Bowen Theory, The Differentiation Of Self And David Schnarch


The following comes directly from the Bowen Theory website. It is relevant to sexless marriages in a number of ways.  These are described after the section on Differentiation of Self.

Families and other social groups tremendously affect how people think, feel, and act, but individuals vary in their susceptibility to a "group think" and groups vary in the amount of pressure they exert for conformity. These differences between individuals and between groups reflect differences in people's levels of differentiation of self. The less developed a person's "self," the more impact others have on his functioning and the more he tries to control, actively or passively, the functioning of others. The basic building blocks of a "self" are inborn, but an individual's family relationships during childhood and adolescence primarily determine how much "self" he develops. Once established, the level of "self" rarely changes unless a person makes a structured and long-term effort to change it.

People with a poorly differentiated "self" depend so heavily on the acceptance and approval of others that either they quickly adjust what they think, say, and do to please others or they dogmatically proclaim what others should be like and pressure them to conform. Bullies depend on approval and acceptance as much as chameleons, but bullies push others to agree with them rather than their agreeing with others. Disagreement threatens a bully as much as it threatens a chameleon. An extreme rebel is a poorly differentiated person too, but he pretends to be a "self" by routinely opposing the positions of others.

A person with a well-differentiated "self" recognizes his realistic dependence on others, but he can stay calm and clear headed enough in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotionality. Thoughtfully acquired principles help guide decision-making about important family and social issues, making him less at the mercy of the feelings of the moment. What he decides and what he says matches what he does. He can act selflessly, but his acting in the best interests of the group is a thoughtful choice, not a response to relationship pressures. Confident in his thinking, he can either support another's view without being a disciple or reject another view without polarizing the differences. He defines himself without being pushy and deals with pressure to yield without being wishy-washy.



How is this relevant to Sexless Marriage?

(The following is based largely on a summarization of the work of David Schnarch – author of “Passionate Marriage”.)

Differentiation always involves balancing two basic life forces: the drive for individuality and the drive for togetherness.  Differentiation is your ability to maintain your sense of self when you are emotionally and/or physically close to others—especially as they become increasingly important to you. 

For many people, differentiation within the close confines of a marital relationship becomes virtually impossible.  It is not possible to view one’s own needs as valid if those needs appear to contradict the needs of the spouse and / or other close family members (e.g. children).

A reflected sense of self involves needing continual contact, validation, and consensus from others in order to feel good about ourselves. This is how many of us view ourselves – through the prism of how others see us.

Those who “cannot” leave their marriages may well be coming from this position – where they are made highly anxious by the thought of being alone or separate from the very person (or persons) that have defined them.

But it is not only the poorly differentiated person who may choose to stay - differentiation is not selfishness.  It is not about always putting yourself ahead of everyone else. You can choose to be guided by your partner’s best interest, even at the price of your individual agenda. But it doesn’t leave you feeling like you’re being ruled by others’ needs.

The significant difference here is that the choice is a genuine choice – not one that has been mandated by anxiety.  The differentiated Self is solid but permeable, allowing you to remain close even when your partner tries to mould or manipulate you.

But for most of us, differentiation does not lead to us accepting more of the same. . .  Because we come to realize the truth of “Marriage is not about soothing the other - this is not the goal of marriage”

As we come to realize that Intimacy is effectively the essential element that is missing in our sexless marriages, we need to recognize how to achieve that intimacy.  Schnarch says intimacy seems to develop through conflict, self-validation, and unilateral disclosure.   Intimacy is two-pronged – a process of confronting yourself and self-disclosure to your partner. It isn’t merely self-disclosure.

The well differentiated person will choose Self-Validated Intimacy 
“I don’t expect you to agree with me; you weren’t put on the face of the earth to validate and reinforce me. But I want you to love me—and you can’t really do that if you don’t know me. I don’t want your rejection—but I must face that possibility if I’m ever to feel accepted or secure with you. It’s time to show myself to you and confront my separateness and mortality.”

Self –Validated Intimacy involves providing support for yourself while letting yourself be known .

When you’ve achieved a high level of differentiation, revealing yourself is less dependent on your partner’s moods or life’s minor ups and downs. You’re more capable of expressing who you are in the face of neutral or even negative responses from your partner. You can unilaterally push the boundaries of your relationship, and you feel less threatened when you partner starts (or refuses) to grow.

The lower our level of differentiation, the more prone we are to engage in highly dependent relationships .  You end up trying to control both your relationship and your partner in order to get control of yourself.

Two of the most important (IMO) things Schnarch has to say are these:
1)   The person with the least desire for sex always controls the frequency of sexual contact between spouses .  Having that person control your sense of adequacy is optional.  (my emphasis)

2)   Reviving sexual desire is not as simple as “resolving past hurts”.

Differentiation of self is not something we choose to do unless it is less painful than other optionsIt resembles choice in this respect. 

Schnarch refers to “two choice dilemma”- a situation necessitating a choice between two or more unpleasant alternatives.   The choice is NOT between being anxious or not – it is between one anxiety and another.

