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Differentiation: Why and How to Focus on Yourself in a Relationship

Differentiation of Self : How to Focus on Yourself in a Relationship -

'How to focus on yourself in a relationship' is a theme I see frequently in my private practice as a marriage and family therapist.


I often have to tell my clients that we have been sold a fantastical tale of romantic rescue when it comes to relationships. We're conditioned to believe that finding "the one" unlocks a portal to "happily ever after." This enchanting myth perpetuates the idea that two incomplete individuals merging into a couple automatically fosters a healthy relationship. I personally blame Disney a smidge for selling us this idea that there's a Prince Charming or Sleeping Beauty for each of us.


In reality, all partnerships, from blossoming new flings to seasoned long-term commitments, require consistent effort, and no single person is ever responsible for making you feel complete. In fact, the cornerstone of a successful romantic connection lies in two emotionally well-rounded individuals nurturing their own well-being. When this foundation is absent, we see two half-fulfilled people coming together, relying on their romantic partners to complete them. This causes a myriad of challenges that I see in my private practice, from jealousy, projection, a tendency to overlook red flags, incessant arguments, and insecure attachment styles, to name a few.


About Me: I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist located in West Holywood CA. I specialize in providing relationship therapy to couples, families and adults.


Differentiation of Self: Maintaining Your Own Identity in Relationships

So, what does it truly mean to focus on yourself within a relationship? To be a fulfilled person as opposed to a half-fulfilled person?


It's the profound recognition that your primary relationship is with yourself, and your responsibility is to become as fully differentiated a person as you can be.


What is Differentiation of Self?

Differentiation of self is a crucial concept in fostering healthy, fulfilling relationships that comes from the work of Dr Murray Bowen, a prominent thought leader in the world of Family Systems Therapy. It describes the ability of a person to maintain a strong sense of 'self' or your own identity, which is kept separate from our sense of 'Other'; it also includes the ability to separate your Thoughts from Feelings and beliefs.


Murray Bowen's concept of differentiation of self is central to understanding this dynamic, where one partner (the pursuer) seeks emotional connection, and the other (the distancer) seeks personal space. To learn more about Differentiation of Self and Murray Bowen, you can sign up for my free online course here.



what is differentiation of self?

I'm a very visual person and need to see things as images to really understand concepts like this, so here's the way I see a fully differentiated person. They are able to separate Thoughts, Feelings, Self, and Other, and as a result, have those lovely strong boundaries around their 'self', which suggests a certain amount of self-love, a complete sense of their own unique identity, and a psychologically mature mindset.


A fully differentiated person can have thoughts about their feelings, and feelings about their thoughts. They are able to keep their sense of Self separate from 'Other' while still maintaining emotional closeness with them. As a result they become less reactive and more responsive, giving them a greater amount of choices in life. This person is literally being their best self.


I know that probably doesn't make much sense, so let me give you some examples right after we compare a fully differentiated person with an undifferentiated person.



how to work on yourself while in a relationship - differentiation

The bad news I have to break to you is that reaching the level of psychological health of a fully differentiated person is not only an ongoing process but one that no one on the planet actually ever reaches.


That's because we look more like this:


working on yourself and differentiation of self

Undifferentiated people like you and me, are a bit messier in my visualization of 'Thoughts,' 'Feelings,' 'Self' and 'Other.'


It's also important to note that those boundaries around this person are not healthy - they are more porous which might be the subject of an entire other blog post.


This means things can get very confusing in relationships, and what's worse is that only you can get on the path of your own personal growth and spiritual well-being and untangle this mess.



In reality, what does this hot mess of neon-colored AI-generated images really mean?


Consider these questions


Do you struggle to express your true feelings for fear of upsetting your partner?

YES: This is often the response of a person with lower levels of differentiation (undifferentiated) who cannot express their 'Feelings' because they are thinking (Thoughts) that are limiting the healthy expression of those feelings. But you are not responsible for your partner's feelings


I depict this as a large thought symbol that is covering up or out of proportion to the feelins symbol. I call it WTF - Where Are The Feelings - because thoughts are covering up the expression or sometimes even the awareness of feelings.


thoughts and feelings in a relationship

In addition, this person's thoughts are all about the 'Other' person, so much so that they lose sight of their 'Self.' In a way, they self-sacrifice to their partner whose needs and potentially hurt feelings are taking priority over their sense of 'Self.' I depict that as Other being out of proportion to the Self symbols. I call this SOS: a Self and Other Situation, and I like that it spells SOS because it really is an emergency situation when someone spends their entire life spending time more concerned with other's than 'self'.


self and other and balance - working on relationships

NO: In contrast, a fully differentiated person would be able to spend time thinking about their feelings, and then, having reasoned that they are worthy and important to share as a human being and partner, will articulate them in a way that is not hurtful to their romantic partner.


