Why Does Differentiation Matter?

Dr. Ellyn Bader
Founder of The Couple Institute

Let’s look at what creates enduring change in angry couples. The answer comes from understanding differentiation.

If you want to do more than fly by the seat of your pants and referee the fight of the week, getting differentiation-based interventions in your bones is crucial.

This will enable you to create meaningful change without dragging things out.  


In order to do that, you’ll want to understand:

  1. Developmental stagnation (signs a couple isn’t differentiated)
  2. What differentiation is
  3. What differentiation isn’t
  4. Why it matters
  5. How it evolves
  6. What differentiated partners do

Developmental Stagnation

First we’ll take a look at what it’s like when couples aren’t differentiated. Later, you’ll see what they do when they are.  

When couples aren’t developing, their relationship stagnates. Patterns develop that are harmful to the growth of each person. That’s why I put so much emphasis on the issue of differentiation. It is the juice that keeps a relationship vital.

Here are 6 signs that a partner is inhibiting differentiation and interacting in a way that keeps the relationship arrested at the first stage of development:

  1. They make their partner the source of all or nearly all their emotional fulfillment.
  2. They develop few separate friendships or interests.
  3. They can’t define what they think, feel or desire. They expect their partner to mind-read or respond to very vague general requests.
  4. They are unable to keep themselves separate from their partner’s feelings.
  5. They can’t listen to their partner’s emotions without getting triggered and being reactive
  6. They can’t see themselves clearly and thus don’t realize the impact of their own behavior on their spouse.

This describes what it looks like when a couple is not differentiated.

What is Differentiation?

Self-differentiation is the active and ongoing process by which a person defines himself or herself, their own thoughts, feelings, wishes and desires.

This can be very tough, because it takes internal self-awareness. Expressing desires openly also carries risk of seeing differences and facing conflict especially when a partner also expresses their desires.

Differentiation also evolves when a partner is able to listen and learn from the other’s wishes and desires.

This requires tolerating anxiety and being able to hold two realities: “mine” and “yours.” This allows each partner to become better known to the other.

What Differentiation Isn’t

It isn’t pseudo-independence. Some partners think they are highly developed because they never rely much or even engage much with their spouse.

When triggered, partners who stress independence will often retort, “I don’t need you,” or “I’ll do it myself. I am better off when I do things on my own.”

They have an overdetermined and over-developed emphasis on their own independence. In that process they often shut their partners out and inhibit any evolving differentiation.

Why Differentiation Matters

It matters a lot because it is the route to sustained intimacy.

I like to think of it this way: partners actually feel intimate with each other in two ways.

  1. First, they feel intimate when they connect sexually or emotionally.
  2. Second, intimacy is also experienced in moments of clear differentiation. The kind of clarity that occurs when one partner exposes themselves in a deeper way can be, in fact, quite intimate. It’s a kind of intimacy that is rarely written about and rarely talked about.

I’d like to share an experience from when Pete and I were planning an overseas 4-day training workshop. It’s an example that most people wouldn’t think of as intimate, but actually led to feelings of closeness and connection instead of ongoing stress.

Pete and I were working out how to integrate a lot of things we each wanted to teach in a therapist training workshop.

If you know Pete, you know he’s a very powerful force.

I value what he has to give, but he can be challenging to work with because he can get carried away with his excitement and not make room for me.

Our planning session was tense. We each had different things we wanted to teach.

Finally, in a moment of real clarity, I said to him, “I don’t want to co-teach with you for all four days.”

That was the beginning of a self-defining moment. It was recognition of what I didn’t want to do. There was some brief tension and then Pete wisely asked, “What do you want to do other than not being with me?”

Then I had to think about what I did want to do.

With some quiet reflection, I said, “I would like to work with therapists who want to watch a clinical video following a case of mine progressing over time. I also want to work with them on some of their own cases.”

Pete paused to digest the reality that I really didn’t want to work with him for all 4 days. Then he said, “It’s good that I know you don’t want to always work in the same room with me and that you want to do cases. That clarifies it and we can work from there to create a solution.”

We ended up working together on two of the days and working separately for the other two days.

After the workshop, we were both happy with the outcome and enjoyed our time immensely. It could have been really ugly if we’d forced ourselves to over-accommodate to each other.

That’s the power of clear differentiation. Clarity can foster incredible intimacy.

