What kind of home did you grow up in? Were you allowed to speak your mind, be your own person and choose how you wanted to spend your time? How you related to your family as a child largely affects what kind of adult relationships you have.
In this episode, I’ll be talking about a concept called differentiation which is all about our ability to keep hold of our own thoughts and feelings around those we care about without getting sucked into their thoughts and feelings and making them our own.
You’ll hear many examples of what high-level and low-level differentiation homes look like, which will help you gain a deeper awareness of your own patterns in relating to others. This will also help you understand your own unique response to infidelity and why certain parts of it are harder or easier for you than for others.
I’m Andrea Giles and you’re listening to the Heal From Infidelity podcast,
episode number 69, differentiation.
Hello, and welcome to the Heal From Infidelity podcast, where courageous
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I’m your host, Andrea Giles. Are you ready? Let’s dive in.
Hi, everybody. Welcome to episode number 69. We’re going to talk about this
big word today, differentiation. Hang with me. If it sounds boring, it’s
not. Hang with me. Give it a listen. You might get some understanding about
some things, about the home you grew up in, things that you have
experienced and what they mean and why you might be responding to things
now the way that you are based on your differentiation style as you grew up
in your home.
Basically what is differentiation? Differentiation is a way of
understanding how we relate to other people. David Snarsch, [inaudible
00:01:37] therapist, PhD, really great guy, he actually passed last year,
but he did some really, really important work. He defines differentiation
as the ability to maintain your sense of self when you are emotionally
and-or physically close to others, especially as they become important to
you. To put it in other words, it’s your ability to stay with yourself even
when you’re close to people, keeping your own emotions, your own thoughts,
holding onto yourself, especially as they are important to you.
You have heard me talk about attachment styles probably multiple times now.
This is another way to understand ourselves. The more awareness you have
about your own level of differentiation, the more you’ll understand how
infidelity is affecting you personally. It’ll help you make sense of your
personal reaction to the things that you have experienced.
To help you explain what differentiation is, I’ll use several examples
going back to things that could possibly happen in a childhood home. As I
talk about different differentiation levels and homes, I’d like you to look
at your own life and what you were taught as a child. Some of these things
will sound very familiar to you.
But before I dive into this, I want to make a few points. Point number one.
We are designed for connection. We are wired to connect with others and
with the desire to form lasting bonds with others. But we are also designed
to be unique individuals with our own talents, gifts, and preferences, as
well as our own thoughts, feelings, and desires. Sometimes those can get
mixed up. Sometimes we think it has to be one way or the other.
Let’s look at how these things can get mixed up in various families. First,
I’m going to talk about something called low level family differentiation.
Low level. I’m going to tell you some traits and I’m going to give you some
examples of what this might look like.
In a low level differentiated family, it would be expected that you don’t
stand out too much, at least not for the wrong reasons. For example, if a
family prides themselves on looking a certain way in the community than
someone acting in a different way than the rest of the family may be
frowned upon as it challenges the image of the family, of the unit. If a
family wants to be known for being smart, very educated, church-going, well
mannered, et cetera, one family member acting a different way, such as
deciding not to go to college or dressing in a less refined way or speaking
in a different way than the rest of the family, may some problems for a low
level differentiated family.
The individual may feel a lot of pressure to conform even if they don’t
want to. If they don’t push back, they will likely settle into the family
pattern and stop trying to really be their own selves because they know it
is not welcome or appreciated by the whole. As I mentioned before, we are
wired to connect. We’re wired to be in units. If we don’t have a strong
sense of ourself, we will kind of morph into the hole to stay connected to
Another trait of low level differentiated homes is a big crossover of
feelings. Let’s say that dad comes home from work one day and is in a bad
mood. He’s kind of snapping at people, just edgy, grumpy. All family
members in a low level differentiated home would respond to his mood.
They’re going to tip toe around. They’re going to wonder, “Did I do
something? What’s going on?” They’re going to feel kind of insecure
themselves. They may even become grumpy and snappy themselves because dad’s
in a bad mood. That’s something that happens in low differentiated homes.
The people kind of take on the moods of other people.
Now let’s say in another example, that a kid comes home from school and had
a rough day and is highly emotional. In a low level differentiated home,
the mother may take on the child’s emotion as if it were her own. If a kid
is anxious, the mother becomes anxious. If a kid is sad, the mom becomes
sad and tries to swoop in and fix it as if it’s her own problem much
because she wants to feel better.
