The “Work” In Relationships We All Need to Do

Differentiation—what it is and why it is important

“We tell ourselves that intimacy (and marriage) takes two people who are willing to work at it-but, unfortunately, we rarely have the slightest inkling of our “job” assignments in this project.” —David Schnarch, Passionate Marriage

My first decade of dating I had no idea what was wrong with me. I came to accept that I was clingy, jealous, and dependent. This was not a pleasant acceptance and it came with a bucket of shame. It is why I had a tendency to instead blame my partner for my unfavourable traits. I knew that what I was doing wasn’t working but I also had no idea what the heck to do about it.

Relationships call on us to “work” but yet, we may have no idea what the heck that work is supposed to be. Is it spinning our tires in a cycle of fighting and making up? Is it compromising on our values and beliefs? For years I thought I must be working because my relationships were a far cry from easy.

I soon learned that just because relationships are hard does not mean we are engaged in the kind of work that will allow us to finally find freedom and deep fulfillment in our relationships. For me, it meant I was stuck. My unconscious patterns in relationships were dragging me through the same cycle again and again. I may have been struggling but I wasn’t doing the work I needed to do.

When I was in my early 20s there were no Instagram psychologists to give me words to make sense of my experience. There were no online communities where someone could find solace in knowing they are not alone in their relational struggles. I never thought to head to the “self-help” section of the library. That section is for losers, my younger and far more self-conscious self thought.

Fast-forward a few years and I am a self-help section regular. I didn’t want to be me anymore—especially not in relationships. I just wanted to be okay and this yearning opened me up to all kinds of help. One of the first and most impressionable of those books was Passionate Marriage by the late Dr. David Schnarch.

Though it has been years since I have read the book, I realize that it is his book that made me realize that I needed to start focusing on myself—and not my partner’s perceived shortcomings—if I ever wanted to find peace in my relationships.

The one concept that I walked away with was an understanding of differentiation. I thought—if I could only become a little bit more differentiated, perhaps I could finally stop losing myself in my relationships. So the work began.

What is differentiation?

The process of differentiating can be seen as the work that we are called to do in our relationships. For some of us, it may give us some direction and help us understand why it is we feel so stuck when it comes to love. The opposite of differentiation is emotional fusion. This can look like someone who sets aside their own needs for the sake of maintaining relationship harmony, and for others it may be the act of distancing or cutting oneself off from the relationship emotionally.

Differentiation is about knowing where we end and someone else begins. In the words of David Schnarch:

“Differentiation is your ability to maintain your sense of self when you are emotionally and/or physically close to others—especially as they become increasingly important to you.”

We all know those people who seem to drop off the face of the planet when they are in a relationship. Heck, I’ve been that person and if I am not conscious of it, I know I can easily become that person again. For many of us—maintaining a differentiated sense of self does not come naturally. It takes work—conscious thought, courage, and a patient and understanding partner—to get there.

It is all about balance

My drive for individuality or independence has always come secondary for my drive for togetherness. For many of us with an anxious attachment style, this makes sense, as our attachment system is always “on” and we are hyper-focused on others. I would easily bend or even change if it meant attracting and keeping a partner. I’d do anything for love and it was often at the expense of myself.

For some of us (particularly those with an avoidant attachment style), the reverse might be true. It might feel a lot safer for us to put up walls and hold up to our independence. The drive for individuality can be so strong that it might even see togetherness or any kind of dependence on another person as a weakness.

Differentiation is all about the balance between individuality and togetherness. A balance that for some of us, can be incredibly difficult to strike. According to Schnarch, this balance is key:

“When these two life forces for individuality and togetherness are expressed in balanced, healthy ways, the result is a meaningful relationship that doesn’t deteriorate into emotional fusion. Giving up your individuality to be together is as defeating in the long run as giving up your relationship to maintain your individuality.”

How do we become differentiated?

I read this book years ago and am I a completely differentiated person despite years in therapy and a dedication to love as a practice? Absolutely not.

I hope that is not discouraging. We are all different and for some of us differentiation might come easily and for others, it might be a lifelong process. Of course, there will be the majority that fall somewhere in between.

As Schnarch says, “raising our level of differentiation is not easy.” He also states we tend to pick partners who are at the same level of differentiation that we are. I remember I had a therapist once tell me that we “choose partners who are at a similar place of healing from their trauma as we are.” Although begrudgingly, I have come to accept this.

My ego doesn’t want me to differentiate. It is hard and it means letting go of the defence mechanisms that have been serving me for decades. Differentiating means admitting that I am not more evolved than my partner, that it is not his fault, and that my feelings are not his fault.

How do we differentiate? Well, we practice. Therapy can help, for sure. It can free us from our limiting beliefs and give us clarity and self-esteem. The work comes in relationship, though. Some people (me, included) think we can do this work in solitude. “Working on ourselves” can only take us so far, though. The work of differentiation takes place in relationship, and for many of us, being in relationship is hard.

After all, in the words of Schnarch:

“A solid sense of self develops from confronting yourself, challenging yourself to do what’s right, and earning your own self-respect.”In summary: differentiation is not for the weak of heart. For some of us, it might very well me something that takes us years—or even decades—to find. When sitting with this fact I find it helps me to remember to enjoy the process because at the end of the day, a perfect relationship where we are happy and satisfied 100% of the time doesn’t exist.

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