Each partnership has a different evolution. Some couples enter a power struggle in the relationship quickly, while others are able to exist in their independent attachment strategies for years without much complaint. However, if you are in partnership with repetitive conflict, insecurity, and discomfort, and you have decided to take action (either with your partner or independently), you’ll want to have some benchmarks to assess your growth.
Here’s my suggestion for how to do this: Most often, power struggles in relationships stem from a lack of differentiation, and so looking for signs of healthy differentiation can be an excellent way to assess if a relationship is getting healthier.
Differentiation is the ability to maintain your sense of self when you are emotionally and physically close to your partner, especially as they become increasingly important to you. Differentiation allows you to maintain your sense of self and to remain emotionally regulated, even in moments when your partner is physically distant or not emotionally available in the way you’d like them to be.
Differentiation is not the same as individualism, autonomy, or independence. A differentiated self is both solid and permeable. A differentiated person is able to feel their vulnerability, accept the vulnerable parts of themselves, and hold a healthy entitlement to someone else accepting their vulnerability without requiring that other person to take care of them.
In his book Passionate Marriage, clinical psychologist David Schnarch, Ph.D., describes the goal of reaching a “critical mass” of healthy differentiation, which refers to couples who have liberated themselves from the unconscious cycles of unfinished attachment from their respective histories. When individuals have freed themselves from repeating their histories with one another, they have differentiated from their families, which means more support for differentiation in the partnership.
Below are Schnarch’s indications that you’ve reached “critical mass” of healthy differentiation—or, in other words, signs that you and your partner’s relationship is getting healthier: