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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!

or

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.

Do you have something to say about this topic? Leave a comment below.

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Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber

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 justice@justiceschanfarber.com to request a client info package. www.JusticeSchanfarber.com

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How do you care for the needy “inner child” in your relationship?

How do you address the needy "inner child" in your relationship?
How do you address the needy “inner child” in your relationship?

Being an adult in relationship includes addressing the needy inner child.

There’s a lot of pressure to be adults in relationship, and behaving as an adult in your relationship is undoubtedly a good thing, but what about the needy “inner child” in each of us that is bound to show up from time to time? Is it necessary to indulge the needy inner child in you and your partner? Is there benefit, personally and as a couple? If we’re going to make space for our own and our partner’s inner child – an inner child who might be cranky, disagreeable and characteristically immature – how do we do it without upending our relationship and turning our lives over to the chaotic forces of a hurt or angry or demanding inner child?

These are some of the questions that The DailyEvolver‘s Jeff Salzman dives into with his guest, long-time couples therapist Tom Habib, in the attached video interview/podcast.

Their conversation caught and kept my attention because it addresses such a topical, even universal, theme that couples struggle with, often unconsciously: so-called regressive states, ie – when the inner child’s needs come to the fore of the individual and thus into the relationship arena. In simpler terms, what do you do when your partner acts irrationally and childishly?

Tom Habib offers a simple model for recognizing and working with regressive (childish, immature, irrational) states within a marriage or relationship. Rather than insisting that your partner “grow up”, Tom suggests that making room for the states in a relationship has real benefits for both parties, and he suggests a set of rules for doing so. Readers of my book “The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples” might recognize some similar themes in slightly different language.

Attachment therapy or differentiation therapy?

I’m struck by how Habib, without naming it as such, happens to somewhat integrate two apparently contradictory viewpoints within the marriage therapy community: Sue Johnson’s popular Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) which sees childhood attachment patterns as the foundation of marriage and relationships, and David Schnarch’s Differentiation-Based Therapy which de-emphasizes (though doesn’t deny) childhood attachment and instead emphasizes “growing up” and developing a solid but flexible adult self within adult relationships.

Effectively reconciling these two seemingly contradictory perspectives is no simple task, and Habib, in this relatively short interview, seems to approach some measure of success, without explicitly setting out to do so. He suggests that we can consciously trade off Adult/Child roles in relationship to each other in a way that facilitates both “inner child” and adult needs being met. In this way, regressive child-like states are held within adult consciousness, and given some room to roam. Of course, a certain amount of baseline personal development is required.

Habib offers an uncommon perspective in this interview, and it could be valuable to anyone stuck and struggling in relationship. Give it a listen and let me know what you think in the comments.

Follow me for sex and relationship tips, tools, and insights – Facebook | Instagram

Like what you’re reading here?
You’ll love my book.
Read the first 10 pages free.

The Re-connection handbook for couples - by Justice Schanfarber - web box2
Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber

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 justice@justiceschanfarber.com to request a client info package. www.JusticeSchanfarber.com

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