Differentiation: How to be Yourself and a Spouse

by | Oct 26, 2022 | General Posts

A few weeks ago, I had the incredible opportunity to attend our GYMO Couples Retreat! To read about how that went, check out our post here (spoilers; it was awesome). At the retreat, I was struck by the concept of differentiation. Here’s what I’ve learned from the retreat and my classes.

Are you equally yoked to your spouse, or do you hand over the reins? We start out marriage being told to cleave unto our spouse, that two become one flesh and that we need to put our spouse first. However unselfish the original motives, taking this self-degradation too far can lead to damaging outcomes. We can find ourselves stuck at stage two in intimacy where we are so tied to our spouse’s feelings and behaviors that our own feelings and experience end up being controlled by them. Our efforts to help our spouse, like moving them from the yoke to your back and handing over the reins, soon turns into an unhealthy power dynamic that doesn’t serve either partner. 

So how do we get both spouses back in the yoke, side by side? The answer is differentiation.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes from David Schnarch, a popular psychologist. 

“Giving up your individuality to be together is as defeating in the long run as giving up your relationship to maintain your individuality. Either way, you end up being less of a person with less of a relationship.” (Schnarch, Passionate Marriage, p.55)

Finding the Balance

Although we love our spouse and care about their happiness, giving up ourselves in the process is a self-defeating process. A person who ties their happiness completely to anothers puts themselves in the position of either needing to control that person, or to be continually out of control of their own selves.

When it comes to the self in a relationship, most people fall on a continuum that runs from “Enmeshed” to “Toxic Individuality”. Enmeshed looks like not being able to be happy or even calm when you are in doubt about your spouse’s feelings. It looks like anxiety, manipulation, or other tactics to control your partner. Toxic Individuality looks like living only for yourself, and not being concerned with how your actions affect your spouse. The middle ground is often referred to as differentiation. 

What is Differentiation?

Dr Murry Bowen, a psychoanalytically trained psychiatrist and principle figure in the field of marriage and family therapy, coined the term “Differentiation” to tackle this delicate balance between self and relationship. Bowen describes differentiation as the ability to balance two life forces: the need for togetherness and the need for autonomy.

Differentiation can exist within a person (intrapersonal). This looks like a person who can “separate [their] thoughts and feelings in order to respond rather than react” (Diana Gehart writing about Bowenian Family Therapy, p. 265)*. This is also called self-regulation. 

Differentiation can also exist between two people in a relationship (interpersonal). This looks like knowing where your self stops and the other person starts. Although you care about your spouse, you are aware of what is under your control (your actions and emotions). You have peace in the fact that you are not in charge of their emotions. You can want what’s best for them, but know it doesn’t mean anything about you when they are “off” or are in a bad place.

Differentiation Exists in Many Situations

Unfortunately, applying this concept is a lot more complicated than just, “yes we are differentiated” and “no, we aren’t differentiated”. Dr. Bowen taught that differentiation is a balancing act; that we can be more or less differentiated but that full differentiation is impossible to achieve. I think this is profound. Our relationships will be constantly changing and developing as we change and grow. 

In addition, differentiation shows up in lots of categories. Maybe you and your spouse are very good at differentiating when it comes to finances, but struggle with decisions on how to raise children. A person can fall in very different places on the spectrum depending on the context. One of the places couples tend to struggle with differentiation is sex. 

An Example: Sex and Intimacy 

These concepts especially apply to intimacy and our sexual relationships. Men and women both can struggle with differentiating themselves from their spouse in their sexual experiences, likely because it’s an experience that they only do together. We often feel responsible for our spouse’s pleasure and anxious that they aren’t getting everything they want. We can also take a passive role and expect our spouse to provide everything we want without putting in effort ourselves. On the other end of the spectrum, we can become too individualized in our sexual desires. We can take the stance that we will take what we need, or do it on our own, and leave our spouse to do the same.

