[image by The Welsh Poppy]

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)


Over the last couple of weeks there has been some back and forth online debate about writer Donald Miller’s two blog posts that eventually led to this post by him, How to Delete a Good Love Story — and writer Rachel Held Evans’ response with this blog post My Story Is More Interesting Than That.

It was pretty fascinating watching the online exchange and perusing through all of the online comments. Obviously as a Christian community we are often divided on what relationships and marriages look like. More specifically we tend to be divided on the roles and boundaries between men and women in relationship with one another.

I think that this is a fascinating topic and it’s one that is often at the forefront of my work with couples in counseling — and for that matter the Christian counseling/therapy community is divided as well.

As I was following some of this online conversation I was reminded of the words of two of my favorite poets….The Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke and the Lebanese American poet Kahlil Girban.

One of the things that has drawn me to these two poets, especially when they write on love and marriage is the way in which they speak of relational boundaries, specifically what we talk of in marriage therapy as differentiation (paraphrasing David Schnarch: knowing where one begins, and one ends. Or the balance between one’s desire for belonging/relationship, and the desire for freedom/independence). This has always been intriguing to me, but even more so as I work with couples in therapy.

Knowing where one begins, and one ends in a relationship/marriage, as well as the balance between one’s desire for belonging and independence is something that I think Rilke and Gibran capture beautifully:

Rilke on Marriage…

“The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”


“To love is good, too: love being difficult.

For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.

For this reason young people, who are beginners in everything, cannot yet know love: they have to learn it.

With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered close about their lonely, timid, upward-beating heart, they must learn to love.

But learning-time is always a long, secluded time, and so loving, for a long while ahead and far on into life, is–solitude, intensified and deepened loneness for him who loves.

Love is at first not anything that means merging, giving over, and uniting with another (for what would a union be of something unclarified and unfinished, still subordinate–?), it is a high inducement to the individual to ripen, to become something in himself for another’s sake, it is a great exacting claim upon him, something that chooses him out and calls him to vast things.”

Kahlil Gibran, “The Prophet”

“THEN Almitra spoke again and said, And what of Marriage, master?
And he answered saying:
You were born together, and together you shall be for evermore.
You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.
Aye, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness.
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

When the Two Become One
One of the biggest issues for Christian couples who come into counseling is their conflict over the role expectations of one another in the marriage. These missed expectations often lead to lots of relational boundary issues and conflict over one’s sense of self in marriage. I think in many communities there is a belief that when “the two become one” (Mark 10:8/Genesis 2:24) that means that they are to lose each other and their sense of self in their marriage.

More commonly in the Christian community it has been expected that the woman is to give up her sense of self for her husband. In my experience as a pastor and therapist and husband…expecting a spouse to give up themselves for the marriage tends to only lead to resentment and anger and conflict. A withdrawing from the marriage, rather than an engagement with one another. It is also very common in some more traditional Christian marriages that a spouse’s dissatisfaction with the marriage will be less likely to find a voice, but instead remains silent. Only leading to more and more missed expectations that are not communicated.

And often we have assumed that when “the two become one” the are to totally be dependent upon one another for each other’s needs and satisfaction in the marriage and in life. That is a tall order that not even the most well adjusted spouse can fulfill.

In reflecting on all of this I have really just come to appreciate the work of Terry Hargrave and Shawn Stoever in their book Five Days to a New Marriage. This is the model that was developed at The Hideaway where I am on staff, and it is a model that I have seen help create more healthy marriages than any others.

I like that in this model marriage is not solely dependent upon our partner. Too many spouses are sitting around waiting and expecting for their spouse to meet and fulfill every need. Sure, our partner has a role to play and there is a mutual interdependency that occurs. But ultimately, as Christians our marriage and our sense of self is dependent upon God, and not on others. We must learn to take responsibility for our own selves in marriage and not wait for our partner to meet every need. A truly healthy marriage is two people in a relationship taking responsibility for themselves in order that they are better able to be in a position to respond to their spouses.

So ultimately, we live a great love story when our life is anchored and dependent in Christ, not solely dependent on others for our wants and needs. And when we are in the position of dependency upon Christ, then we are truly freed to respond out of a place of love and trust in a relationship of mutuality and reciprocity with our spouses. (Ephesians 5:21).