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Ok, so maybe you’ve heard of the term differentiation. But what really does it mean for relationships? 

Differentiation refers to one’s ability to confidently reveal or express their differing thoughts, feelings and desires in their relationship AND tolerate their partner doing the same. 

When people are afraid of differentiating, they feel that if they show their authentic self and their partner doesn’t like it or agree with it, that this will create conflict and cause disharmony. When that’s true, they don’t avoid showing certain aspects of themselves to each other.

The idealized relationship where partners are joined at the hip is not a healthy relationship, as it doesn’t allow for the unique differences of each partner.

As Dr. David Schnarch states in his book entitled 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.”

Differentiation allows couples to successfully grow and evolve together– not apart.

It allows partners to stay connected to each other despite their unique, and sometimes conflicting differences. Therapy can be immensely helpful in supporting individuals and couples become more differentiated.

The effect of anxiety on differentiation

According to American psychiatrist and professor Murray Bowen, differentiation is defined as “the degree of resilience to the interpersonal contagion of anxiety”. Basically, and all too commonly, individuals feel anxious about presenting their true authentic selves to their partner in fear that  expressing their differing values and opinions will result in either deeper intimacy or cause a separation.

This is particularly true for new couples experiencing the end of what is known as the honeymoon phase.  Like differentiation, relationships go through stages. As the first stage of the relationship diminishes, differences begin to emerge and anxiety around differences is felt. Thus, it is important to manage anxiety over differences in your relationship and learn to accept newfound imperfections and ambiguity.

Differentiation helps couples successfully manage differences in order to best solve conflicts.

The importance of maintaining balance between independence and co-dependence.

In order to maintain a stable and healthy relationship, one must establish ongoing independence whilst simultaneously welcoming an emotional connection with another person.

Ask yourself this- “Am I able to to create a healthy balance of the two?”

If not, this can result in co-dependency– the loss of self and the subsequent reliance on others for happiness. Maintaining that balance and successfully clarifying boundaries are crucial parts of growing in self differentiation.

Understanding the two parts of differentiation

To truly comprehend differentiation, it is important to understand the differences between the two parts- the differentiation of self and of other- and how they can work symbiotically.  

The differentiation of self refers to the ability to identify and express your thoughts, feelings, and desires, including being clear on your boundaries. The differentiation of other involves being curious of your partner’s thoughts, feelings, and desires, and managing negative reactions you have towards them

Acknowledge that your partner is their own person, and accept their differences instead of trying to change them.

Couples who are differentiated are able to enjoy all of the benefits of being in relationship, without compromising who they are, or what’s important to them. It’s the ability to show up fully and clearly in the relationship, while allowing your partner to do the same, that allows couples to feel loved and accepted. If you manage differences as a team, you can then support one another to be your best selves.

Making differentiation the number one key in a romantic relationship!

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