In marriage, we need to strike a healthy balance between independence and dependence on each other. This is where we sort out the sticky stuff like needing you as my spouse versus just being needy – being an individual without taking away from a sense of ‘us’.

Differentiation is a key paradox of healthy marriage and is one of those concepts that when the skills are embodied takes a marriage from ordinary to extraordinary. It pushes the constant growth of the relationship and the individuals within it.

So, what is differentiation? It is the process of learning to simultaneously separate from and connect with a loved person.

This is different from a merger where there is an urgent, even desperate desire for one’s spouse to meet one’s needs. When the needs are not met, this is taken as abandonment or rejection.

Here’s an example of a merged relationship (Grau, Pastoral Psychology):

A husband tells his wife that the house is dirty, that she never fixes dinner anymore, that she is uninterested in sex and has no libido. A wife tells her husband that he is a “slob,” that he drinks too much, that he is a dictator. The husband says that if she would change even a little, he would be happier and their marriage would be better. The wife wants the husband to change and when he doesn’t, she tries to convince him, perhaps employing emotional and physical coercion.

They don’t realize that in requiring the other to change, they are giving their power away. This is a merger. It is a relationship that says “I need you to meet my needs”. Their happiness depends on the other’s behavior and it controls them.

A merger doesn’t work because the requirement that the spouse change sets up a hostile environment and the pressured spouse will distance, resist and retaliate in order to survive.

Going back to Grau’s story, let’s think about why they are doing this.

  1. He is withdrawn and looks like an authoritarian or a drunk. He is acting unappealing (slob).
  2. She is disengaged too: no interest in sex makes coming home and being at home unappealing. She attacks a lot which maintains the distance.
  3. They are separating from each other but there are no words. When they talk, they are confrontational and not trying to connect. There’s a lot of blame and accusation.
  4. They are both anxious about the relationship, but when they talk about it and how they act around it all serves to keep the distance. They keep the distance because they’re anxious. So they’re in a crazy cycle.

Let’s go back to differentiation now. Remember, differentiation is the process of learning to simultaneously separate from and connect with a loved person.

It may be easiest to use an example to explain what I’m talking about…

Not long ago, Caleb and I had a conversation about lingerie. He revealed to me some thoughts, expressed what he wanted, and how he wanted to feel.

That’s him asking me for something that relates to him. In doing so, he was separating himself from me: stating ‘this is my position’. In that same moment – simultaneously – he was connecting with me by giving me a picture of his inside world. That is differentiation: simultaneously separating from and connecting to his beloved.

Caleb was putting himself out there – he felt anxiety. But he didn’t withdraw and mull over or ruminate over thoughts like, “I wish she would do this or that”. He put himself out there and made himself vulnerable.

That’s the first step! This is not about getting away from anxiety, but about using it instead of letting it control you. Our typical response is to be like the husband or wife in the merger example that withdraws or retaliates.

“I had to self-soothe and self-comfort,” Caleb says, “and take the risk and put myself out there.” This is the hardest thing to do but in the end, he stated a desire that he had and left the ball in my court. His happiness did not depend on me fulfilling that desire, but he made himself vulnerable by stating something intimate that he wished for.

He simultaneously connected with me by stating his intimate desire but separated from me in that his happiness did not depend on me. Sound familiar? Somewhat like differentiation?

Going back to the research for a moment… The research shows that if a husband is emotionally cut off, there is going to be more marital strife. This emotional strife is typical of relationships where there is a merger. At the same time, greater emotional reactivity predicts more marital distress (Skowron, 2000).

In other words, if I’m not available to you we’re going to fight more. And if you’re freaking out on me all the time we’re going to fight more. We want to work on self-disclosing in a relatable way that leads to intimacy, not distancing.

Yes, there is always a risk. When you reveal yourself and differentiate, your spouse may not respond favorably.

If your spouse says “No!” do not move into conflict and start blaming or accusing. Pause, and reiterate your experience. If you get nowhere, leave it for later – maybe even years later.

But here is the critical point: your happiness is not predicated on your spouse doing what you need. Rather, become attuned to what you need, your feelings, experience, and point of view. Accept yourself, and then accept your spouse.

This is differentiation. The separating is Caleb putting himself out there stating what he wanted that I wasn’t doing, but in a way that is connecting with me by revealing his inner world.

It’s a paradox really – the pulling away from and moving towards simultaneously.

Our title is If I Need You, Does That Make Me Needy? Perhaps it should read something like, “I want to live more fully with you, but I’m not going to be needy about it”. Wanting to be close is good if it comes from a place of fulfillment and abundance (accepting yourself FIRST!). Neediness comes from a place of anxiety and insecurity.

Which leads us to the next layer in all this – Autonomy and Relatedness.

Autonomy is my independence, and your independence; our individuality. Relatedness is the closeness between us.

In a study from the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy looking at 386 couples, they found that high levels of autonomy and relatedness characterized the best marriages. Also known as differentiation…

One of the beliefs that these “best marriages” held was the provision or encouragement of one construct for a spouse is not necessarily at the expense of the other. Here’s another personal example, quoted from Caleb:

“So, Verlynda is an avid extrovert. I encourage, cherish and appreciate that about her but have no need myself to try to become like that. It’s not a threat to me. I don’t feel deficient because she is way better at meeting new people than I am. We still feel closeness but in a crowd, we act autonomously. I will have a deep conversation with one or two people. She will connect with and enjoy relating to several people. Our constructs of personality don’t have to clash. We are able to be different and both be ok with that!”

The study also found that when spouses encourage a sense of autonomy in their partners, their partner feels more positively about the relationship.

However, concerning autonomy, there is a key gender difference. Wives are more likely to perceive the encouragement of autonomy as a threat to the relationship. Often, couples present for marital therapy with wives expressing concern that the couple is not close to each other and the husband expressing desires that both spouses develop more autonomy.

If this is the experience in your marriage, you need to do two things:

  1. Accept that both sets of concerns (autonomy and relatedness) are valid simultaneously
  2. Work on increasing the sense of relatedness first.

Our marriage was like this at the start. Caleb wanted more autonomy, which made me feel threatened. There was a long period in there where we really worked on that sense of relatedness and togetherness. In the last number of years, we’ve started to step up the autonomy as well. It’s worked really well for us.

So, to start really building differentiation in a marriage, you need to have a strong sense of relatedness first – then start to bring in autonomy.

Often a key part of autonomy is learning healthy self-disclosure – revealing personal information about yourself to your spouse. This is an act of intimacy.

Another study looking at self-disclosure found that couples do this best when they have the characteristics of responsiveness and high self-esteem. Responsiveness is just the ability to draw someone out in the discussion. Self-esteem seems to affect men more than women.

Men tend to withdraw with then self-esteem is low. They want to hide because the world says that men are not to be weak. If you have high self-esteem as a male, you’ll be stronger at self-disclosure.

For females, on the other hand, their self-disclosure is based more on how they esteem their relationship. If they value it highly, they’ll be more likely to self-disclose.

In summary, every strong couple needs to be related and independent at the same time. In so doing, they will increase the skill of differentiation and in so doing take their marriage from ordinary to extraordinary.