Differentiation: Could Your Differences Be Your Marriage's Asset? | Marriage & Relationship Coach

Welcome to April AwakenYou family! I am so excited for this quarter and the fun things I will be creating to help all of you on your journey to loving this life we are living. Yesterday I did the work of planning out my projects for this quarter while also working on some fun business and pleasure trips, including ending the quarter celebrating my birthday! I have three excellent AwakenYou Masterclass I am preparing for you where we will dig into your relationship with yourself, your spouse and practicing how to commit to what is true for you and your life values, beliefs and ideals. This month we will be working on Creating More Connection and creating connection that feels good to you, instead of what society has taught you about marital connection, you can find the link to register for this one hour class in the show notes and I would also suggest you go back to Ep. 59 Creating Connection That Feels Good To YOU to better prepare for the class. If you’re able to listen to that episode you can start the practices that I share and then in the Masterclass you can share how it’s going and get help with implementation.

Before we get started, I also want to remind you that I am celebrating AwakenYou’s first anniversary, and I have a special request and gift for those of you who have been listening; the request I have is that if you have been learning and enjoying the episodes, you write a short positive review on whatever platform you listen to these episodes. After you submit your review, take a screenshot of it and send that screenshot to me in an email (christine@christinebongiovanni.com) or send it to me in a DM on my Instagram or Facebook page. I will add everyone who submits a review over the next four weeks into a lottery where I will draw one name a week to win a $50 Amazon gift card; anyone who does not get drawn as a winner will stay in the lottery, so please write a short review and share it with me so I can add you! You have just two more weeks to get yourself entered so go ahead and do that while you are listening to today’s episode.

This week I am digging into a concept that I was introduced to last summer at my Advanced Relationship Training. As with most of the concepts I share here, I like to take some time to absorb what I have learned, conceptualize the theories, take them into my own life and observe what happens while I practice them. I imagine, if you are anything like me anyway, that sometimes when you are listening to therapists or coaches or any relationship expert, you may hear words or concepts that completely fly over the top of your head. Like, “oh, I hear that, it may make sense, but I’m not sure I get it.” that is my brain anyway when I listen to some of my favorite relationship experts. Differentiation was one of those words. It was quite abstract when I first heard it, and what I have learned to do with concepts that my brain isn’t quite able to understand is to give it space to grow. Sort of back to the garden analogy, with plants that I’m familiar with, I get them, and I let them do their thing, but with new plants, plants I’m not so familiar with, well, if I treat them the same typically there isn’t a good result. Instead, I have to do some reading up on their needs and pay extra attention to them, giving them space to thrive, and through that time, I start to understand them better.

Differentiation has been this way with me. I’ve allowed it to sit and marinate in my brain; my ears perk up when I hear it brought up in conversation or a teaching or coaching session, I get curious about it. It becomes one thing that gets past my RAS (Reticular Activating System – the brain filter that has you seeing that red convertible you’ve had your eye on everywhere you go – thank you, Mel Robbins for teaching the world about this phenomenon). Today I’m going to share what I’ve learned with you so that you can start seeing how important it is in your life and marriage. Today I’m going to share what differentiation is, including the opposite ends of the differentiation spectrum, why we might fear opening up to be differentiated from our spouses and other close relationships while digging into the evolution of our sense of self, including how many of us get stuck unable to develop a solid sense of ourselves and lastly why we want to increase our differentiation and four steps to doing so. Ready? Set. Go!

What exactly is differentiation in your marriage and relationships?

Differentiation is the active process of a person being able to define their thoughts, feelings, wishes, and desires to others while also tolerating and accepting their partner doing the same. When we can do this, we can hear what our partners have to say, take their thoughts and opinions into consideration without needing to agree or take them on as our own fully. It allows you to consider someone else’s opinion without making their opinion wrong and without making your opinion wrong, no judgment on either side.

Differentiation is sandwiched between autonomy or individuality, attachment, or togetherness. Many of you have heard me talk about the evolution of many relationships where we often start with attachment and togetherness and then move into more of an autonomous/individual sort of relationship, which feels very lonely, hence the roommate type of marriage existence and then when a couple is devoted to creating a more intimate, joyous, adventurous relationship they will move into a differentiated or interdependent type of marriage.

The attachment or togetherness relationship is where one or each person in the relationship desires to be loved and needs to belong in higher priority than their personal preference. They exist more in a reflected state of self where their worth is defined by how the other person treats them. This side of the spectrum has us giving up our desires and becoming absorbed into the other person.

Whereas in the autonomous or individuality relationship dynamic, there is the desire to be who we want to be without any compromise or leeway for the other person’s desires or beliefs, it has us shut off from the other person’s needs and desires if they are different from ours.

