Dating Wisely 1.9: Differentiate, Part 2

Differentiation: The Cardinal Characteristic of Success

Yesterday we introduced Dating Wisely Concept #6: Differentiate. This concept is critical to well-being, not just to dating, although it does have particular ramifications for that arena. We looked at a couple of those yesterday.

It wouldn’t be an over-statement to say that a person’s level of differentiation is THE cardinal character quality that dictates how the process of dating will go. Dr. Murry Bowen, pioneer of family systems theory and therapy, put it this way:

“The two spouses begin a marriage with life-style patterns and levels of differentiation developed in their families of origin. Mating, marriage, and reproduction are governed to a significant degree by emotional-instinctual forces. The way the spouses handle them in dating and courtship and in timing and planning the marriage provides one of the best views of the level of differentiation of the spouses. The lower the level of differentiation, the greater the potential problems for the future. People pick spouses who have the same levels of differentiation” (Bowen, in Theory in the Practice of Psychotherapy, p. 79)

Whoa! Really?

That’s a statement pregnant with significance, if I ever heard one! It raises the importance of the dating process way beyond two people sitting over coffee, summing up whether they want to sleep together. If you want to find a partner with whom you can share a stable, peaceful life, your level of differentiation makes all the difference. You will be attracted to someone at your level of differentiation.

Furthermore, it behooves you to make sure that you can separate your intellect and your instincts (see yesterday’s post), because if you allow your dating life to be governed by your (generally unconscious) emotions, feelings and motivations, you’ll virtually guarantee that your dating choices will end in heartache.

If you’re a mid-life divorcee, take some time to honestly scrutinize your intentions when you married before, because now you have a chance to do it differently…better…from a more differentiated, solid, principled position.

Differentiation Level: 0-25

So what does an ideal level of differentiation look like in practical, dating terms? Let’s consider a scale from 0-100, broken into four levels. People whose level of differentiation ranges from 0-25 are governed by their feelings, although they don’t realize or think about it, and are highly dependent on the approval of others as a way to alleviate their nearly-constant, or easily-triggered, state of anxiety.

Someone with this level of differentiation in the dating market would be invested in figuring out how to please others, even if at great sacrifice to the self. He or she might be overly-accommodating on a date, without a personal opinion or unique desire about where to go, what to do, what to talk about, etc. The goal for such an individual might be to do whatever is necessary to secure the next date.

Don’t be fooled, however. Some folks in this range may appear more differentiated, in that they may be rigid in their belief system–a belief system that they follow so as not to have to think about life for themselves. They simply follow rules that they expect will get them what they want: another person who will think just as they do (which is no one), or to take care of them for the rest of their lives (which is developmentally stunted).

Differentiation Level: 25-50

Those with a differentiation level of 25-50, are able to make some distinction between their thoughts and feelings, but during times of stress (such as dating), they default to their feelings, losing their grip on what principles they’ve managed to define for themselves.

On a date, someone in this range might look much like someone in the 0-25 range, because the stress of the process forces them to default to their emotions and instincts. They seek the approval of their date, their friends, their community or their family, rather than thinking for themselves about the kind of person they are and the kind of person they want to be with. They may have more opinions than a person in the 0-25 range, but they’re often the opinions of others that they’ve simply adopted in order to comfortably belong to a group.

Differentiation Level: 50-75

In the 50-75 range, an individual is much less people-pleasing and is willing to suffer rejection or conflict rather than feel the disconnect from self when he or she compromises essential personal principle or temperamental composition. In times of stress, however (such as dating), a person in this range may default to the behavior of someone in the 25-50 range.

On a date, this person has a range of interests to do and discuss, and is comfortable enough sharing them, even when they may be different than those of his or her date. There’s no need to get the other to agree, and there’s a willingness to allow the other to see and experience the world differently.

In the upper part of this range, the anxiety of a person on date will be fairly low, with curiosity and flexibility (not the same as accommodation) governing the ease of interaction. In the lower part of this range, anxiety will still play a significant role, but the individual will be able to use his or her intellect to override the anxiety in the interest of discovering the world of the other.

Differentiation Level: 75-100

Few people achieve a differentiation level in the 75-100 range, and if they did, they would probably be blissfully partnered…not in the dating market. If, for some reason, they did find themselves in the dating pool at mid-life, perhaps as a widower, their anxiety would be minimal, as their expectations would be close to zero. The date would be relaxed and open, unencumbered by fears or previous attachments.

They would also likely find it very difficult to find another person at this level of differentiation, as the higher the person on the scale, the less likely they will find themselves in the dating pool. The lower the level the differentiation, the increasingly high the divorce rate.

All the more reason to accurately identify your level of differentiation and to work your derrière off to increase it. Keep in mind that a skilled family systems counselor can help with that process.

See my posts titled “…Solid Self 1.0” and “…Solid Self 1.1” for a more detailed description of the concept of differentiation and this scale. I’ll share a personal story or two about differentiation and dating before we move on to our next concept: triangles.


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