The Three Aspects of Differentiation of Self: Part Two

This is the second post in a deep dive into the three aspects of differentiation of self. In my last post, I wrote about the first aspect, which is identifying what you feel, think, believe and prefer. You can read it here.

This time, I’m focusing on the second aspect of differentiation of self—holding steady while expressing unique and individual thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and preferences to someone else. There are two distinct and important aspects to this:

  • Holding steady, by which I mean getting grounded and remaining calm while saying your piece. This skill is foundational to effective communication, and underlies all aspects of differentiation.
  • Stating thoughts, beliefs, feelings, perceptions, and preferences as clearly, deeply, and fully as possible, regardless of what reaction is likely from the listener. Depth is important. Often people make the mistake of staying on the surface of the topic, rather than going deep. That’s because it often seems like depth would be more difficult for the listener to receive gracefully. More often, the opposite is true: providing enough depth helps the listener access empathy for the speaker. A full communication should cover not just what was perceived to have happened (framed as a perception, not a “truth”, since partners may very well remember events differently), but also the feelings that occurred for the person who is speaking, and the stories or meaning made by them about the events and feelings. It is important that this communication be explicitly framed as being about the speaker’s perceptions, feelings, and meaning-making.

The second aspect of differentiation is tricky because it exists relationally, as part of a dynamic between people. Consider:

  • Someone might be very worried about how their partner will react to something they want to share. They might be able to figure out what they think, but have a lot of difficulty sharing their thoughts. 
  • If the listener begins to show emotion about what the speaker is saying, for instance by getting angry or starting to cry, the speaker might backpedal, soften, or completely change what they are saying in order to avoid a difficult discussion.
  • If the listener has a history of becoming upset during a difficult conversation, someone might choose not to disclose difficult things. This is a real pitfall if the listener becomes quite dysregulated. It can be very challenging to speak up when your partner tends toward extreme responses. Nonetheless, the downside of not speaking up is undeniable: an upsetting interaction will have been avoided, but the person who decided not to speak up will not feel seen, understood, or accepted for who they are in this relationship.

There are many reasons a person might have difficulty holding steady and expressing themselves deeply, calmly, and fully. They could be responding to echoes of past trauma, perhaps having been punished in some way for speaking up, or for individuated non-conformist thinking. They may have gotten subtle but pervasive messages that children are to be seen and not heard. Their parents may have modeled never discussing difficult topics, or difficult topics discussed by family members may have led to chaotic interactions, drama, anger, or abuse. It is also possible that their current partner engages in dramatic responses to difficult discussions, or even shuts down some conversations entirely. 

Whatever the cause, as a therapist, it is important to help clients identify how they want to be in their relationships. Do they believe in creating relationships where both partners feel seen, heard, and known? Do they believe in creating emotional safety so everyone can figure out their deeper desires, thoughts, and feelings, and discuss them? If so, the therapy will need to support the development of all three parts of differentiation. 

Here are some tips for increasing your ability to express your beliefs, preferences, and feelings:

    1. Take a deep breath. If speaking up makes you anxious, take some time to notice how you’re feeling. Breathe deeply (concentrating on a long exhale) and relax your muscles. Blink slowly. Exhaling and blinking slowly tells your limbic system that you are safe, so you can gather your thoughts more effectively.
    2. Take a few minutes to get clear. Don’t start talking until you think through what you want to express. You could even take notes or rehearse, if you’re really concerned. Get your message boiled down to one topic or one aspect of a single topic. Biting off too much at a time is a great way to flood yourself and your partner, and create confusion that makes it hard to get anywhere.
    3. Recognize that you can’t control your partner’s response. Maybe what you have to say is going to irritate or disappoint your partner. That’s survivable. “No tension ever” isn’t realistic, so don’t make that your outcome goal. Keep your eye on the real goal: saying what you intend to say.
    4. Remind yourself what kind of partner you aspire to be. Do you believe in being honest? Do you want to be fully and deeply known by your partner? Fix your focus firmly on the long term goal of building the kind of relationship you want to have, rather than the short-term goal of avoiding an uncomfortable discussion. 
    5. Keep it relatively brief. Particularly if this is a big challenge for you, keep it to 10 or 15 minutes. Don’t get distracted by other topics. 
    6. Ask your partner to say back what they are hearing. This is important because it makes it so you can clear up any misunderstandings right away. People mis-hear things all the time when stressed, so don’t skip this step.
    7. Thank your partner for listening to you. Positive feedback actually works. If your partner listened well, said something insightful, or responded in any positive manner, be sure to take the time to appreciate it. Even if it went badly, thank them for showing up and trying.
    8. Find something connecting to do after you talk. A relationship that involves constant processing leaves no room for fun. Develop the ability to intentionally create some positive experiences together. Go for a walk or bike ride, watch something fun on Netflix, or just snuggle on the couch. Pet the animals. Hush and connect.

 

 

 

 

 

Balancing Novelty and Comfort in Romantic Relationships

We expect a lot from our partners. On the one hand, we develop relationships based on love and romance. We yearn for attraction, excitement, a spark. On the other hand, when we’re forging lifelong partnerships, we also seek stability, reliability, and a predictable, comfortable status quo with a lot of emotional safety. 

