Differentiation is a technical term for how well we maintain our identity within relationships. If we look at differentiation on a spectrum, we have a low end and a high end. Low differentiation is often called “fusion” in which individuals struggle with maintaining their identities within relationships. High differentiation is a theoretically "perfect” ability to maintain our identity within relationships – and thus not quite possible. Thus, differentiation is a life-long process with no end goal.
How do you know if you have low, moderate, or high differentiation? Let’s look at high differentiation.
An individual with high differentiation:
- Does not sacrifice their identity to maintain closeness in relationships
- Does not rely on validation from others to feel good
- Self-soothes when feeling distressed
- Can remain calm in the presence of others’ distress (by self-soothing)
- Distinguishes between thoughts and feelings, and recognizes that neither are facts
- Has the ability to integrate new information into their personal belief system
- Has the ability to have accurate self-awareness of how their actions affect others
- Has the ability to tolerate vulnerability
- Does not give in to pressure to conform, instead chooses when to change or stay the same
- Chooses when to make personal sacrifices so a loved one can be supported in reaching their own personal goals, and does not expect to be compensated for their sacrifices
- Chooses when to lean into others for support, instead of requiring constant support from others
Inversely, an individual with low differentiation:
- Sacrifices their identity to maintain closeness in relationships
- Relies on external validation from others to feel whole
- Feels that they give so much to others that they have very little left to give themselves
- Struggles to self-sooth when feeling distressed
- Others’ distress makes them feel distressed
- Struggles to distinguish between thoughts and feelings, and may confuse either as facts
- Struggles to change opinions or beliefs when confronted with new information
- Does not have accurate self-awareness of how their actions affect others
- Makes sacrifices for others and expects to be compensated for their sacrifices (keeps tally)
- Is quick to conform
- May fear vulnerability and go to great lengths to avoid it
Low differentiation involves quite a bit of fear. When we have low differentiation, our identities are determined by our relationships. We need to be needed by others. We need others in order to feel whole and complete. If there is a need, there is little choice. When there is little choice, we don’t have to face the reality that our partners may not actually WANT us (1). The meaning our partners make of their choices has a direct impact on our identity. If a partner does not want you, their meaning of you not being good enough for them threatens your sense of self. You then feel vulnerable, rejected, and you integrate this message into your belief system about yourself. You are no longer good enough. You are fused to this person and this relationship, even if you are no longer in it.
Let's compare this situation to an individual with a higher level of differentiation. They go into a relationship feeling whole. They WANT a partner to experience life with and they don’t need to feel needed. They honor their partner’s separate identity, and do not feel threatened when they have disagreements or separate interests. If their partner no longer wants to be with them, they can examine the relationship to see if there are any areas of growth. They can recognize that breaking up will be okay, even if it does not feel okay in the moment, because they do not “need” this person in order to feel alive. They can move on from this relationship and not let it determine how they view themselves and relate to others.
If you relate to any of this article, you may eventually decide to begin the process of improving your level of differentiation, whether through therapy or not. Please remember that systems are affected by theirs parts; when we change, it forces others around us to change. Many individuals are not ready to change and will fight your differentiation in order to maintain homeostasis within themselves and within the relationship. If your partner does not grow with you, your relationship may not flourish. You may feel tempted to stop differentiating to maintain the relationship. It is ultimately your choice how you approach this, and I encourage you to consider how much of yourself you may be sacrificing in order to feel complete.
(1) Schnarch, D. (2009). Passionate marriage: Keeping love and intimacy alive in committed couples. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company