A little note about this is that many of us have been conditioned to
believe that it is our job to always keep our children happy as if it’s a
virtue of being a good mother, never sad, always fulfilled, doing something
enriching and fulfilling with their time. This puts a huge burden on
parents and actually assists in creating a family dynamic of low level
In public, a mother with low level differentiation blames herself for every
little thing her child does. If the child cries or throws a fit in public,
she makes it mean that she’s a bad mother and she can’t control her kid.
She is highly sensitive and highly reactive to everything that her kid
Another example, this one’s a little more heavy, but hang with me. Let’s
say that a teenager in a home gets pregnant. In a low level differentiated
home the family would do their best to ignore the elephant in the room. We
don’t talk about it. We don’t discuss it. We patch it up. We either throw
together a wedding and just call it good and the whole pregnancy piece
becomes a non-issue. We’re just going to throw you a wedding and then
nobody has to know, and this is what you’re going to do. Hide because we
don’t want to shake the image we have so carefully crafted. We’ve worked to
make this image and we can’t have that crumbling down.
If people knew that we don’t have the perfect family, then it would cause
major emotional flooding for the parents and we can’t have that. We need to
just patch this up and pretend like it’s not happening. Send the child away
to where nobody will know. I’m sure you’ve all heard stories of about this
kind of thing. Maybe you know people who have been in this situation.
I do. I know people who have been in this situation, where rather than
actually caring about the individual and their experience, it’s like,
“We’re going to do this thing to protect our image because image is
everything and without it, I don’t know who I am.” That’s a low level
This is another heavy one and it’s something I hear a lot as a coach. I
thought it was worthwhile to bring up. I hear a lot about sexual abuse.
Some of my clients were abused as children and many of their spouses were.
Many of their spouses were and many of the parents of these spouses did not
deal with it. It was swept under the rug. It was ignored. It was excused,
telling them that they must have gotten it wrong or they would never, or
you just need to forgive and move forward because they don’t want to
actually face the facts. They don’t want to face the facts of it and feel
all of those feelings. Instead, they sweep it away because they don’t want
to feel like a failure so things don’t get dealt with. That’s what it looks
like in a low level differentiated home.
Here are some other traits, engaging in life as a pretend or false self.
Another trait is to be highly reactive to others, very low ability to
manage your own emotions, so hypersensitive to everything that any anybody
says because they don’t have that sense of self of who they are to kind of
bounce things off of. They’re absorbing everything and believing it or
fighting against it because heaven forbid somebody think something less
than perfection about us. Lose self quickly. That means to let go of your
own opinions and follow the lead of others very quickly.
Now we’re going to switch over to high differentiated families. I’m going
to use the same scenarios from before, but I’m going to share what it looks
like in high differentiated homes.
In the family that prides itself on looking a certain way, when a family
member acts differently or exhibits different traits from the norm, they
are celebrated. They are encouraged to pursue the things they are
interested in as long as it does not go against the set family rules or
values that the parents have carefully chosen, that they like their reasons
for. They have chosen those rules and values based on their own feelings,
their own things that they believe in, and also taking into account the
whole family, not just the individual, so they encourage it. They encourage
In the example of the grumpy dad, instead of tip toeing around him, it is
safe to ask him about his day or offer him love and space without making it
mean that the family needs to fix it for him. He can be a human having a
bad day and it’s okay. No one is taking responsibility for his mood. He is
given the job of taking care of himself.
Now, the example of the kid that comes home having had a bad day. Instead
of swooping in and trying to fix it, or even take on the kid’s problems as
if they are her own, the mom offers love and a listening ear, but does not
try to fix it for her child. She uses moments to teach, if need be, but
trusts her child to be resourceful and figure it out. She trusts that the
child is capable and that she does not need to spell it out.
Now, what if the kid comes home and is in that mood and is rude to
everyone? In this situation, there are boundaries. There are boundaries and
those boundaries are upheld, but it’s done out of love. It’s not done to
try to make everyone feel better. It’s done from this place of, this is
what the rules are. This is what I feel is best for the family and inviting
the child to either go spend some time away from the family while they work
through whatever it is they’re working through or talk it through, but that
certain behaviors are not permitted.
