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 own, that’s called practicing; instead, the partner may try to initiate conversations or otherwise call attention to desired changes in the relationship. These discussions, while a necessary phase in any relationship, are intolerable to the undifferentiated partner, and often cause tension, conflict, or even more clingy behavior, which even further pushes the differentiating partner away.

So how do I handle these kinds of couples difficulties stemming from issues of differentiation? First, it is important to understand that research shows that couples who are well differentiated actually do much better than poorly differentiated couples. Couples therapists Ellyn Bader and Pete Pearson, out in the Bay area, compare this process to the individual stages of childhood development outlined by psychoanalyst Margaret Mahler. In this model, the child first experiences symbiosis with the parent, then slowly starts to comprehend its difference from the parent (differentiation), then willfully attempts to assert its independence (practicing), and then finally comes full circle to embracing its relationship with the parent (rapprochement). According to Mahler, all of these stages are necessary for proper childhood development. Similarly, Bader and Pearson argue that differentiation is a necessary step in the development of any romantic relationship.

In short, I don’t try to reel in the differentiating partner. Instead, I see my role as a facilitator in helping both couples to differentiate in healthy ways that will allow them to function in positive ways both as individuals and as a couple. As I often tell couples, when you get together, you create three distinct entities– the two individuals, and now the third entity, the couple. If either of these entities disappear, if either of you lose your individual identity, you will undermine the potential future success of the relationship. Differentiation.

How does this play into my work with couples and sexuality? Actually, quite a bit. Often issues in in differentiation come out most distinctly in areas revolving around sexuality. For example, what if one partner is looking to explore some long-held fantasies? The very act of articulating his needs to his partner is an act of differentiation. What if someone is looking to open up the relationship? That discussion is a discussion of differentiation. Now I’m not saying that the other partner should just simply acquiesce and go with whatever is being presented. That passivity would be a very undifferentiated approach, the opposite of what we are aiming at. On the other, rage, defensiveness, or withdrawal are unhelpful responses either, and are clearly undifferentiated forms of communication.  Instead, my goal would be to help both partners to really hear and understand the wishes and desires of their lover and work together to come up with a situation that works for both.

I’m not saying it’s easy. And sometimes both people are moving in such opposite directions, that really there is no clear common ground. Sometimes people can agree (we will do these things together), sometimes they agree to disagree (sublimating desires because the relationship is more important, or DADT or some derivative) and sometimes they just disagree (going separate ways because our needs and desires are no longer compatible). I always advocate for the reparation of the relationship, and fortunately most of the time, I can help the relationship survive differentiation and come out stronger than ever on the other end. And those few times where it doesn’t work out, my task is to help the couple work together as amicably as possible to move forward in their decision.

But, and here’s the most important point I’m trying to make here– if the couple is unable to move towards differentiation and embrace it, then the relationship stands far less of a chance to succeed and not only survive but thrive. The way I see it, differentiation within a couple is like growing pains. We have to go through some pain in order to come out stronger and more resilient on the other side. And those couples who do, often find themselves with a relationship that is much deeper, transparent, and authentic than they ever may have imagined before they began differentiating.