Does Everybody Need to Differentiate?

Recently, I wrote a three-part series on differentiation of self. If you missed it, you can find it here: part one, part two, part three

After I wrapped up the series, I realized I still had more to say. In fact, I want to address an aspect of differentiation of self that is not often discussed: cultural considerations. 

Differentiation of self is very important to my work, and it is the lens through which I tend to approach relationships. Most of my clients get very excited when I talk about the three aspects of differentiation, and are very interested in building that skillset. They may not know how to get there, but they can see how their life and relationship would improve if they increased those skills. They’re on board. 

But what if you have a client who doesn’t actually want to differentiate, doesn’t believe in differentiation, or is very conflicted about it? Not everyone aspires to be seen and accepted as a unique individual. Some people, and some cultures, believe in upholding the family connection or carrying forward cultural norms, and hold those things as higher goals than individuality and unique expression. They may or may not want to shift to cultural values that include individuation. 

Additionally, there are some people who have discovered an aspect of their personal expression or identity that is in direct conflict with family or cultural belief systems. In that case, they will have to make some very hard choices. If they choose to differentiate, there will probably be significant losses associated with that choice. They may stand to lose family, friends, or an entire cultural identity. If they choose to stick with their cultural or family values and beliefs, they will have to let go of some dreams and desires, and possibly even some important parts of themselves. 

Rebellion is not for everyone, nor is it a higher form of being. Shifting cultures is a big deal. It’s not something we should assume is preferable, or push our clients towards. The world is a diverse place and there is a lot of room for differences between us. I don’t want to work at cross-purposes with my client’s values or belief systems, or set them up for family or cultural consequences that they don’t see coming and freely choose. Being differentiated ourselves, as therapists, requires us to recognize that our clients may make different choices than we would. 

I have often had clients who are wrestling with an internal dilemma: differentiate from family belief systems, or don’t. When this happens with an individual client, the first order of business is to resolve that impasse. When it happens with one partner in a relational therapy, the first order of business is to help each partner express their thoughts, feelings, and point of view so they can understand one another better, and ultimately come to a decision as a team. 

There is no one-size-fits-all rule book for life. Honoring diversity means upholding the right to differ. Supporting differentiation means deeply listening to and grasping the thoughts and feelings behind any point of view, not just the ones that are comfortable to hear. Our work in therapy is not to push our clients towards any one resolution, but to allow them to voice all sides of their impasse fully, so that they can make their decisions on their own terms. If, at the end of that process, they decide that they value their closeness with their family or their connection to their culture over expressing their individuality, that is a valid choice, and a good outcome for the therapy.

The Perspective You Need to Work Effectively With Poly Clients

There’s one fact you must know in order to work effectively with poly clients.

This is it: poly can and does work. That is, poly relationships can be just as healthy, happy, and fulfilling as monogamous ones. 

Monogamous relationships are the norm in our culture. In the media, our families, and in our communities, we see plenty of happy, healthy, successful monogamous relationships. We also see our fair share of unhappy, dysfunctional ones. 

As a result, we don’t attribute a monogamous relationship’s success or failure to the fact of it being a monogamous relationship. When we see a floundering monogamous couple, we don’t think “monogamy just doesn’t work.” We attribute the situation, instead, to the people involved and to the circumstances surrounding the relationship. 

Yet when a relationship therapist sees a floundering poly relationship—which is pretty likely, given that people only go to relationship therapists when their relationships are in trouble—they may conclude that the problem is poly itself. 

That’s the result of not having any counter-examples. Most of us don’t have access to models of successful poly relationships to check our assumptions against—partly because poly is much less common than monogamy and partly because the stigma surrounding poly keeps people in happy, successful poly relationships from speaking openly about their experience. Check out my post Why Many Poly People Don’t Come Out for more on that. 

Take it from me: poly can and does work. I’ve seen it in my therapy room, and I’ve seen it in the wild. In fact, in 2014 I conducted a survey of people in poly relationships. I asked them about the duration of their relationships. I found that the average length of relationship was around eight years, and that, for primary relationships, the largest group had relationships that had lasted twelve years or longer. That shows me that poly isn’t an inherently unstable relationship structure, contrary to popular belief. It can be quite durable. 

If you approach working with poly relationships with the perspective that they’re inherently flawed, that they can’t last, or that they’re essentially the same as infidelity, you won’t be effective. You might make mistakes, or your clients might sense your inexperience with poly and look for another therapist. More importantly, you will miss opportunities to be challenging in ways that can help people create the lasting connections they desire. 

Honest yet compassionate communication, sincere respect and admiration for one another, emotional safety and security, room for growth: the qualities that make a good relationship are not limited to monogamous partnerships. Focus on helping your clients nurture these qualities, and watch them create a stable, poly connection.

Why Desire Discrepancy Is So Tough

In all my work training therapists to talk about sex issues, there’s one thing I hear over and over:

“I’ve tried everything I can to work with this desire discrepancy, but it’s just so complicated and tangled up that I don’t feel like I’m making any progress.”

“I feel pretty comfortable talking about sex, but sometimes couples with desire discrepancy are just so complicated.”

“I see so many couples with desire discrepancies, and yet I still don’t feel like I know where to begin.”

Desire discrepancy is THE most likely sex issue for couples therapists to see, and most find it incredibly challenging to work with. As I see it, there are two major reasons for this:

  1. It’s so common. Desire discrepancy comes up all the time in therapy, simply because a lot of couples deal with it. In fact, I consider differences in desire to be completely expectable. There’s no one normal or correct level of desire, and there’s a tremendous amount of variation between people in terms of how often they like to have sex, and for how long, in what ways, and so on. At the same time, we have a cultural ideal of love as “two souls melding seamlessly into one”–setting up a situation where normal, expectable sexual differences can cause distress, especially since sex is such an emotionally charged topic. It’s easy to see how the normal variation between partners can quickly become a source of shame and pain, if partners don’t have the perspective that their differences are something to be expected and even embraced.
  2. It’s so complex. So many factors can contribute to desire discrepancy: physiology, emotion, connection, patterns of sexual behavior, trauma, religious beliefs, values, sexual templates…I could go on and on. Working really effectively with desire discrepancy requires having an understanding of many factors and how they relate to one another.

Desire discrepancies can be intimidating, but learning to work with them is so worthwhile. Because they’re so common, you have an opportunity to really make a difference in the lives of a lot of people–and to set yourself apart as a therapist. Also, if you can learn how to tackle desire discrepancies, you’ll end up with a really robust skill set for working with sex issues in general.

For the next few weeks, I’m going to be talking a lot about how I work with desire discrepancy, because I know so many therapists struggle with it. If you want to start building those skills, keeping checking back!