Yesterday, we introduced Bowen Family Systems Theory as a package of information that can give you confidence that you’re dating wisely, which should help decrease the stress and anxiety of the process.
There are eight interlocking concepts in the theory, the first of which brings us to Dating Wisely Concept #6: Differentiate.
The process of differentiation includes an intra-personal (within yourself) angle and an inter-personal (between people) angle. Intra-personally, it means that you’re able to separate your thoughts from your emotions, your intellect from your feeling, your reasoning from your instincts. Wisdom requires that you have easy access to both, and that you can decide, based on your principles, what measure of each operating system (thinking and feeling) is the best mix for a particular situation. (An equal mix of both isn’t always wisest.)
Differentiation and Dopamine
Finding an appropriate mix of thinking and feeling when dating is easier said than done, especially when the hormones and emotions of a budding relationship are so incredibly powerful (instinct) that reason has to fight like mad to even get a seat at the table.
But just being conscious of this fact can help lower your anxiety, especially if you know that your brain dumping dopamine into your bloodstream is a normal, natural phenomenon that brings people together–whether they’re good for each other or not–and that it will wear off in six months or so, allowing your intellect to get a better foothold.
Inter-personally, differentiation is an outgrowth of the intra-personal aspect, and refers to the capacity to know who you are (because you’ve clearly defined your principles during times of calm), and to remain solid in who you’ve defined yourself to be, without fusing with another person, who is simply not you, and sees the world differently. People who are highly differentiated don’t need others to approve of them and they don’t need others to be like them, so they don’t end up in a lot of needless arguments or attempts to get others to change or to conform to their understanding of reality.
Differentiation on a Date
Imagine meeting a solid, differentiated person on a date. He or she would be relaxed, able to engage in the dialogue without pretense or judgment, able to be fully present while simply getting to know you, respecting you as a different human being with your own way of seeing and experiencing the world. He or she would have no need to change who you are, and wouldn’t need to seek your approval for who he or she is. Simply curiosity would rule the conversation as two strangers got to know one another a little bit.
There would be no need to secure a second date, and because you are highly differentiated, you wouldn’t take it personally if your date wasn’t interested in a second one with you. It would simply be a conversation between two people who may or may not decide to get to know one another better.
On A Personal Note
The anxiety and stress of dating actually helped increase my level of differentiation, because I was willing to learn from the process. I expected dating in mid-life to be strange (it’s an unnatural, unexpected position to be in at mid-life) and potentially a dead-end street for me, because I knew an awful lot of people in the dating pool that really weren’t ready or fit for a healthy relationship.
I knew that I would need to be especially skilled at separating my intellect from my instincts, and that this would be a monumental feat, given the reality of loneliness coupled with the dopamine injections from my primal brain. A conscious commitment to stay awake and aware would be my saving grace, I realized.
And still, a few frogs got through my differentiated dating radar (see post titled, “…Successful Failures”…but I was able to weed out a lot more. I consider that to be one of my greatest accomplishments, because I did it for almost a decade before I sat across from a man who was intrigued by Dating Wisely Concept #1: Personal Growth Over Personal Fulfillment.
By the time Brad and I had that first conversation, each of us had been doing years of intense intra-personal work and had learned important lessons from our relationship mistakes. Neither of us was desperate for a committed relationship, but both of us were open to it if a person with a kindred spirit crossed our paths, although neither of us thought that was likely.
Because we went into our first conversation with nothing to lose, we were able to enjoy the conversation without pressure or anxiety. My approach was simply to collect information about who this guy was as a person, so that I could eventually make an informed choice about our compatibility from my point of view. Although I experienced Brad as a more solid person than any other man I had met in the previous eight years, I was willing to wait and see what continued to unfold.
At the end of our first date, Brad was surprised when I turned down a kiss good night. You see, I’d established a principle for myself, because physical contact too early clouds the ability to think clearly. So my personal policy was to not kiss on the first date. I figured, if the connection was good there would be a second date. And if there was no second date, I hadn’t wasted my lips!
It worked out well in our favor, in that by the time we were able to establish a second date, Brad was willing take off work to travel through a blizzard to get that kiss, and I was impressed with his hot pursuit. Now we chuckle about those early days, and our attempts to remain conscious and instinctual simultaneously.
Tomorrow we’ll discuss a differentiation scale–a continuum from 0 to 100. In the meantime, you might check out my posts titled, “…Solid Self 1.0” and “…Solid Self 1.1.”