Home > Book Review, Ethics, Philosophy, Science, Secular > Differentiation: Maintaining The Self In Relation – Part 2.

Differentiation: Maintaining The Self In Relation – Part 2.

Now that we have looked at some of Schnarch’s ideas regarding sex, intimacy and relationships lets turn our focus toward his main thesis, that is: differentiation. But, what is it?

The polishing process in marriage is what I referred to earlier as differentiation. In a nutshell, differentiation is the process by which we become more uniquely ourselves by maintaining ourselves in relationship with those we love. It’s the process of grinding off our rough edges through the normal abrasions of long-term relationships. Differentiation is the key to not holding grudges and recovering quickly form arguments, to tolerating intense intimacy and maintaining your priorities in the midst of daily life. It lets you expand your sexual relationship and rekindle desire and passion in marriages that have grown cold. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 51)

Of course Schnarch’s thesis applies to almost anybody, in the sense that it applies to any person in relation to another person, he simply couches his terms in marriage. To Schnarch well-differentiated people can agree without feeling like they’re “losing themselves”,  similarly they can also disagree without feeling “alienated and embittered” (p. 56), they can “stay connected with people who disagree with them and still ‘know who they are’. They don’t have to leave the situation to hold onto their sense of self.” (p. 56) He states that a lack of differentiation can come from many sources (most notably the level of differentiation you learned from the family unit you come from), such as the perception of what he calls “fusion fantasies” that is the illusion we have that our partners are supposed to be as part of us, like one organism operating under the control of a single mind. This “emotional fusion” is the opposite of differentiation, in which he describes it as an “invisible-but-tenacious emotional connection” (p. 57), and here he states is an important lesson, differentiation is not simply a lack of connection, it is of a different kind, in which you can “stay in connection without being consumed by the other person” (p. 56), it is a ‘higher-order’ process that balances connection and autonomy. A lack of differentiation states Schnarch alienates us from those we love; emotional fusion is also a tricky problem to solve as popular culture has adopted it as the default position to be in, thus leading to us to think we’re not connected at any sign of an issue thereby forcing us to retreat in defense: “But the deeper truth is that we have to move away to counterbalance the tremendous impact we feel our spouse has on us. Or, unable to turn away, we turn ourselves over to the connection, but it feels engulfing.” (p. 57) It’s important to note that differentiation isn’t about alienating yourself either, Shnarch states differentiated people have strong emotional bonds, that is they “don’t require physical distance, infrequent contact or totally consuming careers to maintain their separate identities or moderate their reactivity to others” (p. 64), it is more about the ability to choose which contacts they will indulge in, out of deep liking, not compulsion. Going further Schnarch presses this point stating that those who urge for space within a relationship, are not highly differentiated people, that although defining boundaries is an important early step in differentiation, it is done so within the relationship “(that is close proximity and restricted space)” (p. 67). On the other side Schnarch states poorly differentiated people try to “keep the door open”, or “bolt as increasing importance of the relationship makes them feel like they’re being locked up.” (p. 67) Working on being able to maintain your sense of self in an intense emotional relationship is what develops your own level of differentiation.

Differentiation is the ability to maintain your sense of self when your partner is away or when you are not in a primary love relationship. You value contact, but you don’t fall apart when you’re done. Differentiation is different from similar sounding concepts. It’s entirely different from “individualism”, which is an egocentric attempt to set ourselves apart from others. Unlike “rugged individualists” who can’t sustain a relationship, differentiated folks welcome and maintain intimate connection. Highly differentiated people also behave differently than the terms autonomy and independence suggest. They can be heedful of their impact on others and take their partners needs and priorities into account. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 67)

Schnarch states that having a solid core of beliefs and values allows the differentiated self to be solid yet permeable, this way if your partner tries to mould or manipulate you, you can retain your identity, or as you choose, incorporate new information as you see fit. Schnarch is quick to note however that this can be a slow process, out of “soul-searching deliberation” , not simply as a response to the pressures posed by others. One might wonder if this is only an intellectual exercise that divorces feeling from thought, connection from relationship, Schnarch says no: “Differentiation doesn’t involve any lack of feelings or emotions…” (p. 68), it simply means that you form bonds that do not involve being swept up in such, that you don’t get caught up in your partners emotions, you can subjectively and objectively evaluate your and your partners feelings, in short: you feel, but you are not defined by your feelings. Nor is this differentiation selfish, you do not put yourself ahead of anyone, you can if you choose allow yourself to be as emotionally influenced by your partner as you want, but it is this expression of autonomy, that is an expression of differentiation. It is more about the awareness that your partner is their own person (complete with their own genetic, historical, culture familial experiences which shape who they are), and their wants and needs are just as important as yours, you allow yourself to see merit in their positions even if they aren’t congruent with yours, and even in circumstances where they conflict.  Schnarch calls this “mutuality”: “Differentiation is they key to mutuality; as a perspective, a mind-set, it offers a solution to the central struggle of any long-term relationship” going forward with your own self-development while being concerned with your partners happiness and well-being.”  (Schnarch, 2009, p. 68) (See how this touches on other philosophers thoughts here, and here). Finally Schnarch states two important principles we can look at here:

First, we emerge from our family of origin at about the highest level of differentiation our parents achieved. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 69)

The author states our level of differentiation is established during our adolescent years and can remain at that level for life.

In the process of regulating their own emotions, poorly differentiated parents pressure their children for togetherness or distance, which stops children from developing their ability to think, feel, and act for themselves. They learn to conduct themselves only in reaction to others. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 69)

How do we escape this conditioning? Schnarch states it isn’t easy, and that we can raise our level of differentiation through concentrated effort (like therapy), or through crisis (as commonly occurs through marriage, family, friendship and career). Mostly our level of differentiation stays as it is  generation to generation, and usually only changes when a family member is motivated to do so. This view too differs from the popular one that our spouse is our supposed to be our savior, pulling us out of our woes, or your family’s grasp.

Second, we always pick a martial partner who’s at the same level of differentiation as we are. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 69)

To Schnarch if one partner is disproportionately differentiated to the other, the relationship generally ends, sometimes one is only a half-step further along their path than the other (he accentuates that they’re only a half-step). Thus we need to give up the illusion that we might be so much further along than our partners or so much more healthy, moreover Schnarch states three things are implicated when you think/argue this way:

  • You have about the same tolerance for intimacy, although you may express it differently.

  • You and your spouse make splendid sparring partners because you have roughly the same level of differentiation.

  • Assume you are emotional “equals” even if you’d like to believe otherwise. If you want to discover important but difficult truths hidden in your marriage, stop assuming you’re more differentiated than your partner. Look at things from the view that you’re at the same level and you’ll soon see the trade-offs in your relationship. (Schnarch, 2009, p. 69)

As Schnarch states becoming differentiated is the most loving thing you can do in your lifetime, for those you love and yourself. This process however is not easy, as he says no-one ever wants to differentiate, and you’ll probably do it for the same reasons everyone else does: “differentiating eventually becomes less painful than other alternatives.” (p. 74) Don’t’ expect the process to be pain-free, as love can be both beautiful and painful, so too can differentiation. The reward is, at a high level of differentiation you will be able to tolerate, enjoy and see the meaning in the pains and joys of love.


Schnarch, D. (2009). Passionate Marriage. New York, New York. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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