The concept of differentiation is central to the work I do with couples. In this article I provide a couple of definitions and identify the skills needed for differentiation, and some of the ways couples avoid doing this work in their relationships.

Differentiation is the active, ongoing process of defining self, revealing self, clarifying boundaries, and managing the anxiety that comes from risking either greater intimacy or potential separation.

Murray Bowen defined differentiation as the degree of resilience to the interpersonal contagion of anxiety.

It is important to distinguish between individuality - which these definitions may sound like - and differentiation. Individuality is how we develop as a person, and connected to self esteem - what is it that makes us who we are and, differentiation - which is what occurs in relationships with our parents, partners and close friends. Differentiation is not about being separate from your partner it is being who you are in the presence of who they are. If you are someone who often reflects on how you are more connected to yourself and happier when you are not in a significant relationship you may have developed your individuality but have difficulty with differentiation.

There are several main skills necessary for differentiation to develop.

Differentiation of Self requires the ongoing ability to identify and express important aspects of yourself….thoughts, feelings, wants and desires. Awareness of self is important and this is where individuality can be useful in the ability to identify what is going on in our internal world. Differentiation requires an expression of that internal world to the other.

Differentiation of other, is the ability to be curious about your partner’s self disclosure while managing your own reactions. To be present and loving in the face of your partners strong feelings and reactions to you. One skill that helps is the ability to maintain a bigger picture of who your partner is over time, instead of seeing their reaction in the moment as the whole of them.

Differentiation is important to relationships for the following reasons;

Partners and relationships evolve. There is a continuous richness and complexity that is experienced within oneself as well as the relationship.

Prevents partners compromising core values and beliefs. Learning to understand and support what is important to both people. In the popular culture there is an emphasis on compromise in relationships. What this can encourage is a desire to fix differences and find a solution too quickly so both partners end up merging and there is boundary confusion. On the other hand you do not want to get stuck in an ongoing power struggle which is a desire to make the other like you. Differentiation creates ongoing understanding, learning and acceptance.

Maintaining attachment. You can not feel connected to someone who is undefined or vague. Nor will you feel understood if you don’t express yourself clearly.

Working effectively with conflict/differences. When we manage our emotions more effectively and not take things personally we create space to be curiosity about differences. Negotiating effective outcomes makes conflict a way of promoting more understanding and trust.

Deepening intimacy. Being deeply connected in our differences requires being empathic without losing our sense of self. Remaining curious to who our partner is rather than trying to make them the same as us continues to deepen intimacy. Sexual intimacy remains vibrant and passionate. One sure way to kill passion is to avoid conflict.

How Couples Avoid Differentiation.

When everything is going well in our lives and we are feeling confident you can feel connected by being on the same page. It is easy to express oneself at this time because there is little risk at times of agreement. Often at the beginning of relationships during the honeymoon phase it is easy to feel connected in this way. But it is times when we are stressed, irritable and tired and differences in our needs or perspective begins to arise that the work of differentiation really begins. Anxiety arises because risking self expression identifies difference. We feel anxious because being different threatens our security in the relationship. Perhaps my partner wont love who I am if they find out that I see things differently from them.

Typically what can happen is either I will acquiesce to merge with them or I will fight to hold onto my identity and try and force them to merge with me. In these ways couples are resisting differentiation. There are certainly some differences that can cause the relationship to end such as wanting children or not wanting children, so the risk is real. However, if you do not do the work of differentiation your relationship will become stagnant and tense or can lead to abusive and angry fighting that does not resolve conflict. Both leave partners feeling more and more distant and erodes their self esteem.

Author's Bio: 

Delyse Ledgard works as a relatinship counsellor and psychotherapist in Vancouver BC. She has over 25 years working in the counselling field. You can visit her website at