Understanding How Differentiation Evolves

When you understand how differentiation evolves, you will know where to target your interventions. If you underestimate your client’s stage of differentiation, you won’t challenge them to grow. But if you are too far ahead of them, you will frustrate them and not make progress.

It’s helpful to be aware of how differentiation evolves.

Here are the 5 stages:

  1. Help each partner internally reflect and begin to recognize their own thoughts, feelings, and desires.
  2. Support each partner in exposing their thoughts, feelings, and desires congruently without blame.
  3. Ask what they are learning about their partner. As differentiation evolves, they will develop an awareness of the other as separate and different from them.
  4. Then ask them to respond effectively to these differences. As they develop an increased ability to listen, hear, and learn, they will stop taking issues so personally.
  5. Finally, support them reaching out and supporting changes the other desires. When they can do this, they stop rebelling, resenting, or being passive. Instead, they co-create a relationship that includes changes they each desire.

What Differentiated Partners Do

  1. Recognize that differences are inevitable.
  2. Demonstrate curiosity about each other’s emotions.
  3. Stay in the tension until conflicts are resolved.
  4. Negotiate solutions that work for both partners without compromising core values.
  5. Repair relationship ruptures.

Differentiation develops over time. It’s crucial to keep relationships evolving and vital. And it is what enables partners to realize dreams and collaborate.

Coming up in the next week, I’ll show you how differentiation plays a vital role in working with:

Lies and Deception
Passive Aggressive Behavior


Act Now

Comment below: Do you emphasize differentiation-based interventions in your work with couples?

Starting soon! My Developmental Model Training Program can give you a deeper understanding of differentiation and make your work with tough couples easier. Learn more by clicking  www.couplesinstitute.com/developmentalmodel.

33 responses to "Does Differentiation Matter?"

  1. Do I emphasis differentiation when I work with couples?

    When using EFT, I may ask how one partner is feeling at some point and then ask the other partner about their response to their partners answer. My understanding is that this is promoting differentiation. I just never understood that by doing this, that differentiation was occurring. This is encouraging to me. So much to learn!
    Thank you Ellyn.

    • Thanks for raising this, Rob. I'd like to make a few more general comments.

      I have taken Ellyn and Pete's excellent course (which I wholeheartedly recommend), and also some EFT training more recently. The contrast is often striking.

      EFT promotes reliable attachment and the ability of partners to be there for each other, and seems in many ways the opposite of differentiation. I have heard Sue Johnson speak derogatively about differentiation, and when defending attachment, saying there can never be too much of it. Her clinical work can be brilliant, and her rigor in manualizing and providing an evidence base for EFT is admirable. But I think she can go too far.

      I myself see value in both approaches. EFT is great for the anxious pursuer – avoidant distancer dynamic. But I don't get how it could fit all cases. It seems to me that some couples problems do not simply have insecure attachment at the root. And for clients like those bordering on borderline, there can never be enough attachment.

      I'd be super-curious to hear more about methods for choosing between the two therapies…if anyone can point me to more resources.

      • Hi Andre,

        This is a wonderful point that you bring up.

        I think of it like this: Secure attachment is part of what provides the safety for differentiation to effectively occur.

        Rather than an either/or scenario, I think of attachment and differentiation as two different dimensions of the same relational matrix – attachment is the horizontal component and differentiation is the vertical component.

        Said another way, attachment issues can arise at each developmental stage.

        As such, I don't think EFT or Differentiation by themselves are the answer. I think that both need to be integrated into a holistic approach (which is why Ellen's work spoke to me).

        I love Susan Johnson's work too, and I have yet to read her talking about vertical development.


  2. Thank you so very much, I can tell how this is going to be very helpful in my work with couples. And the interesting thing is that this model can of course be used for other type enmeshed relationships as well.

  3. This is very helpful to me. It gives me language to support how I differentiate from other models of couples therapy. Helps support me to stand my ground and grow further, or know what I might be growing towards. Thanks

  4. This is very helpful and exactly what I have been thru but could not say why so. Thank yur for having this down into words.

  5. I don't work with couples in my current work but I have an emeshed mother and daughter and wonder if you think this applies in some ways?

  6. This reminds my of Dr Glasser' Six Questions. Who are you? What do you stand for? What will you do? What won't you do? What will you ask (for) ? What won't you ask (for)?
    The responses to these questions express the boundaries of a person's identity. I work as a Reality Therapy counsellor using Choice Theory. I like the use of the word differentation. Not so ‘loaded' as ‘codependency'. Thank you.

