musings, life lessons & poetry from Theresa Jarosz Alberti

Divorce Lesson #9

It’s been just over a month since Bob moved out. I find that I’m in two different places on my journey right now. On the one hand, there’s been a slow feeling of settling in to the new situation, getting used to the feel of it, figuring out how it all works, individually and together.

But now the other hand has been opening up for me as I’m starting to have a lot of old issues come up, past emotional baggage, deep unhealed wounds. Now that I have more quiet space in my life, a tsunami of ancient grief (mixed with the newer pain of loss) has been washing over me, and I’m feeling it all at once. God, it’s like being sliced open, and it’s easy for me to feel overwhelmed, especially since there’s a sense of never-endingness to it. This is the time for me to go through this and process it all—it sucks but I don’t want this old stuff ruling and ruining my life anymore. All I can do is buy more tissues, wail, be in touch with the waves of feelings, and be kind to myself. Ask someone to listen when I’m at my lowest. Journaling and lighting candles helps. Also, the comfort of tea.

I’ve been reading a lot of self-help and inspirational books lately. Some people may scoff at the genre, but it’s helping me process my experience and fuel my growth.

I’ll read something from this one, something from that one, back and forth, absorbing and pondering. Bob teasingly calls me “Hermione” because my first reaction is always research. I want to know, I want to figure things out, and researching not only helps me, but gives me a sense of control. I want to learn from what others share of their knowledge and experiences so that I can decide for myself what is right for me.

For the last few months, I’ve been swirling around a new concept that has totally excited me, sparked my imagination and given me hope. It began for me when I was talking to my New Therapist about co-dependency. Bob and I had been talking about our co-dependency issues with each other for a while, how we felt that our patterns of emotional enmeshment made it hard for us to move forward in healthy ways, products of the dysfunctions of our growing-up years. New Therapist opened the discussion up by saying she prefers to think about it as Differentiation and Enmeshment (or Fusion), a more descriptive way of examining patterns in relationships.


Differentiation was originally a biological term, referring to the way cells develop.

Huh? Even though I’ve been in therapy on-and-off for 30 years, I’d never heard these terms before. I’d heard of co-dependency, and honestly, was somewhat frustrated by it. It seemed vague to me—this idea that I was emotionally dependent on someone, but what did it really mean? And even though I’d read about it, what did one do about it? I felt trapped in the murkiness of the definition with no way out.

During sessions over the next few weeks, I began to understand more about Differentiation and it had enough meat to it that I could sink my teeth into. Then she recommended a book on the topic which opened it up for me in a whole new way: Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch, Ph.D. “It’s got a lot of sex in it,” New Therapist said (the author is a sex therapist), “and it’s about marriage. But it explains differentiation really well. I think you’ll like it.”

Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love and Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships  (click link to find it on Amazon)

I did. I talked to Bob about it, and now we’ve both been reading the book to further our quest for a healthier relationship. I’ve been talking to people about it, too, and they tell me they’re intrigued. So now I feel driven to share it with anyone open to hearing about it.

Divorce Lesson #9:  The Great Relationship Tool*

 According to Dr. Schnarch, differentiation is “your ability to maintain your sense of self when you are emotionally and/or physically close to others—especially as they become increasingly important to you… the ability to stay in connection without being consumed by the other person.”

This sounds pretty simple, a no-brainer. Why would this be so important in a relationship?

The answer is equally simple: for relationships to be healthy and satisfying there needs to be both emotional intimacy and space for individuals to be their whole selves. There needs to be room for growth, or the relationship will reach a stalemate. And without differentiation, it’s so easy for bad patterns and poor communication to set in.

Let me paraphrase Dr. Schnarch’s description of relationship development with a little story. Sam and Sal met at a party one night and felt an immediate attraction. They begin that exciting phase of falling in love– they share their interests, their likes, their beliefs, their secrets with each other. They find all the ways to match up. Everything is about connection and communication (mixed with passion!).

Time passes, and clashing starts to happen. Maybe it’s small stuff… Sam likes to go to movies and Sal would rather go see plays. Maybe Sal doesn’t like the way Sam leaves his dirty clothes around the bedroom. Or bigger stuff, like Sam can’t believe Sal voted for that politician he despises. Or Sal doesn’t like Sam’s best friend.


In a well-differentiated couple, Schnarch says, “your willingness to confront, support, soothe and prod yourself determines whether or not your marriage moves forward and the two of you grow.” Sal and Sam could work through these issues. Sam would recognize that Sal is her own person and while he might not like it, he can “soothe himself” about the fact that she voted for that guy, and allow her to be her own person. Instead of stuffing down her desire to see plays and just go along with Sam to his movies, Sal can find a friend to go to plays with and allow Sam to have his own movie interests.

