In my work with both couples and individuals I pay attention to the level of differentiation that exists in a relationship. Ellyn Bader, co-founder of The Couples Institute in Menlo, California, defines differentiation as the ongoing process of a person being able to define their thoughts, their feelings, their wishes and their desires to another and to be able to tolerate their partner doing the same thing.
Whilst this may seem straight-forward, for many couples this is difficult to achieve. Relationships go through many developmental stages and whilst at the beginning it is enticing and exciting to be in each other’s pockets, so to speak, over time it is important and necessary for the growth of the relationship for individuals to be their own person within the relationship. This is the challenge for all couples.
According to Ellyn, ‘people are afraid that if they show their authentic/true self and the other one doesn’t like or agree with it, they will end up in a big fight or their partner will leave.’ So if you’re afraid of differentiation, you won’t show or share yourself at all levels and this impacts the ability of the relationship to grow and develop in healthy ways.
Many people believe that they have to be on the same page as their partner about most everything. They don’t have an understanding of the power of differentiation, the importance of being able to sit with the emotional discomfort of having different opinions, approaches or beliefs to their partner. They mistakenly assume that their relationship isn’t a good one or that their partner isn’t the right match for them.
One of the main reasons relationships fail is due to the lack of differentiation. Without differentiation, relationships become stagnant. Interactions become repetitive and partners end up expressing that they are bored or lonely. As Ellyn explains, ‘partners end up bored because the relationship isn’t growing or changing; or partners end up competing with each other and being really angry and nasty to each other. The most stuck relationships are those where each person wants to keep the other unchanging. They remember how they were when they met and they want that to last forever.’
It can also feel safer if their partner doesn’t change; change can be unknown, uncertain and unsettling and it can challenge the other person to grow along with their partner. Not everyone has this capacity or inclination and this can create problems for the relationship.
Resistance to growth and development means that couples don’t explore or push each other to grow. This is an important part of a healthy relationship. Ellyn says that couples who don’t take risks or try new things end up with a very narrow way of living in the world. She believes, and I agree, that differentiation is the route to aliveness and expansiveness, to authenticity and vulnerability and being able to resolve conflicts and tolerate not liking each other at times.
So how do you get comfortable with the idea of differentiation and begin practicing this in your relationships? The more you know about yourself, having the capacity to talk things through openly with your partner, being able to sit with the discomfort of tolerating differences between you, the more comfortable you will become with differentiation. You can do this work individually or together in relationship counseling, working towards increasing self-awareness, developing the ability to tolerate differences and learning how to manage conflict in a constructive way.