  7. Dear friends,

    Thank you, Dr. Bader, for your insightful summary and your positive look at helping couples to find themselves apart from another. I looked up the definition of “differentiate” and found this intriguing explanation: “development from the one to the many, the simple to the complex.” How many times have we talked about people being “co-dependent” with no real answer as to how to change. You have moved from the negative to the positive with your differentiation couples' perspective which can lead to respect and compassion for another's inability to “find themselves in a marriage” and the strength to develop the necessary and artful 2-way communication skills to make positive changes. I really appreciated your personal example of co-teaching with your husband, Pete. That tells me you have the ability to help others be “heard and understood” because you have been heard and understood by your husband through your excellent two-way communication skills and your love for each other. That speaks volumes to me. Thank you for the hope that your summary has given to me as an AL-Anon practitioner for 33 years helping others and myself in the anonymity of this spiritual, 12 step program focused on the practitioner's own self care in the chaos of the disease of alcoholism and in the hope of recovery in treatment and 12-step recovery programs. Kudos!

  8. What a lovely way to deconstruct enmeshment by this respectful process of supporting and developing each individual. Furthermore, since each individual is following the same process, both partners can feel useful work is being done by the other one too. This can bring a democratic experience and avoid “identified patient” shame for a partner in the couple who is diagnosably cluster B for example.

  9. Thank you for your personal example. It helped me understand a difficulty I experienced while co-facilitating a grief support group. I am Pete in the scenario, my co facilitator allowed me to take the lead. In our planning special events she did not offer suggestions in the planning. She was a good organizer and found excellent material for discussions. I thought she was comfortable in her role as facilitator. As time went by she increasingly became less attentive to the group. I knew she was having difficulties with her day job and finances. When an opportunity for her to volunteer at a local funeral home, I encouraged her to be present to the new adventure. However, it did not help her with participating in the grief support group or other trainings we may have attended. She had stopped participating in group discussions. I see now she did not feel differentiated – she felt her gifts were not necessary. And of course they were needed. It has caused an imbalance in our relationship as co facilitators. I liken it to the cosmos creation ingredients of interiority + differentiation + communion = a working couple, relationship, world. 🙂 Bless you and thank you

  10. Thank you very much Ellyn, I have single female client who cannot establish relationships at all, with any one. Your writings suddenly helped me see enmeshed she is with her father! I’ll srart THERE. I’m so excited!

  11. Thank u for giving an example from your own life.
    We r married 55 years still argue ,
    sometimes like a newly married
    couple. I'm always happy when we resolve our issues.

  12. Excellent and straight-forward summary of one of the common reasons couples de-rail and come in for counseling. Thank you!

  13. Thanks for your comments. I like the emphasis Paul placed on how you feel in the room. With undifferentiated couples it is so easy for me(us) as therapists to become too nice and adapted and not encourage growth and risk taking.

  14. This is a remarkably accessible summary of a very complex and dynamic concept. Thank you. I hold the concept of differentiation in mind more consistently now than I did years ago. I see it as an idea which evolves more than it being an idea subject to simple study or memorization. One, I believe, has to live with the idea because the concept itself is a living, dynamic state. Living with it brings it to life over time or so it seems to me. I can recognize when I am facing a couple who are undifferentiated by how I feel in the room. I often have a feeling of dread just before the start of the session. The dread morphs into a noticeable discomfort as the session progresses. I have found that telling myself, sometimes repeatedly, “This is their marriage, not mine” helps me to internally stabilize. I think I feel compelled to stabilize because the tension created in undifferentiated states is to merge. When in the presence of a more differentiated couple, the process flows. complex concepts are more easily grasped. And as the therapist, I feel a little like I'm stealing money because I don't feel I'm working hard at all.

  15. Sometimes I can get off track with entrenched couples, but when I keep the developmental model in mind my focus with couples becomes so much clearer. Thanks Ellyn!!

  16. Thank you very much for the information that really transforms the perception of the situations – of my clients and my personal. Super clear and helpful!

  17. Thanks Ellyn!
    I actually have 2 couples that I am currently working with who are caught up in anger and anxiety and need to differentiate. That has been my goal for them and you’ve summed it up perfectly!

  18. This is an excellent and impressively concise summary. It is also a valuable tool for working with couples and considering the interventions one uses. Thank you!!!

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