In our work with couples, the concept of differentiation plays a central role. Differentiation is an active and ongoing process that involves defining and revealing oneself, clarifying boundaries, and managing the anxiety that arises from risking greater intimacy or potential separation. Murray Bowen defined differentiation as the degree of resilience to the interpersonal contagion of anxiety.
Differentiation is not the same as developing independence from one's partner. It is about being oneself in the presence of others and developing one's identity in the context of relationships with parents, partners, and close friends. If someone is more connected to themselves and happier when not in a significant relationship, they may have developed their individuality but have difficulty with differentiation.
Several skills are necessary for differentiation to develop, including the ability to identify and express important aspects of oneself, as well as the ability to be curious about one's partner's self-disclosure while managing one's own reactions. Maintaining a bigger picture of one's partner over time and learning to work effectively with conflict and differences are also important aspects of differentiation.
Differentiation is important in relationships because it allows partners and relationships to evolve and become richer and more complex over time. It also prevents partners from compromising their core values and beliefs and helps maintain attachment and deepening intimacy. Additionally, working effectively with conflict and differences promotes more understanding and trust in the relationship.
It is easy to feel connected to one's partner when there is little risk of conflict or disagreement, but the work of differentiation becomes important when stress, irritability, and tiredness arise. Anxiety can arise from differences in opinion or desires, and couples may either acquiesce to avoid conflict or fight to hold onto their identity and force their partner to merge. Resisting differentiation can lead to stagnant or tense relationships, or even abusive and angry fighting, which erodes self-esteem and creates more distance between partners.