Then next, the example of the child in public. The mother knows who she is
as a mom. She knows that she’s capable as a mom, but she also knows she’s
not perfect and that she does not need to be. She also understands that
children aren’t perfect and does not place that false expectation on her
child. When the child acts up, her thoughts are, “He’s acting like a kid.”
Not, “I am clearly a horrible mother because I’ve not trained him well
enough to not act like this in public.” Instead, she loves the child, but
she holds him responsible but from a clear, clean place. She shows up the
way she wants to, not because of some outside expectation of how she thinks
she should be.
Now onto the pregnancy example. In a highly differentiated home, the child
who made the choices is shown love and concern and the parents don’t make
it about out them. They ask her what she wants to do to take accountability
for her own actions. She is given responsibility instead of hustling to
hide it from the world.
Now, the parents might feel their own feelings. They might feel sadness.
They might feel disappointment and heartache, yet they don’t hand it to the
child to carry and make her responsible for their emotions. They handle
their own emotions maturely.
Same thing with the sexual abuse example. Instead of making excuses for the
person being accused or pretending it didn’t happen, steps are taken to
help protect the child, not just physically, but emotionally as well.
There’s a separation between emotions and carrying out what actually needs
to get done to keep the family member safe.
Here are some other traits of high level differentiated homes, willingness
to tolerate discomfort and growth, can’t control own reactivity, our
ability to not react actually allows us to come in closer. For example,
let’s say that you’re having a conversation with a family member and you
notice that you are wanting to react. You’re wanting to get a little
defensive and say something back, but your ability to not react and to
pause and to listen allows you to stay in the conversation longer, to hear
more, to understand at a deeper level, to lean in and then respond, not
react. This facilitates closeness to learn to not react.
Another trait is a clear sense of who you are while also being close to
those around you. A sense of self, a clear, solid sense of self. You know
who you are. You recognize who you are and you value your own opinions,
your own mind, your own traits, all the things about you, and you can have
those things while simultaneously being close to somebody. You can care
deeply about someone while also maintaining a strong sense of self and not
getting lost in what they think you should be.
Another huge trait is an ability to interrupt your own thinking, to
challenge your own thinking. For example, you could be going down a path in
your brain and start to push back on it. I could be wrong. What else could
be going on here? I feel angry and I want to say whatever it is you want to
say, noticing it and pushing pause. I will hold off and wait until I feel
Now you have a pretty good idea of what differentiation is. How does this
make sense in infidelity situations? Where does it show up? With somebody
who is you used to a low level differentiation, they are going to feel
personally responsible for the emotions of the spouse. The spouse who
betrayed may be having a hard time self confronting, and instead of self
confronting, they hand it to the spouse and want them to share every
burden, listen to all the reasons why, want them to be their shoulder to
cry on while they talk about all the things, instead of learning how to
handle their emotions themselves. This is quite dependent on the other
person for them to feel okay in the world.
This the person who I have clients who deal with this, where they are
hurting themselves, where they’re trying to heal themselves, yet they feel
responsible for the experience of their spouse. I don’t want them to just
feel like I’m not there for them while they’re working through this and
that right. High level differentiated people will allow that person to
experience the consequences, will allow them to feel it, knowing that it’s
for their good and that they cannot solve it for them.
Another example of low differentiation in an infidelity experience is when
the partner who has been betrayed feels like they can’t express hurt
feelings. They can’t take up space. They can’t give themselves time away
because they’re afraid of the spouse falling apart. They’re afraid of what
the spouse will do if they’re actually honest with where they’re at and how
they’re feeling, or they’re making excuses for them, for their spouse, for
their behaviors and spending so much time excusing them and dismissing
their own feelings as if they don’t matter that much, paying way more
attention to what the spouse is thinking, doing, feeling than what they’re
currently experiencing individually.
Now in high level differentiation situations around infidelity, the person
who is betrayed knows that even though they have not been perfect because
no one is, this is not for them to figure out. This is for the spouse to
figure out. They let them take responsibility for their own healing instead
of taking on the burden themselves to find just the right therapist,
support group, et cetera. They let them know what they want from their
partner to feel safe, but they don’t micromanage getting it. They invite
them to grow with them, but allow them their choice, say, “This is what I
need and I invite you to step into this, and either you’re going to choose
to or not,” but they’re not swooping in trying to solve it for them.