“Face the anxiety that things will change – or stay the same.” As Baz would say, no-one escapes the obligation of choice.   We want to keep our options open with choices; that is the dilemma with having to choose. It really comes down to having one choice to progress.

When relationships hit gridlock, everyone wants two choices. The problem is you only get one at a time. You make a choice and then your partner gets to make his (or vice versa). That’s when you encourage your partner to be “reasonable”—so you don’t really have to choose.

You and your partner are not in the same boat thus you can’t steer your boat and your partners at the same time.  You encourage your partner to be “reasonable”—so you don’t really have to choose.

IMO, this is the point at which many sexless marriages falter for long periods.  At this point it is we, the Refused, who are failing to act because we don’t WANT to have to choose.

On the other hand, the following aptly describes the behavior of Refusers: expecting your partner to sacrifice for you in the name of love kills marriage, sex, intimacy, and love.

So we remain in a sort of “no man’s land” – not happy with what we have and not willing to risk the anxiety that making a choice will impose. Schnarch describes the difficulties we face when refusing to accept that we need to make a choice:

• We can’t remain calm in the face of our partner’s agenda. 
• We are so reactive and poorly defined that we can’t change our position even when it’s in our interest. 
• We refuse to see our partner as a separate person. 
• We are unwilling to tolerate the anxiety of personal growth. 

So differentiation and choice are largely synonymous in this context. 

Differentiation is:
1)   Maintaining a clear sense of who you are as you become increasingly intimate with a partner who is increasingly more important to you; knowing what you value and believe, and not defending a false or inaccurate self-picture. 
2)   Maintaining a sense of perspective about your anxieties, limitations, and shortcomings so that they neither drive nor immobilize you                             3)   The willingness to engage in self-confrontation necessary for your growth 
4)   Acknowledging your projections and distortions and admitting when you are wrong—whether or not your partner does likewise 
5)   Tolerating the pain involved in growing; mobilizing yourself toward the growth you value and aspire to; soothing your own hurts when necessary, without excessive self-indulgence; supporting rather than berating yourself. 

Schnarch aims to reunite couples and re-inspire them to grow together.  So much of what he says is directed to those seeking to re-invent and re-invigorate their relationships.  (See point 1 above as an example.)

Sadly, for many of us on ILIASM this is a goal too far.  Yet the same process he advises for saving and strengthening relationships can be used by us as individuals to resolve our own dilemmas.   It DOES take personal courage, a willingness to risk and sufficient humility to learn new ways.  But the outcome can be a relationship with your own “authentic self” – something you may not have permitted yourself to experience previously.

(Acknowledgements to:
Free4All – blogger.  The Bowen Centre.  David Schnarch.)


enna30 enna30
56-60, F
7 Responses Jul 30, 2012

I would enjoy going to a talk from this author, it seems so many people would benefit ?

David Schnarch's book "Passionate Marriage" is well worth reading.

Pre-marriage went to a few talks on marriage but this would be a good talk to attend if this author gives talk too !

You Are Awesome ! Thank You So Much !

Sitting here with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. Yes I am poorly deferentiated and aware.. My responses to life are not as I would like.. The auto responses are well ingrained habits which take an incredible amount of energy to break.. All I can say is I am aware and working on this.

Working on yourself is the BEST thing you can do! It takes time, it is painful and nothing changes over-night. But gradually you ill see howe "you" are changing to be the person you truly are inside. Good quality counselling is invaluable in this process, if you can possibly consider it. {{{hugs}}}

Hello...who are you? I have been in Bowen ba<x>sed therapy for a number of years so I understand some of what you are saying. DOS is tough work and then to throw sexual anxiety in the mix is heady stuff. Look forward to seeing what you come up with in the future. Thanks.

Very timely post enna - thanks....<br />
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I think I am working on getting enough differentiation so that I no longer fall victim to the tools she uses to control, and I can find my own happiness within myself. <br />
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This seems to have more of an effect on her then anything I could discuss with her directly related to the lack of intimacy in the marriage. And it seems to frighten her sense of status quo...though she may try to direct this in a way that stunts my growth...and affirms her control..... I am learning from both writing and reading here that I can find ways to re-direct the conversation. In the process the "control knob" becomes less useful. If I can keep control of my responses...I can maintain some control over my reaction...and thus force her to become the raving lunatic, and then point out this fact to disarm the argument. <br />
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Result....she tries less to control. As she notes there is less control in upping the volume. In my case it simply means there may be more peace while we work our way to Wolfy have a finger on the exit plan trigger...and pulling that trigger...."the talk"....will be a more confident Wolfy if I can can continue and master my re-directs and disconnecting the volume control. At that point her choice, will force my choice.....and she will know it..... = silence.<br />
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Like....- yes

Enna, thanks for this post. The "Differentiation is" section is getting posted on my bulletin board.

to bookmark and think about...

Interesting read, gives me a few things to ponder...