Updated: Oct 12
The first thing I learned in marriage was "this person is so different than me!"
Perhaps you have had this experience. You are so excited to move in together and get to be together every day. You have a bright future and have made your vows. And then you start living with someone who is very different than you.
The differences can be tiny, or large but they add up.
She loads the toilet paper the wrong way, I load it flap down.
He talks trash with his brother all the time. I talk to my brother a few times a year.
She is going to worship services 2-3 times a week, I don't go that often
He stays at work past when he really needs to, I would never do that.
She doesn't clean up right after dinner is over, I always do.
Whether the differences are small ones, like toilet paper, or larger ones like spiritual values, ways of raising children, and external relationships, all couples have differences.
How do you handle your differences?
There is a concept in family therapy that is known as differentiation. Murray Bowen defined differentiation in the family as a process of freeing yourself from the family for individual definition. That is quite individualistic and doesn't fit many people's values or self-definition. Most couple and family therapists today see differentiation as a balance- how can you be connected and responsible for your relationship health and your partner, while also being unique and independent from each other.
Connection and Individual Boundaries
All families are a balance of connection and individual boundaries. You might give up a job opportunity because it would involve traveling so much that it would drain your marriage and children. But you might also take time for yourself for hobbies or friendships. Adolescents are expected to contribute to the household through chores, and relationships with others in the family as points of connection. But their closed bedroom door and individual "style" (which might be off-putting or bewildering to older or younger family members) is respected as their individual boundary in a healthy family. Healthy families even find a way to appreciate that individual "style" in teenagers.
Too much connection and the family becomes enmeshed, unable to function or operate without constant check-ins, reassurances, and isolation from external relationships. Often an over-connected family actually serves one person in the family that is receiving constant care in a way that is not age-appropriate.
Too little connection and the family drifts apart, without the support and love that a family needs. The family that never eats meals together, or doesn't enjoy activities together is demonstrating under-connection in ways that will eventually be maladaptive for the family and the individuals within it.
Connection and Boundaries Change Over Time
There are phases in a family-life that call for increased connection and boundaries. You might consider where you are right now in your family life-stage.
Engaged couples or newlyweds are often high in connection as they are creating a new relationship together. That new relationship requires a great deal of energy to create connection and build the bond that will carry the family for decades to come. So this phase may need a bit of balance of partners respecting time apart and individual pursuits.
Established couples without children (at any age) may find that boundaries are really important to them. They want to have their own individual pursuits, hobbies, friends and career adventures. This type of relationship may need intentional bonding time on a daily and weekly basis since the home-life won't naturally require it.
Families with infants to preschoolers have the strongest pressures towards connection. Babies naturally require a great deal of time, support, and parental cooperation. Those couples that struggle with connection may find this phase of family-life especially difficult as other individual pursuits, hobbies, finances, and time are put up on the shelf to meet the needs of the baby. Finding small ways to have individual time, while meeting the all encompassing needs of the baby is important in this life stage.
A healthy relationship is non-anxious about both closeness and separation. You can ask yourself
Do I feel anxious when I don't know where my partner is?
Do I get upset when my partner doesn't help with my distress?
Does time apart lead me to believe things I know aren't true, like my partner doesn't want me?
If you answer yes to questions like this then you might struggle with separation or boundaries side of relationships. Your natural pull is towards connection, and sometimes it might get unbalanced.
Do your partner's needs cause you to feel overwhelmed that you can't meet them?
When you think about giving up personal autonomy, for the sake of your relationship/family, does this make you feel quite distressed?
Does any clingy or needy behavior in others cause you to cringe inside?
If you answer yes to questions like this then you might struggle with the closeness side of relationships. Your natural pull is towards autonomy, and sometimes you might find yourself all alone in an unbalanced life.
Accepting Each Other
Well-differentiated couples can accept that partners are different. Some people need more reassurance, closeness, and connection due to their personality, experience, and biology. Some need more autonomy, independence, and alone-time. Couples who can stretch themselves to accommodate the other person actually increase their personal capacity. Without your mate you may never stretch yourself in new ways to healthy connection, and healthy boundaries. The process of accepting each other, listening well to the needs of your partner, and meeting those needs when you can is what healthy relationships are all about.
Hope focused couple counseling can help create a healthy middle-ground where you accept your natural inclinations, while stretching yourself towards a balance of closeness and separation/autonomy.
Individual and Couple Narrative Exercise
An exercise in couple enrichment or therapy to address this issue of differentiation:
Write individual narratives of your life story (one idea for that here). Consider how your families of origin or previous relationships handled closeness and autonomy. What key events in your life might illuminate your own comfort with closeness or autonomy?
Then together co-author your relationship story as a narrative. (You might also like our vision-casting worksheet to help with ideas)
Note which is harder to write and discuss it together, or with your couple counselor.
What about your individual narrative shows balance if closeness and autonomy?
What about your relationship story shows a respect for differences between you while balancing close connection and intimacy?