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  • Jason McCarty

Relationships for Adults

One area of relationships that I tend to help clients pay attention to is their own self in the relationship. We can often become quite preoccupied with what the other person is doing wrong that we miss our own ability and power to either do something about it, or not let it affect us so much. Relationships can get so complicated and muddy because the opportunity for enmeshment is so great. The potential to lose one’s sense of self in relationship is high. This makes for highly emotional and dependent reactions to our partners that can often perpetuate even more insecurity and dependency. What does it look like to be in a “healthy” relationship these days? There are lots of theories to answer this question but as a general public we’re still hung up on better communication being the answer to all relationship problems. That doesn’t really say anything does it?

If relationships are bonds, or connections that need nurturing, then the popular Emotion Focused Couples therapy makes a great deal of sense. We need to develop healthy attachments to our partners while understanding and working through any past attachment injuries. This is very popular amongst couples therapists. But there is another major focus that has been left behind and that is the healthy individual within the relationship – the fact that a relationship makes up two individuals is and always will be important.

One way of thinking about this is similar to a book I’ve seen recently entitled “How to be an Adult in Relationships” by David Richo, Phd. I have not read the book yet, but have glanced through it. But to tell you the truth, the title alone says so much doesn’t it? Doesn’t that title just hit you in the face and make you realize how you might be acting like a victimized child, losing your ability to utilize your adult sense of self? Doesn’t it just plainly spell out so much of relationship problems? Have you ever seen a couple fight? Have you ever been in a fight? I know I have and don’t we all look childish?

So how does one become an adult in relationships? I don’t know what Dr. Richo actually says in full, but what it makes me think of is differentiation. Differentiation is a term developed by Murray Bowen, a psychoanalytically trained family therapist from the 50s. Differentiation of the self “is the capacity to think and reflect, to not respond automatically to emotional pressures, internal or external” (Kerr & Bowen, 1988; as cited in Nichols, 2006). Further, Nichols (2006) writes, “undifferentiated people are easily moved to emotionality. Their lives are driven by reactivity to those around them. The differentiated person is able to balance thinking and feeling: capable of strong emotion and spontaneity, but also possessing the self-restraint that comes with the ability to resist the pull of emotional impulses” (p. 117).

It is that reactivity in undifferentiated people that leads to so many relationship problems. It is the tangled-up meaning that is attributed to another’s actions and the dependency on those meanings. What I mean by that is this: when our sense of self is so caught up in another person or our relationship to them, whatever they do or don’t do seems to have a direct result in how we see or identify ourselves. If they aren’t helping out enough around the house it MEANS they don’t care about us. That person is too enmeshed in the relationship to see clearly and act like an adult – their sense of self is at risk. When our sense of self is at risk we will kick, scream and claw at those we believe are putting it at risk unless we find a way back to our adult self.

The piece of freedom and health is in stepping back from that as an individual adult in order to gain some perspective. As adults we are not only dependent on our partner or other people for a sense of who we are and how loveable we are. We also realize we are separate people, individuals within a system. The term interdependence is another helpful term you might want to think about as it describes having a healthy sense of dependence on other people. What I am not proposing is pure independence because for one that is unrealistic, and two, it will not bring about the type of intimacy that is rewarding. We need a certain amount of entanglement in relationships to make them relationships. I am proposing a process whereby we differentiate and develop into a person who can depend on others not be a dependent person.

The saying “can’t see the forest for the trees” is helpful in flushing out this term differentiation. When we are in reactive mode in relationships, we cannot see the forest much at all. We can only see what we think is a detriment to who we are based on how we interpret another’s actions or inactions. When we are stuck in the forest, we are stuck in a huge mass of enmeshment. The process of differentiation is like pulling a piece of clay out from a huge glob of it. When we are in a family, we are sort of in a glob and if we do not grow into our own person, it will be difficult to not react to that glob or any other globs we find ourselves in (e.g. an intimate relationship).

So briefly, where does attachment theory come in? I agree with couples therapist David Schnarch that one must differentiate as a healthy adult before they can attach healthily to another adult. Attachment theorists may or may not agree with this as they might see attachment as always being necessary to even differentiate, but what Schnarch is criticizing in attachment therapists is the possible downside of making couples MORE emotionally dependent on each other instead of less, which can bring about more emotional reactivity, the very reason they are in counselling (this Schnarch information is from an article by Mary Sykes Wylie and Lynn Turner in a magazine entitled Psychotherapy Networker March/April 2011 entitled “The Attuned Therapist”).

Like everything I write about, it is a balance. I utilize a lot of attachment theory in my work with all my clients, but I also tend to use older family therapy and Jungian concepts that focus on the differentiation of the individual (Jung called it individuation and didn’t really begin happening until one’s 50s and 60s). We do need to understand our attachment history and what makes us feel safe or unsafe in relationships. But we also need to find ways to grow out of some aspects of that so we can stand on our own two feet. We are no longer truly dependent children, and so we have to look at some of the areas or relationships in our lives where we are not acting like adults – people who can step back, not take things so personally, and realize when their own emotional baggage is getting triggered. This adult can then communicate assertively to their partner how they are feeling and do not allow another’s imperfections to mean they are worthless.

I would encourage you to read more on the term differentiation as it can be somewhat complicated. It is not as simple as just becoming an individual or gaining self-esteem. If you are finding yourself reacting a lot to your partner, your boss, your peers, your co-workers, or your family, you might want to check out Richo’s book How to be an Adult in Relationships. I love the title. How might you need to grown more into your own person before you understand and work through your relationship issues? How much are you allowing your partner and your relationship to affect you in what seem to be huge ways? How often do you find yourself reacting strongly to your partner?


Nichols, M. (2006). Family therapy: Concepts and methods. Pearson: New York

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