The first step towards growing our differentiation is to increase our conscious awareness of our current differentiation toolkit (Click here for a brief introduction to Differentiation). One of the best times to observe them is when you are in a pressured, conflictual or emotionally charged situation with an important person in your life.
What’s amazing is that no matter what the contentious issue, there are a finite number of behaviour patterns that play out across these scenarios. So don’t worry about the content or “why” of the discussion. Focus instead on the process, the what, where and when of your behaviours.
You’ll notice is none of these approaches actually tackles the original issue. Instead, emotion has taken over and these behaviours are our reactive and unconscious attempts to reduce (or bind) the anxiety we are feeling.
These are some key behaviours to look for1:
Conflict is a couple’s internalised anxiety getting externalised and blame is the classic behaviour to adopt in the midst of it. Blame feels emotionally satisfying and calming. Unfortunately, and I hate to break it to you, the secret of growing your differentiation is recognising that every problem is (at least) a two-person problem and without meaning to, you are also contributing to the problem, no matter how well-intentioned you are2.
Emotional pressure can cause us to jump into a “fix-it” over-functioning mode. This may express itself as being overly controlling, responsible or caring. In the short term this can relieve your uncomfortableness and indeed society rewards this Type A behaviour. However, in the longer term it sets up an unhelpful overfunctioning-underfunctioning complementary relational pattern (more of that another time). Leaving you feeling like you can never escape unending expectations.
Distancing is the cold feeling that can descend within a relationship taking away the cosy intimacy you previously experienced. It can be as subtle as talking less, reducing eye contact or being more distracted. Distancing can give you some space. It can allow you to calm down and halt a destructive argument. However, if the issue is left unresolved indefinitely then your raw emotion festers. Trust remains broken and you risk trading intimacy for politeness.
Cutoff is distancing taken to the extreme. You might either cutoff physical contact and cease all forms of communication or you might cutoff emotionally and studiously avoid discussing sensitive issues.
Fusion is where you want to bring everyone into agreement. To do this you might become very dogmatic, pushy and dictatorial. Alternatively, you might veer in the other direction and become passive and unsure, accommodating to the other’s desires. They are complementary behaviours and partners can find themselves consistently occupying the same position. Establishing agreement can appear to resolve the problem and lower the tension. However, the anxiety has simply gone underground and apparently cosy fusion can switch suddenly to cutoff.
As the emotion rises it’s difficult to keep it just between the two of you. Triangling is when you invite another in to diffuse the intensity. You might offload to a friend, a spouse or even your child. Triangles ease the angst in the short term, but ultimately create bigger problems. Insiders and outsiders are produced. Scapegoats emerge. A provocative issue can result in anxiety spreading out through multiple triangles like wildfire, contaminating entire families or businesses in the process. You lose sense of what the actual issue was in the first place.
Sometimes it can be hard to face the problem that’s causing the tension between you both. Without realising it, we can take the anxiety we are feeling and project it onto something or someone else. This offers us distraction and escape. Conflicting parents frequently project the anxiety that sits between them into worrying about their child’s well-being or behaviour. This creates a pseudo-closeness between the parents but the child absorbs the anxiety. Over time this can leave the child vulnerable to developing anxiety-fuelled symptoms of their own.
We are far more comfortable observing and critiquing other people’s behaviours than our own. Therefore, you might find it easier to start the process by learning to recognise other people’s differentiation toolkit. This will gradually increase your sensitivity and awareness so that you can start to notice your own patterns.
Take it a step further…
Words only form part of our communication. Tone of voice and body language play a highly significant part. What non-verbal communication practises do you employ?
Our responses act like a chain reaction. We create a dance in which every move we make creates a reciprocal move in the other. Watch what the person you are relating to does in response to you. Does your withdrawal lead to their pursuit? Or vice versa.
Groups of individuals, whether families, groups or organisations also have their own level of differentiation. The same categories of behavioural and emotional responses that individuals enact together are acted out on the world stage. Can you spot them?
- Kerr, M. E. (2019). Bowen theory’s secrets: Revealing the hidden life of families. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
These toolkit behaviours are rooted in Bowen Family Systems Theory. They have been unpacked in many varied ways over the years, starting with Family Evaluation by Kerr & Bowen (1988). Kerr has recently bought out a fresh articulation of the ideas and this articulation informs these examples.
- Olsen, D. & Belanger-Freeh, E. (2017). Renewing Your Relationship: 5 Necessary Steps. Outskirts Press.
This book is a very accessible introduction to Bowen’s ideas as applied to enhancing couple relationships.