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Meg Luce: The great relationship challenge

Meg Luce
Columnist

I’m sitting here imagining a relationship reality show like “Survivor,” “The Amazing Race” or “The Great British Baking Show.” Except this show is about whether couples grow in their relationships. And when they grow, they win. The couples who don’t, lose. Isn’t that kind of like real life? The marriages that step into their challenges flourish. Relationships that don’t master the tough times break up, or maybe even worse, live their lives together in misery.

My imaginary show has a potato sack race where the couples compete and get points only when not snarking at each other. Or work as a team to make one thousand sandwiches for charity without threatening divorce. Or even harder, they must discuss how to manage rising prices with no sarcastic words, expressions, or tone. Oh dear, there may be more civility in a Real Wives episode.

While I’ve seen some folks digress to Real Wives behavior, I have seen many relationships step up to the challenges of marriage and thrive. It’s an awe-inspiring display of reality non-TV to see how couples can surprise themselves in growth and self-mastery and create extraordinary relationships.



Are you game for stepping into your relationship challenges? Of course, there will be no cameras or fanfare, but there’s no greater prize than improving your relationship. So let’s see how to go about it.

The Differentiation Difference

An excellent roadmap for improving relationships comes from The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy, created by psychologists Drs. Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson. Their theory draws from differentiation, attachment, and neuroscience. While each of these aspects is vital for solid relationships, let’s look through the lens of differentiation to understand one crucial part of meeting the great relationship challenge.



The term “differentiation of self” was first used by psychiatrist Dr. Murray Bowen who developed Bowen Family Systems theory. According to the Family Systems Institute website, Bowen’s work focused “on the challenges of being human in the relationships which affect us all.”

Dr. Ellyn Bader describes differentiation this way: “Differentiation is the active, ongoing process of looking inside and defining yourself, revealing yourself, clarifying boundaries, and managing the anxiety of either risking more intimacy or potential separation or distance.”

Did I lose anyone? There is a more straightforward way to think about differentiation. Let me tell you what I mean.

Differentiation In Three Parts

It’s helpful to break down the three central aspects of differentiation. As you read the description of each part, rate yourself from 1-10 on your strength in each capacity. If you think you ace every aspect all the time, you could be fooling yourself — just a thought.

1. The first aspect of differentiation is connecting with yourself to discern what you think, feel and desire.

2. The second aspect of differentiation is to use your voice to say what you think, feel and desire while staying calm and steady.

3. The third aspect of differentiation is to use your ears to listen to another say what they think, feel, and desire while you stay calm and steady.

Did you notice that part about staying “calm and steady” while interacting with others? That means no defensiveness either. Oof!

OK, now quickly think back to your last tiff with your spouse. Where did your differentiation go offline? (Ahem, yours, not theirs.) Did you know what you were thinking and feeling? Did you express yourself to your partner with gentleness and without criticism? Did you let your spouse know you heard their point of view? Were you calm, steady, and unreactive?

If you answer these questions with, nope, nope, kinda, and again nope, just remember what Bowen said. He described the importance of focusing on “the challenges of being human in the relationships which affect us all.” Mastering these abilities happens over time through practice during moments, big and small.

So how is your relationship challenging you? Where is the breakdown in differentiation? Tune into your great relationship challenge. It’s the best show in town.

Meg Luce, M.S., is a Marriage and Family Therapist in Grass Valley specializing in helping couples create satisfying relationships. You can find her contact info at https://NevadaCountyTherapist.com

An excellent roadmap for improving relationships comes from The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy, created by psychologists Drs. Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson. Their theory draws from differentiation, attachment, and neuroscience.
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