Differentiation - Two women looking at each other

Differentiation | Can I be fully me in the presence of you?

At its core, differentiation describes the ability to distinguish and define yourself within your relationship, as separate from your partner. It’s an active, ongoing process of defining yourself (who you are), revealing yourself to your partner/s), and clarifying boundaries. It’s also about managing the anxiety that comes from the risk of showing yourself to your partner/s and being vulnerable, challenging your partner/s, and growing as a person.

This may sound like it’s just developing independence from your partner/s but it’s different. Individuality or independence is how we develop and grow as people, differentiation is about being who you are in the presence of who they are, and not being consumed by their needs and wants.

There are two ways in which we differentiate.

Differentiation of Self

This requires the ongoing ability to identify and express important aspects of yourself, thoughts, feelings, wants and desires.  Self awareness is important in the ability to identify what is going on in your internal world. Differentiation requires an expression of that internal world to the other. If you are someone who often reflects on how you are more connected to yourself and happier when you are not in a significant relationship, you may have developed your individuality but have difficulty with differentiation.

Differentiation of the other

This is the ability to be curious about your partner’s thoughts/feelings/needs, while also managing your own reactions. To be present and loving in the face of your partner’s strong feelings and reactions to you, such as in a disagreement or argument. One skill that helps is the ability to maintain a bigger picture of who your partner is over time, instead of seeing their reaction in the moment as the whole of them. For example, when your partner disagrees with you over something important, can you tolerate it? Do you try to convince them to see things your way? Can you be curious and undefended around their issue?

Differentiation is an ongoing and active process. Defining your thoughts, feelings, wishes and desires to one another never stops. It is easy to feel connected to one another when you agree or are aligned in your needs and goals. Expressing yourself at these times is easy as there is little risk of conflict. 

Differentiation becomes much harder when you disagree or want different things and you can struggle to tolerate difference, because in difference there is the potential for risk as it can threaten the security of your relationship. At this point of difference, you have a choice, you can give  in to avoid conflict or fight to hold onto your identity and try and force you partner to see things your way. In these ways couples are resisting differentiation. 

There are certainly some differences that can cause the relationship to end, such as wanting children or not wanting children, so the risk is real. However, if you do not do the work of differentiation then conflict can escalate as you try to change their minds, and resentment can build if you find yourself always giving in.

There are several skills necessary for differentiation to develop.

In conflict, a differentiated partner can give their partner space, while remaining close enough to be caring and supportive, even if they disagree or dislike what their partner is saying. Instead of being overwhelmed by emotions such as hurt, defensiveness or anger, you can express curiosity about your partner’s emotional state and experience. “Can you tell me more about this?” “What does this mean to you?” “How does it make you feel when I do this?”.

Identify and express your needs
The more differentiated you are, the less likely you are to take things personally and feel defensive, which means you will have greater clarity regarding your thoughts, feelings, and needs. As a result, you can soothe yourself, or reach out to your partner to be soothed. “I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed, can you give me a hug?”, even in conflict.

Maintain autonomy
The ability to not get lost in your partner’s needs, desires, or intense emotions (emotional contagion) and to be able to distinguish and assert your own needs and desires. 

Consider or recognise and take responsibility for your part in creating unhealthy dynamics in your relationships. This allows you and your partner to work together to meet each other’s needs. Ask yourself, how am I contributing to this? What am I like when I’m at my worst in an argument? Am I really listening or am I simply listening to respond and defend myself? What would it mean if what might partner says is true – and can I love and accept myself despite this?

How do you raise your level of differentiation?

Differentiation is not raised in solitude, but within intimate relationships. These 4 points can help you achieve a greater level of differentiation:

  1. Know yourself. Be connected to who you are, know your strengths and weaknesses. Be familiar with the parts of yourself you do not like. Who are you when you are at your worst in your relationships? What does that look like? How will that make the other person feel? When we stop suppressing or denying parts of ourselves, and practice self-acceptance, we take away the shame which rears its head when in conflict. This allows us to hear our partners more easily and stops us being as reactive or defended.
  2. Listen. Don’t listen to respond, but instead really try to understand what your partner is communicating to you. Listen with curiosity. Ask questions about their experience, not to pick holes in their argument but to understand at a greater depth. It can help to ask yourself the question, “why do I want to know this” before asking anything to ensure that understanding the heart of their issue is your priority, not diminishing their issue/forming a rebuttal. Remain grounded when responding. Your ability to stay grounded and calm, even when your partner is triggered or anxious, will help you stay connected. By differentiating you can really hear your partner’s frustration, hurt, criticism, without becoming reactive or overwhelmed. With practice this will make conflict safer for you both and allow you to be more honest and open. 
  3. Self-soothe. Self-regulation is important as it will allow you to stay grounded and not feel overwhelmed or caught up in your emotions. You can achieve this by checking in with yourself, talking soothingly to yourself, using kind language with yourself, noticing what comes up for you, verbalising how you feel or writing your feelings down also helps you regulate. Mindfulness, meditation, and therapy are also good for this, but the most important thing is to ask for a time out if you need it.
  4. Be mindful and prepared when you engage in conflict. Set aside time to have difficult discussions and think about what the issue is, and what you need from your partner before engaging. Be curious about each other’s experiences and reactions. Communicate what it is you need from them, don’t leave them guessing. Observe yourselves without judgment and understand that conflict is unavoidable, but when your partner has a complaint or shares a concern, they are sharing a part of themselves, and this is a gift. 

Written by Charlie Janes, Relationship Therapist

If you want to know more about differentiation in relationships, in this podcast, Ellen Bader PhD, talks about the concept of differentiation and shares her wisdom gathered over decades of working with couples. 

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