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Differentiation and enmeshment in relationships

Differentiation and enmeshment in relationships

Differentiation is not distancing

Most couples therapy in North America today prioritizes attachment, partner soothing, other-validation, and empathizing techniques, and so people are sometimes surprised when I talk about the need for differentiation in relationships.

To the uninitiated, differentiation is often confused with distancing, but it actually makes the opposite possible: In order to remain in close proximity to others (especially our primary partner) when emotions are running high, we must have achieved a certain level of emotional differentiation. Differentiation is what allows us to remain close to others in emotionally turbulent times.

If we have not yet achieved a sufficient level of emotional differentiation one of two things will happen when we are faced with a partner’s emotional volatility –

We withdraw. Without sufficient differentiation our nervous system can not handle our partner’s strong emotional experience, and so our body sends us a visceral message: Retreat!


We become enmeshed. We lose hold of our own emotional equilibrium as an individual and we merge emotionally with our partner. We can no longer differentiate between their emotions and our own emotions. We become a single emotional unit.

Withdrawing, distancing, or avoidance is sometimes mistakenly associated with differentiation because these behaviours appear to be the opposite of enmeshment, but withdrawing (distancing, avoidance) is generally a symptom of too little emotional differentiation rather than too much.

Enmeshment and co-dependency: The dark side of empathy

Emotional enmeshment (commonly called co-dependency) is often conflated with empathy. Actually, co-dependency IS a form of empathy, it’s just not a very favourable form of empathy. Empathy, often touted as the cure-all in couples therapy, has a dark side too; without emotional boundaries (differentiation) empathy devolves into co-dependent feelings and behaviours.

Dependence, Independence, Interdependence

Another way to understand differentiation is in terms of dependence, independence, and interdependence in relationships.

Long term relationships move through a set of predictable stages: dependence gives way to independence, independence gives way to interdependence. These are developmental stages that we all must navigate in sequence. They mirror the developmental stages of infancy and adolescence. In early life we are enmeshed with the mother (dependency). Slowly we develop our independence, sometimes as a reflexive action or protest against our dependency (think teenage rebellion). Eventually, if we do our personal work, we arrive at interdependence.

Flexibility is the key to interdependence in relationships: The people involved are strongly rooted in their own emotional autonomy AND they are able to meet each other empathetically. They can show up for each other emotionally without being blown away or drawn into the other’s emotional storm.

Differentiation and desire

In relationships characterized by interdependence and high levels of emotional differentiation the need for either enmeshment or distance has been effectively resolved, and the way is now paved for desire to flourish. The issue of desire is an interesting sidebar to the idea of differentiation –

Low levels of emotional differentiation are associated with neediness in relationships.

High levels of emotional differentiation are associated with desire in relationships.

Neediness preempts desire. There is generally not room for both. We don’t get to experience much real desire until we have sufficiently attended to our neediness. I’m not talking exclusively about sexual desire here (though that is definitely a part of the picture); I’m talking about knowing what you want as distinct from what you need. The difference is profound, and profoundly confusing for those who have little direct experience with emotional differentiation.

Need Vs. Want

Something I see again and again with client couples is that people who lean heavily toward the enmeshed end of the spectrum think mostly in terms of getting needs met, and do not know how to respond when asked for specifics about what they want or desire.

I recently suggested on my facebook page that “Sometimes our most difficult relationship issues boil down to a personal ability to say yes and no and to feel solid in either. This simple-sounding thing causes lifetimes of distress.” What I am speaking to here is the presence or absence of emotional differentiation.

Without sufficient differentiation we are not connected to what we truly want, to our genuine desires. In our enmeshment with our partner, we are always playing a guessing game, trying to manipulate outcomes to get our needs met, and so we are never able to stand solidly in what we are a YES to and what we are a NO to. A solid yes and a solid no are rooted in knowing what we WANT, and that want gets obscured when we are scrambling to get what we believe we need.

About the image at the top of the page

The image at the top of the page in some ways exemplifies what we are talking about here. In order to strengthen the connection between the ideas in the image and the ideas in this article we might add a developmental lens, ie – in the first quadrant (upper left) we could say that yes, our boundary is breached, but it’s also quite likely that we haven’t yet developed the differentiation boundary. Differentiation is of course a boundary, a very important and particular kind of boundary.

The next image is captioned “Rediscover Boundaries”, but it’s quite possible that differentiation boundaries have not yet been developed, so for our purposes we could also say this is about developing or discovering boundaries for the first time.

In the final image (lower right quadrant) we see a visual example of differentiation in action.

[Note – I do not know who created this image and so unfortunately I can not provide attribution.]

To learn more about differentiation and enmeshment in relationships, read my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples.

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Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email to request a client info package.

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