How to Differentiate

Years ago I came across this helpful summary of relationship guidelines based on the work of David Schnarch (author of Passionate Marriage). “Differentiation” has to do with our ability to distinguish between our issues and those of our partners. It’s so easy to blame others for our own dissatisfaction. We feel a lack in our lives and get upset that others aren’t supplying what is lacking. I’ve noticed especially in relationships this tendency gets magnified. Here are highlights of steps to take towards creating healthy, well differentiated relationships:

1. Stop blaming your partner. It only makes you sound like a helpless victim. When you close that avenue in your life, many new ones will open. You will start putting your attention on yourself where it will do the most good.

2. Ask yourself about your own happiness. What isn’t working for you? How can you take charge of your life?

3. How are the current relationship issues made worse by you, your attitude, your timing, your way of looking at it, your inability to ask for what you want vulnerably, your defensiveness, your impatience, or your unexamined life?

4. Confront yourself not your partner. This will change your life. Are you living your own integrity? Are you the person you want to be? Are you living up to being the best you?


5. Don’t count on your partner to respond positively, or make it easy for you. Your partner grows in his/her own way.

6. Learn to look at your defensiveness as negative thoughts about yourself that get triggered. Learn to recognize when you’re defensive and what is feeling bad inside of you. Stop attacking and confront yourself. Defensive attacking only entrenches both of you in not changing.

7. If you can’t find an avenue for growth, look honestly at what your partner is saying. There is always a kernel of truth in it.

8. Stop taking your partner’s reactions personally, he/she has a right to feelings, reactions, even judgements. Know that they are all filters through his/her baggage. Always keep your own view of yourself as the most important. But listening to your partner can give you insights.

9. Get out of your partner’s head, no analyzing, suggestions for improvement, or little jabs. They only entrench the other. Your differentiation will help your partner to grow the most.

10. Stop making your relationship problems the cause of your unhappiness. Your life is the cause of your unhappiness, stress, symptoms, and frustrations.

11. Turn every relationship issue into your growth. It’s about your timing, your manner of talking, your way of holding what is said, your defensiveness, your need to control, your lack of enjoyable pursuits, your panicky reactions, your anxiety, your fear of…

12. For a solution trick, try doing something that is 180 degrees different from what you have tried. It’s often the direction that’s needed.

13. Learn to get your sense of self from yourself. This is called self validation and is the cornerstone of growing. Look to yourself to make you feel good about yourself. Your partner can only support that. He or she cannot create it. You need to create your own well being and high self esteem. Often this comes with action.

14. Don’t share all your dissatisfactions. Pick only the important ones to deal with in a constructive way. Stay in charge of yourself. Remember that you need five good interactions to every negative one. Confrontations are negative. Use them sparingly.

15. Don’t become your feelings. They are yours freely. You don’t need your partner’s approval for them. You don’t need to act on them until you have seen whether doing so is in your integrity.

16. Pay attention to tone and attitude. One way to help this is to notice the good things your partner is doing. This helps loosen the gridlock and brings in the positive.

17. Own your projections. What you don’t like in your partner has something to do with you. Find out what that is and confront it in you.

18. Don’t try to be “differentiated”. Try and be who you are and how you want to be. It’s a work in progress. Compassion with yourself and your partner for your journey will feel better.

19. Let your truth and the best in you come out and act. We all know our deeper truths and the best parts of ourselves. Let that part out as often as possible. You feel good about yourself even when your partner doesn’t value you or treat you well.

20. If you can’t regulate your emotions, curb your behavior. Act the best you can.

21. Don’t keep focusing on the downside. Don’t “awfulize” things. Things are as they are. What is, is. Accept the reality and look for the changes you can make to improve your life.

22. Take constructive time outs when your time together has become abusive or intolerable to your sense of respect. Promise to come back and finish. Don’t allow yourself to be in negative, reactive, abusive arguments, and don’t allow yourself to wallow in self pity by stonewalling and avoiding. Agree on how to take time outs so you both feel mature and caring.

23. When self soothing in a time out, try and enjoy your own space. A measure of how well you are differentiating in this manner, is how little you think of your partner’s bad treatment of you rather than enjoying the walk, the reading, the making of your own plans, your hobby.

24. Self soothing does not mean fleeing into substances to dull your feelings and ability to act.

25. Keep trying to move to higher ability levels of holding onto yourself while staying in loving contact with your partner. Even if you are not being how she or he wants you to be, care about her or his feelings and concerns, not by losing yourself, but by having empathy.

26. Above all, think about actions more than talking out feelings. Actions change things while talking and processing often are a way to blame others or avoid taking charge of yourself.

27. Learn to “talk as friends” to each other. One person talks about his/her own life while the other listens. Each takes a four or five minute turn with no responses other than empathy if desired. Blaming or “fixing” the other is out of bounds.