Differentiation of Self in Romantic Relationships

Love is a balance between embracing "we" while holding onto "I."

Love is a bold, adventuresome odyssey. Its more delightful pathways are brimming with happinesslaughter, warmth, friendship, peacefulness, passion, and the calmness that comes with a steady, secure bond. And when you venture into its more troublesome, trying locales, you’ll come across hurdles such as risks, emotional aches, struggles, confusion, uncertainty, and anxiety.

Love also involves thoughtful calibration. Just think about the fine-tuning we humans endeavor to perform as we strive to build and maintain emotional intimacy with a romantic partner. There’s a balance to strike in what we do with our feelings. On the one hand, when we love someone with an open heart, the emotions we experience can be quite powerful. But on the other hand, and this particularly applies to undesirable emotions, we have to find a way to respond to these feelings so they don’t overpower us and take command of our decisions. We also seek to walk the line between allowing ourselves to become extremely close as we cultivate a sense of unity with our partner, and holding steadfastly onto our separate sense of self as we continue to be an independent person.

And it’s complicated to achieve this balance, which is also referred to in the related literature as differentiation of self” or differentiation.” After all, it’s not exactly a piece of cake to manage extremely powerful feelings in a relationship without giving in to them wholesale or shutting them down, and the task that couples undertake of becoming a joined “we” while holding onto their own “I” can be hazy and thorny.

So in the face of preserving a harmony that is anything but easy to master, you probably don’t need me to tell you that most people waver and falter in some way, at least from time to time.

Consider these all too human examples:

  • A couple tends to steer clear of debating each other on issues, as they feel uncomfortable with conflict and disagreement.

  • A partner has a tendency to neglect their own needs and preferences in an effort to make the other person happy. Guilt and fear of rejection make it hard to set limits and say no.

  • A partner wonders, “Who am I in this relationship?”

  • A partner becomes frightened as the relationship gets closer and responds by emotionally detaching themselves.

Yet, it’s also possible to turn things around and refine our balance. So let’s start by defining differentiation a bit more. What do we actually mean when we talk about it? What does it look like?

What Is Differentiation?

Differentiation is divided into two general domains. First, there’s the “intrapsychic” domain, which refers to the space within the mind; it essentially involves our capacity to regulate our thoughts and feelings. There are two more specific elements within this domain:

1. Emotional reactivity: When stress occurs in a relationship, deeply strong feelings arise that can be tough to manage. And these feelings could guide how a person thinks about a situation, as well as how they react. For instance, let’s say that Jane’s partner expressed some frustration with her for often being late. She may feel  nervous and distressed about this, finding that the rest of her evening is ruined because of how bad she feels about her partner’s disappointment. However, if Jane responded in a less emotionally reactive way, she might still feel quite upset, but be more able to consider other viewpoints to help her through it. For example, she could remind herself that her partner is frustrated with her behavior, but still loves her as a person, or she might extend herself some compassion by reflecting on how everyone has flaws to work on, with lateness being one of hers.

2. Taking an I-position: A person with a firm ability to take an I-position is someone who has a clear, sharp image of who they are as an individual. They have a strong sense of their principles and are willing to set limits and stand by their beliefs, regardless of whether their partner shares the same ideas or not. Someone who struggles to take an I-position is more inclined to bend their opinions and actions to make their partner happy; they’re less likely to disagree or decline to go along with their partner’s wishes.

Second, there’s the “interpersonal” domain, which pertains to the space between two partners. It reflects the degree to which people can allow themselves to become intimately attached to a partner and, at the same time, continue to be a separate person who can function on their own. When a couple encounters moments of difficulty and unease in their relationship, it’s quite plausible that they’ll feel upset. This could make it tempting to try to shield themselves from their distress, and there are a couple of ways they might do so. These methods, listed below, make up the two elements in the interpersonal domain. They reflect efforts to either create more of an emotional gap in a relationship or to lessen it.

3. Fusion: Fusion happens when someone feels frightened of losing their partner and overcompensates by trying to be too close. They may lose their sense of self, put too much energy into the relationship, and consistently place their partner’s wishes and needs first.

4. Emotional cutoff: When angst arises about becoming close, or if unease emerges about losing a sense of individuality and independence in the relationship, a person may try to turn the dial down on their feelings of fondness, emotionally disengage, and withdraw from their partner.

Now that we know more about what differentiation is, you may be wondering how it could play a role in the lives of couples. So just what links are there between differentiation and relationship wellness? Let’s turn to that question now.

Why Does Differentiation Matter?

