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August 28, 2022 — 9:36 AM

Each partnership has a different evolution. Some couples enter a power struggle in the relationship quickly, while others are able to exist in their independent attachment strategies for years without much complaint. However, if you are in partnership with repetitive conflict, insecurity, and discomfort, and you have decided to take action (either with your partner or independently), you’ll want to have some benchmarks to assess your growth.

Here’s my suggestion for how to do this: Most often, power struggles in relationships stem from a lack of differentiation, and so looking for signs of healthy differentiation can be an excellent way to assess if a relationship is getting healthier.

Differentiation is the ability to maintain your sense of self when you are emotionally and physically close to your partner, especially as they become increasingly important to you. Differentiation allows you to maintain your sense of self and to remain emotionally regulated, even in moments when your partner is physically distant or not emotionally available in the way you’d like them to be.

Differentiation is not the same as individualism, autonomy, or independence. A differentiated self is both solid and permeable. A differentiated person is able to feel their vulnerability, accept the vulnerable parts of themselves, and hold a healthy entitlement to someone else accepting their vulnerability without requiring that other person to take care of them.

In his book Passionate Marriage, clinical psychologist David Schnarch, Ph.D., describes the goal of reaching a “critical mass” of healthy differentiation, which refers to couples who have liberated themselves from the unconscious cycles of unfinished attachment from their respective histories. When individuals have freed themselves from repeating their histories with one another, they have differentiated from their families, which means more support for differentiation in the partnership. 

Below are Schnarch’s indications that you’ve reached “critical mass” of healthy differentiation—or, in other words, signs that you and your partner’s relationship is getting healthier.

1. You say the things that you are most terrified to say.

And you say these things out of respect for your partner and as an act of integrity to care for your relationship. People often keep themselves from telling the deep-down truth because they are “protecting” their partner. Paradoxically, relationships are often repaired and saved when people are most willing to speak their personal truth and open themselves to their partner’s personal truth.

2. One partner can sense that the other is changing… differentiating.

Many of us know what differentiation feels like, and if we are healthy, then we can recognize this as health in another person instead of a personal rejection or attack. You might notice that your partner is able to self-soothe more effectively, that they need less validation from you and are able to self-validate, and they no longer take the conflicts in the partnership as a personal failure.

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Less conflict. More peace. Less anxiety. More relaxation. Little things don’t even bother you anymore, and when there is conflict, you both are able to find middle ground, hold one another’s differences, and repair more quickly.

4. Quiet and reflective tones.

Stonewalling and icy silence gives way to a more sober, reflective, calm, and respectful tone. Each partner is sable to elf-soothe and reflect on how they contribute to conflict and to take responsibility for their impact on their partner.

5. Distancer-pursuer cycles stop.

At critical mass, the chase of distancer/pursuer stops. The pursuer stops criticizing and poking as a strategy to engage the distancer and can hold themselves in place by self-soothing. The distancer stops withdrawing or stonewalling because this strategy is only effective when they are being pursued. Often the pursuing partner, who previously looked highly dependent, now acts autonomously and independently. The distancing partner, who seemed so self-sufficient, now has more space to feel feelings and have attachment needs.

6. Lost parts of the self emerge, and each partner feels more whole.

When each partner is able to differentiate and take responsibility for their attachment strategies, they discover the “lost” or undeveloped parts of themselves. For instance, a woman who has been called “insensitive,” now faced with her wife’s newly developed capacity to self-soothe, now discovers that she has more space to feel all the feelings that she once did not feel.

7. Partners take action and stand up.

Raising your level of differentiation requires action and behavior change. There is no more “business as usual”—all the strategies and habits such as posturing, denial, defensiveness, and critical arguments cease to exist. Partners have clearer boundaries, express themselves with regulated clarity, and stand up for what they believe without attack or criticism of their partner.

8. Partners speak directly to one another.

Self-validated intimacy means that you express yourself to your partner from a position of “quiet conviction.” You make your point and share your experience without pushing your partner to agree or give up their different perspective. Partners state their own views without criticism. This style of relating means that each person feels heard, understood, and seen—even when talking about difficult things.

9. No more blame or shame.

When you stop seeing your partner as the problem, you stop blaming and criticizing, which decreases your partner’s defensiveness. When couples reach a critical mass of differentiation, only the most crucial issues matter. Blame and criticism no longer becomes safe because one or both partners won’t tolerate it anymore. There is less impulse, and less tolerance for taking out frustrations on one another.

10. Anger does not escalate.

Anger may occasionally flair, but it doesn’t escalate. If someone experiences anger, that person is immediately aware, able to self-soothe, and make a repair if necessary.

People who issue frequent ultimatums have little integrity in a relationship because they don’t follow through. Ultimatums are a strategy to maintain control, and when you have reached critical mass, you don’t need to maintain control because of how much peace there is between you both.

Red flags have become a common way for people to access where they are in a relationship process. While it’s helpful to identify unwanted behavior, it’s very helpful to balance this with green flags and to be able to know what you are working towards or what healthy relationship behavior looks and feels like.