Boundaries in Marriage and the Notion of Differentiation

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What are appropriate boundaries in marriage? And what do boundaries have to do with differentiation?

Differentiation is an idea that was first developed by Dr. Murray Bowen to describe the level of individuality present within a given family system.

In Bowen’s Family Systems model the degree of differentiation achieved by each partner in young adulthood is seen as the meaning that was made out of experiences growing up in their family-of-origin.

Maybe your parents were fused emotionally, and incapable of managing differences between themselves, and instead manage their anxiety by triangulating you into their marital conflict.

If that was the case, you may follow similar patterns of regulating your own marital anxiety.

Differing levels of differentiation, triangulation, and emotional reactivity are “vertical transmissions” in families that occur across generations. According to Bowen (1978), your level of differentiation is fundamental to your capacity to achieve intimacy in marriage.

Boundaries in Marriage and Levels of Differentiation

Bowen describes two essential aspects of differentiation.

On the intrapsychic level, differentiation involves the ability to distinguish between emotional and intellectual processing and the degree of choice a person expresses in choosing how they will behave in a conflict-laden situation.

Differentiation is the ability to manage and balance individuality (being separate) and togetherness (being connected) in marriage and other intimate relationships.

Stronger differentiation enables you to take an “I Feel” position, maintain a solid sense of self during an inter-personal conflict, and to have poise, problem-solve, and be able and willing to compromise.

Highly differentiated individuals are comfortable both with intimacy and autonomy and are more flexible during intimate conversations.

Less differentiated persons are typically overwhelmed by emotions and either engage in emotional cutoffs or pursue enmeshment with intimate others when under stress (Kerr and Bowen 1988).

In other words, they can’t hold what they want and what their partner wants in mind at the same time.

Boundaries in Marriage, Cutoffs, and Enmeshment

Partners who respond to tension in their marriage by emotionally cutting off tend to withdraw or distance themselves from their spouses rather than strive for connection and compromise.

On the other hand, spouses who respond to stress by enmeshing with others seek closeness at any cost and feel anxious when there is difference or separation.

Research clearly tells us that both of these poorly differentiated stances eventually lead to a lack of marital satisfaction.

The more a couple or family system is differentiated, the more each person in that family system can advocate for themselves and pursue their own interests.

A well-differentiated couple respects that their spouse has their own desires and aspirations. They respect boundaries around these differences and are not threatened by them.

A common pattern when a  marriage is poorly differentiated is when each spouse struggles with the notion of personal autonomy. Instead of respecting boundaries in marriage, poorly differentiated couples are often glued together in a toxic fusion called enmeshment.

Enmeshment and Meaningful Suffering in Couples Therapy

Differentiation in a marriage is kind of like like growing pains. When your baby stubbled and fell in their first wobbly attempt to walk, you didn’t exclaim “That’s it! No way! This walking stuff is just too dangerous!”

Growth isn’t often neither fun nor is it easy. We sometimes have to endure meaningful suffering in order to acquire life-skills such as building a stronger and more resilient relationship. The payoff is that a well-differentiated couple has a more honest, open, and intimate relationship than they ever had when they were enmeshed.

Typically the differentiating partner who is seeking to establish boundaries in marriage is met with a hostile “get back to where you belong” stance by their now threatened partner. This partner may bicker, badger, cling, coerce, or compel their partner to return to enmeshment. The differentiating partner often responds by attempting to establish even more boundaries and differentiation.

This push-pull dynamic creates a great deal of suffering in a marriage and often drives a couple into therapy.

The Clash of Differentiation, Enmeshment, and Boundaries in Marriage

“Giving up your individuality to be together is as defeating in the long run as giving up your relationship to maintain your individuality. Either way, you end up being less of a person with less of a relationship.” Dr. David Schnarch.

Over time, as the limerent chemical soup subsides, spouses begin to identify their own thoughts, feelings, and desires.

Without the crutch of idealized romantic love, they begin to experience moments of profound disappointment…then they protect themselves with the four horsemen.

This propels them headlong into a vicious circle that undermines healthy boundaries in marriage. The more they protect themselves and allow conflicts to escalate, the more they tear at the enmeshment that once was so comforting while thwarting the potential for differentiation and healthy boundaries in marriage at the same time.

Maintaining Connection While Strengthening Differentiation

boundaries in marriageGood couples therapy will help couples to strengthen their differentiation, without feeling the need to abandon their beliefs or core values.

Our core values and beliefs come from our background, family of origin, and defining experiences.

These fundamental parts of ourselves are profoundly resistant to change.

This is why Gottman says that 69% of marital conflict is fundamentally unfixable. That’s what makes the idea of differentiation so scary.

Differentiation is an interpersonal process, not an intrapsychic process.

In other words, it happens between spouses, and not in each partner’s individual imagination or thought process.

Boundaries in Marriage… from Enmeshment to Healthy Differentiation

As you might have guessed, attempts at differentiation can trigger profound anxiety. To soothe this anxiety, partners typically thwart any notions of separateness or difference that may arise.

