Unlike marriage specialists Drs. John Gottman and Susan Johnson who speak of the importance of connection and attachment, psychologist David Schnarch focuses on differentiation and on balancing one’s individuality with being a couple. In the following selection from a longer article in Psychology Today (How to Grow Up, by Pam Weintraub, May 2012), Schnarch proposes a road map for becoming an authentic adult that is also a blueprint for putting passion back in relationships.
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Once considered a heretic, Schnarch is today a distinguished presence in psychology, a pioneer set on redefining intimacy and reinvesting marriage with the passion that usually fades. “It’s easy to have hot sex with a stranger,” Schnarch insists. “But passionate marriage requires that you become an adult.” Becoming an authentic adult specifically means, among other things, soothing one’s own bad feelings without the help of another, pursuing one’s own goals, and standing on one’s own two feet.
Schnarch finds that marriage can’t succeed unless we claim our sense of self in the presence of another. The resulting growth turns right around and fuels the marriage, enabling passionate sex. And it pays wide-ranging dividends in domains from friendship to creativity to work.
The dynamic process through which one can live in close proximity to a partner and still maintain a separate sense of self is known as differentiation. “By differentiation, I mean not caving in to pressure to conform from a partner who has tremendous emotional significance in your life.” The best marital brew is neither dependence nor independence, but a balanced state of interdependence, Schnarch contends.
Interdependence allows partners who are each capable of handling their own emotional lives to focus on meeting their own and each other’s ever-evolving goals and agendas in response to shifting circumstances, rather than on keeping one another from falling apart. It is marked by flexibility and focuses on strengths. Dependent partners, by contrast, spend their lives compensating for each other’s limitations and needs.
It’s not that hard to be independent when you’re alone, Schnarch observes. It is a far tougher feat to pursue your own goals and stand up for your own beliefs, personal likes and dislikes, in the midst of a relationship. Once achieved in the context of a relationship, differentiation becomes possible outside of it as well. If you can stand your ground with your partner, who means so much to you, you can defend your turf at the office and maintain your principles when pressured.
Differentiation is a complex feat, for which Schnarch has created an an operational road map. The elements of maturity that comprise differentiation, he has found, cluster into four distinct, if interrelated groups, he calls the Four Points of Balance.
- Operating according to deeply held personal values and goals even when pressured to abandon them.
- Handling one’s own inner emotional life and dealing with anxiety and emotional bruises without needing to turn to a partner for help.
- Not overreacting to — but still facing — difficult people and situations.
- Using forbearance and perseverance in the face of failure and disappointment to accomplish one’s goals.
All four groups emphasize resilience, because they also involve the ability to adapt and change direction when need be, without losing track of one’s overall goals, agendas, or sense of self.
Claiming adulthood is an evolutionary mandate, Schnarch insists: “1.2 million years ago the human cranium evolved to maintain a sense of selfhood. There is lust, there is romantic love, there is attachment. But the strongest desire comes from the self’s ability to choose another self.” According to Schnarch, only the differentiated can truly be known and loved for themselves.
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See also: Holding on to Yourself in Relationship (D. Schnarch)