The Importance of Thinking Separately in Your Relationships

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“Show me two people that think alike and I show you one who isn’t thinking.”

– Robert Noone

“We have to be on the same page.” “You’ll never 100% agree with me.” “We’ll never see eye to eye.” How many times have you heard things like that from the people you love? Many of us believe that in order to get along with the people we care about, we need to have similar ideas, opinions, religions, and political party affiliations. We get upset when people don’t agree with us, and we regularly believe that we’re right and others are wrong. We try so hard to get people to see our point of view that when they don’t, we wonder if our relationships are worth maintaining. It’s human nature to want to belong, and we often hang out with like-minded people who are similar to us. It can make us feel uneasy to be around people who think differently. But what if we could change our perspective and ease up on the idea that we need to think the same exact way as other people in order for our relationships with them to work? What if we could get along with others while understanding that we may not see eye to eye all the time?

Differentiation of Self

I often wonder what gets in the way of people being their own selves in relationships. What causes us to feel an innate possessiveness over other people’s opinions, beliefs, and perspectives? How can we learn to respect each other even if we don’t always agree? When pondering these questions, I can’t help but think about the concept of differentiation of self.

Differentiation of self is an idea derived from Murray Bowen’s Family Systems Theory. Simply put, it refers to the ability to separate our feelings from our thoughts. Undifferentiated people have a hard time making this distinction; when prompted to think about something, they’re so submerged in their feelings that they have difficulty being reasonable and responding logically to the situation at hand.

Becoming more differentiated means learning to manage your own part in your relationships, instead of trying to manage other people’s emotions and reactions. This means being part of an emotional unit while being able to control your own functioning at the same time. By paying attention to your body, mind, and emotions during disagreements within your relationships, you can learn to balance your co-occurring needs for togetherness and individuality.

Working toward becoming more highly differentiated isn’t easy, but more differentiated people benefit from being less frazzled by the idea that someone else disagrees with them. They have a clear sense of self and know that their values, opinions, and beliefs aren’t dependent on other people. They realize that it’s okay to think differently from the people they love. When you’re differentiated, you can have open and honest relationships with the people you care about while maintaining your separate self—always keeping in mind how you can maintain your emotions and let others think how they want to think.

Being for Each Other Or Being There for Each Other

Differentiation of self supports the idea of being there for the people you’re in relationship with, instead of being for each other. This means being a self while still being able to connect with and support others at the same time. When you’re being for each other, it’s hard to see yourselves as individuals. This kind of relationship fusion breeds more reactivity and anger when a disagreement occurs. When people leave openness for others to be themselves around them, their relationships have more opportunities to flourish. These relationships then become a comfortable space for people to grow. Becoming differentiated means developing a sense of self instead of getting lost trying to fit into other people’s ideas of you.

It’s easy to feel triggered or get worked up when someone you care about has a totally different perspective than you do—especially when it comes to important issues. Under those kinds of circumstances, it’s common to get offended and lash out with name-calling and accusations. If only we can separate ourselves from our emotions—without taking personally other people’s differing opinions—we can come to realize that it’s okay to think differently than the ones we love. It doesn’t make our beliefs any less valuable, and it certainly doesn’t have to diminish respect within the relationship. Appreciating and respecting the people you care about—honoring their individuality, even when you don’t see eye-to-eye—takes the relationship to a new level: one of mutual appreciation, openness, and authenticity.

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Talk soon,

Dr. Ilene

Article edited by Dr. Denise Fournier

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