, I'm sure you had many moments of genuine surprise or disbelief or even hurt when you realized that your partner didn't see life the same way you did.

Differentiation is an ability to create safety and security in your relationship even when you disagree, even when you are very different. It's being authentic with your own wants and needs, and being genuinely curious about your partner's.

It's about how you handle big issues in life - one partner wants to go back to school, another worries about money. One partner wants to live in the country, another in a busy downtown. One partner is ready to have kids, and another is unsure. But it's also about how you handle small things - one partner wants to go out, and you want to stay home. One partner wants to be intimate, and you don't. I think you get the idea.

How do we stay in a conversation, even when it's extremely uncomfortable; with respect, care and warmth? How do we not give up on our desires and not suppress our feelings when our partners do not agree or don't even see them? How do we grow stronger and stronger in our differentiation, deepening our connection and intimacy.

I'm realizing there are more questions than answers in this post. I'll come back and write more about it. But before we complete, let's talk about tools and practices. What can we actually do?

One of the best tools I know to strengthen your differentiation - dyads. Simple simple. Communication that's now about agreeing, or convincing anyone, but simply about sharing and deep understanding. Safe space.

It can be as simple as taking a deep breath and asking your partner "Tell me more about this", before emotionally reacting ("are you crazy?") and flooding them with your feelings. Understand first, before seeking to be understood. Simple, not easy.

It's about saying: "Let's slow down here, I want to make sure I get it. Why is this so painful (or so important) for you? Is there a big dream or a fear underneath all this? Is this vulnerable for you to share?" We ask questions before jumping to conclusions, we try to stay open and curious.

It can be about practicing red light / yellow light religiously until you learn how to slow down enough so you CAN hear each other even through the most triggering conversations. It's about practicing self-soothing and self care.

It's also about taking risks, and staying true to yourself, while being kind to your partner. An act of courageous love. A strong commitment to a strong relationship.