Attachment and Differentiation In Relationships

April 27,2012

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The June issue of Psychology Today has an interesting article by Pamela Weintraub on psychotherapist David Schnarch, a leader in the field of marital therapy. Schnarch was one of the first therapists to start exploring the idea of differentiation. In layman’s terms, differentiation means maintaining your own individuality while in a relationship. While it may initially seem counterintuitive to think of being separate in the midst of joining your life with your partner’s, Schnarch insists that true passion and intimacy will fade out of relationships unless differentiation is maintained. Many of us know this scenario all too well. We start off dating someone new, and are fascinated by their stories, their uniqueness, and their little quirks. It seems like there is no one else in the world quite like this intriguing new person. As the relationship progresses, partners start sharing more and more time together. Our interests start to merge, and we start doing all of the same things together. The day comes when your partner doesn’t have any exciting stories to tell – because you have been there doing all the same activities alongside them – and their unique quirks have become your unique quirks, so there is no discerning anything special. This bright, vibrant person has become rather bland and boring. For Schnarch, this is one of the many reasons why maintaining differentiation is so key.

Schnarch believes that learning how to be differentiated in romantic relationships leads the path to becoming more differentiated in the rest of your life. “ ‘It’s not that hard to be independent when you’re alone’, Schnarch observes. ‘But pursuing your own goals and standing up for your own beliefs, your personal likes and dislikes, in the midst of a relationship is a far tougher feat. Once achieved in the context of a relationship, differentiation becomes possible outside as well. If you can stand your ground with your partner, who means so much to you, you can defend your turf at the office and maintain your principles when pressured.’ ” In this way, making the decision to value differentiation in your relationship can have life-altering impacts.

Attachment and DifferentiationIn contrast to differentiation, many popular types of marriage therapy have focused on the concept of attachment, and the idea that the ways we were able to healthily – or unhealthily – attach to our parents as children greatly influence the ways in which we attach to our romantic partners as adults. Put simply, attachment theory focuses on recognizing how our attachments to our parents may not have been the most secure, and helps partners create more loving bonds. Schnarch argues that this focus on love and connection creates an over-dependence on our partners, and leads to relationships that are enmeshed. Weintraub writes,

“Schnarch contends that marital attachment doesn’t leave enough space for partners to speak their own mind, think their own thoughts, or attain their ambitions and dreams. Attachment not only reduces adults to infants, it also reduces marriage to a quest for safety, security, and compensation for childhood disappointments. ‘We’ve eliminated from marriage those things that fuel our essential drives for autonomy and freedom,’ says Schnarch. ‘It becomes a trap that actually prevents us from growing up. Instead of infantilizing us, marriage can – and must – become the cradle of adult development.’ ”

So how can we create relationships that have a healthy level of differentiation? Here are the four steps, according to Schnarch:

1. Maintain your own values and goals, even if your partner is pressuring you to do otherwise.

2. Learn how to soothe yourself when you’re feeling emotional or anxious. Don’t rely on your partner to calm you down.

3. Don’t shy away from confrontation. Stay calm in the face of difficult people or situations.

4. Keep going, even if you make mistakes. Don’t let one little setback prevent you from trying to grow.

The article is an interesting read, and poses some fascinating questions about the nature of attachment versus differentiation. It is an interesting balance that each couple has to learn to strike for themselves; how do you nurture connection and a sense of being in relationship while also maintaining your sense of yourself as a separate individual? How do you share you life with another person without losing your own? How do you open yourself to another individual without merging with them?


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I'm Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist and writer specializing in helping you have more fun in the bedroom.

I have bachelor’s degrees in human sexuality and sociology from Brown University, and a master’s degree in counseling psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies. I’m also a licensed psychotherapist. I’ve been working in the sex therapy field since 2002 and have been featured by The New York Times, O: The Oprah Magazine, Real Simple, and many more.

If you’re interested in improving your sex life, you can work with me via my online courses or personal coaching sessions. I look forward to supporting you in creating the sex life you’ve always wanted!