Sonya Thomas lcsw

Differentiation, explained

Recently, one of my couples therapy guru’s, Ellyn Bader, was interviewed around the topic of differentiation.  This concept and psychological process is so important in a long term relationship, and she is a master at promoting it, that I decided to share what she has to say on the topic:

“People in a primary relationship or a marriage want the rewards of a really healthy, flourishing, vital relationship and they want it without doing the hard work of differentiation.  I just don’t believe that a long-term enduring relationship that is alive gets there without people doing the hard work of differentiation.  I think a lot of partners have the misperception that they’ll lose their relationship if they differentiate. There is a fear of really showing oneself as deeply, as broadly and as expansively as one might.

I define differentiation as the active, ongoing process of a person being able to define their thoughts, their feelings, their wishes and their desires to one another and to be able to tolerate the partner doing the same thing.  When people are afraid of differentiating, they are afraid if they show their authentic self and the other one doesn’t like it or doesn’t agree with it, that they’re going to end up in a big fight or they’re going to end up with the other person leaving. When that’s true, they don’t show themselves very well to each other.

When you look at why relationships fail over the course of time, one of the core reasons is due to a lack of differentiation. Without differentiation, relationships get stale. Interactions become repetitive and partners end up bored or lonely. They end up bored because the relationship isn’t growing and it isn’t changing, or they end up just competing with each other to be “right”, ending up in being really angry and really nasty to each other.

The most stuck relationships are those where each person wants to keep the other as unchanging. They remember how they were when they met and they want that to last forever.  Then they don’t explore or push each other to grow. They don’t take risks or try new things. It becomes a very, very narrow way of living in the world.  You can see how it would lead to a deadening.  Differentiation is the route to aliveness and expansiveness, to authenticity and vulnerability, and resolving conflicts and handling not liking each other at times.”

So, there you have it.  The master in her own words.  What is your experience with differentiation?  Do you embrace it or avoid it?  That could very well be the difference between a relationship that thrives, and a relationship that dies.

Until next time, peace.

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