Relationship Minute: Differentiation

It can be hard not to take things personally, especially within a conflict discussion. The risk of feeling personally wounded may cause some couples to become conflict-avoidant.

As Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., explains in this interview, conflict avoidance is a function of fusion—when one partner attempts to “merge” with the other.

“One way of doing this is becoming more like your partner in hopes of being loved. There’s a deep fear that says, ‘If I express my needs and have different needs than my partner, I’m going to be abandoned.’

The other conflict-avoidant stance is loving your partner at arm’s length. The fear in this stance says, ‘If I become more open and vulnerable, I’m going to get swallowed up and lose my sense of self.’” 

The opposite of fusion is differentiation— first acknowledging that you and your partner are two, separate individuals with different identities, and then developing a secure way to relate to each other.

The more differentiated you are, the less likely you are to take things as personally. You can still empathize, but don’t feel the burden of identifying with your partner’s feelings and can separate how you feel. This also keeps you from expecting your partner to take ownership of your individual feelings.

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The Relationship Minute is from The Gottman Institute. You can sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox every Tuesday and Thursday morning.