Therapists aren’t exactly supposed to spill the tea. However, there is one lesson that is so essential for couples that I feel it must be shared with everyone both inside and outside of my office! I’m talking about a not-so-little thing called differentiation.
Have you ever noticed the way we love to give celebrity couples nicknames? Just think of “Bennifer”, “Brangelina,” or the dozens of other combo names we’ve all chuckled at. Unfortunately, our brains can actually create these mergers of being on the psychological level when we’re in a relationship. We can lose our differentiation. Differentiation refers to a person’s ability to become a fully autonomous and separate person. It means that we fully understand our partner to be a separate person with their own desires, needs, ambitions, and perspectives. It doesn’t rub us the wrong way. We prefer it.
While an inability to achieve differentiation can be a big point of conflict in romantic relationships, the problem is often rooted in our family relationships. That’s because differentiation for most people first takes place when we are able to comfortably acknowledge that we are psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually separate from our family of origin. Guilt, lack of boundaries, physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and trauma can all stop this natural developmental process. Unfortunately, the lack of having a separate sense of self often gets transferred to our romantic relationships once we begin dating.
Why Relationships With Low Differentiation Often Fail
When differentiation is low, couples often experience a rigid, stagnated relationship. In fact, it can feel more like you’re in a power struggle instead of being in a loving relationship. One partner is typically angry, frustrated, and unaccepting because they cannot tolerate the fact that their partner has different needs, views, and desires. They may also feel rejected and unloved unless their partner is always set at just the right emotional temperature for them. Having an independent thought feels like rejection. In some cases, this can lead to emotional or physical abuse that is caused by a desperate need to control the other person out of fear of losing them.
How Do You Learn Differentiation in a Romantic Relationship?
If you’re struggling with differentiation, both individual and couples therapy can be helpful. Learning the roots of why you haven’t achieved differentiation can be an important part of healing from childhood wounds that are impacting your personal, romantic, and professional relationships today. Many people suffering from low differentiation also have underlying anxiety.
The most important thing you can do today is to make a commitment to show up to conflicts with your partner differently compared to how you’ve been showing up. Make a deal with yourself that you’re in control of regulating your nervous system, controlling your responses, and stating your boundaries. In addition to deciding that you deserve to be tolerated as a whole, separate person, you must decide that your partner also deserves to be tolerated in the same way!