Their 'Thoughts' aren't going to limit the expression of 'Feelings' in their relationship because they are in a committed relationship in which Self and Other are equal in size. Partners in healthy relationships are able to think about their own feelings as well as those of their partner, but also recognize their feelings are worthy of sharing too because 'Self' and 'Other' are equal in size.



Thoughts and feelings gives us a way to answer the question of how to be more present in a relationship. When you are in your thoughts too much, you are not present; you're thinking rather than being in the relationship. Being present involves some thinking, sure, but also checking in with what you're feeling. Perhaps even sharing those feelings and thoughts with your partner.


Let's try another example


Do you rely on your partner to manage your emotions?


YES: I apologize that this question is written in therapist talk, so let me explain what it even means.


On a very simple level, it's feeling down or sad when your partner is out with their friends and has left you at home alone on a Friday night. Sure, you might just miss them, and that's okay, but in an abstract way, this might also mean you need your partner to be with you in order to manage your feelings of happiness or contentment.


We can take this a step further and imagine a couple in which one partner doesn't let the other go out so that they don't feel lonely or sad. This is controlling behavior, but on some level, they control the other person's behavior to manage their emotions.


Another example is that partner who calls you five times in a row when you don't pick up immediately. They feel anxious when they can't get hold of you, so try repeatedly because when you do eventually pick up the phone they will feel better. They are, in a way, using you to manage their anxiety when they could do it alone


NO: A fully differentiated person has self-confidence in their ability to impact their personal joy alone if their partner goes out for the night but is also content spending time alone. They might very well feel sad and lonely, too, but they don't have unrealistic expectations that their partner is the only one who can shift those feelings. They can think about their feelings and separate 'Self' and 'Other' in such a way they can start focusing on other ways to practice self-love or emotional regulation. Their self care practices are not reliant on their relationship status or being with another person to change feelings.


Do You Usually See Your Partner as the Problem?


YES or SOMETIMES If this is your answer, you might be in a variation of SOS: a 'Self and Other Situation'


A Self and Other situations means you are overly-focused on the 'other' person, their faults, the way they make you feel, the things they don't do.


Don't get me wrong, they might be behaving horribly, being totally obnoxious or just be really bad at communicating and be very frustrating. You have every right to be wondering about their problematic behaviors.


AND AT THE SAME TIME, you are in this relationship together, which means you often are in a complicated dance with this person who impacts your feelings and behaviors, and at the same time, you're impacting their behaviors and attitudes.


In a recent session with a couple, one person complained to me that their partner 'never brings home flowers anymore', and was using it as an example of how inconsiderate they are. When I asked if there had been a direct request for more flowers or romantic gestures, their answer was, "Well, they should just know". Perhaps this partner should just know but their focus was on what their partner 'Other' was not doing. A focus on 'Self' in relation to 'Other' might bring awareness to the idea that you have to be clear in what you want and need and ask for what you need.


How to Focus on Yourself in a Relationship: 'Only You' and 'You and Me' and 'We'.

There is power in realizing that focusing on yourself, your needs, wants, wishes, and feelings can actually help improve your relationship. In fact, your own happiness is often your responsibility, and there is an ongoing process in self-development, finding a balance between 'you', 'me' and 'we'.


Focusing On Your Self In A Relationship Is Not Selfish

When you learn how to focus on yourself in a relationship through the lens of differentiation, it can help you see that this is not a selfish endeavor; it actually fosters several benefits to both you and your relationship.


Increased Self-Esteem

When you take ownership of your feelings and opinions, your self-confidence grows. How can you feel proud of your accomplishments if you don't know how you feel? If you don't know how you feel, how can you feel loved or supported by anyone? These are at the core of self esteem and it's vital for a relationship.


Stronger Relationships:

Clear communication of thoughts and feelings, as well as emotional regulation, leads to more fulfilling connections, closer understanding, and a respectful relationship.


Reduced Conflict -

By addressing issues directly and respectfully, using 'I feel' statements, and taking responsibility for regulating your feelings, you can have disagreements while minimizing conflict.


Personal Growth:

Differentiation empowers you to make healthy choices for yourself and your relationships. Differentiated individuals are more likely to build interdependent relationships, where partners support each other while maintaining their own identities.


How To Change Yourself for the Better in a Relationship

'Thoughts,' 'Feelings,' 'Self,' and 'Other' give us a framework to change our levels of differentiation to think about how we are and behave in relationships.


Some might fear that prioritizing their needs is a form of selfishness. Others might misunderstand that a partner maintaining their individuality or enjoying solitude somehow weakens the bond.


However, the ability to give love generously stems from having a full cup to pour from to start with. Self-love is the necessary precursor to sharing your love with another.

Selflessness, though seemingly noble, is an unsustainable path that often leads to resentment.



