I have often thought, and now have come to firmly believe, that couples therapy is one of the most powerful ways to get people unstuck, not only as a couple, but also as individuals. The reasons for this are multi-dimensional, but in short have everything to do with the concept of “differentiation.” What is differentiation? To my knowledge, this is a concept first introduced by family therapist Murray Bowen to describe the level of individuality present within a family system. The more differentiated a family system, the more the people in that family can advocate for themselves and treat each other like separate individuals who have their own wishes and desires rather than as objects that need to be controlled and molded in order for the family system to survive.
I don’t work with entire family systems (children, grandparents, extended relatives, etc) but the same certainly holds true in couples systems. When a couple is poorly differentiated, neither partner can tolerate signs of individuality or advances towards personal autonomy in the other person. Instead the couple remains stuck in symbiosis, a system marked by unhealthy merger (these couples are the ones who may often be labeled as co-dependent), and may use a variety of methods to try to keep this balance intact. These methods may include various forms of manipulation (guilt-tripping, coercion, passive-aggressiveness) to manage the threat that is experienced by the other partner pushing towards more differentiation.
I want to emphasize that by differentiation, I don’t mean that the partner who is trying to differentiate is going out and doing things on his or her […]