This past Friday I heard a wonderful talk by Pat Love, who is the author of How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It. Dr. Love is an expert in relationships, and she backs up her ideas with a lot of research results. The talk was very thought provoking, and one of her focuses is on the importance of differentiation. She emphasizes the importance of exploring and respecting differences between people in the context of relationships. In other words, the other person is not you and is not put on earth to be a mirror for you. The other person is a different person with his or her own life, own ideas, and own feelings. The pleasure in a relationship is coming to know another person as he or she actually is and not just in reference to ourselves.
The idea of differentiation is interesting and important. Allowing the people close to us to be different from us and to be significant in their own right, in turn, means it is okay for us to be different and still be in relationships. Coming to know and appreciate ourselves is also a type of relationship. One of the definitions of “differentiate” is to know or see differences. Another is to make or grow different in the process of development. Both definitions are relevant in our own developmental process. Over our lifetimes we become more clearly defined to ourselves, and more specifically unique in the world. And in each relationship we look first for similarities which bond us and then for differences, which interest us.
Just like the cells that make up a human baby start out as all the same and over time differentiate into organs and blood and hair, we start out in our own minds as merged with our caregivers and over our lifetimes we gradually gain definition and specificity. And, in our relationships, other people start out as cardboard cutouts of our ideas about them and gradually we learn who they really are. They become more real as people, and less a function of how we feel about them.
Differentiation in our experience of ourselves and in our understanding of other people is one of the those experiences that feels like a loss, but is really a gain. Differences make us feel separate and isolated. Perhaps this is because we start out connecting with people in a merger type of relationship, and recognizing differences makes us feel disconnected from that merger. At the same time, it is the differences that enrich our lives and that make a relationship interesting. Appreciating differences is, in and of itself, a pleasure, and it is an activity that builds connection and engagement. We can learn how to recognize and enjoy distinctions between people, and in the process create authentic relationships both with ourselves and with the people we know.