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. 

Relationship Minute: Sharing to heal

Social connection strengthens your resilience, which lowers stress. One way to increase your connections is to share what’s on your mind, even if it’s scary to do that.

To put something out in the open, subject to examination, is to separate it from the power you’ve been giving it in your head. It could be that the thought or feeling itself isn’t so scary, once it’s stripped of the shame it’s been feeding off of.

Maybe you’ve been stewing over something your partner said or did. For example, let’s say they noted that a dish you cooked was too salty. That idea then grew, over the course of several days, into, “my partner thinks I am the worst cook in the world.” It’s an extreme assertion, but one that you can probably rationalize if you don’t release it by sharing it with your partner.

If you keep the damaging, shameful thought inside, you deny your partner the opportunity to shine the light on it with loving truth.

Of course, in order to share you need to feel safe doing so, and that begins with creating a feeling of safety for others. That means listening as non-defensively and non-reactively as possible, and having a shared goal of understanding one another, rather than being “right.”

Related blog posts

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. 

Relationship Minute: Bottling or brooding

In this interview with Susan David, Ph.D., David describes two characteristic ways of dealing with difficult emotions or experiences: bottling and brooding.

“Bottling is essentially pushing the emotion down. For example, you’re upset with a person. You’re feeling angry because you feel exploited, and what you do is you tell yourself, ‘I’m just not going to go there, and I’ve got to go to work. I’ve got all this other stuff to do.’

And what you are doing is pushing the emotions down. Often you do this with very good intentions. You feel at some level that emotions are locked up in a bottle, and you have all of this other stuff that you can’t do, so you continue to push the emotions into a bottle, per se.

Brooding is when you are so consumed with the emotions you’re feeling that it becomes difficult to do anything else. When you’re brooding, you’re dwelling on the emotions, you’re analyzing hurt. You’re thinking, Why am I feeling what I’m feeling? It’s like you can’t let go and you obsess over the hurt, a perceived failure, or a shortcoming.

Brooding has some very good intentions—one of which is to try to deal with emotions effectively. So both bottling and brooding are done with good intentions [… but] we know from research that it tends not to work.” 

Avoidance (bottling) and hyperfocus (brooding) can both be damaging to your physical and emotional health. Do you tend to push challenging emotions away, or clutch them too tightly? What would a more balanced approach to your emotions look and feel like?

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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.