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.