Tag Archives: differentiation

Intimacy:
“I want more intimacy, validation, and to feel closer to you.”

"Marilyn Silver Screen" by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“Marilyn Silver Screen” by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Some people claim they want more intimacy, but what they seem to really want is total agreement and constant validation, which are antithetical to intimacy. Long-term, passionate intimacy requires that two people have a strong enough sense of self that they can have differing opinions without expecting all-encompassing closeness and validation from each other.

Intimacy based on accommodation

People often find it uncomfortable to deal with their partner’s insecurities. It is easier to simply appease them, agree with them, and validate them. So they often validate their partner simply to accommodate the partner’s fears and insecurities. It is often really their own anxiety that they cannot tolerate when their partner is under stress.

For example, you may choose to respond by nodding agreeably when you don’t agree rather than saying, “I think you could have handled this differently.” As a result of hiding your true thoughts, the result is a deadening of the soul, resentment, and a loss of passion within the relationship.

Codependence

Validating your partner can temporarily improve your partner’s mood and functioning. However, it often creates long-term problems, such as increased codependency. Each partner feels increasingly burdened by an obligation to ease the other person’s anxiety. When couples become codependent, they are increasingly vulnerable to the other partner’s manipulation. They also become anxious about saying and doing the right thing in order to get a positive reaction.

Intimacy based on candor

True intimacy evolves when you don’t manipulate your partner to validate you. When you don’t need your partner to accommodate your insecurities, it’s easier to show parts of yourself to your partner that he or she may not agree with or validate. The benefit is that your partner then truly sees you without feeling an obligation to shore up your insecurities.

This requires a certain discipline, confidence, and courage to look at yourself objectively and to accept your partner’s authentic response.

While it’s nice to be validated by others, you are more likely to get true validation when you are not trying to attain it. When you’re willing to accept a person’s honest response, then you can meet that person on a deeper, truly intimate level. Ironically, less push for validation means greater intimacy and the possibility of a long-term passionate relationship.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “Intimacy vs. Agreement: ‘I better not disagree with his point of view, or he’ll get upset.’”

Intimacy vs. Agreement
“I better not disagree with his point of view, or he’ll get upset.”

“Fire ‘n Ice”—Mark Wood & Laura Kaye by Mimi Stuart ©

“Fire ‘n Ice”—Mark Wood & Laura Kaye by Mimi Stuart ©

Guessing game: The cycle of fusion

People often think they want more agreement in order to gain a feeling of intimacy. They often mistake intimacy with a feeling of closeness or “being one with their partner.” So in their quest for intimacy, they anticipate what their partner’s beliefs are in order avoid saying something incompatible or controversial. If they foresee disapproval, they screen themselves and limit their expression to what’s tried and true between them. Or they pressure their partner into agreeing with their own position.

Unfortunately, this kind of self-screening and manipulation starts the cycle of emotional fusion (co-dependence), which curtails growth and intimacy within a relationship. Fear of disapproval leads to one or both partners striving to be in complete agreement with the other and avoid rocking the boat. As a result, the relationship becomes tedious and lackluster.

How intimacy develops

Intimacy develops when people get to know each other more deeply. When two people conceal who they are and what they think in order to get along, they do not get to know one another well. Intimacy develops when two people are able to express who they are more fully, and when they are able to change and grow while within a relationship, even though this does not always lead to a feeling of oneness. Passion requires friction, albeit not hostile friction.

Tolerating the anxiety of intimacy

To be able to express who you are, what you feel, and what you believe requires being able to handle rejection, which often triggers anxiety. Thus, by developing a better tolerance for anxiety, you enhance your ability to deepen the intimacy in your relationship.

Of course there is a limit as to what you should express to others. You don’t need to share every thought and feeling, because you don’t want to become a bore. Moreover, there is a point where consideration and discretion count more than blunt honesty and openness.