They also share how they feel. They share their thoughts and feelings. They
share their hurts. They share them. They’re not making, they’re not laying
it at the feet of their spouse and saying, “You did this, you have to fix
this. You are responsible for all of this.” They’re owning their own
feelings. But part of owning their own feelings is sharing them with their
spouse saying, “This is where I’m at.”
It can make you feel really trapped if you are dependent on your spouse to
behave a certain way for you to feel okay. It leaves you feeling trapped.
What do you do? I want to talk now about how to grow, how to become more
highly differentiated. First of all, I want you to imagine a picture on a
paper. One picture is two circles where there’s one circle and the other
one is almost all the way on top of the other one. There is very little
space that is not overlapped. If those were family members, that is what a
low level differentiated home looks like. It’s where there’s very little
room for independence, for assertiveness, for individuality. It’s like you
have to do these things, feel these things, act this way to be a part of
Now imagine two different circles again, where there is a little bit of
overlap and a lot of space. That’s what we’re going for. That’s what a
highly differentiated family looks like. There is overlap. That is a
connection piece. That’s the unity piece. That’s where we come together and
we are vulnerable with each other and we let ourselves be seen. That’s
where we choose each other.
The other space is where we maintain our sense of self. How to do that?
Practice being with yourself. Practice listening to what you have to say.
Sometimes just the simple act of placing your hand on your heart can help
you keep with yourself, stay with yourself. Do activities that help you
self-regulate, meaning that help you stay in an emotional state that lets
you stay present with your own body.
Give yourself a time out if needed. Take space to be with yourself.
Prioritize your own healing over others. Set healthy boundaries of what
you’re okay with and not okay with and uphold them. All of these things
will help you build your own sense of self of who you are and you’ll grow
and love and respect for yourself as you allow yourself to be seen,
regardless of the outcome.
The beautiful thing is the more you practice these things, you’re going to
notice it in other relationships as well. When your kid comes home and
gives you news that normally would’ve spun you out a year ago, you can stay
with yourself and you can look at it more objectively and hand it to the
child. It is not your problem to solve. You might have to get involved
somehow, but it is not yours because you’ve become a more highly
differentiated person. You understand that it is theirs.
Be more assertive. Practice clearly communicating your wants, your needs,
your thoughts, your feelings, not because you need anyone to come your way
for you to feel a certain way, but because you understand that the greatest
way to influence others is by you showing up as the strongest version of
yourself. You’re not trying to control, you’re trying to influence. You’re
letting people know who you are. You’re letting people see you.
Practice answering this question. I am blank. Who are you? Where did you
get that information? Practice being open to who you are. Notice if you’re
getting the info from what people have told you or from who you have
decided that you are. Who are you now?
Now one note I wanted to make is that this all shows up whether you’re
married or divorced, whether you’re separated, any situation. Because guess
what? We all grew up in homes where there were different levels of
differentiation. I feel like in my home, there were some things that I was,
where there’s high differentiation and some areas that were low. That can
be very normal too. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s all about awareness so we
can see and understand ourself at a deeper level, confront that part of
ourselves and strengthen.
All right. That’s all I have for you today about differentiation. But now
onto some other things before I end this episode. I want to invite you to
leave reviews. I want you to invite you to let other people know how this
podcast has helped you. For those of you who already have, I appreciate it
so much. I appreciate it so much. If this podcast has helped you, if it has
helped you to grow, if it has helped you to heal, I invite you to go share
that with other people so that they can go read about it and know that this
is a safe place for them.
I also wanted to let you know that I have some really fun guests coming up
that I hope that you enjoy learning from. While I’m out on maternity leave,
you’re going to hear from several different guests about lots of different
topics. I know that you’ll love it. There’s some that I’m really, really
excited about. I hope that you enjoy it. I hope you find it useful and I
will, of course, be back.
Leave those reviews, share this podcast and go enjoy those episodes coming
up. Thank you so very much for being here. I know there are literally
millions of podcasts out there to choose from, and it’s a great honor to me
that you’re choosing to listen to this one. Thank you so much. Have a good
day and I will see you next time. Bye-bye.
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