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  • Writer's picturelarahammock

The 4 Skills You Need to Make Your Relationship Thrive (Differentiation in Action)

When I started my training in couples counseling -- I read up on several theories that didn't resonate with me entirely either because of my own lived experience or because of the needs of the couples I was seeing at the time. Finally, I stumbled on the Developmental Model of Couples Therapy and haven't looked back. I'm well into my third year of training with this model and it has not only changed the way I work with couples, it has changed how work with individuals, AND made me a much better partner in my 26 year marriage.

4 Stages of Couples Development

The main theory of the Developmental Model is that couples naturally progress through 4 stages of development in their relationship. These stages roughly parallel those that Margaret Mahler identified for a child's development. Let's quickly go through them:

Symbiosis (or the honeymoon period)

This refers to the first year or two of a relationship where foundational bonding occurs. The couple sees each other through rose colored glasses, focuses on their similarities, and creates a solid sense of “we.”

Differentiation (or growth tension)

This is the phase where the rose colored glasses come off. There is tension in the relationship as the couple begins to contend with each other’s differences. Most of the couples I see are stuck here and frankly, I would say most couples in general are stuck in this growth tension. If you are able to successfully get through this phase, you go on to

Individuating (or exploring independently)

Once healthy differentiation occurs, each partner can go about experiencing and exploring their own passions and pursuits, all while remaining connected to, but not constricted by, their partner. And finally,

Synergy (or healthy thriving)

This is the healthy, thriving stage of the relationship where the couple is managing differences in a healthy way, each partner understands his or her own passions, and the couple is able to support each other and work together towards greater goals.

These are all important phases, but the one that is the trickiest is Active Differentiation -- or managing differences. And because most couples are stuck here, determining how to differentiate in a healthy way is important.

So, first of all -- what is differentiation? I'll give you Ellyn Bader's definition -- she and her husband Peter Pearson are the founders of this model. She defines it as:

"The active ongoing process in which partners define themselves to each other."

Okay -- that doesn't feel like it would be that hard, does it? Well, let me break down the 4 important keys of differentiation. And while I'm breaking this down, I'll like you to think of a topic that you and your partner disagree on — that, at times, gets kind of heated. Okay -- you got one? Here are the

4 Skills Required for Healthy Differentiation

  • 1 - Know Your Truth - You have to know what it is you think, feel, want, hope for. What is important to you -- what you value. This is internally focused -- not what your partner can do differently, but what you want and how you feel. This skill can be harder than it seems.

  • 2 - Communicate Your Truth - Now that you know what matters to you, you need to be able to reveal this to your partner without blame, criticism, demands, and without collapsing or shutting down.

  • 3 - Hear Their Truth - That's your side of things. But you also have to be able to hear what matters to your partner -- their feelings, thoughts, beliefs, opinions, desires, values -- without taking them personally or getting defensive. And the last thing is

  • 4 - Recognize Trauma - Know when trauma has entered the room. And in this case, I'm using "trauma" as a stand in for any past wounds -- either from early in life or in your relationship. Generally, you know that trauma has entered the conversation when you have a $5 reaction to a 5 cent stimulus. You are talking about loading the dishwasher properly and find yourself yelling at the top of your lungs. It's really important to know when you are reacting to wounds from your past and be able to communicate that to your partner.

Do these feel hard? It depends on the topic, right? If you are talking about what you like to drink first thing in the morning, these 4 skills are easy peasy. You know what you think and feel, you can communicate it easily, you can hear your partner's preferences with curiosity, and generally speaking, I wouldn't think you'd be stepping on any trauma with this topic.

Okay -- but what if you are talking about something harder? I'll give you a tough one. What if your partner's natural smell was a bit of a turn off to you? Can you imagine having the courage to describe your feelings on this topic? Can you imagine receiving that information from your partner without getting defensive or taking it personally? That would be much harder, right?

Differentiation Example

Ellyn and Pete tell this story about a workshop they were doing that illustrates how difficult these skills can be. There were something like 4 couples sitting on a stage with a fairly sizable audience. One couple was speaking and the wife asked the husband in a tense voice, "Do you want to know just what I really think about you?" And he responded, "Yes, I really do." And she said, "Every day I pray for your death." In the shocked silence that followed, you can imagine the tension that came up in the room. Several people tried to step in to break the tension, but the moderators waved them off and allowed the tension to grow. The husband took 40 long seconds to respond and finally he said, "Just how long have you been praying?" This was like an emotional dam breaking for the wife. She revealed that she felt so trapped in their marriage because she felt like nothing would ever change and her religion did not permit divorce. Her husband's death felt like the only escape. They were able to have a full and deep discussion as both of them practiced the difficult skills of differentiation. In fact, the next day as they were walking back to the workshop, her husband jokingly pointed at the busy traffic beside him and said, "Now's your chance!" They both laughed and, as far as I know, are still together today -- with a much deeper and healthier marriage.

Growth Rather than Compatibility

What I love about the focus on differentiation is that it takes the focus off of compatibility. Compatibility feels so binary: "Are we compatible or not?" "Are you right for me or not?" "Are you my soulmate or not?" The reality is that compatibility -- at least in some areas — can reduce the number of differences and therefore the amount of conflict. But it can also make a relationship less vibrant and interesting. And you know what? Even if you are super compatible -- if you aren't able to manage your differences in a healthy way, things will quickly go either stale or sour. To manage conflict well, you have to push yourself to develop these differentiation skills and to grow in the direction of health. Then you'll be able to determine whether your areas of difference are deal breakers or just differences that you can manage together.

I'd love to know what you think. Comments are always appreciated and thanks for reading!

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