The couples I work with often say they’re able to read one another’s minds and anticipate what the other will do next. Have you ever felt this way with your loved one?
For most couples, these feelings develop naturally. They’re a product of living together, sharing goals and dreams and working to make them a reality. But when partners lose sight of their individual needs, surrendering too much of themselves, the relationship will suffer.
Therapists use the concept of differentiation to explain why, even in our most intimate relationships, we need to think and act as separate selves. If we are overly focused on what others want and need, we will ultimately find ourselves in a pattern of confusion and conflict.
The work of building a healthy self begins in childhood
When you were growing up, were you allowed to speak for yourself? Did you feel seen and appreciated by the grownups around you? Even if there were hurts and slights at times, did the adults in your family give you the space you needed to grow?
As babies and children, we are utterly dependent on the adults raising us. Gradually, with love and encouragement, we learn to care for ourselves and make choices based on our preferences and needs. But emotional troubles at home can block our ability to develop a clear sense of self.
Think of the young child who sees one parent abusing the other, or grows up in the shadow of poverty or addiction. This child may push her own needs aside in an effort to protect the more vulnerable parent or shelter her siblings. Later in life, she may struggle to define what she wants from work, family and love relationships. She is so programmed to think of others that she has trouble thinking for herself.
Serious issues like domestic abuse and addiction aren’t the only roadblocks we might encounter. Adults who lack a clear sense of who they are may set a negative example for us. A father who fears abandonment may hold onto his son too tightly, depending on him as a source of stability. Imagine the fights that might erupt when the son chooses a career that dad dispproves of – or decides to attend college far from home.
How does this play out for couples?
Couples need a sense of closeness and concern for one another. But when there are poor boundaries between them, many difficulties can develop.
Picture the wife who worries constantly about what her partner is thinking. She may check in so often during the workday that she angers her spouse. There may be tearful confrontations when her partner pulls away, feeling frustrated by her need for attention.
Another couple might fight constantly, trying to influence each other’s choices and opinions. Maybe they’re driven by the mistaken idea that others will judge them based on little things their spouse does and says. You can imagine how critical and controlling these two could become, lacking the freedom to simply say, “Yep – we’re two very different people.”
Learning to feel safe as individuals within a couple
These brief examples give us just a glimpse into the role differentiation can play in a couple’s life. The struggles that can develop are as unique as the relationships themselves.
There are many ways intimate partners can encourage each other to build a strong sense of self. It’s an important quest – since a couple is only as healthy as the two people in it.
Feeling safe enough to express our needs, asking for what we want and working out solutions fairly and lovingly is one step on the road to healthy differentiation. With the right support, partners can learn to hear and honor each other’s point of view without losing sight of their own.
If you’d like to explore how issues like these are affecting your relationship, please reach out to me. I am happy to help.
Lori Weisman is one of the most skilled and knowledgeable therapist in our region on understanding the complexity of brain injury as it relates both to the individual’s long term success and the family. In particular, her passionate and compassionate support for couples as they navigate this difficult journey is outstanding. She is a great resource for the community and knowledgeable expert with national relevance.
Having worked with Lori now with a number of mutual clients who are traumatized by terrible events in their life, I can emphatically state that Lori is the consummate professional. She is characterized by three essential hallmarks that explains why she is so great at what she does: compassion, commitment, and above all else – a huge reservoir of patience. She listens without judgment; she advises without condescension; and she follows through with promises without hesitation. Every single client that I have referred to Lori has unequivocally spoke of her in glowing terms. Having worked with her personally and getting to know her on a personal level, I certainly know why. I give her my endorsement in the strongest possible terms.
Lori Weisman is a very skilled and knowledgeable therapist and educator. In particular, she has a unique combination of training and experience in couples therapy and brain injury that leads to an expertise that is rare. She is the best couples counselor in the area, and the only one that I am aware of who specializes and understands the area of brain injury. Lori is a very valuable resource and can provide treatment, training, and consultation for those who are dealing with a brain injury themselves (or in a partner or family member), as well as to those who are treating these clients. I strongly recommend Lori without any reservations. She is the best!
I suffered from depression and anxiety, which made everyday life really hard. Lori’s warmth, intuitive nature and skills helped me get past these issues.
Lori was the first couples therapist that gave us hope. Lori’s expertise helped us learn the skills to have the marriage we always dreamed of. She was warm, direct and fair in working with both of us.