Differentiation Strategies | Counseling | Therapy

Differentiation Strategies

What to do when you are the emotionally healthier person in your relationship: codependency therapy near me image

You read the tip on mismatched differentiation for those who feel healthier in their relationships. Now, what do you do about it? How do you fix something that takes two of you? You are in luck since the foundation of change from the perspective of differentiation is that one person changing can change the relationship! Here are four strategies for the more differentiated partner to improve the mismatched differentiation in your relationship:


Stay true to voicing your feelings with I statements and assert your needs. If you need validation and compassion for your feelings, ask for it and let them know what that can look like for you.

“I would like to go see my friend tonight, but I do not know how long we will be. I will let you know as soon as we are done so you do not worry about me.”

When you sense they are saying one thing and mean something different, ask them to clarify by pointing out your own confusion.

Rather than a blaming stance- “You do not make any sense. You need to think before you speak.”


“On the one hand, we have agreed it is important that we get time with our respective friends. Whenever these activities are not predictable, I see you getting upset with me. I need to be able to balance both our relationship and our friendships. How can we make sure to avoid this in the future so we can respect each other’s different needs?”


You teach people how to treat you. Modeling is your ability to show the healthier response repeatedly. You respond to your partner’s expression of feelings and address conflict the way you want them to respond. You model that you can handle deeper issues without getting mad or falling into the pattern from their family/past relationship. True modeling is a commitment. It will not work if you start out strong and then give in to an overreaction or defensiveness.

You may think to yourself that you know you are healthier than them so they should be grateful for the new experience. They may have trouble trusting a healthy dynamic because it is so foreign to them. They may recognize it logically as something to strive for, but struggle to adjust to the new experience when their anxiety increases. Until they have the new experience of a healthy relationship and believe that it is genuine, they will continue to push you to react to them the way they expect. If you had never recognized this and sought out help, they could sabotage the relationship.

Modeling Don’t: You name yourself as healthier.

“I know you really struggle when things do not go as planned. I would like you to be able to deal with it the way I would because I am better at this than you. Maybe next time you can call a friend or find something different to do until you hear back from me. You shouldn’t need me so much”

“When I have had similar feelings or experiences, I tried to text or call to make sure you are safe before getting upset.”

Although well-intentioned, pulling the conversation back to your own experience that was similar will backfire and sound dismissive to their unique experience. The I-statements are strong, but this is defensiveness in disguise. Telling your partner to respond the way you would can come across as condescending, inviting them to get defensive back.


“I can understand how my lateness made you worry about my safety. I am sorry I did not anticipate that and let you know sooner. Next time can you let me know so I have a chance to check in and reassure you? I wonder if there is anything more you can do to ease your worries on your own. What do you think could help you the next time?”


People who struggle emotionally are more accustomed to their unhealthy patterns of relationships than healthy ones. They feel more comfortable blaming, placating, avoiding, or intellectualizing any problem.

You have to ignore their bids to pull you into the old dance by making you feel guilty or like you don’t care. Let them know that you care about them and are there for them, but are not willing to fight or do something unhealthy in order to show them it’s the truth. They can just work to trust that you mean what you say.

“I am about to meet up with my friend for a drink.” May be met with “you always put yourself first and ignore my feelings. You stayed out so late the last time. I was worried sick about you having an affair, getting into a car accident, or feeling like you didn’t care about me.” A bid into the same dynamic would be dismissing their feelings and saying you will be home when you can and let them know if anything changes. A bid into a potential argument would be defending yourself against all of their blame and say that it only happened once, it was not as big of a deal as they made it, or complete denial that the other event occurred.

Your partner will feel comfortable when conflict is present, but this drains you. Tell yourself you will not fall into it and tell them you are not looking to fight. Self-soothe using deep breathing, mindfulness, or time outs if you cannot pull yourselves out of the old dance. Remind yourself how your boundaries will help you and you are healthier to handle this mismatch. If you are able to handle stepping out of this, your change will create change within your dynamic.

Empathy Building

You chose to be in a relationship with someone you see or feel is less healthy than you in dealing with their emotions. How do you think this makes your partner feel? Maintaining this perspective can perpetuate power dynamics that interfere with intimacy and trust over time. You are not any better than them for having different emotional strengths. Try your best to develop more empathy by deconstructing this story of being the healthier partner.

  • How is the story of yourself as the better communicator or emotionally healthier person serving you?
  • How do you know you are healthier?
  • What do you think your partner’s experience of you is?
  • Do they see themselves as an unhealthier emotional person?
  • What is your role in the dance to make them do what they do?
  • What might you do that stops them from sharing more about their feelings?
  • How are you recreating how their family reacts to them?
  • What is the dynamic you want to create?
  • What more can you do to create it?

The four strategies above will be helpful for you stepping out of your role in this dynamic. This is not a one-time exercise, nor able to “fix” every couple struggling with differentiation. Many need to practice it over and over for lasting change and some need the help of an individual and/or couple’s therapists to have a healthier relationship.

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