Differentiation, Or What Makes Relationships Work
Happy Couple overlooking canyonPhoto Credit: Harsha KR

Unless we were fortunate enough to have had good role models available when we grew up, most of us get into relationships little prepared and often overwhelmed by the complexities. The quick-fix solutions then are either denial that any problems exist, giving up one’s self with subsequent resentment, frequent fighting, or break-up of the relationship because it is considered just “too hard” to be in it. With the rise in consciousness over the last 30 years of how people are affected by circumstances and each other, the mental health field has made tremendous gains. Research has focused on what makes individuals in a relationship happy. The sum of all the findings can be put into one word: differentiation.

Differentiation is a developmental stage that a couple has to reach in order to be a unit that enhances each individual in it as well as the relationship itself. A differentiated individual is a person who can identify his or her feelings, can discover what the unique need is behind a feeling, and can fulfill that need in a constructive manner. This sounds like a tall order, and it is. Rest assured that this is an ideal goal to strife toward. Most of us fall off the wagon at times, especially when we are hungry, stressed, or tired. Difficulties arise when both partners fall off the wagon at the same time. Therefore, another task of a well-differentiated person is the ability to hold his or her partner’s irrationalities and imperfections as a momentary lapse and not react to it.

Each one of us needs to accept another as the other presents him- or herself. Then we need to ask ourselves: Given that the other is who he is or given that the other does what she does that bothers me,what can I do to come to a state of balance again? What is the constructive action I can engage in that will change my situation for the better and will bring me some peace of mind? The constructive action (such as talking) may include the partner, but only if he or she is open to it. As long as the partner is in lapse mode and relies on distancing, the constructive action of the other must be solitary or depend on other trustworthy members of the community.

The real gift of relationships is that they force us to look at ourselves, to get to know ourselves, and sometimes to stretch and change. Conflict in a relationship is always a gift. Of course, this does not include outright abuse, such as physical violence, verbal attacks, or permanent abandonment because of infidelities or addictions. Those need to stop at once. If they don’t stop the harmed partner has the right and duty to remove himself or herself. But when conflict is free of abuse, we can work with what it brings up in us. The more self-knowledge we possess, the more interesting and therefore attractive we are for the other partner. Thus, a relationship between two people can stay alive and juicy for a lifetime.

About this ContributorGudrun Zomerland, MFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist with offices in Santa Rosa and Petaluma, CA.  She writes: “I grew up in post-war Germany and moved to the US in my mid-twenties. The exposure to two cultures has given me an appreciation for diversity, its riches and challenges. Because I was affected by the immense destructiveness of war just prior to my birth, I have a particular sensitivity to personal as well as historical trauma and the deep fear, pain, rage and/or guilt some of us carry inside. I find personal self-exploration, interpersonal discovery, artistic expression, a spiritual belief, and humor of utmost importance in people’s achievement of mental health. I see inner well-being as a life-long task.”  For more information about Gudrun’s work or to contact her, please visit: http://www.chinnstreetcounseling.com/zomerland/index.shtml


  1. Love this article. This quote especially caught my attention: “…another task of a well-differentiated person is the ability to hold his or her partner’s irrationalities and imperfections as a momentary lapse and not react to it.” Reflecting on this, it is amazing to me how close relationships have such a power to make one “bite the hook” as the Buddhists may say, leading to a chain of reactions. When we get attached or identified with certain outcomes, rules, preferences…it is all too easy to perceive any challenge to these as a threat and then react defensively. I suppose this may be so because we get blinded by our attachments and identifications. Also, there can be an irrational tendency to believe that the insult, hurt, violation, imperfection, etc. will last FOREVER, which of course it never does. In response, some self-soothing may be in order. Even something like this can help: “Thank you mind, for trying to protect me, but this is not an actual threat, and is only temporary.”

    I’m always reminded of Jung’s approach, which seems to work well in working with differentiation.

    Also I am thinking very much of Sue Johnson’s work (Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy), who I believe described what she calls the “Primal ARE questions.” The letters stand for Accessible, Responsive, Engaged, as in:

    Are you Accessible? (Do I matter? Am I a priority?)
    Are you Responsive to my need? (Can I depend on you?)
    Are you Engaged with me? (Are we a team? Or are we on two separate islands? Are you here with me?)

    In her view, activating any of these questions can lead to real primal fears, such as abandonment.

    Anyhow, suffice to say, relationships take work and are also a real gift. Certainly, looking at ourselves, stretching ourselves, as you have said, is one of the many gifts of being in a close relationship.

    Are there others with thoughts on the article? Please feel free to chime in with your thoughts, stories, opinions, anything.

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