Contrary to what most people believe, the true purpose of a relationship is not to get love or feel loved, wanted and connected.
That’s because we can’t “get love” from another, simply because “we are love”. Love is something we already possess within us and our relationships are the vehicle that allows us to cultivate that love, to grow it inside us through a process called: differentiation. Today’s essay is about defining this process.
The first step in differentiation is the ability to look inside yourself and identify clearly what you think, feel, believe and prefer. In other words to be really clear on what’s important for you, what you value, and desire for yourself and for your relationship.
This is a lot harder than you think because what commonly happens when we enter into relationship is we give up a lot of who we are and what we want for the sake of maintaining the connection.
A really good example of this is the breakfast scene with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in Runaway Bride, where Richard asks Julia what kind of eggs she likes. She responds: “Whatever you’re having”. She had no clue how she liked her eggs because she always ate them however the man she was with at time ate them. Richard then said “No, what kind of eggs do YOU like?” At which point they went through a process of trying all the different ways to eat eggs, until she decided for herself that she preferred eggs Benedict”.
We abandon ourselves in relationships in a few different ways.
We either lie to ourselves about what we really want and what’s important to us: “It’s ok, my career is not that important. I don’t mind if we go to his church rather than mine.”
We lie to the other: “Of course I love hockey. No nothing’s wrong, why do you ask? No I don’t mind going on holidays with your parents every year. Oh did I never tell you I gave a child up for adoption?”
We lie to ourselves about the other: “I know she drinks a lot but she’ll settle down. When we get married she’ll change her mind about having kids. He’s moody but who’s not.”
Or we become mute about tense topics like religion, politics and sex.
We lie for several reasons, often because:
We want to look good
We want to avoid hurting or disappointing our partner
We want to avoid conflict (It’s estimated that 64% of people lie to avoid conflict)
We don’t want to be uncomfortable
We feel foolish or ashamed about something we’ve done
We don’t want to endanger the relationship
We make excuses for our lies, saying: We want to protect our partner, or we’re waiting for the right opportunity, or we need to “pick our battles”.
So we present ourselves the way we think our partner wants to see us and we also see our partner the way we want them to be. But the longer we tell these lies the more harmful they become.
So the first step in differentiation is having the guts to be honest with yourself about what’s really going on for you and to stand up for what you believe.
The second step is being able to hold onto yourself and to have the courage to speak your truth and to share what’s important for you and what you value in spite of the fact that the other person may be uncomfortable in hearing this.
To do this you need to be able to manage the fears and anxieties that come up when you risk doing something that involves potential disapproval, rejection or a sense of separation from your partner. Paradoxically, being truthful is also risking deeper intimacy and vulnerability, which for some people, feels more frightening than rejection and loss.
Holding onto yourself means being able to calm yourself down and not let your anxieties run away with you and make you overreact. It also means not caving into the pressures to conform to a partner who has tremendous emotional significance in your life.
When you develop this emotional resilience, it also allows you to deliver your truth without shaming your partner, or being hostile and defensive.
Differentiation, can also be thought of as a process of “self-validation”. It requires you to feel secure enough to be able to talk about what is true and important to you without requiring acceptance and approval on every aspect.
Most people are willing to disclose in a relationship only if they get approval and validation, which is really code for “agreement”. In other words “as long as you agree with me, and we think the same, I can share”.
When we are afraid of loss or rejection, we insist more and more on sameness and togetherness which is really fusion. Emotional fusion is the opposite of differentiation. It is connection without individuality. Fusion is a neediness to be loved and accepted, which requires constant validation and consensus from the other. In fusion, we can’t maintain a clear sense of who we are in uncertain circumstances because our identity depends so much on the relationship. In fact the more important the relationship becomes the more effort we will spend at creating emotional fusion.
We often confuse love for emotional fusion. Jealousy is a good example of emotional fusion. It illustrates our intolerance for boundaries and separateness from those we love.
The process of differentiation kicks into gear in marriage when emotional fusion is no longer sustainable and tolerable.
This is when couples come to therapy because they’re fighting about money, parenting, in-laws, where to spend the next vacation, sexual differences or boredom. They have different ‘wants’ and they don’t know how to manage those differences. These fights are actually the beginning of the positive process of differentiation taking birth, and is unfortunately often misinterpreted as the relationship not being compatible, or two people growing apart.
The final part of differentiation is having the courage to listen to what’s important to your partner, what is of value to them even though it may be uncomfortable for you to hear.
This requires you to recognize and appreciate that the other person is separate and different from you and that just because they want something different, it doesn’t mean that they don’t love you, don’t value you or don’t care about you.
Differentiation, is the capacity to not take everything so personally which in turn allows you to stay “curious rather than furious” about your partner’s self disclosure while at the same time managing your own reactions.
In their book “Tell Me No Lies”, Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson wrote: “Behind many marital lies is the inability of men and women to trust that their partner will understand them and that they’ll be heard”.
Differentiation allows us to have the kind of communication and connection necessary to sustain a long term relationship.
It is the act of cultivating our potential for kindness, understanding, patience, humility, and love. We need relationships to grow the love that is inside us. Sitting alone in a cave, won’t do it. We need the daily challenges of relationships to accomplish what I call “the inner victories” which leads to the ability to trust and validate ourselves, rather than constantly needing someone else’s validation. It’s a lifelong practice of growing the love within us.
The couples I see today want all the benefits and rewards of deep intimacy, closeness, good communication and great sex without the hard work of differentiation. It won’t happen.
If you need help with this, call us. Our counsellors are well versed in this process and can take your relationship to the next level.
Call Alyssa to make an appointment.
Claire Maisonneuve, MA.
Registered Clinical Counsellor
Director of the Alpine Counselling Clinic