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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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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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Relationship triggers – How to take care of yourself without abandoning your partner when sh*t blows up

Relationship triggers

You’ve been invited to listen in on a marriage counselling session. They’re starting…

Susan: I get anxious and triggered then I want re-assurance about our relationship. All sorts of stories start up in my head about how he doesn’t love me enough, or if he really loved me he’d do this or that. It’s like torture, and I want help, so I ask him to tell me what I want to hear, but then he gets triggered and withdraws. For some reason he can’t say what I need to hear when I need it most. Then all my triggers are activated and I get even more desperate.

Marcus: It’s true. I feel her anxiety growing and I feel myself shutting down. Then she needs me to say the right thing, but it’s literally impossible for me. I don’t know how to explain it. I think it’s because old feelings of being controlled or manipulated come up for me. I withdraw, which is the opposite of what she needs, and it makes it worse for her, but I just can’t do the thing she wants. I can’t jump through the hoops. We crash and burn again and again. How do we fix this?

Take a moment and reflect on this story. How would you fix this problem? Where do you think the burden lies? Do you relate to Susan or to Marcus, or to both?

I have heard a hundred different versions of this same story from clients. It’s a perennial relationship quandary. Usually couples who present this issue come to me wanting a communication tool or technique that will let them finally get through to their partner, finally be understood, finally get their needs met.

But they’re in for a surprise. I have to tell them that I doubt there’s a communication technique that will help. I go on to explain that what they are dealing with is not a communication problem, at least not in the ordinary sense. They each feel misunderstood, but the misunderstanding isn’t about what is being said between them; the misunderstanding is about the very nature of their conflict.

Here’s how I explain it in my book The Re-connection Handbook for Couples (click here to download a free sample chapter)

Underneath all our words and our conscious intentions, our primary relationship follows the twists and turns of two highly attuned nervous systems. Your nervous system and your partner’s nervous system are in constant, silent communication. Beneath the radar of awareness, these two parts of self are setting the mood, raising the stakes, making peace, or waging war. This is happening under the surface of normal consciousness, despite whatever agreements you might be making and whatever “communication tools” you might be employing.

Nervous system arousal is like an invisible hand directing your relationship. The felt experience of nervous system arousal is called anxiety. This anxiety is, perhaps surprisingly, highly contagious.

Anxiety moves back and forth between spouses in predictable ways. We all try, mostly unconsciously, to offload our anxious feelings onto our partner. Think of a hot potato being tossed back and forth. No one wants to hold it, and so we quickly pass it along.

Many of our requests, agreements and interactions – and especially our conflicts – are unconscious attempts to find relief from our nervous system arousal.

As an experiment, let’s look back on Susan and Marcus’s revelations at the top of the page, but we’ll strip away the content, strip away the words, and instead simply imagine two nervous systems interacting.

Susan’s nervous system gets activated for some reason (any reason – for our purposes it doesn’t really matter). It sends a wordless message to Marcus’s nervous system, “Alert! Danger!” Now both nervous systems are activated.

These two nervous systems continue to activate each other, creating significant mental and emotional anguish. Both people want relief, and they want it desperately. They use the tools they know, they try to talk it through. But nervous systems that are on high alert do not respond well to words or reasoning, and so relief doesn’t come. With no relief, anxiety escalates, turning into panic, frustration, rage, or withdrawal (any history of trauma will exacerbate the situation, and should be addressed specifically).

Susan gets anxious, and she turns to Marcus for soothing. (Marcus’s anxiety may have come first, who knows. It’s a chicken and egg situation.) Marcus instinctively withdraws. Perhaps it’s his nervous system saying “Get me out of here! This shit’s contagious!” Susan feels his withdrawal, and she takes it as evidence of her worst fears, He doesn’t really love me.” Her anxiety spikes, and Marcus’s nervous system responds in kind. He retreats even further.

Here we see the classic spiral… the stuck relationship and hopelessness… the repeating conflict loop. We usually assume that these loops are related to something we are saying, and so we search desperately for the right thing to say, some better way to say it, some escape from the tortuous deja-vu we’re stuck in.

We turn to the tool we use for virtually everything… reason, intellect. We try to think our way through, and we share our thoughts verbally. The trouble is, when our nervous system is all fired up, we have limited access to our thought and speech centres. But we don’t know what else to do, and we desperately want relief from the uncomfortable anxiety we’re experiencing, so we keep trying, and, like Susan and Marcus we dig ourselves deeper into the hole.

Relationship triggers and de-escalation.

It feels agonizingly counter-intuitive for most of us, but rather than trying to express ourselves more clearly, or even to understand or empathize with our partner, we need to first turn our attention inward and attend directly to our own poor, suffering, anxious nervous system.

This isn’t an intellectual or communication task, it’s physical and internal. Most of us assume that anxiety is mental, but our nervous system resides more in our body than in our mind, and so it’s our body that holds the key. Not thinking, not talking, but attending to the body, your body, directly.

As much as we are tempted to seek relief outwardly, from our partner, through attempted communication, negotiation, empathy, or understanding, this is usually a case of putting the cart before the horse. It can be much more effective to turn inwards first, moderating our own nervous system. You can read my simple 3-step system for soothing an activated nervous system by clicking here.

Here we’re faced with the paradoxical, delicate and oftentimes confusing dance between self-care and other-care, between being an autonomous individual and being connected through relationship. The fact is, neither of these states are absolute or entirely exclusive; we are simultaneously distinct AND connected.

We live in an age of utility, and my client couples often expect practical tools and solutions that they can apply immediately. The advice I give is this: Practice attending to your own nervous system arousal, turn inward, as you simultaneously remain present and connected with your partner. Easy in theory, but not in practice.

I will sometimes have them practice this in our sessions. In family systems theory this experience of feeling ourselves as distinct and autonomous, while simultaneously connected, is known as differentiation. Think of it this way – Your ability to defuse your own triggers in relationship while also caring for your partner is determined by your level of differentiation. This practice of becoming differentiated begins with a conceptual understanding (hopefully this article helps; for more support have a look at my book), and then becomes a life-long practice of moderating your own nervous system and soothing your own anxiety.

Only by developing this kind of deeply personal relationship with our own inner workings can we manage to stay grounded solidly in ourselves even in the face of our partner’s and our own anxiety and emotional triggers. As we become more skilled at this, we may uncover unresolved issues – resentment, hurt, trauma – that do want attention, and then a focus on communication, conversation, discussion can be fruitful, but without first attaining a sufficient level of self-management and differentiation we end up stuck in the same old mess of hair-trigger nervous system activation. Yes, it’s hard work, but it’s required if we want to have mature, satisfying relationships.

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

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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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