How Healthy Differentiation Rocks the Marital Boat
My hubby and I are heading into a new phase of differentiation again. Sigh. You know those times where you realize where you are going, isn’t exactly where your spouse is going (at least not now) and you start to feel out of synch with each other?
We get out of synch for a variety of different reasons—physically, emotionally, spiritually, and vocationally. Someone needs to stretch and grow and change. Someone needs to move faster (or slower). Someone is settled in their calling while the other needs to explore what to do next. Someone’s theology has shifted and they need to branch out. Someone needs a new adventure while the other person is just too exhausted.
We all have this magical place we expect to live in marriage… the place where ‘two become one” and you are woven together in fruitful interdependence through the sharing of roles and responsibilities. Like a couple rowing blissfully into the sunset, sharing the beauty and the work.
But the whole picture of marriage includes all kinds of other snapshots of the rowboat— maybe someone stops rowing for some reason or you have different opinions about which way to go or or the boat springs a leak. Sometimes you may even need to change seats. (Have you ever tried to switch seats with someone in a row boat?!)
The truth is, we need to expand our images of marital union to include both phases of peaceful integration as well as the phases of differentiation.
Healthy marriages include something called Differentiation. By nature, differentiation acknowledges ‘we are different.’ My feelings, my experiences, my needs, my gifts, my longings, and my journey are different from yours. And marriages need space to honor both people and their differences even though it rocks the marital boat.
Differentiation comes for a variety of healthy and normal reasons, such as:
After the honeymoon has worn off… We all know the blissful honeymoon stage where the couple’s interest in each other borders on obsessive. Eventually, however, the intense fascination with each other mellows into familiarity and rhythm. And perhaps the couple realizes they don’t have completely overlapping interests. Or that they are drawn to different types of friendships or conversations. Essentially the realization dawns that their soul mate doesn’t meet every need of their soul or that they have become ingrown relationally.
Differentiation at this stage means giving each other permission to have other relationships and areas of interest apart from your marriage without the other person feeling threatened.
After seasons of intense parenting and career… The childrearing years introduce another layer of complexity because we suddenly have little people whose needs and desires are added into the mix. Men and women alike go through seasons where we feel like we have lost touch with ourselves. And in some sense we do. For many women, during certain intense stages of motherhood all her body and energy is channeled to see her child thrive; her needs are completely on the back burner. Men, too, seem to experience this in a compounding affect with the pressures of career and family— and eventually find themselves hitting a wall emotionally and spiritually. We ALL will need help finding a way back to our hearts at different points.
My husband is great at taking care of everyone else, but he easily loses sight of his own needs. During a sabbatical from work, he was called to pay attention each day to what he really wanted to do. Suddenly, everything in our house was off kilter as we began making daily decisions with his needs and desires factored in. It was shocking to see how much he had to fight in the beginning to have a voice. He wasn’t used to it. We weren’t used to it. But eventually a new (and healthier) equilibrium emerged where it was needed.
Differentiation in this phase will involve finding something outside marriage and family to nourish your heart. Look for things that tap into the dormant parts of who you are – not just care-giver or parent or provider or spouse.
When you need to move towards health and your partner is not able or willing… One of the most painful forms of differentiation in marriage is realizing your spouse cannot or will not move towards healing. Someone won’t deal with their addiction. Someone refuses to see a counselor. Someone has seemingly checked out of the marriage. Many, many people opt for resignation at this point and the marriage becomes quite diseased. And if we do not differentiate here, we will find our own growth stunted. Growth means we may have to move towards healing alone. And usually as we get healthier, we discover that we too are a part of the sick system— and by virtue of getting help for ourselves and starting new patterns – the system will change. Let me say this very clearly— we CAN grow even when our spouse chooses not to.
Differentiation at this crossroads means you find someone to help see what you are NOT powerless to change. You take steps toward health even though it rocks the boat.
After one person has been the focus for an extended period of time because of career, education goals, physical or emotional health crisis, or someone’s personality… Most marriages will have seasons where one person is center stage. This is a part of the give and take of relationship. But there comes a time in every marriage when the roles may need to reverse. The background player needs to come to the foreground for a season— their needs, their gifts, their contributions need to be given higher priority. Sometimes the person who has no problem asserting themselves needs to step back and help the other person gain his/her voice.
My teammates modeled this beautifully when after having the first 25 years of their marriage centered around Johnny’s calling as a pastor in various cities, their marital mid-life transition included a move from the deep south to Vancouver, BC for Sue to pursue graduate school. This give-and-take led to tremendous fruit in their marriage, family, and ministry that might never had been tasted if Johnny had not chosen to let her calling take priority for a season.
Differentiation means we take turns having our needs and longings take priority.
The differentiation Alex and I are experiencing right now has more to do with our calling. We had expected we would be reevaluating our next phases of ministry in two years when our twins go to college. But some things have emerged over the last year that are bringing the need to have those conversations earlier than expected. And it’s got our boat rocking a bit.
Differentiation in calling is such a huge topic, I’ll address it in my next post (frankly, it’s book I’d love to write!) because it often requires major transitions such as a move, a need for education, a shift in roles, and/or change in responsibilities at home and ministry.
The good news for us, is that after 24 ½ years of marriage, we’ve learned not to panic or take it personally when one of us needs to differentiate in some way. Differentiation is a sign of growth. It’s a phase. And on the other side of the transition we will be some place new— enjoying the peaceful rhythm again and soaking in new vistas.
And the truth is, our spouse’s differences often take us places we might not have gone if we were single. That’s just one of the beautiful things about the mystery of a well-differentiated union.