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Couples in Conflict: Differentiation of Self - Bowen Family Therapy

conflict differentiation of self family systems murray bowen Sep 10, 2023
differentiation of self, couples in conflict

Understanding Differentiation of Self in Relationships

Differentiation, as introduced by Dr. Murray Bowen, refers to the ability to distinguish between one's Thoughts, Feelings, internal sense of Self, and internal sense of Others. A higher degree of differentiation results in healthier relationships characterized by reduced conflict and reactivity. Instead, individuals can respond to situations and people in more constructive ways.

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To illustrate, consider a couple in therapy. When asked about their feelings, one partner might reply, "we feel like this is what we need in our relationship." Such a response, using "we" instead of "I," indicates a blending of the self and the other, suggesting a lack of clear differentiation. This conflation is so ingrained in our daily interactions that we often overlook it. For instance, one might say, "we went for a hike," even when referring to an activity with a pet.

In therapy, it's crucial to encourage individuals to adopt the "I" position, speaking for themselves rather than on behalf of their partner. Another common challenge is distinguishing between thoughts and feelings. For example, the statement "we feel like this is what we need" is not expressing a feeling but a thought. The goal in therapy is to help clients differentiate between these concepts, enabling them to have thoughts about their feelings and vice versa.

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Couples In Conflict & Differentiation Of Self

Differentiation also plays a significant role in conflict and chronic anxiety. Less differentiated individuals tend to have higher levels of chronic anxiety. Dr. Bowen theorized that those with lower differentiation levels exhibit specific automatic reactive behaviors when faced with emotionally charged situations. These reactions can range from defensive responses and counterattacks to emotional withdrawal. Recent studies have expanded on these behaviors, identifying four reactions we tend to have when chronic anxiety is running high:

Attack or Defend – An attack can be verbal or physical, and deense can include attacking back (counterattack) and being defensive.Someone might come home after a stressful day- their chronic anxiety running even higher than normal and either be SUPER defensive around their partner - OR perhaps even looking for a fight and being a bit more snippy and mean. .

Physical Retreat can mean putting a physical barrier between them and stressful events. So if a relationship is a little bit challenging, someone could spend longer at the gym to avoid their partner, or spend more time in a different room - physical barriers - now that can actually cause more conflict too.

Psychological Withdrawal – Psychological withdrawal is a mental retreat. It often looks like video game addiction or excessive internet use It’s a way of psychologically removing oneself from a stressful situation or relationships. A lot of couples I work with come in saying they are fighting more because their partner has ‘shut down’ ‘withdrawn’ from the relationship.

Emotional Overload – we can become overwhelmed with feelings, become tearful, filled with rage, and often impulsive. Occasionally this means obsessive thinking and rumination, but in terms of conflict and why we are fighting all the time, a big emotional out burst really makes sense.


The Impact of Differentiation on Couples in Conflict

The Forces of Togetherness and Autonomy in Relationships

In the intricate tapestry of human relationships, two powerful and contrasting forces play pivotal roles: Togetherness and Autonomy. These forces, akin to the dual faces of a coin, coexist, often in a delicate balance, influencing the dynamics of our interpersonal connections.

Togetherness embodies the inherent human yearning for emotional intimacy, connection, and a sense of belonging. It propels individuals towards seeking solace, affirmation, and support from their kin and partners. This force fosters collaboration, mutual values, and societal unity, elements that are indispensable for the well-being of relationships and familial structures. Nevertheless, an overemphasis on togetherness can culminate in emotional fusion, where individuals become excessively reliant on one another, leading to a diminished sense of individual identity.

On the other hand, Autonomy stands as the counterforce, symbolizing the quest for individualism, independence, and self-governance. It encourages individuals to carve out a distinct identity, separate from their relationships, and to delineate personal boundaries that safeguard their uniqueness. Autonomy empowers individuals to make sovereign decisions, chase personal aspirations, and retain autonomy over their lives. However, an extreme tilt towards autonomy can result in emotional detachment or seclusion, as individuals might unduly prioritize their independence, sidelining profound connections with others.

The initial stages of romantic relationships are often dominated by the force of togetherness. During this "honeymoon phase," differences are overshadowed by similarities, fostering a sense of unity and familiarity. However, as relationships mature, the veneer fades, revealing the inherent differences that were previously overlooked. This transition marks a critical juncture where couples grapple with these disparities, determining whether they can coexist with them or if they become deal-breakers. At its core, these differences induce anxiety, as they pave the way for potential disagreements. Such disagreements, in theory could lead to the relationship ending, which is a threat to 'togetherness'. 

The strategy we adopt then is to try to change our partners, so they are more similar to us.

Why Trying To Change Other People Creates Conflict

I might attempt to convince you that "The Voice" is superior due to its superior judges. However, if you remain unconvinced and continue to prefer "American Idol," I might intensify my efforts to persuade you. I'd present arguments, perhaps even send you YouTube compilations of "The Voice's" best moments during your work hours.

Whether I realize it or not, I'm trying to change your opinions and beliefs. This stems from two reasons: firstly, I genuinely believe my preference is superior, and secondly, I'm uncomfortable with our differences.

Your reactions to my persistence could range from amusement at my admiration for Blake Shelton and Kelly Clarkson, to questioning my rationale. Over time, my constant insistence might start to wear on you, leading to feelings of annoyance or even resentment. You might perceive my actions as a critique of your TV show preferences, or even as an assertion of my superiority.

If I'm not clear enough, you might misinterpret the importance of this issue to me. Alternatively, you might choose to deliberately ignore my efforts. From my perspective, I might assume you're resisting change just to spite me, intensifying my frustration. This could manifest in passive-aggressive behavior or direct confrontation. Such interactions would undoubtedly strain our relationship, leading to increased tension, frequent disagreements, or a decline in the positive feelings we share.

The root of this discord is my inability to accept our differences, which heightens my anxiety. This added stress compounds the existing chronic anxiety, making us more prone to resort to our automatic reactive behaviors, which, as we've seen, can be sources of conflict.

Who Was Murray Bowen?

Murray Bowen, a renowned psychiatrist and pioneer in the field of family systems theory, made significant contributions to our understanding of human behavior and interpersonal dynamics. Born in 1913, Bowen devoted his life to exploring the intricate web of relationships within families and how they shape our emotional well-being. He developed the concept of differentiation of self, which refers to an individual's ability to maintain their own unique identity while remaining emotionally connected to their family. Bowen believed that the level of differentiation in family members directly impacts their overall functioning and level of emotional health. Through his extensive research and clinical work, Bowen developed a comprehensive framework for understanding family systems and the patterns of behavior that emerge within them. His insights into family dynamics and the impact of multigenerational patterns have been influential not only in the field of psychology but also in fields such as organizational development and leadership. Bowen's groundbreaking work continues to shape our understanding of human relationships and provides valuable guidance for individuals and families seeking to improve their emotional well-being.

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