Since differentiation is a complex process that is easily misunderstood, let me offer several important clarifications:
People screaming, “I got to be me!” “Don’t fence me in!” and “I need space!” are not highly differentiated people. Just the opposite. They are fearful of disappearing in a relationship and do things to avoid their partner’s emotional engulfment. Some create distance; others keep their relationship in constant upheaval. Declaring your boundaries is an important early step in the differentiation process, but it’s done in the context of staying in the relationship (that is, close proximity and restricted space). This is quite different from poorly differentiated people who attempt to always “keep the door open” and who bolt as increasing importance of the relationship makes them feel like they’re being locked up. The process of holding onto your sense of self in an intense emotional relationship is what develops your differentiation.
Differentiation is different from similar sounding concepts. It’s entirely different from “individualism,” which is an egocentric attempt to set ourselves apart from others. Unlike “rugged individualists” who can’t sustain a relationship, differentiated folks welcome and maintain intimate connections. Highly differentiated people also behave differently than the terms autonomy and independence suggest. They can be heedful of their impact on others and take their partner’s needs and priorities into account. Differentiation is the ability to balance individuality and togetherness.
The differentiated self is solid but permeable, allowing you to remain close even when your partner tries to mold or manipulate you. When you have a solid core of sound values and beliefs, you can change without losing your identity. You can permit yourself to be influenced by others, changing as new information and shifting circumstances warrant. Realize, however, that this flexible sense of identity develops slowly, out of soul-searching deliberation—not by simply adapting to situations or the wishes of others.
Differentiation doesn’t involve any lack of feelings or emotions. You can connect with your partner without the fear of being swept up in his or her emotions. You can evaluate your emotions (and your partner’s) both subjectively and objectively.
The self-determination of differentiation doesn’t imply selfishness. Differentiation is not about always putting yourself ahead of everyone else. You can choose to be guided by your partner’s best interests, even at the expense of your individual agenda. But it doesn’t leave you feeling like you’re being ruled by others’ needs. (And if it did, then you’d be able to self-soothe and metabolize those feelings and be guided by a more objective assessment of the situation.) As you become more differentiated, you recognize those you love are separate people—just like you. What they want for themselves becomes as important to you as what you want for yourself. You value their interests on a par with yours. You can see the merit in their positions, even when they contradict or interfere with your own.
What I’m describing is called mutuality. Differentiation is the key to mutuality; as a perspective, a mind-set, it offers a solution to the central struggle of any long-term relationship: going forward with your own self-development while being concerned with your partner’s happiness and well-being. Differentiation allows each person to function independently and interdependently.
Well-differentiated people can stay connected with those who disagree with them and still “know who they are.” They don’t have to leave the situation to hold onto their sense of self. Lack of differentiation alienates us from those we love. Emotional fusion deceives us into thinking we’re not connected and we move away in defense. But the deeper truth is that we feel compelled to move away to counterbalance the tremendous impact we feel our spouse has on us.
When we have little differentiation, our identity is constructed out of what’s called a reflected sense of self. We need continual contact, validation, consensus (or disagreement) from others. (Arguing can be a way of checking that the other person is still there—it serves a double duty.)
Raising our level of differentiation is not easy. We can raise it through concentrated effort (like therapy) or crisis (as commonly occurs in the course of marriage, family, friendships, and career). The many small steps toward core transformation involve more than a self-indulgent search to “find yourself.” The process of differentiation can be excruciating at times. Loving is both beautiful and painful. Differentiation offers the ability to tolerate it, enjoy it, and see its meaning.
(from David Schnarch’s book “Passionate Marriage,” Chapter 2, “Developing a Self-in-Relationship,” especially pp. 67-68.)