I think David Schnarch’s work on marriage and the concept of differentiation in relationships is life transforming. The idea of differentiation is not his, nor is it new. But his work Passionate Marriage has transformed my life in many ways, and continues to transform many of the couples that I work with.
As a Christian, there are some nuances for me when it comes to differentiation (check out my article at Relevant Magazine, Are Christians Bad at Commitment?), and where my core sense of self derives from (God) that allows me to stand on my own two feet. My vertical relationship (God) transforms my ability to be differentiated in my horizontal (marriage, parenting, friends, etc.) relationships. But all this is for another post.
Here is Schnarch’s response:
Question: What is “differentiation” and how does it help partners grow closer?
David Schnarch: Up to now the guidelines for marriage or keeping a relationship going is communicate, communicate, communicate and we end up telling people you can’t stop communicating. It took the human race over a million years to learn to communicate and it’s not going to stop because you and your partner aren’t getting along, but differentiation is really simply saying that the processes of growth, what makes human beings grow up and truly become adult are built into emotionally committed relationships. That’s what differentiation is. Differentiation is the process of becoming a whole human being where you can stand on your own two feet even when you’re with your partner and standing on your own two feet even when you’re horizontal, meaning you can hold onto yourself. Most people don’t really understand that marriages are people growing machines. Mother nature has this worked out pretty good over the last million years and all you have to do is fall in love and become a couple and that will teach you the process of learning to hold onto yourself and validate yourself, learn to regulate your own anxiety, not getting overreactive and tolerating pain for growth. So we have broken this very complex scientific process called differentiation down to these four basic points and these are absolutely necessary if you’re going to keep love alive, if you’re going to keep sex interesting and if you’re going to have children.