- Differentiation is about separating from those close to us and focusing more on our own needs.
- Differentiating can occur several times in our lives and stir resentment, anger, and feelings of emptiness.
- We need to take stock and listen to these emotions; it is an opportunity to make our lives truly our own.
You’ve seen this in movies, read this in novels a hundred times: That climatic scene where our hero or heroine gives an impassioned I-gotta-be-me speech. They’re fed up with the dull life, the routines, the always doing for others, the work that feels like a prison sentence. Time has been wasted or is running out. If not now, when?
We see or read this so much because it is commonplace—a part of human development—but more likely because it so strongly resonates with where we are in our lives. The technical term is differentiation; the notion has been around for a long time and was most clearly defined by the pioneering family therapist Murray Bowen. It’s about separating from others. You did this naturally during your terrible twos, but probably most clearly in your adolescent years when you struggled with your parents and hung and clung to your peer group for support.
But differentiation doesn’t stop at seventeen. When I see couples, regardless of their presenting problems—arguments over money or kids or sex—at some deeper level, it’s about differentiation. One, and often both, partners need to bust out.
Here are some of the common characteristics of this process:
- Not as willing to accommodate: Tired of giving in, going along.
- Feeling angry, resentful, irritable: Angry over what their partner did, mad over the current state of your life, bitter about accommodations in the past, irritable because generally unhappy.
- Aware of dreams lost or ignored: The ideal job that never happened, the education never completed, the family life never reached, adventures never experienced.
- Feeling incomplete: Skills, talents, and creativity unused and withering.
- Questioning past decisions: We recreate the past in the present, and feelings of the present color the story of the past. Through this lens, you decide you married too early or the wrong person; you fell into the wrong job or settled too quickly.
- Pushing back, speaking up: All this comes together to fuel that fed-upness, that need to take a stand, to do things differently.
What to Do
You’re coming into your own, taking back or redefining your life, starting a new chapter, no more business as usual. This is healthy; this is personal evolution; this is not continuing to suppress what you need most right now. But you need to do it right:
To avoid feeling consumed by all those resentments and daily irritations, take a few deep breaths and survey the landscape of your current life. What do you need most right now? Don’t think about things—the better job, the bigger house, the college degree—but what these things tell you about what you need—feeling creative, important, less trapped. This is about focusing on your goals and filling in the big holes in your life without getting overwhelmed by the details.
But you don’t have to do the rant of the movies or books. This is having a rational, calm conversation about what’s missing in your life, how you ideally envision the future, and about concrete changes that will help you feel heard and bring what you need most into your life and relationship.
Develop a Plan
Actually two plans: One with your partner about moving forward. Likely they are feeling some of the same, and if you both step back and talk about your ideal visions of the future, you might find that you have the same hunger and desires.
But the other plan is deciding what you will do if you are not on the same page and your visions are incompatible. You may realize that you need to take a more assertive stance and have an equal voice in the relationship, or you may decide to leave. Have a plan, so you don’t feel trapped.
You’re taking a new path in your life, and it helps not to do this alone. Not everyone close to you will likely be supportive: They have different values or feel threatened, but you can huddle around those who are. In some ways, you’re back in high school, needing a separate to discover what your life truly holds for you.
And that’s okay. It’s time to do it.
Anderson, S. & Sabatelli, R. (1990). Differentiating differentiation and individuation: Conceptual and operation challenges. American Journal of Family Therapy, 18(1):32-50.