Monday, July 7th, 2008 at 1:30 am



Differentiation is a clinical term, and when therapists talk or write about it, it often leads to confusion.  I’m going to try anyway, because I think the concept  is a good one, and can be helpful  for couples who are trying to make their relationship more satisfying.  It is a concept/theory that has a practical application.

I like the term because it has the word ‘different’ in it.  And that’s what you and your partner are: different—not the same—two separate, distinct people with your own thoughts, feelings and behaviors.  That is part of what differentiation means—you are different.

Differentiation also means:  You see the world through your eyes, and your partner sees it through theirs.  When observing the same thing, such as an abstract painting, or experiencing the same event, such as a movie, neither of you are likely to see, or experience, them the same way.

This probably all seems so obvious—you see and experience stuff your way, the other their way.  Here’s the rub:  will you do the same when under stress with each other?  In other words, will you see, and take responsibility for, your role in the issue, take responsibility for your  part in the conflict?  Can you, will you, take your inventory, and make it safe for your partner to take their own inventory?  When you do, you are living a differentiated moment, and your partner will respect your efforts.

That means letting go of winning and being right.  It means taking the time, effort and energy to understand your partner’s thoughts, feelings and behavior, i.e., their experience, instead of forcing him/her to accept your experience as the truth or reality.

But wait—there’s more.  Differentiation also means you are able to resist the contagion of your partner’s mood,  and their emotional intensity.  When he/she is irritated about something, are you willing to resist taking on a similar mood or emotional state?  When she/he is angry at you, are you able to maintain your emotional equilibrium?  Rather than defend against your partner’s complaint, ASK WHAT IT’S ABOUT!  Try to hear what he/she has to say.

When you and your partner talk about difficult issues, are you each willing to take responsibility for your own thoughts, feelings and behaviors associated with the conflict instead of blaming the other one?  Bottom line is this:  A well differentiated couple works hard at staying on their own respective side of the street, minding their own thoughts, feelings and behavior.

If you find yourself blaming or accusing your partner,  you’ve crossed the double-yellow line and you’re risking a head-on collision.  Playing chicken usually leads to damage that’s not easy to repair.

Get back on your own side of the street, and do this:  ask yourself what got triggered in you, rather than jumping all over your partner about what you heard or saw.  Easier said that done, but worth the effort.  Why?  Because it paves a clearer path to self-understanding, and it may also limit the duration and intensity of the conflict.  Wouldn’t THAT be nice!

No doubt,  much more could be said about differentiation, but this is all you need to know for now.  Keep it simple—mind yourself, not the other.  Feel your feelings, mind your own thoughts and behavior, and let your partner do the same.

Here are some exercises you can each try–these help with continued   differentiation progress.  Ask yourself the following questions, and/or discuss them with your partner/spouse.  It ‘s a personal self-inquiry.


1.  Am I willing to take a risk by examining my role in the way things go in my relationship, especially when in conflict?

2.  Am I at least as concerned about, and willing to examine, how I have let my partner down as I am about how she/he has let me down?

3.  At the end of the day, am I willing to share with him/her how I have or have not been the partner I aspire to be?  It’s easy to put the microscope on your partner.  Now, put it on yourself and share what you see.  Lose sight of your partner’s stuff for a moment, and gain some vision of yourself.

4.   Am I as committed to changing something about myself as I am demanding of my partner to change?

5.   What do you each believe the role conflict plays in a marriage?

The differentiated experience of conflict allows conflict to lead to greater intimacy, shared warmth, and a solid foundation of trust.

Wishing you a satisfying relationship,

Jim Hutt, Ph.D., MFT

© Jim Hutt, Ph.D., MFT 2003

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
  • Google Bookmarks
  • BlinkList
  • email
  • Faves
  • LinkedIn
  • MySpace
  • Netvouz
  • Propeller
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Twitter
  • Yahoo! Bookmarks


  1. Thanks Jim for your integrated, quality approaches. You make differentiation and self-soothing more down-to-earth with your examples. I’ll pass them on to quite a few clients. Good job!
    Jim Bowen, MA, LPC in Denver and Boulder.

    Comment by JIm Bowen, MA LPC — July 13, 2011 @ 11:56 pm

  2. Thanks, Jim, I especially appreciate the endorsement from another professional. Certainly feel free to come back and post your own examples, from which, no doubt, we could all learn.

    Comment by Dr. J. Hutt — July 14, 2011 @ 12:01 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Spam protection by WP Captcha-Free