Healthy Relationships 1.14: Adaptive Level of Functioning

Adaptive Level of Functioning

When faced with stress, an individual will display his or her level of differentiation (see post titled, “…Differentiation.”) The more highly differentiated the individual, the less emotional reactivity will govern his or her choices when anxiety rises. However, stress isn’t always present, so differentiation is difficult to measure. In times of low stress, we can sort of estimate an individual’s level of differentiation by his or her behaviors in three areas: productivity, relationships, and self-care. We call the combination of these factors a person’s adaptive level of functioning, although it’s not anywhere close to foolproof in identifying a person’s actual level of differentiation.

Vs. Differentiation

A person’s adaptive level of functioning package refers more to his or her behavior than his or her level of differentiation, a measure of a one’s essential sense of personal security and solid self. It is possible to make great improvements in one’s adaptive level of functioning without fundamentally changing his or her level of differentiation, because emotionally freeing oneself from the emotional entrapment of one’s family system requires an emotional-intellectual movement, not merely a behavioral one.

Getting free of the family emotional process requires that one analyze his or her own role as an active participant in one’s relationship system, taking personal responsibility for one’s anxiety, reactivity, and automatic behaviors. This is not possible if one is only willing or able to change in the more immediate tasks of productivity, tending to relationships, and improving self-care.

Changing one’s adaptive level of functioning is a short-term goal, which can improve personal well-being, but has little or no impact on the entire family system of which the individual is a part. Increasing levels of differentiation, a long-term goal, on the other hand, eventually results in change throughout the entire system.


Productivity refers to the level at which a person functions in whatever job he has to do, be it a physician, housewife, student, etc. A person’s energy level available for work, the satisfaction it brings, and the creativity it requires are all part of this dimension.


Relationships refers to a person’s connections to important others. How available and able is the person to attend to and create nurturing relationships? How much time does a person invest in this dimension compared to how much time he or she invests in his or her work?


Self-care refers to the energy and commitment one gives to caring for one’s emotional and physical needs. This dimension includes exercise, diet, rest, hobbies and whatever contributes to a one’s sense of personal well-being.

Few people do well in all three areas at the same time. Functioning well in two of the three is sometimes the best one can achieve. Situational and developmental stress can create shifts in which areas get more attention and which get less. For example, young adulthood may require a focus on productivity to the detriment of relationships. When one establishes one’s self in the world, focus may then turn to a greater attention to relationships. A partnership itself may allow a person to slack off in one area, if the partner functions highly in that area. Which dimensions are first to suffer under stress is helpful to understand, and can be diagnostic of stress that hasn’t yet been identified.

Balance and Practice

While stress reactivity is a better gauge of differentiation than adaptive level of functioning, it’s wise to keep the big three behavioral elements of life in balance. To the degree that you are in control of those things (and we tend to have more control than we think we do, especially when stressed), your stress will remain relatively low, and you won’t even have to think about your level of differentiation. It’s when life throws a curve ball or two, simultaneously, that you’ll have the opportunity to build up your emotional maturity muscles, so the you have more emotional solidity next time you need it.

And there will be a next time….



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