Get comfortable with discomfort

When it comes to more significant thoughts and feelings, we need to learn to express ourselves despite the other person’s potentially-negative response. If we learn to handle discomfort, we no longer need to feign agreement, laugh at a poor joke, or dumb down our conversation to avoid upsetting another person. Our relationships can then be based on stimulating thoughts, growth, and authenticity, rather than sham consensus.

Respectful communication

Intimate relationships develop best when we express our honest opinions respectfully, and most importantly, when we really listen to another person’s message without shutting him or her down. This means not being reactive — sarcastic, angry, or cold — when someone has an opinion that we disagree with. When we “correct” or attack people aggressively for their ideas, we’re not encouraging them to be open and honest with us.

Respectful communication is different from acceptance and approval. Good communication does not necessarily make the other person feel his or her opinions are endorsed. Yet he or she will feel understood and respected.

“I understand what you’re saying. I see it a little differently though.”

“I’m interested to hear why you see it that way.”

“Interesting. I have a different perspective.”

Intimacy develops when we learn to listen with equanimity and to reveal ourselves, our opinions, and our feelings respectfully. Only by truly getting to know one another, do we develop meaningful, intimate relationships.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

“I try so hard to make her happy.”

"Noble Love" by Mimi Stuart ©

“Noble Love” by Mimi Stuart ©

Responsibility for another’s wellbeing

People who put excessive energy into trying to make others happy tend to lose their sense of self and the accompanying groundedness and objectivity. The suppression of their own values, needs and desires often leads to growing resentment and a lack of vitality.

The more compelled a person is to promote someone else’s wellbeing, the more anxious that person becomes. People who put excessive energy into “helping” others and to making them happy are often completely unaware of the anxiety which drives them, because they are projecting their own anxiety onto the people they are trying to help.

Dependence on validation from others

The opposite dynamic also leads to trouble. The more your own wellbeing depends on validation from others, the more anxious you become. Thus, when people are desperately seeking validation, they tend to use emotional manipulation to get it. The resulting validation isn’t very gratifying because it has been coerced. Thus, their craving for validation is never satisfied, and becomes a drain on the relationship.

People who crave a lot of validation may be aware of their own anxiety, but they believe it is up to others to take care of them. Their efforts to get others to relieve their anxiety are ineffective in resolving the ultimate problem—that is, learning to tolerate their own anxiety.

Escalation of anxiety

Anxiety increases when you have less control over achieving your goals. Since you are not in control of someone else’s wellbeing, and you are not in control of someone validating you, anxiety for both parties increases. Hence relationships between emotionally fused people tend to generate considerable chronic anxiety.

The more anxious people become, the more reactive and intolerant they are of others. They become more frantic to “fix” things. They may feel alternatively overwhelmed and isolated, needing more emotional connection, but rejecting all but the “right” kind of connection, that is, total validation. A lack of response or the wrong kind of response hurts or angers them, which causes them to say hurtful things or withdraw, leading to an escalation of anxiety and conflict.

It is paradoxical and unfortunate that undifferentiated people have more need of emotional support, but are less likely to get it or to be satisfied by it.

Healthy relationships

In healthy relationships, people are helpful, considerate, and care about the one another’s wellbeing. They will do things they think might make the other person happy. However, they are emotionally differentiated, which prevents one person’s anxiety from infecting the other and spiraling out of control. Differentiation means that you avoid emotionally manipulating another person and you avoid walk on eggshells. Instead you respect that person as autonomous, though perhaps interdependent. This requires being aware of and tolerating your own anxiety when someone else is not happy or when you are not receiving the validation that you were hoping to receive.

Murray Bowen, who developed the notion of differentiation, puts it this way: “The goal always is to work on oneself, not to attempt to change one’s family. The goal is not to get the family to “accept” you, to “love” you. The goal is to be more of a self, which is not contingent on acceptance.”

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

Recommended Kerr and Bowen’s “Family Evaluation.”

Read “Happiness: ‘We must have a terrible marriage because I’m so unhappy.’”

Read “I can’t live with her and I can’t live without her.”

Read “Ten Keys to a Great Relationship: ‘The magic is gone.’”

“You like going surfing more than you like me!”

"L'Amour dans l'eau" by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“L’Amour dans l’eau” by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

So… what I really meant was…

“Let’s spend some time together. I know you love surfing and I don’t want to take that away from you. But I would love to spend a little quality time with you. How about going out to dinner or having a picnic at the beach tonight?”

It’s easy to manipulate someone into spending more time with you, but you won’t enjoy your time together using guilt and complaints to coerce him or her to do so. You want your partner to be fully present and appreciate spending time with you. So entice your partner with a positive suggestion. Remember that it’s an opportunity to spend time together not a burden. You will be more effective if you show compassion while reminding him how important it is for you to enjoy time together.

Balancing individual pursuits and togetherness

It’s important to balance spending time together with pursuing your passions. Brain research shows that desire and passion for your partner fades if you spend all your time together. However, if you spend too little time together, you risk drifting apart and losing your energetic linkage. The ideal balance differs from person to person. To avoid ongoing disappointment and frustration, it’s best to find out what that balance is for each of you before making a long-term commitment.

In any relationship, there will be periods of time where things get out of balance. Candid discussions about this balance are key to avoiding becoming too onesided. Yet such discussions are most effective when each person shows compassion for the other person’s desires and needs while discussing his or her own wishes.

Responding to your partner

While you do not want to develop a pattern of being manipulated by the use of guilt or complaints, it is important to have empathy for your partner’s position and to respond to him or her without getting angry, defensive, or become compliant. You can be compassionate without being controlled.

Have a conversation with your partner and take into consideration your partner’s desires. Find out how he or she envisions spending more time together. Consider whether you are neglecting your partner. If so, discuss with him or her when you could spend more time together and plan to do so. You might also suggest that more positive communication would be more inviting, and perhaps to leave comparisons between your love of surfing and the relationship aside.

Responding to controlling behavior

If the complaint is unwarranted, you might just say, “I love surfing. I hope you want me to do something that makes me happy. I want the same for you.”

When someone is generally controlling and feels threatened easily because of his or her own insecurities, it’s best not to become emotionally reactive. You shouldn’t become hostile, churlish, or apologetic. Instead, keep your cool, and perhaps say, “I love you, but surfing is great exercise, feeds my soul, keeps me balanced and connects me with nature. Loving someone means supporting their passions not restricting them.”

Not buying into his or her emotional heat is key. Keep calm and reasonable yet do not allow yourself to be controlled by his or her fears. If you do, you are walking down the path of emotional fusion toward resentment. Consideration in a relationship is necessary but you shouldn’t start giving up reasonable things that you love to do and you shouldn’t want your partner to do the same.

When people are not differentiated, they lack emotional separation. As a result control and manipulation increase, which leads to greater conflict or over-accommodation at the cost of one’s own desires going underground. Both are unhealthy for the long-term enjoyment of a relationship.

Successful relationships require improving your ability to balance consideration for your partner with respect for your own desires. Consideration engenders the warmth of togetherness, while individual pursuits foster growth and passion. Seeking the right balance for both partners requires an ongoing effort that is well worth it.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “Ten Keys to a Great Relationship: ‘The magic is gone.’”

Watch “How to avoid becoming a Doormat.”

Read “I’m always walking on eggshells. I don’t want to upset my partner.”

Read “Pursuing passions or partnership? ‘You should spend time with me instead of going fishing!’”

“I’m not going to visit my sister because my husband will get mad.”

"Bounteous" by Mimi Stuart©  Live the Life you Desire

“Bounteous” by Mimi Stuart©
Live the Life you Desire

Fear of being alone

Underlying most controlling behavior is a fear of being left alone, physically or emotionally. A person’s reactivity and possessiveness is often driven by anxiety and fear of abandonment.