Here are some top tips on how you can work on yourself while in a relationship.


Spend Time Thinking About These Common Characteristics of Differentiated Individuals

Here are some key characteristics of people with high differentiation because this might inspire you to think differently about relationships and your self.


Strong Sense of Self: They are comfortable with who they are and don't compromise their values for others.


Open Communication: They express their needs and opinions assertively while respecting their partner's perspective.


Self-Validation: They find self-worth internally and don't rely solely on external approval.

Emotional Regulation: They manage their emotions effectively and don't expect others to fix their bad feelings.


Growth Mindset: They are willing to experience short-term discomfort for personal development.


differentiation of self-

Cultivating your identity outside the confines of the relationship is paramount.


Nurturing your friendships, hobbies, and self-care rituals strengthens your sense of self. Time dedicated to personal exploration fosters joy, self-discovery, and ultimately, injects positive energy into your partnerships. This journey of self-discovery invites introspection: Who are you at your core? Who are you evolving into? What are your core values? It's about solidifying your sense of self, firming up those boundaries we see in a differentiated person.




Solo Time Is Often The Key To Self Worth and A Fulfilling Life

Feeling complete within ourselves and enjoying your own company is vital for healthy relationships. Schedule alone time for introspection, self-discovery, and personal pursuits. This solo time allows you to reconnect with your authentic self and get clearer on your own happiness needs, fostering clarity and empowering you to set healthy boundaries.


Ultimately, you are the only person who is responsible for nurturing the connection with yourself because, ultimately, a little bit of alone time strengthens the bond you share with your partner.


Treasuring Your Support System

Friends are pillars of our emotional well-being, and self-love means fostering these relationships. The companionship that comes from having your own friends offers a unique source of support, shared interests, and stress relief. No single person can fulfill all our needs, and fostering a healthy social circle complements, rather than competes with, your romantic relationship.


While compatibility is crucial, shared interests aren't always paramount. Maintaining friendships allows you to continue enjoying activities you cherish, fostering personal growth and preventing resentment. A secure partner will encourage and support these external connections.


Embracing Personal Growth

Never stop nurturing your personal evolution. Engage in activities that enhance your self-awareness, talents, and potential. This might involve pursuing educational opportunities, developing a spiritual practice, or simply setting aside time for self-reflection.


Pursuing Your Dreams

Finding a compatible partner can bring immense joy. However, don't let the excitement overshadow your personal aspirations and own needs. Prioritize your goals alongside nurturing your relationship. A supportive partner will celebrate your achievements and encourage your individual growth. Remember, investing in yourself not only cultivates your happiness but also strengthens your relationship by allowing you to become the best version of yourself.


Prioritize Self-Care

Self-care is all about taking care of yourself physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. It doesn't matter exactly what you do, as long as it comes from a place of self-compassion. Examples include journaling, meditation, exercise, healthy eating, or simply exploring hobbies you enjoy.


Treat yourself with the same kindness and understanding you would a loved one. Stop comparing yourself to others and focus on your own values. Trust yourself and your intuition to make decisions. Healthy self-care allows you to live authentically and attract fulfilling relationships. Remember, relationships that require sacrificing your well-being are not sustainable.


Focus on Feeling Good in Your Body

This isn't about achieving a specific look, but about feeling your best. Feeling good physically translates to feeling good in your relationships. It's about getting enough rest, eating healthy, and exercising regularly, not reaching a certain weight or muscle mass.


Our bodies change over time, and that's okay. We don't need to chase after our younger selves. However, maintaining physical health allows us to live life to the fullest. When we don't feel good physically, it can affect our relationships emotionally, mentally, and sexually.


Establish Financial Security

Financial independence boosts your confidence and prevents feeling trapped in your relationship. Regardless of your relationship status, it's important to have some level of financial security. This doesn't mean keeping your finances completely separate, but being informed, involved, and capable of managing your own money.


To achieve financial independence within a relationship, consider joint accounts for shared expenses and separate accounts for personal spending and savings. Budget your personal finances, explore savings and investment strategies, build your financial knowledge, and plan for the future.


Money can be a sensitive topic. If you're worried your partner won't understand your desire for financial independence, consider discussing it with a couples counselor.


Take Care of Your Mental Health

Your mental well-being affects your thoughts, feelings, and behavior. It also impacts how you manage stress, connect with others, and make decisions. Just as physical health can influence your mental state, taking care of your mind can improve or even prevent mental health conditions sometimes linked to physical illness. For instance, effectively managing stress and anxiety can positively impact conditions like heart disease and chronic pain.


Mental health challenges can significantly affect your relationships. In romantic partnerships, conditions like depression and anxiety can affect your sex drive, motivation, and ability to express affection and communication and lead to feelings of isolation for both partners.


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