Differentiation… Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys!

Differentiation 101

According to Ellyn Bader, differentiation can be defined as the active, ongoing process of defining self, expressing and activating self, revealing self, clarifying boundaries, and managing the anxiety that comes from risking either more intimacy or potential separation.

There is an uneasy tension which exists between a couple’s desire for intimacy and connection, and the natural gravitational pull toward individual growth and self-actualization. After all, personal growth of some sort is always happening. Effective couples therapy balances a couple’s need for both attachment and differentiation while navigating the predictable whirlpools and riptides that threaten to engulf each partner with more of exactly what they don’t want to deal with.

Attachment tends to occur readily at the threshold of commitment, but sustaining it over time is fraught with peril.

In my internship at the Pioneer Valley Center for Couples Therapy, I studied the Bader-Pearson Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. In the Developmental Model, an effective differentiation stage is considered essential to sustaining vitality in a relationship.

But efforts toward differentiation (called “practicing”) are often perceived by the less differentiated partner as a profound threat. Fear of rejection and abandonment often frustrate these early attempts at differentiation.  Often the notion of “I gotta be me” is a dire threat to the partner who prefers to say “we gotta be we.”

Unfortunately, many relationships sputter and stall at this stage. Many couples slide into an emotional gridlock of hostile dependency or conflict-avoidance. American cultural norms are somewhat hostile to differentiation, as our conception of marriage tends not to support the notion of healthy interdependence for both partners. Early attempts at differentiation can feel like being a circus acrobat without a net!


Differentiation in Couples Therapy… “Not My Circus… Not My Monkeys!”

In the Developmental Model, differentiation is seen as a healthy and necessary process. But what are the therapeutic tasks?
Effective couples therapy will help partners to:

  1. Self-reflect and look inward to identify their own thoughts, feelings, wishes, and desires that are independent and distinct from their partner.
  2. Develop an increasing skill to express and congruently reveal more of who they are really are as individuals (without blaming or shaming or being shamed or blamed by their reluctant and uncooperative spouse).
  3. Develop an increasing awareness and acceptance of their spouse as a separate and different person from themselves, with their own wishes, needs, and desires.
  4.  Increase their capacity to carefully listen and respond appropriately to their differences as a couple, while establishing clear and distinct boundaries.
  5. Create a safe and welcoming environment in their relationship that helps to regulate anxiety, while supporting desired changes.

This process can be messy. A marriage in the throes of early differentiation can be a three-ring circus. Partners will often release the jungle beasts of their own wants, needs, and desires at the expense of what their partner can readily accept, tolerate, or manage. “Not my circus… not my monkeys,” says the threatened and reluctant partner!

differentiationImportance of Differentiation

In a healthy marriage, is essential for partners to avoid compromising on their bottom-line core values and beliefs. This can be tough to achieve at first. But to effectively deal with the fundamental 69% of what Gottman calls “unsolvable problems,” a healthy hard-won sense of differentiation will allow a couple to negotiate effectively, developing a more resilient ongoing intimacy that respects and manages differences

Couples vary in their capacity for differentiation.

It is a risky, acquired taste. The lower the level of differentiation, the more likely one partner will tend to:

  1.  Set their spouse up to take the opposite side of ambivalence.
  2.  Pin their unresolved feelings and experiences onto their partner.
  3.  Throw emotional knives of negative transference and projection over and over and over…
  4.  Burn-out quickly during important conversations.

One caveat.  Attention all narcissists. A callous and overbearing stance by one spouse without regard for their partner is not differentiation.

Differentiation can only be fully realized and sustained within an interpersonal crucible.

Differentiation begins when a partner is able to mindfully appreciate two distinct realities at the same time. They see their own reality as well as the reality of their spouse. And doing this means risking “safety”, facing tension, and managing anxiety.

Are you struggling because you think your partner wants to run away and join the circus?

Take them to a Couples Retreat instead!

Call us for more information 844-926-8753 to reach me, Daniel Dashnaw, use option 2.

About the Author Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.

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