Falling in love is like a drug.
It’s a phase marked by “intense feelings of attraction and ecstasy,” Scientific American writes. You idealize your partner, everything is easy and effortless, you love, and feel loved in return. Your similarities are limitless, and your differences are celebrated.
“But then life happens,” says relationship psychologist Peter Pearson. “You start living with somebody, and the differences you didn’t see when you lived separately and only saw each other on your best behaviour begin to show up.”
Friction begins. You might have a different tolerance level for messiness than your partner, or they might have a different way of relating to time than you. It turns out that you don’t have “one life,” nor are you “one unit.” You are indeed two separate individuals.
Differentiation is the process of dealing with that unavoidable fact.
In another interview, Pearson’s wife and Couples Institute cofounder Ellyn Bader described how the high-tension phase of differentiation works:
People have to come to terms with the reality that “we really are different people. You are different from who I thought you were or wanted you to be. We have different ideas, different feelings, different interests.”
Differentiation has two components. There is self-differentiation: “This is who I am and what I want.” This refers to the development of an independent sense of self: to know what I want, think, feel, desire…
The second involves differentiation from the other. When this is successful, the members of the couple have the capacity to be separate from each other and involved at the same time.
While it’s part of a “healthy evolution” of a relationship, Pearson says, differentiation certainly doesn’t feel good at first. It’s a long process of working through differences and bringing up when those differences are bugging you.
It requires some counterintuitive communication skills — namely expressing curiosity.
Pearson gives an example from earlier in his and Bader’s marriage. Bader has always been neater than he is, and that difference started showing itself when they were living together; he often left his shoes and newspapers in disarray.
In such a situation, you need some very careful questions. When your wife tells you that you’re a slob, instead of getting defensive, you need to get inquisitive.
“Curiosity is counterintuitive,” Pearson says. You ask precise, thoughtful questions, like: How does my being a slob affect you? How much of a slob am I on your slob scale? When I leave things out, what does that symbolise to you?
The answers grant greater understanding of your partner’s perspective.
Pearson says three qualities will help you get there: patience, curiosity, and a willingness to tolerate tension. You need to have patience with yourself and your partner, because there are going to be some stumbles. You need to be curious, because that’s how you begin to understand who your partner is as an individual. And you need to tolerate tension, because things get tense when you bring up differences.
But when you make it to the other side, you’ll have a more resilient, mature relationship. Like Bader says, you can be separate from each other — and involved at the same time.
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