Can you see the world through someone else’s eyes?
Is there a healthy way to discuss differences?
Are you able to remain close to someone when your differences feel so threatening?
Differentiation is a process that we, as therapists, have used for many years to help individuals and couples improve their relationships.
We work with clients to help them learn about putting aside who is right and who is wrong, or who is bad and who is good.
It is about listening to other points of view and agreeing not to agree. This is not easy, especially in our society today when we are living in such a tumultuous political climate. Politics have become increasingly personal, and relationships are falling apart over political views.
Instead of trying to tolerate differences and learning to deal with some discomfort when another person we care about has a strong difference of opinion, we are becoming angry, intolerant, and we often react irrationally. We begin avoiding the person to avoid the conflict, we constantly fight because no one wants to budge from their viewpoint, and we end up growing apart instead of closer.
Clients often tell me that when someone doesn’t agree with them, they delete them from social media, or say, “I’m never talking to you again,” and alienate themselves just because they have a different point of view.
Unfortunately, in our society today, we don’t manage differentiation positively. We end up collapsing, we end up pushing the other person to accept our views, or we end up pushing the other person away. It is natural to avoid people who criticize us. We end up cutting them out of our life or we are guarded when we are with them. If we share too much about our views, we may get verbally attacked again. This is not a healthy relationship.
There is so much righteousness, so much policing on how people should and should not think or act. When did this intolerance get so out of control?
Just because our political views are far apart, it doesn’t mean one person has to bend or we have to remove someone we care about out of our life.
As therapists, what can we do to help clients manage differentiation successfully and save a relationship that is worth saving?
First, I remind my clients to listen as objectively as possible. Just listen to what the other person has to say. You don’t have to agree with their point of view, but you can, and should, accept that you will have a difference of opinion. Does anyone want to lose a relationship over a difference of opinion?
Next, begin a healthy, open dialogue. This is important.
I have a friend who voted for a different presidential candidate than I did. I listened to his views and his beliefs – I did not agree with them – but I listened and validated his point of view. Then, I asked him to listen to my point of view and validate it – not necessarily agree with it but validate what he heard me say and understand my opinions. Our conversation was healthy, I learned from him and he learned from me, and we respected each other’s opinions. In the end, it made our relationship stronger, more honest and more open.
To keep a relationship healthy and balanced, practicing differentiation is key. In fact, we can grow by listening to a different point of view, we can educate each other, and we can validate their reality – that is how relationships grow.
I also use the mirroring technique with clients in these situations. I ask that they take off their glasses and put on the other person’s in hopes they can see the world through a different set of eyes.
Try saying, “I want to hear your point of view, I want to understand you. I will listen to your opinion, I may not agree with you, but I will listen, and I will validate what you say. I ask the same of you.” This should not be difficult to do.
And I remind clients not to place blame on the other person for the discomfort they are feeling over contradicting views. Their discomfort is not the other person’s fault.
It is on us to self-regulate, to self-soothe, to take a deep breath, and allow each other to have differences.
As therapists, we find that sometimes, the differences can be deal breakers. That may happen and we should expect that to happen from time to time.
If two people can tolerate the two realities, the next step is making behavior change requests – making a new agreement with each other. This isn’t easy, but neither are relationships. As a therapist, I find differentiation is one of my “go to” resources when working with couples dealing with relationship problems.
The hope of differentiation is allowing two people to have a better relationship with each other than they ever had before, and to transform themselves, and transform each other. Find space in your life for two realities.
Differentiation is a process, it is a lifetime of work, but if clients continue to work at it, and really work at it, their relationships with others and their relationship with themselves can only get better.
Practice differentiation, practice self-regulation, practice validating the other person’s realities and remember to ask to be validated as well. Unfortunately, if the person is unwilling to do this, the relationship probably will not last.
Differentiation can work and does work, if you work at it.