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Differentiation and Intimacy

Differentiation is the process of holding on to one’s self while connecting with others. As a path to true intimacy differentiation is hard to beat. Which is not to say that the path is all shining sun and roses, but committing to being true to one’s self, particularly when there’s pressure not to, brings deep rewards.

I like to think of differentiation’s never-ending process as a way to grow myself. The process is never-ending because as we become closer to someone their opinion of us tends to matter more, which can make it tougher to displease them. What happens when being true to myself means that someone close to me, someone important to me, is displeased? Sometimes I have to choose between pleasing them and being true to myself. When I choose myself and also allow our differentness, even if that means weathering pressure, discomfort, or anger, I differentiate. And that makes intimacy more likely, as paradoxical as it may seem. The only intimacy that comes close to satisfying is intimacy in which I am being truly myself. When I ask myself, “What do I need to do, or what beliefs or expectations do I need to adjust, in order to remain true to myself in this situation?” I often am forced to grow. This is a good thing.

Differentiation takes courage. It’s never finished. It’s not about shoving one’s viewpoint out into the world or into the face of someone beloved. It’s all about the relationship between me and me. It’s about acknowledging to myself the truth about myself and then deciding what to do with that information. Maybe I’ll choose to keep this truth to myself for now and see how things develop. Maybe I’ll share. Maybe I’ll say nothing, but change the way I act. The key is that my compass remains inside me rather than outside of me. I hold my own course rather than giving my deciding-power over to someone else, however dear they may be to me. Differentiation is the inner process for creating a strong and flexible bond, a healthy and intimate connection, with someone out there.

The three best teachers of differentiation I know of are Susan Page, David Schnarch, and Esther and Jerry Hicks (with Abraham).

David Schnarch’s book Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love and Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships covers a lot of ground, but the linchpin concept of the book is differentiation (see Chapter 2, “Differentiation: Developing a Self-in-Relation”).

“Giving up your individuality to be together is as defeating in the long run as giving up your relationship to maintain your individuality. Either way, you end up being less of a person with less of a relationship.

“Differentiation permits you to maintain your own course when lovers, friends, and family pressure you to agree and conform. Well-differentiated people can agree without feeling like they’re losing themselves, and can disagree without feeling alienated and embittered. They can stay connected with people who disagree with them and still know who they are. They don’t have to leave the situation to hold onto their sense of self.”

~ David Schnarch, Passionate Marriage

In her book Why Talking Is Not Enough, Susan Page provides guidelines for using close relationships as spiritual practice (defining spirituality generally), with the emphasis on taking responsibility for making positive changes, rather than requiring or waiting for the other person’s participation. Although the term “differentiation” doesn’t star in her book the way it does in Schnarch’s, that’s what Page’s teachings are all about.

The subtitle of Page’s book is Eight Loving Actions that Will Transform Your Marriage (and keep in mind that these tools are useful in any close relationship, from parent-child to best friend). The Eight Loving Actions are:

“Adopt a spirit of good will
Give up problem solving
Act as if
Practice restraint
Balance giving and taking
Act on your own
Practice acceptance
Practice compassion”

~ Susan Page, Why Talking Is Not Enough

Finally, and more comprehensively, any of the publications by Esther and Jerry Hicks (and Abraham) are all about differentiating, including the books The Astonishing Power of Emotions: Let Your Feelings Be Your Guide and Ask and It Is Given: Learning to Manifest Your Desires.

“When your life is intertwined with another, you often feel that you need to agree on everything and ‘pull together,’ so to speak, on the things that you are creating, but we want you to understand that you do not need another to ‘pull’ with you because the Stream of creation contains all the ‘pulling’ power that is necessary. However, you cannot pull against yourself and get to where you want to be.”

~ Esther and Jerry Hicks, The Astonishing Power of Emotions

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