By Benjamin Deu, MA, LMHC, Seattle Christian Counseling
Would friends describe you and your spouse as a couple that are “joined at the hip” and “should be happy” but just don’t
seem to be? Are you feeling like on paper your marriage should be perfect but in reality, something is off? The fantasy of two people joined at the hip may not be as healthy for relationships as most people think. Partners who depend on the other for security in every storm and validation for every decision probably have a much less healthy grasp of their relationship than couples who aren’t constantly in each other’s back pockets. This article will explain the dichotomy of dependence and self-regulation, which is the focus of Dr. David Schnarch, research-oriented sex therapist at the Marriage and Family Health Center in Colorado.
His work centers around two ways of conducting relationships known as “emotional fusion” and “differentiation.” Understanding these terms and how they relate to marriage can be a first step in improving the balance in a relationship. Both terms describe patterns of healthy and unhealthy behavior that people practice in relationships. The better you understand them, the better you’ll be able to use them to analyze your own marriage– its strengths and weaknesses.
Emotional fusion: When every emotion or reaction you have is based on your partner. It’s a catastrophe if they don’t agree with you, or if your marriage hits a snag. All your validation comes from external sources. (Passionate Marriage 59)
• You can’t feel pride in an accomplishment unless your partner gives you an “Atta boy/girl!”
• Putting the other down to feel better about yourself.
• Any criticism/disagreement from your partner enrages/devastates you.
• You rely on what others say about you to establish your identity.
• You feel most secure and fulfilled when you are in a romantic relationship.
Differentiation: When you can have disagreements and not feel like they foretell the end of your relationship. You understand compromise and concessions are part of loving, generous relationships and you are not “losing” yourself when you make them. (Passionate Marriage 51, 56)
This looks like:
• You do not base your identity on your marriage or what others say about you.
• Your emotional validation comes from within. While you appreciate your partner’s applause or support, you are capable of supplying yourself with these.
• You understand disagreements are a natural part of relationships, and it’s not the end of the world when you and your partner aren’t “twins” on everything.
• You don’t feel like you’re betraying yourself or sacrificing your integrity when you make a concession or compromise.
Note: Differentiation is not “individualism.” It’s not taking the attitude, “I’m going to do me, and to heck with anyone else.” Neither is it running from relationships for fear of “losing” yourself to another person, a lack of feelings and emotions, or selfishness. (Passionate Marriage 67, 68)
Now, if this isn’t clear to you just yet, don’t despair. The following examples will help clarify what these terms look like in relationships.
An emotionally fused couple:
Dan and Kelly are one of those quiet couples. They seem happy enough. But not that happy. Dan rules the roost, and Kelly defers to him in everything. She has dinner on the table for him when he gets home from work, afterward, they watch whatever he wants to watch on TV until they go to bed. They have sex regularly enough, but Dan is the only one who initiates, and they only do it how he likes it. Kelly was a travel agent before they got married, but they never take trips because Dan doesn’t like to.
Despite how unhappy this marriage seems to an outside, it’s unlikely Dan and Kelly will get divorced. That’s because they’re emotionally fused. Dan bases his identity as an alpha male by dominating his meek wife. He needs Kelly’s submission to reinforce his identity as “king of the castle.” Kelly understands herself a “Dan’s wife” and homemaker. She believes she could never make it on her own without him to provide for her. This relationship isn’t necessarily abusive, just unhappy. However, like partners in abusive relationships, Dan and Kelly can’t wrench themselves from their marital drudgery and seek something more fulfilling because they can’t envision a life for themselves separate from their relationship.
A differentiated couple:
It’s high school class reunion time again for Ian, hooray! When he asks his wife if she’ll go with him, she makes a face, but agrees. Large crowds of strangers are not Kim’s favorite, but she wants to be there for him in case things gets awkward.
Now, what makes this a differentiated couple is that Kim agrees to do something she doesn’t really want to do for her spouse because her desire to support him is greater than her desire to avoid the crowd. Also, she doesn’t use this “favor” as an opportunity to obligate Ian into doing something for her later. They do not approach self-sacrifice as a barter system where they are perpetually repaying debts; they genuinely want to help each other out.
I cannot say whether Schnarch intended for his work on differentiation to mirror Scripture, but it does. Differentiation and Biblical Christianity both:
1. Cultivate people who do right because they want to, not out of some obligation to a belief system or relationship contract. It’s not about accruing good deeds you intend to trade in for something later. It’s about a change of heart. Go back to the example of Kim and Ian’s relationship; consider how much happier and more generous they are when they serve one another because they want to, not because they need this favor to hold over their partner’s head later.
• “One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.” (Proverbs 11:24 ESV)
2. Drive people to finding security in something more stable than other people’s opinions and preferences. However, while differentiation encourages people to cultivate their sense of identity within themselves, Christianity points people toward Christ as their source of true identity.
• “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:9-10 ESV)
Believers may have titles such as wife, parent, or veterinarian, but their ultimate badge is “Christian.” They do the things they do because they want to be like Christ. And while Schnarch’s principle counsels looking inward to develop integrity, it ignores the reality that there is no integrity to be found inside the human heart.
• “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:23
Happily, believers can look toward Christ for the model of unchanging integrity they cannot find within.
• “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” (James 1:17 ESV)
• “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” (Exodus 15:11 ESV)
3. Recognize disappointments and trials are temporary, and you shouldn’t allow them to crush you. And because you don’t funnel all your hope and perspective about the future into present circumstances, it’s not as devastating when things don’t seem to be lining up the way you think they should.
• “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you…” (2 Peter 3:9 ESV)
• “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.” (Psalm 20:7 ESV)
• “Differentiation is the key to not holding grudges and recovering quickly from arguments, to tolerating intense intimacy and maintaining your priorities in the midst of daily life.” (Passionate Marriage 51)
“Differentiation is the most loving thing you can do for others and yourself.” (Passionate Marriage 73) Becoming differentiated is the best thing you can do for your relationship because it makes you a better member of that relationship. Rather than simply being reactive and dependent, you proactively participate in and grow your marriage. “Differentiation allows each person to function more independently and interdependently.” (Passionate Marriage 63)
Heightening differentiation comes by developing what Schnarch terms the Four Point of Balance (Intimacy and Desire 72):
1. Solid Flexible Self– the ability to be clear about who you are and what you’re about, especially when your partner pressures you to adapt and conform.
2. Quiet Mind–Calm Heart– being able to calm yourself down, soothe your own hurts, and regulate your own anxieties.
3. Grounded Responding– the ability to stay calm and not overreact, rather than creating distance or running away when your partner gets anxious and upset.
4. Meaningful Endurance– being able to step up and face the issues that bedevil you and your relationship, and the ability to tolerate discomfort for the sake of growth.
Finding Balance with a Christian Counseling Professional
If you are married and feeling that the balance is just “off,” how do you start to incorporate these four points into your life to improve your marriage? When developing a new skill and applying it to an existing relationship, it can be very challenging – even overwhelming. A Christian marriage counselor can be a tremendous help to a couple by giving them the tools and Biblically based guidance to try to improve the dynamics of their relationship by becoming differentiated.
Images cc: freedigitalphotos.com – “Young Couple Walking At Sea” by imagerymajestic
“Smiling Romantic Young Couple” by photostock
“Portrait Of A Young Woman Gets Earful From Her Husband Against W” by David Castillo Dominici
“Couple” by Tina Phillips