Differentiation of Self: An Overview & Why It’s Important in Relationships
Differentiation of self is a psychological state of being in which someone is able to maintain their sense of self, identity, thoughts, and emotions when emotionally or physically close with others, particularly within intense or intimate relationships.
What Is Differentiation of Self?
Picture three couples walking in a park:
One couple is locked in an embrace. They’re walking together, but they’re stumbling over each other’s feet. They knock heads with every misstep. They look chaotic. You might not be able to tell where one person ends and the other begins.
Another couple is walking with both members facing the same direction, but they are far apart. They’re each distracted by what’s around them and seemingly uninterested in each other. You can barely tell they are together.
Now picture a third couple walking down the same path. They laugh and hold hands for a moment. They’re walking side by side and you can tell they are together, but you can also tell them apart from one another.
These three couples represent the concepts of fusion, cut-off, and differentiation, all part of the theory of differentiation of self, which addresses the way in which individuals interact with themselves and others.
Developed by Murray Bowen,1 the theory of differentiation of self highlights two important abilities:
- The ability to separate one’s feelings from thoughts
- The ability to maintain one’s feelings and thoughts in the presence and pressure of close, intimate relationships
These two things may sound simple, but in practice, they are often not innate and rarely employed. For example, thoughts and actions are often overridden by emotions like anger, lust, sadness, or jealousy. The higher the level of differentiation, the higher the ability to acknowledge these feelings but not be misguided by them. The differentiated individual is able to process and address these feelings but is not overtaken by them in their decision making or problem solving.
Additionally, their feelings and thoughts are not hostage to the feelings and thoughts of others. They are open to the feelings and thoughts of others instead of trampling on them in search of agreement or homeostasis, and at the same time they are able to separate their feelings from someone else’s.
You may be familiar with the concept of codependency—maybe directly in your own life, but almost certainly visible around you. You will not find codependence in a highly differentiated relationship; instead, what you’ll find is a relationship built around interdependence. A differentiated partnership consists of two solid individuals with their own thoughts, opinions, feelings, and beliefs; and a respect and appreciation for those of their partner.
Differentiation & Family of Origin
Our level of differentiation is highly dependent on our family of origin. If you consider that we are all born completely reliant on a caregiver, their emotional cues, their nourishment, and their state of mind as our sole means to sustain ourselves, it is no surprise that most of us learn to entangle our emotions and reactions to those of others. When we find ourselves in that position, we are in a state that Bowen calls “fusion.”
By contrast to fusion, Bowen also describes fusion’s opposite: cut-off.1 Cut-off is a propensity to disengage. Sometimes that disengagement is quite obvious, such as moving across the country and limiting contact, but other times, cut-off can happen within the same household. This is a couple who is together in concept but in practice could not be more distant. While the members of this couple might retain all of their individuality, they do so without intimacy or closeness.
Differentiation is about maintaining individuality within the structure of intimacy, not by excluding it.
Highly differentiated individuals don’t typically just happen. Why would they? Unless you were lucky enough to be raised by a caregiver who worked to increase their own level of differentiation, the pattern you learned in childhood just continues and transmits to the next generation. That’s how the cycle continues. Instead, differentiation grows through conscious effort.
How to Measure Your Level of Differentiation
Your level of differentiation is often quite visible by taking a look at your behaviors.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself which might help you gain a better understanding of your level of self-differentiation:
- Do you always see your partner as the problem?
- Do you mostly work on letting go of problems rather than solving them?
- Do you let feelings fester until they explode?
- Do you feel pulled to match your partner’s emotional state, such as when they’re in anger, crisis, or sadness?
- Do you conceal how you really feel about things?
- Do you console yourself through substances or other unhelpful methods?
- Do you say what you know others want to hear?
- Do you talk to your friends about your relationship problems instead of your partner?
- Do you have affairs?
- Do you lose yourself in your partner?
- Do you have sex you no longer want?
- Do you agree to things you have no interest in doing?
- Do you demand, directly or indirectly, compliments and praise?
- Do you seek to control others instead of controlling yourself?
- Do you concern yourself with the needs of others but disregard your own?
Differentiated individuals tend to answer “no” to these questions. While these questions are not diagnostic of you specifically, they do tend to be diagnostic of undifferentiated behaviors, which may help give you a sense of where on the spectrum you may hover.
What are Common Characteristics of Differentiated Individuals?
Differentiated individuals tend to engage in some core skills and behaviors. Oftentimes, those skills develop over time and through conscious effort; although for others they may have been developed in childhood, modeled by differentiated adults.