The problem is that we can never be fully united in thought and feeling with another person. In fact, the more we try to possess another person or allow ourselves to be controlled, the more we squeeze the magic out of the relationship.

Once we genuinely accept our existential separation from others, we can enjoy the connection we have more fully, however fleeting it may be. Then we can be truly loving without becoming controlling and possessive.

Responding to a controlling person

If you are in a relationship with a controlling partner who is trying to coerce you into not doing something you want to do, such as visiting your sister, you can choose to respond in the following ways:

Accommodate—You don’t go visit your sister, but you will feel disappointed, angry, disempowered, and resentful for not going.

Rebel—You vehemently declare that you’re going anyway, but your partner will try to punish you with his anger.

Differentiate—You are considerate while maintaining your self-respect. You tell him you’ll miss him and you’re sorry he’ll be lonely, but it’s really important for you to spend some time with your sister. Or, you could that say you’d really like to see your sister, but that he is welcome to join you if he can get away. If your partner continues to be angry about your decision, you can show compassion to a point, but you should not allow yourself to be manipulated by his fear or anger. Stand firm albeit with compassion, but without becoming defensive.

Intimacy requires freedom

It sounds paradoxical that intimacy and passion can deepen as we accept our separateness and stop controlling others or allowing ourselves to be controlled. Yet a relationship based on respect requires letting go of fear and control. By breaking away from control and possessiveness, we can allow a little unpredictability and excitement back into the relationship.

Passion is based on the feeling of being alive, alert and excited in the midst of the unknown. By respecting another person’s autonomy and embracing the associated anxiety, we can enhance excitement, desire, and passion in our relationship with that person.

As we face and accept our own existential separateness, our tolerance for being alone increases. In addition, our disappointment in others diminishes, because we relinquish unrealistic expectations that our partners will save us from ourselves.

Read “‘My parent was controlling.’ How we develop Defense Mechanisms (Part I)”

Watch “How to Deal with Controlling People.”

Read “I’ve texted you five times in the last hour! Where have you been?”

“I’m always walking on eggshells. I don’t want to upset my partner.”

Walking on Diamonds" Astronaut Eugene Cernan
In the Permanent Collection of the Smithsonian

by Mimi Stuart ©

If you are walking on eggshells to avoid upsetting your partner, that means you are allowing yourself to be controlled by your partner’s reactivity. Of course, it’s nice to be considerate of your partner’s feelings, but not at the expense of your own.

The best relationships are between people who are “differentiated,” that is, able to be emotionally objective and separate, while at the same time being intimate and caring. Differentiation allows intense involvement without becoming infected with your partner’s anxiety, and without one person needing to withdraw or interfere with the partner.

The great psychologist Murray Bowen was the first to discuss differentiation, describing it as “living according to your own values and beliefs in the face of opposition… while also having the ability to change your values, beliefs, and behavior when your well-considered judgment or concern for others dictates it.”

Undifferentiated, or fused, couples tend to modify their behavior out of fear of their partner’s reactions. Eventually they come to feel as though they have lost who they are.

Being true to yourself when you relate to others is what makes a relationship interesting, passionate and sustainable.

So when you feel that you have to walk on eggshells, take a moment to figure out what you feel and believe. Central to differentiation is facing your discomfort with your partner’s anger, cold shoulder, or other reactivity. Learn how to be diplomatic and kind to your partner, while standing firm in being true to yourself.

When you expect a negative reaction, be prepared to accept it. If your partner becomes angry, don’t take it personally. State calmly, “You may not like my position, but this is how I feel/what I think/what I’d like to do.” Leave the room if necessary, but with a faith that you are walking on diamonds, not eggshells.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “Emotional Intimacy.”

Recommended: Kerr, M. & Bowen, M. (1988). Family Evaluation: The role of the family as an emotional unit that governs individual behavior and development. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York.