Differentiation in Couples Relationships

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Recently I was interviewed by Diane Heller for her membership program. My topic was “Differentiation in Couples Relationships.” The hour-long interview covered many aspects of differentiation and why I am passionate about couples therapists really understanding the essence of differentiation. I share this with you because differentiation is what makes the difference between relationships that are stuck or boring and those that are alive and growing. I’ll be sharing some sections of the interview with you in my upcoming blogs. Today’s post introduces and discusses Differentiation in Couples Therapy. Diane: Hi, everybody, welcome to our call. We have a special treat for you today with Dr. Ellyn Bader. Ellyn has the distinction of being, along with Dr. Peter Pearson, her husband, one of the first couples therapists ever to put out effective work for couples. We're honored to have you today. Ellyn’s here to talk about why differentiation matters in couples, and once you understand what she means by that, you're really going to understand how important this message is. I think really, Ellyn, this is a message you uniquely bring to couples therapy and individual therapy, too. We're going to dive in. Ellyn is going to share some of her insights. Ellyn: Thank you, Diane. It's always good to be with you and with your folks. I look forward to talking with you about differentiation. One of the things that's interesting about talking about differentiation is that I find that so many people confuse what it is. Ideally, by the end of this interview your members will walk away with a feeling for differentiation, so it lives in their bones. But, in all the years I've been teaching, I find it's not always that easy to get there. Together, let's see if we can get there. Diane: Perfect. Do you want to give a general definition to start us off? Ellyn:  Sure. But first I’d like to point out something I see in many cultures, not just in the United States –  people in a primary relationship or a marriage want the rewards of a really healthy, flourishing, vital relationship and they want it without doing the hard work of differentiation. I just don't believe that a long-term enduring relationship that is alive gets there without people doing the hard work of differentiation. I think a lot of partners have the misperception that they'll lose their relationship if they differentiate. There is a fear of really showing yourself as deeply, as broadly and as expansively as you might. Defining Differentiation in Couple Relationships I define differentiation as the active ongoing process of a person being able to define their thoughts, their feelings, their wishes and their desires to one another and to be able to tolerate the partner doing the same thing. When people are afraid of differentiating, they are afraid if they show their authentic self and the other one doesn't like it or doesn't agree with it, that they're going to end up in a big fight or they're going to end up with the other person leaving. When that’s true, they don't show themselves very well to each other. When you look at why relationships fail over the course of time, one of the core reasons that relationships fail is due to a lack of differentiation. Without differentiation, relationships get stale. Interactions become repetitive and partners end up bored or lonely. They end up bored because the relationship isn't growing and it isn't changing, or they end up just competing with each other and being really angry and really nasty to each other. That's one of the reasons that relationships fail. Another reason is the re-triggering of old trauma. Partners over time trigger and re-stimulate either old trauma in each other or also they do hurtful things in the here and now to each other that can be very traumatic. Either way, with the lack of differentiation or with trauma, people need skills and capacities in order to manage themselves well in a primary relationship. The most stuck relationships are those where each person wants to keep the other unchanging. They remember how they were when they met and they want that to last forever. Then they don’t explore or push each other to grow. They don't take risks or try new things. It becomes a very, very narrow way of living in the world. Diane: You can see how it would lead to a deadening. Ellyn: Totally. Ellyn: Differentiation is the route to aliveness and expansiveness, to authenticity and vulnerability, and resolving conflicts and handling not liking each other at times. If you haven’t seen the video of Pete and me wrestling with a conflict, click here to see it. And please comment below. You could share thoughts, questions or experiences with differentiation, or you might make an observation about the video of Pete and me. I enjoy reading your reflections.

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Thank you for the clip about how the 2 of you dealt with a major disagreement. Wonderful!


Profoundly moving, on many levels. A reminder of the crucial need to connect with one’s spirit, and trust your partner.

George Hartwell
George Hartwell

Well blow me over this is actually the first time I have heard a couple therapist talk of differentiation in marriages. You have integrated one of Murray Bowen’s key insights into your work! That is wonderful. I am intrigued.

Vera Steenhart
Vera Steenhart

I remember when Dr.David Schnarch first put out the term differentiation in relationships (1998 or so? Passionate Marriage, followed by Intimacy and Desire) , I was very intrigued. I find it in my work as well the key to lasting relationships that keep people alive. Good to read that there is more acknowledgement for that

Justus Lewis
Justus Lewis

This is so valuable to see the process in action. I believe the principles also apply to relationships with family and friends in a more general way.

Patsy Jabuka
Patsy Jabuka

Thank you Ellyn. This made it really clear to me. I have been battling with how to explain it to couples. Your explanation keeps it simple and clear. Thank you for all your helpful tools.



I was reading this to help me understand a little more about the Devpt Model.
You’d said this: “When people are afraid of differentiating, they are afraid if they show their authentic self and the other one doesn’t like it or doesn’t agree with it, that they’re going to end up in a big fight or they’re going to end up with the other person leaving. When that’s true, they don’t show themselves very well to each other”.

How DO they know the other person won’t leave?
If they go ahead and first obtain the reassurance of the other person that the other person won’t leave if they show their authentic self to them, aren’t they connecting & joining, first, prior to then differentiating?

Dr. Ellyn Bader
Dr. Ellyn Bader

Simone-You ask a good question. Yes, reassurance is always helpful. However, we never have control over what our partners will do. If we tie ourselves to anxiety about them leaving or staying, we begin to create binds for them and for ourselves. Partners can learn how to be open/authentic with each other in compassionate ways that spark growth and vitality.

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy. Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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