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Differentiation and Bonding


To help keep a relationship passionate and stable it's essential to balance differentiation and bonding.  The structure of Compassionate Communication (NVC) is especially well suited to support both.  For bonding it encourages vulnerability through sharing of feelings and needs.  Differentiation requires self-responsibility.  NVC supports this through the practices of taking responsibility for the interpretations you make by distinguishing them from what actually happened (neutral observation) and through taking responsibility for your needs by making clear requests.  When your relationship is in trouble it is likely tipped to one side or the other.  

When differentiation is balanced with bonding in your relationship, you can authentically express differences, unmet needs, and responsibly do your own thing without it being a threat to the bond with your partner.  You honor each other's choice which makes negotiation easier.  You trust each other to be honest rather than resentfully giving in to the other's wishes.  

But, when differentiation is emphasized at the cost of bonding, it slides into alienation and painful distancing.  Here are some common symptoms of alienation and distancing:

  • Your partner seems more like a roommate than lover

  • You are having trouble making time for your partner

  • You seem to be living parallel lives

  • When you think of trying to get close to your partner, it seems like too much work

  • You are afraid of intruding in your partner's life

  • You haven't had sex in a long time OR you have sex but not affection

  • Both you and your partner make other things a priority over the relationship and you are pretty fuzzy on where you rank

  • You or your partner makes major life decisions without talking it over with each other

When bonding is balanced with differentiation, you consistently create a safe space for vulnerability.  You know that your vulnerability is held in respect and honor.  You can express your inner world to your partner and hear theirs.  Your partner can be upset, sad, disappointed, etc., and you can let it be, trusting your partner will come around with their own resources or make a request if they need something.  Spontaneous offerings of warmth, affection, or support come from your heart rather than an agenda to get your partner into a better state so you can feel better.  

But when bonding is emphasized at the cost of differentiation, a secure bond slips into enmeshment.  Here are some common symptoms:

  • Blame shows up, the more enmeshment the more blame there is

  • One partner's actions or state becomes contingent on the other partner's actions or state.  For example, it might sound like this, "I don't want you to be disappointed if I don't come along.",  "I won't do it if you're not happy about it.", "I won't have a good time with the group if you are moping around.", "How can you be so happy when you know I am going through a hard time?!"  "You have to do it with me, or I won't do it."

  • Demands show up along with all its cousins - pressuring, guilt tripping, manipulating, belittling, minimizing, dismissing, and criticizing

  • You feel like you are walking on eggshells because reactivity is pretty common

  • You start to edit what you do and say in an attempt to please your partner

  • You start to have a sense that you have lost who you are

If you have been through the pain of either of these extremes than you might attempt to heal that pain by over focusing on its opposite in the next relationship.  This simply creates a new kind of pain.  The essential thing is holding both.  In each decision, activity, and conversation, you are looking to create connection and honor difference and choice.

In the bigger picture, it's important to reflect on how you have set up your lives together.  If either of you are coming with a sense of threat around bonding or differentiation, then you might be setting up your schedules, house, routines, etc., so that one is systematically emphasized and the other is systematically neglected.  For example, a situation in which one partner works the day shift, the other works the swing shift, and each has extracurricular activities planned independently will consistently neglect the formation of a secure bond.  On the other hand a couple that has the same schedules and operates on the default assumption that "if we are not at work, we are together", systematically neglects space for autonomy and difference.

Often, one partner is biased toward protecting bonding and the other is biased toward protecting autonomy and acceptance of differences.  This only devolves into conflict in which each partner tries to cajole the other to switch biases.  Rather than standing in your corner protecting your value, put your value carefully in your heart and walk over to your partner and show your support.*  


Take a moment now and notice if you tend to emphasize bonding or differentiation in your relationship.  Challenge yourself to give more attention to the opposite one for the coming week.  To prepare for your challenge, take a moment now to name three examples in which you habitually followed your bias toward bonding or differentiation.  Replay those examples in your mind imagining what you would have done had you supported the opposite.

*For more details on balancing autonomy and bonding this see other Connections Gems:

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2 Responses

  1. Jul 22, 2015

    You nailed it exactly what my husband and I are going through. Thank you so much for clearly explaining the challenging situation. It was super helpful!

  2. Jul 22, 2015

    Very glad to hear it! :)

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