Pen and Moon

from the writing nook of Theresa Jarosz Alberti

Tag: differentiation

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.



Divorce Lesson #8

Dear Reader,

I find myself in the peculiar position of dating my own husband, who is living separately in an apartment across town. I’ve said it before—we are not having any kind of a “typical” divorce. I’m sure that’s been at least a little bit evident, from that first announcement we put out on Facebook and my continued blog posts.

But in the four months since this started, things have morphed and changed as we’ve talked and worked hard on issues that have come up. We’ve had more deeply honest communication, more openness and more tenderness than we’ve had in ages. There’s been self-examination by both of us, a commitment to personal growth, and a willingness to live in a place of uncertainty. And, perhaps ironically, separation.


In light of Our Strange Journey, Bob and I have come up with an “elevator speech.” As long-time Unitarian Universalists, the concept of having an elevator speech is a handy tool, a succinct and clear way to explain our uncommon religion to those who give us a blank stare when we mention it. For us, there have been so many questions lately about what the heck is going on with our relationship, and instead of long rambly answers, this will sum it up. (Granted, we don’t owe anyone explanations on this private matter, but especially for those in our local sphere, and also friends elsewhere, it will help clear up confusion.)


Divorce Lesson #8– The Elevator Speech


Here’s what we came up with:

“We are separating because we are co-dependent, and we are dating because we still love each other.”


We are separating because we are co-dependent… Co-dependent is common vernacular these days, but for anyone who needs a refresher, it means allowing another person’s behavior and feelings to affect oneself dramatically, and becoming obsessed with controlling a situation or another person’s behaviors.

Both Bob and I realize that our communication patterns and ways of relating to each other have gotten skewed over the years, for many reasons. Patterns like this can become entrenched, and then it’s hard to even be aware that you are operating in this unhealthy way. Bob saw it first, how unhealthy it had become for both of us, and we were staying stuck in many areas of our lives. For me, I realize now that I had trouble expressing certain emotions or being up front with him about certain topics. And I’ve been stuck in areas of my life that weren’t making me happy—my weight and health, my writing, self-confidence, my job search, to name a few. Bob has often told me that his co-dependence made it hard for him to be in touch with his feelings because he was overly in touch with mine.

This separation is giving us both some space to work on ourselves. Having that space between us isn’t very easy—it’s painful tearing apart old patterns, habits and routines. But we weren’t able to make much progress living together. We are working on a new way of being, called “differentiation.” I thank my current therapist for enlightening me about this new-for-me concept. In short, differentiation is the process of holding onto your unique self in a relationship—your feelings, your perceptions, your essence—without enmeshing yourself into your partner’s self. It’s allowing the other to have their feelings, while you learn to self-soothe to maintain your own sense of self. It makes a relationship stronger while maintaining personal integrity.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on differentiation and I’m so excited about it that I’ll be blogging more about it in the near future. It’s such a helpful concept and I’m amazed I haven’t come across it before.

Dating circa 1988... it's Throwback Thurs, after all

Dating circa 1988… it’s Throwback Thurs, after all

We are dating because we still love each other… Love has never been a question between Bob and I (which is why his sudden announcement to me came as such a shock). We’re best friends, we know each other better than anyone does, and the love is deep. It’s sad that this separation needs to happen to help us get healthier. But one thing we re-discovered through this whole upheaval is that we really do want to and enjoy spending time with each other. Our communications have changed and become more honest and introspective. And so we’ve decided that at this stage of the game, we’re dating again.

Honestly, it’s odd to be dating. When you’re with someone for 26 years, all sorts of habits and patterns and routines create this illusion of safety. It’s easy to take the other for granted. Now we have pulled ourselves away from all that– we are back to having to ask each other for time, for help, for a date, to talk. I’d forgotten how vulnerable all this is. When you ask for something, the answer might be no, and that doesn’t mean you should take it personally. It’s like having to walk on bumpy, unstable ground after decades of walking on flat rock. It’s a bit scary… but it’s also refreshing, and even exciting.

All in all, we don’t know how this will all play out for us. There are many possibilities. I must haul out once again my favorite Deepak Chopra quote on Embracing Uncertainty, which comforts me—

“I will allow myself and those around me the freedom to be as they are. I will not rigidly impose my idea of how things should be. I will not force solutions on problems, thereby creating new problems…I will step into the field of all possibilities and anticipate the excitement that can occur when I remain open to an infinity of choices. When I step into the field of all possibilities, I will experience all the fun, adventure, magic and mystery of life.”

That’s all I know for today—what we’re doing now, what our intentions are, and how we are both committed to personal growth to rid ourselves of unhealthy patterns and habits. Individually and together, we are a work in progress.

Hopefully, this will lessen the confusion for locals who see us out and about. We are an experiment happening before your very eyes. Stay tuned!

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’te Pre-Suffer (or Post-Suffer, Either)

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

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

*All photos courtesy of me.  🙂




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