Here are some typical characteristics of differentiated individuals:
Differentiated individuals are able to maintain their beliefs and attitudes in the face of pressure to conform. They do not tailor themselves to avoid conflict —they’re usually fairly good at managing these situations—and they prefer to be seen accurately by others for who they really are.
Keeping the peace for the sake of peace isn’t something that typically interests differentiated individuals. They prefer to resolve problems rather than let them fester. They expect their partners will behave similarly, even if they end up not seeing things in the same way.
A hallmark of differentiation is an ability to self-validate. Most often, we seek validation from others: how we look, how we live our lives, how we think, etc. When someone is highly dependent on other validation, they may tailor and tweak themselves to the person or the situation. This type of validation inevitably leaves the person feeling empty.
While validation from others always feels nice, differentiated individuals are not dependent on it. When they are validated, they want it to be for who they genuinely are. However, in the effort to be genuine, they know that people will not always agree or approve—and they’re just fine with that.
Specifically with regard to anxiety—not clinical anxiety, but the everyday anxieties around difficult conversations, authenticity, conflict, etc.—differentiated individuals tend to be able to soothe themselves without using substances, reliance on their partner to do it for them, or by using unhealthy coping mechanisms. That’s not to say they don’t turn to others for help, but they do possess an ability to manage and tolerate difficult feelings.
Differentiated individuals are very willing to take on some short-term discomfort in the interest of personal or relationship growth. An unwillingness to do this is often why people feel stagnant in therapy, as they are much more invested in tolerating the status quo than tackling short-term anxiety, pain, or discomfort. It can lead to people chasing their tails or languishing in therapy for years. Differentiation moves you forward.
Why Is Differentiation of Self Important?
When someone consciously begins to work on their level of differentiation, they quite quickly begin to experience an increase in confidence, a sense of congruence within themselves, pride in how they handle difficult situations, assertiveness, and many more positive elements of personal growth. These feelings become self-perpetuating.
For example, once you’ve decided, “I’m not going to be the kind of boyfriend who says things are okay when they are not,” and then takes steps to change, the self-satisfaction that emerges thereafter can be its own reward. Even the outcome becomes less important when the individual feels pride in how they handled the difficult situation. Why would that person then go back to the old way of doing things?
The benefits of increasing your level of differentiation become necessities. And, when you start to apply these behaviors to a romantic or intimate relationship, it becomes easy to employ them in any form of relationship. While the process of differentiation has no end point, rarely does someone return their previous behaviors, as they know the benefits of honoring their self-worth.
4 Ways to Improve Your Level of Differentiation
Here are four ways to help you monitor and boost your self-differentiation:
Who do you want to be? What kind of partner do you want to be? What kind of friend? What kind of employee? Are you meeting your own standard? How do you want to live your life? Having a better understanding of these questions is often a first step toward change. People are rarely living life in a way that makes sense to them, and differentiation is a process that can get you there.
Show yourself accurately, especially to the people who matter to you, even when you know it’s hard. This can be very difficult for individuals who struggle with conflict, codependence, agreement, validation, etc. But ask yourself if you would rather be approved of for who you aren’t or seen for who you are.
Be willing to tolerate short-term pain for long-term growth. People can sit in the status quo of unhappiness for years or decades. It’s why some people find themselves languishing in therapy for ages, because they’re primarily using therapy to just tolerate the crisis of the week instead of tackling the traits, behaviors, and beliefs that make the crises. Increasing one’s level of differentiation is not easy or everyone would do it naturally.
If increasing your level of differentiation is your goal and you wish assistance through therapy, seek a therapist specifically trained in differentiation-based therapy. While many therapists are familiar with the concept of differentiation, differentiation-based therapy not only requires specialized training but also a commitment on behalf of the therapist to continue to work on their own level of differentiation.
Keep in mind, therapists can have low levels of differentiation just like anyone else, but choosing a therapist who specializes in differentiation-based therapy means seeing a therapist who is likely consistently working on their own level of differentiation and can therefore be a helpful guide by modeling differentiated behaviors in therapy.
While other approaches to therapy may help you reach your overall goals by other methods, that does not necessarily mean they will help you increase your level of differentiation. Some therapy approaches even directly conflict with the principles of differentiation by increasing fusion and its associated behaviors.
There’s no such thing as “being done” with your level of differentiation, as differentiation is like a spectrum, with life presenting constant opportunities and challenges that tempt us toward undifferentiated thoughts and behaviors. But the fact that these opportunities exist all around us every day means there is ample opportunity to begin differentiation work. Whether it’s in a romantic relationship, or a relationship with a substance, or our work environment, or with our parents, differentiation is everywhere.
Taylor, P. (2022) Differentiation of Self: An Overview & Why It’s Important in Relationships. Choosing Therapy. Retrieved from: