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Differentiation Based Couples Therapy: Can I Be Truly Loved?

As a couples therapist, I follow the work of Dr David Schnarch, a Differentiation based therapist. Schnarch is critical of love and relationships based on Hollywood-style notions of romantic infatuation, which is time-limited once you truly get to know someone where it becomes more personal.  He says that marriage is a people-growing machine and an opportunity to become more capable of loving authentically on life’s terms, creating realistic patterns of marriage instead of romantic notions (Schnarch, 2012).  

What Is Differentiation Based Couples Therapy

This points to the concept of healthy differentiation.  A well-differentiated person is able to balance autonomy and intimacy: being close and being themself.   Schnarch defines differentiation as “People’s ability to balance humankind’s two most fundamental drives: our desire for attachment and connection, on the one hand, and our desire to be an individual and direct the course of our own lives, on the other.

Differentiation Based Couples Therapy

The latter refers to the ability to hold on to yourself when important people in your life pressure you to conform. Differentiation yields emotional autonomy—the basis of healthy interdependence and the foundation for intimacy and stability in long-term relationships” (Schnarch, 2010).

Healthy Differentiation sounds like this: “This is me in my fullness and failings. I hope you love all parts of me, but I’m ok if there are parts that you aren’t keen on, because I’m a work in progress and ok with being me”. It is neither a defensive nor submissive stance, but one where you can stay steadfast living in your own identity with full awareness, as you grow. 

Healthy differentiation answers YES to the quintessential question that underpins many of our fears – Can I be truly loved if I am truly known? If the answer is NO, you need to work on yourself and so does your partner and if either party is not willing to do that and unwilling to change, things will stay the same or one will leave.

A mature love based on emotional commitment where love and sex stay alive means you must make room (in a spirit of generosity) to courageously confront yourself and not rely on your partner to tell you who you are. 

The things that attract us to our partner, are paradoxically the things that cause conflict during strain and stress, and this conflict can be used to learn to control yourself whilst also being fully and authentically you in close proximity with your partner. Conflict in itself is not a bad thing, it’s whether you can learn to do conflict well and also repair from it with greater insight and growth.

Here are some concepts I teach people struggling with relationships:


Develop Your Four Points of Balance

1) Developing a solid and flexible sense of self

This means knowing who you are without needing others to tell you; being able to confront yourself to become a better person;  being authentically yourself in the face of pressure from others to be something you are not, and learning how to self-validate rather than rely on external validation to feel good (external validation includes things like needing things done for you; requiring things to change before you are willing to change; only giving of yourself once the other has given first etc.)


2) Quiet mind-calm heart

This is the ability to self-regulate and self-soothe your anxiety without expecting someone else to do that for you through needing constant calming or adaption of behaviour from others (we need to develop the capacity to do it for ourselves).
When we don’t learn to calm and cope ourselves, we can use maladaptive avoidance coping mechanisms like the silent treatment, workaholism, alcohol, drugs, gaming, porn etc


3) Grounded responding

This means managing your reactivity neither over-reacting (getting defensive, blaming, projecting, gas lighting, guilt-tripping, becoming clingy, expecting the other to feel responsible for your issues) OR emotionally distancing yourself (stonewalling, sulking, leaving for long periods of time without communicating, paralysis). This includes examining pursuer/distancer dynamics; and


 4) Meaningful endurance

This involves increasing your tolerance of pain for growth by operating out of the best of yourself, owning your own stuff (rather than projecting your issues on others or deflecting defensively) and taking responsibility to change (Schnarch, 2010).

These are all mature adult concepts, but you will like yourself better and the relationship you have with yourself is the primary relationship that you forge with all others.


Other supporting concepts

Other -validated Intimacy– The expectation to be approved of and validated (stroked) by others.  Other Validated Intimacy leads to self-presentation rather than self-disclosure and provides an inaccurate self-portrait. You aren’t being fully you because there are conditions on it – I can only be me if you approve.

It demands reciprocal disclosure and is tentative in sharing and opening. It can lead to sexual boredom because you cannot take intimacy risks and project a neediness and dependence.


Self-validated Intimacy- Self-validated intimacy involves providing support for yourself while letting yourself be known; relies on a person maintaining his or her own sense of identity and self-worth when disclosing, without expectation of acceptance or reciprocity from the partner.

One’s level of self-validated intimacy is directly related to one’s level of differentiation and does not involve acceptance and validation from your partner. Nor does it require feeling secure enough to disclose.  HARD but rewarding!


Self-soothing – being kind to pain, calming anger, softening shock, pacifying fears and comforting sorrow and disappointment for yourself. When people can’t regulate their own anxiety, this creates barriers to feeling intimacy.


Reflected sense of self – includes dependence upon your partner/others to reflect the image of yourself that you want to see to define who you are; the more you depend on a reflected sense of self the less you can handle being seen as less than perfect; feeling unimportant to your partner is often your reflected sense of self complaining;  dependency on how you look to other people.

Borrowed Functioning– this occurs in fused/codependent relationships when you artificially inflate or deflate yourself to operate out of a ‘pseudo/false self’ to be perceived as more or less to deflect from who you really are or to become more like your partner.
It is also positioning yourself through your partner rather than being able to stand on your own.  It is behaviour such as looking for approval from your partner to do or say something; not being able to have your own voice or opinions; relying on the other to do anything and not feeling competent or functional without the other.


Emotional Fusion– when togetherness (attachment) without separateness (autonomy) is out of balance; a persistent emotional link between people that allows anxiety to flow between them.; every move one makes upsets the other’s emotional balance; empathy and acceptance is never free (I’ll only do for you if you do for me).


Gridlock – Where each partner is pushing the other to meet and accommodate their needs and no one is budging; a place where neither partner can validate him or herself in the face of negative reactions from the other.


Constructing your Crucible – extracting your unresolved personal issues embedded in your gridlocked situation and confronting them as an act of integrity. Sometimes this involves owning your projections, even when your partner doesn’t reciprocate. You focus on yourself instead of ‘working on your relationship’ or trying to change your partner.


Normal Marital Sadism – involves pleasure derived from inflicting psychological pain or abuse but stops short of physical domestic violence. It’s a tormenting of those we love while feigning unawareness.

The more you and your partner are emotionally fused, the more you depend on your partner for validation and anxiety regulation through accommodation – the more likely you and your partner engage in normal marital sadism.

Examples include gaslighting; passive aggression; deliberately letting your partner down when they depend on you; overtly showing attraction to other people to irritate and hurt your partner; white-anting and undermining things that are important to your partner; ensuring others in your social circle are aware of your partner’s inadequacies.

Schnarch says “Marriage takes your lowest, weakest, and darkest parts and stuffs them up your nose until you can’t stand yourself as you are. That’s a good thing because it often takes crises and pain for us to do something about it. The weaker your 4 points of balance, the more pain and crisis it takes to mobilize you” (Schnarch, 2010).


Conclusion – Differentiation Therapy

As you may have gleaned from reading about this style of therapy, a differentiation-based approach to couples work is a very mature, honest and sometimes confronting style of therapy, although I do approach it gently. 

It also is tricky when one of the partners are personality disordered such as borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder due to the inability to self-reflect and confront self.

If I sense the couple is not ready for this style of therapy I may refer one or both parties to do some individual work first, especially when there is not a solid sense of self due to emotional inheritance from the family of origin where personal autonomy and identity was suppressed.  

Not everyone is ready for a differentiation approach and I gauge this – I will often ask “Do you want to radically change your relationship because things are really off track, which means a willingness to look at the things in yourself and the relationship you don’t like? OR do you want to improve communication and tweak a few things?”

Differentiation is about existential growth and a process of self-actualisation within a relationship because you won’t settle for staying the same.  Whereas, some people are happy to improve a few things and have some facilitated conversations – AND THAT’S OK TOO – it is your relationship and your life, so you get to choose.


Works cited:

Dr David’s Corner (2010). The Crucible four points of balance.

Schnarch, D. (2009). Intimacy and Desire

New York USA: Beaufort Books

Schnarch, D. (2009b). Passionate Marriage.

New York USA: WW Norton & Co


Related Content:

16 Ultimate Gottman Couples Counselling Concepts

Top 20 Couples Therapy Questions To Explore

Couples Counselling: Aren’t you and your partner worth investing in?

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