Dating Wisely 1.11: Differentiate, Part 4

Differentiation and Conflict

I couldn’t move on to our next concept, triangulation, before fleshing out a quote I mentioned a couple posts ago. Psychiatrist Murray Bowen, father of Bowen Family Systems Theory, said:

“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)

In other words, how you handle the dating process will dictate the dynamics of your future relationship. You simply can’t be too careful about how you conduct yourself in the dating arena. In fact, if you date well, much of your conflict will occur in the early years of your relationship, rather than later on. Conflict that divides people many years into their relationship is usually the result of low differentiation.

The Feeling of the Conflict

That’s a mistake many people make. They think that if they’re fighting early on, it must mean the connection is bad. It might be, but not necessarily. It depends on whether the conflict is due to differentiation or to fusion. A fight because of fusion–when one or both parties try to get the other to conform to their view of an issue–carries a bitter feeling. A conflict due to of differentiation–when one or both parties present an essential core value–carries a grounded feeling.

I know that’s abstract and ethereal; it’s hard to put into words. Conflicts from a solid place, feel more solid, and the individual/s don’t need the other to agree. They simple present what they will do and what they won’t do in a particular circumstance.

Couples who are higher on the differentiation scale tend to front-load these conflicts. After the hormone haze has lifted six months or so after meeting, they get down to discovering how compatible their levels of differentiation really are. At that point, a lasting attraction will begin to develop, or the fantasy will begin to fade.

Fighting Respectfully

The process of figuring out whether you and the other are a good match–whether you’re mutually respectful of each other–takes some time, and it requires conflict. This is when you figure out whether you and your new love interest can fight well, and that will determine the future of your relationship, long after the courtship phase has passed. (See my series of posts titled, “Fighting Respectfully…”.)

Most couples make a marriage commitment in the honeymoon phase of their relationship–the first year or two–before they’ve completed this process of discovering the compatibility of their match, which takes about three years. Furthermore, most couples commit to marriage without the information you’re gathering here.

You can do it differently, but keep in mind that your date probably won’t have this information, either. The process of reading and discussing this blog together may help you figure out whether your match is a good one or not.


Furthermore, the act of marriage tends to change the dynamics of a relationship. When a commitment becomes permanent, a whole other process takes over in the mind and coupleship, introducing another set of conflicts. The conflict-resolution patterns you’ve established in dating will be the same ones you employ at this stage of your relationship, so it behooves you to establish a solid style of respectful communication when you’re dating.

Note that Bowen identifies a connection between your level of differentiation and your parents’ level of differentiation. This reality is one of the complications that can gum up your relationship outside of your conscious awareness. However, having this information will help you become more conscious of the patterns in your family of origin, and you’ll be able to notice them in the family system that comes with your date-mate, as well.

Intra-, Inter-, and Extra-Personal Dimensions

Most problems in relationships aren’t because the partners are incompatible. They occur because external factors aren’t identified as such, and one blames the other for dynamics that aren’t about either one. If you can become skillful at accurately identifying the real reasons for the intra- and inter-personal conflicts, you’ll be much more likely to team up with your partner to find viable solutions, rather than to work against each other.

Working against your efforts to team up together as conflict-resolution partners will be the realities that we’ll start discussing tomorrow–the last seven concepts of Bowen Theory. Of course, you’ll be able to fend off these relationship complications because you’ll be able to identify them and navigate through them adroitly.




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