Differentiation: Couples Work

One common struggle couples face relates to negotiating the sometimes seemingly opposing needs for closeness and for independence. Healthy functioning in a couple necessarily involves having one’s own interests, goals and friends as well as having interests, goals, and friends as a couple. In order to ensure a healthy balance, couples must tend to three entities: the two individual members and the relationship itself.

Couples often struggle because they are prioritizing their individual selves at the expense of their relationship, or conversely, they are prioritizing the relationship at the expense of their individual needs. However, to maintain one’s individuality while building a relationship that intertwines two lives, both members must nurture themselves, each other, and the relationship. This can be particularly challenging. For example, when one or both partners in the couple are very independent, they may focus more on themselves and feel confused about why the relationship is suffering. In other cases, some couples may focus primarily or exclusively on the relationship, thereby causing members of the couple to lose touch with their individual interests or to isolate themselves from outside friendships or family relationships. This tendency to prioritize the relationship at the cost of members’ individual identities can lead to enmeshment. Enmeshment occurs when individuals become dependent upon one another rather than interdependent. This dependency often compromises the couple’s personal identities, and members commonly fail to realize that they are losing their senses of self. Any of the scenarios described above can result in a lack of balance in the relationship.

Efforts to prevent enmeshment and maintain balance are critical to the life of a healthy relationship. David Schnarch, in his seminal book Constructing the Sexual Crucible: An Integration of Sexual and Marital Therapy, emphasizes the importance of differentiation. Schnarch views differentiation as the ability for members of a couple to maintain their individual identities while remaining emotionally close to their partners. He further expounds that by preserving differentiation, individuals will be better equipped to maintain composure when their partners are being reactive, and they will be better able to self-soothe in emotionally charged situations, which are all healthy ingredients needed to sustain the individuals’ identities as well as the couple’s identity.

Differentiation is an area that requires a great deal of attention in any kind of couples counseling, including heterosexual or same sex marriage counseling. Through therapy, couples may begin to discover where imbalances may be occurring, and with the guidance of a therapist, they may work toward achieving more equilibrium in their relationship. Ultimately, the goal is for couples to bring out the best in one another as individuals, which in turn helps the couple as a unit function more effectively.