Naturally, different people prioritize different aspects of partnership. Some people are perfectly happy to sacrifice the thrill of the crush for the solidity of companionship. Others would rather focus on the magic spark. But most of us want a measure of each. 

It’s natural for human beings to seek both novelty and reliability, excitement and comfort. But it’s quite a balancing act in a long-term relationship. Consider: the thrill of the crush comes in part from multiple uncertainties, including “do they like me, or not?” But the comfort of a best friend comes from the abiding certainty of their lasting affection. How can our partners be both thrilling crushes and trusted friends? 

Part of the puzzle is simply the recognition that the early, head-over-heels infatuation phase of any romantic relationship must come to an end at some point. As magical as this phase is, we need to return to equilibrium at some point, if for no other reason, so we can get some sleep and accomplish some things that fell by the wayside while we fell in love.

The early phase of relationship includes focusing on ways in which we are similar, and stretching to be more alike. Together we create a sense of similarity and high regard that, ideally, can be the foundation for a lifelong relationship. It is also healthy for it to pass, and to give way to acknowledging our differences, reconnecting with ourselves and our individuality, and noticing there are things about our partner we don’t like.

It is easy to focus on the down side of differentiation, because as we notice and acknowledge our differences, we often disagree. This transition can be rough, and often includes significant disillusionment. But consider this: desire requires difference. 

If the romantic spark is fading in your relationship, or perhaps faded a long time ago, ask yourself if you might be overly emotionally entangled, or a little too safe, predictable, or known. 

In the right circumstances, asserting difference can be a powerful aphrodisiac. It allows partners to see each other in a new light, and desire one another anew. 

Every individual in every relationship has to find their own way to address this challenge. Here are a few ideas:

  • Have new conversations. Turn off devices and learn something new about one another over dinner or breakfast. I love Vertellis cards for this, but if you’re great at curious, creative, thought-inspiring questions, you don’t need any prompts. Not matter how long you’ve known one another, you don’t know all there is to know. Get creative, go deeper, and discover your ever-changing partner.
  • Do new things. Turn off devices and create some memories. What sounds like fun? Start with a brainstorming list of at least 30 ideas of things that sound like fun to one or the other of you; you don’t have to agree, just brainstorm. Try to include things that take a few minutes, as well as some that take a couple of weeks. Include things that don’t cost anything, as well as big ticket items. 
  • Read a book together. Ideally, this would be about something that interests both of you. Organic farming? International travel? Lifestyle choices? Get inspired, and learn something together.
  • In the same vein, take a class together.
  • Look for the spark within yourself, and then share that with your partner. We have a weird cultural belief that we need other people to light us up, turn us on, excite us. While other people and deep connections can certainly be amazing, you also have the capacity to light yourself up. Have you lost your own connection with excitement, fun, play, novelty, or pleasure? Ask yourself: “What do I do to light myself up?” and start doing it!

Why Helping Your Clients Find the Joy is a Crucial Part of Couples Therapy

It is tempting to spend a lot of time in therapy working on making the things that are going wrong in relationships go better. But what exactly is that effort supporting, if the partners don’t connect, are constantly at odds, and becoming fatigued by all the conflict?

In my opinion, at least half of therapy must be about creating, improving and multiplying positive interactions. If your clients don’t feel like their relationship is worth the effort, of they don’t get joy out of each other’s company, hopelessness will win in the end.

Therapy is hard, because working as a team in an intimate relationship involves becoming more curious and less reactive. Nobody is going to work hard to modify their automatic responses in a marriage where fun has become extinct.

There are a number of ways you can help your clients rediscover the joy in their relationships. Here are some strategies to consider:

  • Help your clients remember positive interactions. Consider: What made them positive? How can the mood of those past interactions be re-created in current circumstances?
  • Create a positive interaction in your therapy room. I start most sessions by asking each partner to express appreciation or gratitude to their partner for something fairly specific they did or said recently that made a difference, and why. (A tip of my hat to the Developmental Model, once again!)
  • Remind your clients that positive aspects of their relationship continue to exist even when they’re not agreeing about something. Help them pay attention to those aspects of the relationship that are really working, and develop a practice of noticing and appreciating those moments.
  • Help clients create a daily positive interaction habit. Many clients already have at least one positive interaction each day, in which case it can be expanded to more, longer, or more meaningful. However, some clients many need to start small. Small or large,  being able to deliberately create a positive interaction is an indispensable skill for a strong relationship. It requires self-control, compartmentalization, making a clear choice, emotional regulation, motivation…all the skills couples need in order to function as a team.

As clients become better able to deliberately choose, create, and change the tone or atmosphere of an interaction, it becomes increasingly possible to help them have more productive conversations about tough topics. Helping each partner focus on their own individual interactional goals (for instance, responding with curiosity rather than defensiveness) will help them experience one another differently when they discuss their differences–as teammates and collaborators rather than adversaries. Creating positive experiences builds positive regard as well as goodwill and motivation. In the end, the couple will find themselves with the opportunity to build something MUCH better than either has ever imagined.