The opposite of Differentiation is Enmeshment. Enmeshment is having poor boundaries as to where your partner ends, and you begin. Here are a few signs of an enmeshed marital dynamic:

  • One of your intimate relationships totally subordinates another, such as a client who was at her mother’s beck and call, and always put her husband second. Another client simply cut-off speaking with his family entirely because his wife had a conflict with one of his siblings.
  • Your feel that your happiness is completely dependent on the health of your relationship, which, in turn, is completely determined by the approval of your partner.
  • Whatever self-esteem you can muster is utterly dependent on your partner’s approval and endorsement.
  • Whenever there’s a conflict in your marriage, you collapse into fear or anxiety or fear. You put your needs last and subordinate your desires to your partner’s wishes.
  • When you are separated from the person you are enmeshed with, you feel anxiety and a compulsion to make contact.
  • You have an “emotional contagion” If they’re sad, anxious, angry, anxious, or depressed, you’re also sad, angry, anxious, or depressed. You’re like a sponge for what they are feeling. Their feelings are your feelings as well. Consequently, you find being with them unpleasant, so you avoid them.

4 Tips for Setting Boundaries in Marriage and Getting out of Enmeshment

1. Get Some Good Science-Based Couples Therapy

Science-based couples therapy can help you to understand why increasing your level of differentiation is a good idea. Your therapist can help you unpack your family of origin, and safely guide you to appreciate the benefits of a more emotionally independent stance.

2. Start with Small Changes and See What Happens

You have to start somewhere. Start small. Use leverage on yourself. Be honest. What do you really want that you’re not speaking up about? Start practicing boundary-setting by creating small, even incremental boundaries in your enmeshed marriage. But do it cleanly; don’t whine, blame, or criticize.

Here’s an example:

“You know Joe, I understand that your mom wants us over again for the holidays.

But my family is starting to feel neglected because this would be the third year in a row spending these important holidays with your family.

boundaries in marriage

What would make me happy would be if you called your mom and told her that we won’t be coming this year because we owe a visit to my family.

But I’d like to offer her a visit instead on New Years Day. What do you think?”

Don’t make it about judgment or blame. Stand up for what you want and make a peace offering. This is no time for a “scorched earth policy” or a litany of long-harbored, unspoken resentments.

Ask for what you want. Don’t leave an easy opening for passive-aggression or narcissistic injury to complicate the discussion.

Be concise, emotionally clean, and conciliatory.

Setting boundaries with care and finesse avoids the negative feedback loop of enmeshment. If you don’t have an excessively controlling partner, don’t complain that your partner is cornering you or is perpetually unfair.

Just be direct about what you want and hold a stance of positive expectancy.

3. Connect With Cast Off and Neglected Parts of Yourself

Spend time by yourself doing things that feed your soul. Get comfortable having interests and passions that differ from your partner. Couples can acquire the skill to manage these differences without being threatened by regularly having Generative Conversations.

4. Go Deeper. Learn to Experience and Tolerate Interpersonal Discomfort

By going deeper, couples develop emotional resilience to manage conflicts and personal differences. Intimacy and attachment are strengthened with the empathetic connection that generative conversations encourage. Boundaries in marriage enhance intimacy and a stronger sense of self in relation to an intimate other.

“When you build a fence around your yard, you do not build it to figure out the boundaries of your neighbor’s yard so that you can dictate to him how he is to behave. You build it around your own yard so that you can maintain control of what happens to your own property.” Dr. John Townsend.

Got differentiation? We can help.

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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  1. My son has been married to his spouse for 15 years and have 2 daughters 10 and 5. He had a childhood close friend die in helicopter crash with air national guard in 2018 and began drinking heavily. My husband and myself told him he may need counseling to help with his depression. We thought all was well and when we ate out he always ordered a soft drink. Recently his spouse called my husband and said she wanted him out of the house and didn't want to speak to him due to his continued drinking. He was never abusive towards her but she said he yelled at their oldest daughter and made her cry. Also he was sleeping a lot and complained about his stressful job. Our son brought all his clothes to our house and is now living with us. He goes to his house during the day to work which he always did. She informs him when the pool or air conditioner has a problem to fix. She calls to tell him their daughter needs help, by him with math homework but then he comes back to our house to sleep. My son is faithfully going to AA meetings and done with 1st 30 days and seems calm around us .During their marriage we have never celebrated a holiday with my son or his family. It has always been with her family and sister and her husband and grand kids. The 1st year they were married my son's father in law made plans for mothers day at a distant location without consulting with us. My husband said this wasn't appropriate and make sure it never happens again. Every mothers day my son will spend early morning with me and the rest of the day with the in laws .Most weekends his wife plans outings with her family. We are never invited to do any activities with them except to have the grand kids spend an overnight with us when they have a date night .Her parents seem to control most of their social activities. We have never had words with these people and they are cordial but rather closed mouthed when we do see each other. I feel my son is being controlled and unless he doesn't want to he needs to tell her he is moving back to his home. They both work but he makes the most money and they live well .She complained she had too much housework on the weekends so he got her a cleaning lady. My daughter in law rarely speaks to me or any of my son's friends he grew up with. She successfully fixed up two of his friends with her friends so now she will associate with them sometimes. Other people in the family feel like me. She has a pretty smile and will smile often but won't verbally connect with anyone. She will sit and just listen to others conversation but not ever giving her opinion. What would your advice be for this situation. My son son has told me it is between them and I respect his wishes but my gut feeling is that my son lost who he was before becoming involved in such an enmeshed family. My heart aches for my son and grand kids because they absolutely love their dad and his in laws aren't people you can openly communicate with.

    Sign me frozen out parents.

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