Developing a healthy balance between separateness and togetherness in relationships

Much research has been undertaken into understanding stability in relationships, notably by John Gottmann (1999) and his colleagues.

The Gottman Institute has been interested in identifying factors that contribute to either satisfying or troubling relationships. Factors that have been seen as contributing to having a  destabilising influence on relationships include what Gottman termed “the four horsemen” in conflict situations - criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. Gottman also described relationships as troublesome where there is gridlock rather than dialogue over repeated issues of concern for the couple.

Gottman’s model focuses on current patterns of interaction in the couple but does not take into account or explain where these patterns stem from. It therefore falls short of addressing the root causes of negative interaction patterns displayed by the two individuals in the relationship.

Theorists who are interested in the behaviour that was acquired in the family-of-origin offer some interesting insights that combined with Gottman’s theories can offer a comprehensive picture of how behaviour patterns stemming from the past are played out in the present and can be addressed to change future behaviour.

One family-of-origin theorist, Murray Bowen (1978), developed a theory called ‘differentiation of self’ that is helpful when looking at issues around closeness and separateness in relationships. Bowen described differentiation of self both in terms of how it relates to a person’s internal processes as well as external, interpersonal relationships.

On an individual, internal level differentiation of self refers to a person’s ability to distinguish between self and other and between the more rationale and the more emotional parts of our self. Differentiation involves an ability to be more objective and to break free from overly reflexive responses. A highly differentiated person acknowledges their dependence on others but relies less on what other people have to say. In the face of conflict or criticism a person with a high level of differentiation is more likely to remain calm and is overall more resistant to stress.

On an interpersonal level, differentiation of self describes a person’s capacity to establish intimate relationships where there is a fine balance between closeness and autonomy. Being differentiated means having a strong sense of who you are as a person and knowing your own position while allowing others the space for their own. In a relationship where both partners are highly differentiated they tend to be strongly connected while still maintaining their own position, their own feelings and thoughts.

Many couples in couple therapy struggle to maintain the right balance between maintaining their individuality and their emotional dependency on their partner. Often one or both partners are emotionally fused that is they have lost the ability to direct themselves instead over-relying on their partner. In relationships where both partners are fused there is only one feeling, one position and one opinion. Statements tend to start with “we” rather than “I”.

Conflict arises where there is a disagreement on a particular position as disagreement is viewed as a threat. A common behaviour pattern is to be highly reactive - often distancing themselves or cutting off completely from their partner. In relationships where partners are emotionally fused children or other people often get brought into the conflict between the two partners as the couple struggles to resolve differences between themselves on their own.

Research (Skowron, 2000) has shown that couples who demonstrate a higher level of differentiation are more likely to be satisfied in their relationship. Conversely couples who are more emotionally reactive or cut off tend to report more stress and discord in their relationship.

Differentiation is therefore an important process that helps partners to be connected without being consumed by the other person. Both partners are able to be interdependent while at the same time being emotionally two distinct people. Paradoxically, developing the capacity to be more apart from each other also enables us to come closer to our partner, to be more distinct rather than more distant.

To summarise, in couple therapy the concept of differentiation helps to:

  • Understand and address internally the two partners' difficulties with managing intense (negative) feelings and responses (such as Gottman’s “four horsemen”) more calmly and in a more considerate way.
  • Look at ways in which the couple can build more capacity to tolerate and develop more intimacy as well as separateness in the relationship.


Bowen, Murray (1978). Family therapy in clinical practice. New York, NY: Jason Aronson

Gottman, John M. (1999.). The Marriage Clinic. New York: W. W. Norton & Company

Gubbins, Christine A, Perosa Linda M., Bartle-Haring (2010). Relationship Between Married Couples’ Self-Differentiation/Individuation and Gottman’s Model of Marital Interactions. Contemporary Family Therapy,32, p. 383– 395.

Schnarch, David (2009).Passionate Marriage, Love and Intimacy in Emotionally Committed Relationships. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company

Skowron, E. A.( 2000). The role of differentiationof self in marital adjustment. Journal of Counseling Psychology,47, p. 229– 237.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, Greater London, N14 7BH
Written by Angela Dierks, MStud (Oxon), MA Integrative Counselling, MBACP (Acc)
London, Greater London, N14 7BH

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