However, it turns out that Sal and Sam are not differentiated. At some point in their relationship, they both started to need validation from each other, rather than being able to validate themselves (“I need you to like the same things I like! Why can’t you believe what I believe?”). The relationship became SO important to them that when conflicts came up, they each began to withdraw their true selves from the relationship to protect it. Not wanting to rock the boat and risk the relationship, Sal bit her tongue whenever Sam’s best friend was over, pretending she was okay with his racist jokes and crude behavior. Sam gave into Sal’s nagging about seeing plays even though they bored him to tears and he hated going.

Over time, this pattern of giving in, not being honest about themselves and being overly bothered by each other’s moods and feelings led to erosion in their relationship. Their communication suffered, they had more frustrating fights they couldn’t resolve, they felt misunderstood by the other, and their sex life suffered. These patterns circled around for a very long time. Sam and Sal weren’t happy, but were willing to turn their heads away from the fact that they were somewhat miserable, thinking that this is what happens to relationships over time. It was either this, or end the relationship, or if they’re lucky, learn to differentiate.

Bob sunrise

I’m going to say goodbye to Sam and Sal now to talk about my own experience. For me, what really excited me in learning about differentiation was seeing how it applied to my life. In the months following the divorce talk, I finally woke up to see that Bob and I had really developed some unhealthy patterns in our relationship. I could see that, for myself, I had made the relationship more important than my own individual self. Instead of being honest about my feelings or frustrations, I curled it up inside myself and found ways to tiptoe around, or to try to manipulate the situation to get what I wanted indirectly. I was afraid of Bob’s bad moods, because then I’d feel awful myself. I wasn’t able to let him have his feelings and separate them from me—his feelings felt like mine, and that is classic enmeshment. I can see now that in so many ways, I was operating in smaller and smaller circles in our relationship and my life, and I hadn’t been happy.

For us, digging ourselves out of this mess has involved separation, so that we can each learn to focus on ourselves, and not be emotionally dependent. Even before he moved out, we were putting the tools of differentiation into practice—learning to be honest with each other in our communication, sharing what our real experiences and feelings were with each other, learning to let each other take care of our own feelings (ah, that’s a tricky one and will take more work), learning to self-soothe, and when conflicts come up, I’m learning to go inside myself first to see what’s really going on for me and what’s driving the conflict before I turn to discuss it with him.

Already this has resulted in a better relationship with more openness and intimacy. We still have a long ways to go to get past our old patterns, but a healthier relationship is developing, and we are committed to each getting healthier for our own selves.

What can I say? If you’re having any difficulties in your relationship, I highly recommend Dr. Schnarch’s book. It’s a dense but interesting read, and the promise of a better, closer, happier relationship with yourself and with your partner is irresistible. I’ll write more about self-soothing in another blog, because I know that’s been an important concept for me to explore and one of the keys to differentiation.

I’ll end here with a quote, and a song that describes differentiation.

“The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.” –Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

I love Amanda Palmer, and this song of hers fits this topic so well (warning: sexy & swearing).

*Disclaimer: I’m not a therapist or psychiatrist or even a psych major, just an autodidact trying to make sense of the concepts I’ve learned. I’ve tried to portray Dr. Schnarch’s philosophy to the best of my ability. Please forgive any falterings.

Divorce Lesson #1: Stay in the Present Moment

Divorce Lesson #2: Love Is All Around

Divorce Lesson #3:  The Freedom in Hopelessness

Divorce Lesson #4:  Do It Your Own Way

Divorce Lesson #5: Thanksgiving– Changing It Up

Divorce Lesson #6: Don’t Pre-Suffer (or Post-Suffer, Either)

Divorce Lesson #7:  Re-(Blank)-ing Myself

Divorce Lesson #8: The Elevator Speech

**To get email updates on upcoming blog posts, please subscribe in the sidebar, or scroll down to the dark area at the bottom.

Photo credits:  Cell photos from the public domain, sunrise photo by Bob Alberti, snow couple photo by me.




  1. Andrea Pearson

    I’ll eagerly await the blog post on self-soothing!

  2. Ann Agrimson

    Thanks for letting us get to peek into your journey. It is an honor.

  3. Barb

    There’s a lot in this post that I value… you probably know that, so I just want to say that I’m relieved and happy that you have a new therapist. It seems like so much good is coming from it.

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