Differentiation in Marriage and Committed Relationships

[image by nzgabriel]

Differentiation is a natural process in committed relationships that involves developing more of a self while growing closer to your partner. Men often sacrifice their relationship to hold onto their sense of self. Women often sacrifice their sense of self to stabilize their relationship. Differentiation is about having it both ways: having a stronger sense of self and a stronger relationship. (An Interview with Dr. David Schnarch)


Schnarch will often say that differentiation is knowing where one begins, and one ends. Or the balance between one’s desire for belonging/relationship, and the desire for freedom/independence.

I like how he says it in the Passionate Marriage,

People screaming, ‘I got to be me!’ ‘Don’t fence me in!’ and ‘I need space!’ are not highly differentiated. Just the opposite. They are fearful of ‘disappearing’ in a relationship and do thing to avoid their partner’s emotional engulfment. Some create distance; others keep their relationship in constant upheaval. Declaring your boundaries is an important early step in the differentiation process, but it’s done in the context of staying in relationship (that is, close proximity and restricted space). This is quite different from poorly differentiated people who attempt to always ‘keep the door open’ and who bolt as increasing importance of the relationship makes them feel like they’re being locked up. The process of holding onto your sense of self in an intense emotional relationship is what develops differentiation (Passionate Marriage, pp. 67).

In light of my posts earlier this week on the topic of marriage, and people’s fears about getting married, I wonder if differentiation doesn’t have something to do it. People sometimes see marriage as tying them down, or limiting their options, but according to Schnarch, people like that are actually not differentiated, where those who hold onto themselves in an intense emotional relationship are the ones who are growing and in the process of becoming highly differentiated.

What do you think about this topic of differentiation?

Have you ever been nervous, afraid, hesitant, to enter into a relationship, out of fear of losing yourself?


  1. by Sunday on August 18, 2011  8:38 am Reply

    I am in a relationship where we are struggling with differentiation. My partner seems very anxious when I try to establish any differences between my likes and dislikes and hers; my needs and hers; my boundaries and hers. She almost seems to want to clamp down and insist that everything become about "us" and "ours". I really like the "us" and the "ours", but I also like those things that make me me and her her. She wants my favorite things to change and become our favorite things. She wants us to be together constantly, and she's stopped doing the things that she was doing when I met her that made me like her so much. She seems to want me to do the same. I worry about losing who I am in the relationship. She agrees, in theory, that this would be a terrible thing, because she was in my position in a previous relationship, and it ruined the relationship, but she doesn't seem to be able to see her own actions or recognize when our struggles are about this issue of differentiation.

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