Differentiation is the ability to stay connected to and know your thoughts, feelings, and values while at the same time also being able to be close to another who might have different thoughts, feelings, and values. It has us being able to accept each other’s differences without reacting to them.

Fear of opening up to our differences

Our level of differentiation is modeled by our parents, our primary caregivers, and our family of origin. Typically, we will re-create what we see modeled to us. This modeled behavior often has us afraid of showing our truth, our authentic selves, our values, and beliefs for fear that others won’t agree or like their position possibly leading to an argument or the other person picking up and leaving. This fear leads the person to show a water-down or false version of themselves to their partner and the world.

From here, I would like to take a look at the evolution of our sense of ourselves to help us better understand the dynamic where we create a state of dependence or attachment to our spouses.

Evolution of our sense of self

Reflected sense of self

A reflected sense of self is where we start. As a relational being, initially, we rely on the feedback we get from others for our perception of ourselves because we are unable to do so ourselves, our pre-frontal cortex is not developed at this stage, and this is where we will start to develop our own self of sense as that portion of our brain develops. Initially, we are dependent on our caretaker’s feedback to get to know ourselves. As we grow into adolescents, we continue to develop this reflected sense of self through interaction with our peers. This is where peer pressure steps into our perspective: are we accepted as we are or not? What do we need to do to feel accepted?

In this state, which is often the state we are in when we enter our love relationships, we are constantly looking for external positive reinforcement and our sense of being loved; we are avoiding or dismissing anyone who may be critical or not creating that validation for us. From this state, we often conform to the crowd we are with without revealing much of our truth to avoid feeling rejected or unliked.

A solid sense of self

A solid sense of self comes from the process of building our self-confidence and being less dependent on other people’s beliefs, values and opinions to validate ourselves. Our self-validation comes from within. It’s knowing who we are, knowing our worth and value regardless of the circumstance and what other people think. We can stand in our truth AND allow others to be wrong about us AND allow others to stand in their own truth without any need to change them to feel better.

The development of a solid sense of self is a lifelong journey that contains several different facets, including our intimacy and sexual experiences.

Why would a person want to increase their differentiation?

In a nutshell: to keep your life and relationships from getting boring and lonely. Without differentiation, relationships get stale, interactions become safe and repetitive which prevents growth and change. Undifferentiated relationships don’t challenge each other to try new things, explore, and take any risk.

Let’s look at some benefits of creating more differentiation in your marriage:

  • To become myour most authentic self, creating personal freedom and a life that is big and beautiful
  • It helps the relationship become more open and accepting which then develops intimate enrichment
  • You provide a healthier psychological and emotional model for your children
  • Open up and improve ALL relationships, allowing you to let go of your ideas of how others should show up in the world so that we can enjoy them and giving ourselves permission to do the same without trying to control what other people think of us.
  • It attracts others who are more differentiated which brings more interest and dynamic to your life

How to become more differentiated

First, we start with ourselves by building a solid sense of who we are, which is the work that we do in AwakenYou, by spending time getting to know ourselves intimately. We learn about our emotional triggers and our strengths and weaknesses while learning how to strengthen our weaknesses.

We learn how to self-regulate (listen to Ep 35: Emotional Regulation In Your Marriage) when we notice ourselves or our spouse being triggered to remain calm or take a time-out so that we can keep our minds open instead of closed off. Learning how to recognize triggers and dysregulation allows us to pause and re-schedule the session after taking time to evaluate. It’s then knowing how to self-soothe from this space and get your mind and body back into a safe space, listening to Ep 38: Self Soothe To A Happier Marriage will help with this.

Lastly, agreeing and committing to continue the work together, or on your own, towards growth, knowing that marriages are self-growth mechanisms. Know and understand that relationships are like a crucible, using relationship expert David Schnarch’s metaphor for any intimate, committed relationship. He says that a relationship is a hot and visceral place where you constantly rise, flourish, fail, “die”, and become reborn. Both of the individuals in the relationship continue to stretch and re-invent themselves knowing the only way to grow is to step into the fire!

So there is differentiation for you; I would love to hear your take-aways, your questions, and what you’d like further clarification on while you start becoming aware of this dynamic in your own relationship. Are you differentiated or is this the first time you’ve heard of the concept?


I am a marriage coach who helps women and couples go from feeling powerless to change how they feel about their marriage to feeling powerful and taking ownership of how they feel. My process isn’t about changing your partner; it’s about discovering who you are so that you can AwakenYou in your marriage, and through this process, you will begin to find that your partner will change as well! If you’re ready to take yourself to a place where you can finally fall in love with your life and your spouse, then schedule your program inquiry call today and let’s talk about the next steps to making your dream life your reality.

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