An Example for Him

A healthy, differentated sex life looks like two partners who find pleasure in their spouse’s pleasure, but do not tie self-esteem and meaning to their partners pleasure (or lack thereof).

 For example, When his wife says she’s not in the mood, a differentiated husband gets curious. He examines his own thoughts and feelings and separates out what he can control. He may ask his wife how she is feeling, and if there is anything he can do to support her. If her answer is still no, he respects that decision and knows it doesn’t mean anything about him or his worth. He doesn’t try to guilt or convince her to have sex when she’s said no, and he doesn’t make it about him. 

An Example for Her

As another example, a differentiated wife knows that it’s not solely her husband’s job to make her orgasm. She will take charge of her own sexuality, seeking self-discovery and pleasure with her husband as her partner (not care-taker). They figure out her body together, often with her as the leader. 

These are just two examples of what a differentatied sex life looks like. It will look a little different for everyone. The key concept is that each person has a clear sense of self, and can regulate their own feelings and emotions. They love and care for their partner, and are aware that they cannot control and should not take responsibility for their spouse’s actions. 

So How Do We Differentiate?

A differentiated relationship starts with intrapersonal differentiation, or a person who is able to respond instead of react. I learned a lot about how to differentiate from Aimee Gianni at our Get Your Marriage On Couple’s Retreat.

Emotional Regulation 

 The first step is emotional regulation. Practice taking the time and space to separate your emotions from your thoughts. This looks like taking a break during a fight (note: set a time you will come back to finish the discussion so your spouse knows you are not avoiding). It looks like taking a deep breath when big emotions come up. It looks like meditating and making space to explore yourself. Once you find that space, you can start to examine yourself. 

Self Examination

There are almost infinite ways you can explore yourself. It will be a life-long process. Here are some questions and thoughts to consider to help you get started on processing your level of differentiation and how to balance it. 

  • Where do you fall on the “differentiation continuum”? Do you tend to be Enmeshed, or toxically Individualistic?
  •  Is it the same in every situation, or different? In what situations are you enmeshed? Individualistic? Is that working for you, or could you use a change? 

Examine tense moments in your marriage. This could be arguments, or things that make you feel particularly anxious or stressed. In those moments…

  • What’s yours to own? 
  • What can you let go of?
  • What can you not change? (hint: your spouse’s reactions)

Try to separate out your thoughts in those moments, and your feelings about those thoughts. Ask yourself…

  • What are you willing to let go of?
  • What can you change your thoughts on?
  • What is worth standing up for?

When you are ready, explore how you show up in your marriage.

  • Am I willing to be my best self no matter how my spouse is behaving?
  • Am I open to input/feedback from my spouse?
  • What is it like being married to me?

Once you find a good place (where you can respond and not react) it may be beneficial to discuss your problem areas with your spouse. Try exploring what you wish would happen. Try to set realistic expectations.

  • What would the “ideal” in your relationship look like?
  • Is this possible?
  • What parts of this ideal are you in control of?
  • Does your spouse have a different ideal? 

Make Room for Both of You

After you have examined yourself, apply your knowledge. Make room for both of you in your marriage. Allow for your own desires, needs, emotions, opinions etc. Allow your spouse the same luxury. Learn to differentiate what is yours to control and what to let go of. 

Want more help exploring these ideas or finding a differentiated place? Sign up for coaching, or tune-in January for a new exciting addition to the Get Your Marriage On! community 

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Written by Amanda Severson with Get Your Marriage On!

*Gehart, D. R. (2018). Mastering competencies in family therapy: A practical approach to theories and clinical case documentation (3rd ed.). Cengage Learning.

<h3>Amanda Severson</h3>

Amanda Severson

Hi, I'm Amanda! I'm a grad student on her way to becoming a Marriage and Family Therapist. I'm a wife and a sex enthusiast. I am a psychology nerd whose life goal is to help every couple find the absolute joy of sharing your life with someone else.

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