It’s fruitful for relationships when partners allow themselves to be in tune with their feelings and navigate strong, inevitable tides of emotion in an effective way. And it’s healthy for people to be profoundly close even as they also hold onto a distinct sense of their individual selves, complete with their own valid needs, feelings, values, and perspectives. Arguably, I think this balance helps couples interact with each other in a smoother, more connected way that fosters the grows of the relationship and the people within it. And according to a growing body of relationship science, differentiation is linked to a range of relationship benefits.

For instance, strong differentiation is connected to a healthier and happier relationship, and this has been found in couples cross-culturally. Moreover, a study that followed couples over 25 years revealed that improvements in marriage were linked to each partner’s enhanced ability to show affection and make room for each other’s individuality. On the flip side, partners who were less able to respect each other’s individuality earlier in their lives experienced more friction 25 years later. Scientists have also looked at the relationship between differentiation and a couple’s sex life. There's evidence that partners with a comparable level of differentiation have higher libidos. And greater differentiation forecasts a couple’s ability to talk about sex more effectively, which is connected to heightened contentment with sex and their marriage.

As we discussed toward the beginning of this piece, differentiation in love is a fine balancing act. Anyone can find themselves teetering, and there’s room for improvement for virtually everyone. So if you’re wondering how you can improve your balancing act, I hope you’ll give yourself some well-deserved kudos for focusing on your own growth. You may find that you’ve never tried some of the strategies listed below. Conversely, you might notice that you’ve tried each one and have integrated them all into your life. No matter whether these approaches are brand new, are ones you’ve tried, but have gotten away from, or they feel pretty routine, try considering how you can stretch yourself and expand your knack for differentiation even more.

What Can I Try?

1. Mindfully embrace the present.

Partners who tend to be mindful, who focus on the here and now with their partner and acknowledge thoughts, feelings, and circumstances in an open, uncritical, and compassionate way are more likely to have a higher degree of differentiation. So if you find your mind flitting to anxieties of the future or judgments of yourself or your partner, consider taking a deep, slow breath, and see if you can bring your mind back to the present, noticing and accepting what is rather than mentally fighting it.

2. Tend to your own garden.

In addition to directing energy toward creating a shared life with each other, partners foster differentiation by continuing to invest in their lives as separate individuals. For instance, they keep pursuing their own personal and professional interests and goals, and they continue spending time with friends independently of one another. Consider reflecting on your own passions, or on interests that you’d like to pursue but haven’t yet. Try reinvesting in a pastime you’ve let go of, or take a class to learn something new on your own.

3. Cultivate a healthy, happy, accepting bond.

Another way couples nurture differentiation is by investing in the quality of the time they spend together. An illustration of this would be partners who put effort into talking with each other in an open, straightforward, and understandable manner, who have fun together, and who actively celebrate what makes them different. In line with this, you might consider ways to elevate your bond with your partner. For instance, is there a peaceful, relaxing place where you both like to go? Is there an event happening in your area that you’d like to check out? How could you improve your communication with your partner? What valuable and praiseworthy qualities, traits, characteristics, abilities, habits, interests, or knowledge does your partner possess that make them different from you?

4. Treat “you” as a never-ending project.

You can also strive to nurture your own individual growth. For example, you could focus on certain virtues, principles, or abilities you’d like to bolster. If you find that you and your partner are frequently with each other and are rarely alone, try carving out more time for yourself and supporting your partner’s alone time as well. Or let’s say you’re someone who, like many people, steers clear of conflict and disagreements. In that case, you might choose to take another approach on a particular occasion and try good-naturedly standing behind a differing opinion or idea you hold on a topic. Who knows? You and your partner might even find that you enjoy a spirited, friendly debate!

5. Remember that there are many right roads to Rome.

Let’s be honest, we all have our own pet styles for accomplishing the tasks of life, reaching for our goals, and handling problems. And they’re usually our favored styles for good reason — they work for us. So when a partner finds us facing a similar job, aspiration, task, or situation they’ve encountered (or continue to encounter), it’s quite natural for them to think that what works so brilliantly for them should work for us too. Arguably, this can lead the most well-intentioned of partners to inadvertently go overboard in selling their personal methods and approaches, convinced that their way is the right way. So if you’ve ever heard a comment such as, “There’s a much better way you could be doing _______,” and wound up doubting yourself, you've got plenty of company. Take heart and remind yourself that, in the vast majority of situations, there’s more than one right way to reach a goal or do what needs to get done. Of course, you may decide that you authentically agree with your partner and want to take their advice, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all! But if your approach isn’t harming anyone else, and you truly prefer it and believe it works best for you, consider resisting the pull you may feel to discredit your personal style. After all, you may very well both be right.

Source: Holly Parker, Ph.D. October 1 2018; https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-future-self/201810/differentiation-self-in-romantic-relationships

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