What do you do when you are the emotionally healthier person in a relationship?
Emotional health can be described through the concept of differentiation. Differentiation is a balance between independence and connectedness. More differentiated people feel responsible for their own emotional experiences and responsible to their partner. They are better able to hear about another’s feelings, then show empathy without completely taking on other people’s feelings. Less differentiated people feel what other people are feeling. They feel more responsible for other people’s emotions than their own emotions.
In romantic partnerships, people are not always matched with their partners in how they regulate their emotions and deal with conflict. Some relationship experts say people are attracted to other people because they have the same level of emotional health. However, others find themselves in a mismatch of emotional regulation. Specifically, one partner feels emotionally healthier than their partner. This concept is discussed less often, but appears frequently in a couple’s therapist’s office. This tip describes the concept of differentiation for people who found themselves in a relationship with someone they feel is less emotionally healthy than they are.
Think of differentiation as a continuum between being cold and unaffected by others------ to consuming other people’s emotions and ignoring your own. People in the middle of this continuum often talk about their experience as an independent one. At the same time, they seek connection and intimacy. Differentiated partners understand they will affect and be affected by other people, but do not hold themselves as solely responsible for others’ feelings. Less differentiated people become an emotional sponge.
The following scenario illustrates how mismatched differentiation can play out in relationships:
You are running late from a social activity with a friend. You know your partner expected you home at a certain time, but you lost track of time and were caught up in the moment.
One difficulty with this dynamic is when your undifferentiated partner is more likely to struggle in times of uncertainty. They may or may not reach out to you to check-in, but the key difference is the emotional build up they experience and struggle to regulate without you. Less differentiated partners are more likely to make negative assumptions and give into worst case scenario type of thinking that will continue to raise their anxiety. They look to you to soothe their anxiety build up.
If your partner were more differentiated, they would give you the benefit of the doubt and sit with their anxiety within a reasonable period of waiting before checking in with their partner. They trust that they have each other’s best intentions and feel confident in their ability to cope with the stress of uncertainty.
Within this example, people who have histories of accidents or assaults will have an understandably strong reaction to not receiving updates from their partner who would usually be home at a certain time. That history does not automatically mean you fit this dynamic.
Another difficulty within this dynamic is how an undifferentiated partner’s identity is wrapped up in the relationship. For some people, their sense of self-worth is based primarily on their partner's opinion of them instead of their own self-awareness and self-esteem. Some people are more comfortable keeping other’s view of them rather than taking on the challenge of self-reflection and accountability.
Imagine the roles in the previous scenario have switched. Your less differentiated partner is running late from work. They walk in the door in a panic and expect you to be upset with them. Your reassurance that you understand and are glad they are okay, may be internalized by the less differentiated partner that you don't care about them as much as they care about you. They internalize this feeling and struggle to voice it so you do not even realize they had an issue. Your partner winds up feeling rejected and may react differently towards you. You feel like you have to always guess what could be bothering them. Their low self-esteem has been confirmed because of this misunderstanding, but you were just holding stronger emotional boundaries.
Sometimes people get stuck when undifferentiation is read as empathy for each other’s experiences. However, feeling responsible for easing each other’s pain is very different.
The next time you are about to go out you remind yourself of how your partner felt when you were running late and did not let them know. This next time you try your best to let them know a realistic timeframe to expect you. You want to show your partner you heard them the last time and you will keep their feelings in mind this time as well. You can communicate your empathy and allow them to manage any anxiety that comes up for them while you are away. A less differentiated person would absorb their partner’s anxiety about them going out and react differently in order to manage their partner’s feelings. Ie: you do not go out or you cut time short so that your partner does not feel anxious.
In differentiation, there is more of a separation of the selves. When you are the one holding more boundaries, your partner may struggle to handle the inevitable feelings of disappointment or rejection that are bound to come up in relationships. As the healthier person in your relationship, you are in the best position to help shift your relationship dynamic to be able to manage the anxiety shift. For more on how to do this, continue reading more on mismatched differentiation here.