Differentiation – balancing the need for togetherness and separation

The idea of differentiation in a relationship involves the notion of two life forces at odds with each other: that of being an independent individual versus the drive to have togetherness with another person.  When these two drives are well balanced in a relationship it can thrive.

Where there is too much togetherness couples are often emotionally fused. In a state of emotional fusion there is usually a high level of anxiety; the couple defends against the anxiety by rallying around and merging into one.  Examples of symbiotic thinking would include the notion that the partner should know exactly what the other is feeling or the idea that the partner has to meet all the needs of the other. The underlying belief in an emotionally fused couple is that the partners are ‘one’ and that the partner is ‘the one’. The risk in this kind of over-dependent relationship is that both individuals struggle to manage difficulties on their own instead overly relying on the partner to comfort and control their anxieties. The initially soothing fusion can often lead to a relationship which both partners experience as constraining, controlling and stuck. Additionally, anxiety is contagious and floods the system: when one partner is anxious, the other soon experiences the same emotional state. The overall result is a very unstable relationship.

Emotional fusion is often romanticised as passion. Jealousy is seen as a cri de coer, as really caring for and loving the other rather than as an intolerance for separation. At the extreme end of emotional fusion we may see a partner who rather kills the other than tolerates a separation.

Conversely, couples where there is a strong emphasis on individuality often reduce their anxiety by escaping from the relationship altogether. Both partners see themselves as autonomous ships with their own captain at the steering wheel. In these partnerships any form of dependence smacks of desperation and danger; intimacy is seen as threatening to one’s vulnerability and is best avoided.  The myth of complete autonomy negates any sense of our need to be dependent and interdependent as human beings.  Too much emphasis on individuality and autonomy can create a form of self-centred narcissism. With this comes a sense of entitlement and a need to find the ‘perfect’ partner.

Differentiation means that both partners can maintain their individuality and sense of self while also being able to be emotionally close to their partner. In a well differentiated couple there can be disagreements without a fear of losing the other and there can be agreement without a fear of losing one’s self. Partners are aware of their own needs as well as those of the other.

Many people tend to find a partner at a similar level of differentiation but with an opposite defence. In moments of difficulty where old wounds are opened up a partner who experienced early rejection by their parents may unconsciously choose a partner who experienced their family as suffocating or too enmeshing. While the former partner would look for more fusion or closeness in the relationship the latter partner would seek to have more separateness. Such a couple would frequently engage in a pattern where one partner chases the other, while the other runs. The former complains, the latter stonewalls.  These patterns are often observed in couple therapy where partners are struggling to strike the right balance. Both partners are wishing for their partner to heal their own wounds or to pay off old scores that never were settled.

Increases in levels of differentiation bring about positive intrapsychic as well as interpersonal changes. Partners feel better in themselves as well as with their partner. With the capacity to separate the self from the partner comes a greater capacity to have a mature relationship.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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London, Greater London, N14 7BH

Written by Angela Dierks

London, Greater London, N14 7BH

I am a dedicated therapist and work with individual clients as well as couples on a range of issues. I hold an MA Integrative Counselling (with distinction) and a Diploma in Couple Counselling and Psychotherap. I am BACP accredited. I completed a BACP accredited Diploma in Clinical Supervision (CPPD) and offer supervision to other therapists.

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