Staying Connected in Long-Term Relationships
Healthy marriages require emotionally differentiated partners.
Posted May 19, 2015
Romantic comedies don’t usually get marriage right. In fact, most of the time they do just the opposite, fueling our distorted notions of the sustainability of intense, romantic feeling, constructing weddings as an endpoint rather than a step in the process, and elevating the concept of emotional fusion at the expense of healthy notions of emotional autonomy.
It was surprising to me, then, to see that the writers of the 1991 cheesy classic Father of the Bride got a big piece of it right. When the neurotic father of the bride (Steve Martin) gets thrown in jail for making a big scene at the grocery store, his wife (Diane Keaton) shows up with a smile on her face. Rather than hysterical and anxious, she is calm and cool. She tells him, kindly and affectionately, that he is behaving immaturely, and that his overreaction to the cost of the wedding is diminishing his daughter’s happiness. He hears her.
Differentiation, according to marital theorist David Schnarch, is “your ability to maintain your sense of self when you are emotionally and/or physically close to others" (Schnarch, 1997, p. 56). It’s your ability to disagree without getting angry or embittered and to agree without feeling like you’re “losing yourself.” Basically, it’s your ability to keep good boundaries, to stay centered no matter what those around you are feeling.
Diane Keaton is entirely (almost hyperbolically) self-possessed. She stays engaged when her partner becomes emotionally dysregulated, gets himself into trouble, and does things that threaten the people she loves.
Over the course of Steve Martin’s prolonged freak out, she stays present instead of walking away.
Walking away to hold onto yourself is not a sign of differentiation. People usually walk away because they have no other emotional choice; it’s the only way for them to feel ok. Distancing for emotional protection may take down the temperature of the interaction, but it still suggests an unhealthy emotional fusion. It suggests that one's emotional state exist in reference to another's, not on its own. Genuine differentiation requires a core “solid self,” one that you can maintain without fight or flight, even when circumstances shift around you. Even when you’re in the midst of someone else’s turmoil.
Several things work against our achievement of differentiation. One is our fusion fantasies, whose seeds are sown as kids in “happily ever after” stories, as teenagers in toxic romantic comedies, and as adults in the cultural narratives we feed each other about “happy” marriages. Another is our limited or warped ideas about dependence and interdependence. In our culture, dependence most often connotes “co-dependence” and neediness, while independence suggests individualism. Neither choice is conducive to a healthy relationship, which really resides in the territory of differentiated interdependence. We barely even know how to discuss this territory.
In fact, we tend not to even know how a solid or differentiated self would operate in a relationship. We might even think of a differentiated self as somewhat guarded or separate. It's not. It's open and connected. It's “permeable,” meaning it's able to maintain closeness even in the face of manipulation. A solid self can change and accept influence without feeling threatened or disrupted.
Diane Keaton doesn’t take her husband’s breakdown personally, she stays close to him and is undeterred in offering affection. That groundedness, more than anything, is the secret to their happiness in their 23 year (albeit fictional) marriage.
Baum, C. (Producer), Shyer, C. (Director). (1991). Father of the Bride [Motion Picture]. United States: Touchstone
Schnarch, D. (1997). Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love & Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships, (New York: Henry Holt and Company).