Our donors have a capacity to give a certain amount of money. Stay on message. Our globally distributed products are. Every organization has its corporate speak vernacular. (Some organizations attempt valiantly to destroy corporate lingo.)
The therapy world is no different. Differentiation tops the list of buzzwords for marriage and family therapists.
Murray Bowen co-opted the term to describe the process by which individuals make their own decisions, sometimes by overcoming some kind of inter-familial conflict. Differentiation is gauged through the lens of anxiety, and generally happens for the first time once an individual leaves his/her family of origin (either geographically or philosophically). Undifferentiated individuals identify their sense of “self” through the acceptance of others, and their behaviors vary between controlling/manipulative (forcing others to accept “self”) and unassertive/easily swayed. Differentiated individuals stay calm and collected when faced with conflict and criticism. They recognize their dependence on others, but their decisions are not driven by approval from others. Differentiated individuals (and systems) adapt to change and stressful situations much better than the undifferentiated.
Couples therapists acknowledge that intimate relationships expedite or slow the differentiation process. Psychotherapy Networker, dubbed the conversation about the relationship between intimacy and differentiation “The Great Attachment Debate” with two major players, David Schnarch and Sue Johnson. Schnarch explains that sexual interactions involve an enormous amount of anxiety, risks, and opportunities for rejection. Differentiation occurs by increasing the ability to verbally and emotionally communicate sexual needs and improving the ability to relax via accommodating. Sue Johnson explores emotional vulnerability, explaining that partners take risks or rejection when verbalizing their emotional status. She agrees that sexual intimacy is part of the differentiation process, but argues that one must first feel safe, secure, and accepted in their relationship. Emotionally-focused therapy, Johnson’s model, explains that partners have deep attachment needs and fears (fear of rejection, needing to provide, etc.), and helps partners develop the courage to express and understand these needs.
Hannah Horvath and Jess Day join this debate through their narratives of discovering “self” as twenty-somethings. Hannah explores her needs and fears through her sexual relationships with Sandy and Dr. Joshua. Some have suggested that her persistent partial/full nudity throughout the show represents Hannah’s attempt to reduce anxiety and grow more comfortable with her body, even though it “fails to meet” the beautiful standards of Hollywood. Other characters on the show, such as Adam, directly express their pain at not being understood through the art of sex.
Jess, during the last season and a half of New Girl, awkwardly evaluates her sexual needs and fears with Nick. The first two seasons of the show document Jess’ journey toward experiencing safety and security with Nick (and Schmidt and Winston for that matter). Sometimes the conversations are sexual; other times the conversations are merely absurd. Nevertheless, Jess learns she can trust her roommates, and through this emotional security explores deeper, more vulnerable and erotic aspects of her “self”. Sex validates Jess’ security with Nick in New Girl. Sex experiments in determining whether others (include oneself) are safe in Girls.
So why The Commitment Project instead of The Fornication Project? Both sides of the “Great Attachment Debate” bring valid points about building relationships and developing differentiation. I agree with Schnarch’s assertion that “the bedroom is a window into one’s relationship”. My anxieties about sex symbolize my anxieties about the larger world. In therapeutic practice, I tend to side with Sue Johnson (and Jess Day, I guess) because she acknowledges other aspects of the relational narrative. Johnson’s model accounts for and gives voice to the fears that enter relationships, those that have nothing to do with the partner but get transferred onto him/her anyway. Even though I believe that you need an emotionally secure and safe relationship in order to have a promising sexual relationship, both arenas–emotional and sexual–are vital to maintaining committed relationships.
I’m interested in commitment because I’m interested in the stabilization of family units, as well as dyadic relationships. I’m thinking long-term, big picture with this blog. I believe the most significant determinant for the success of children is how his/her parents prioritize each other. That’s one of the failures of our generation: we, as children and adolescents, were prioritized first. We were catered to. We were allowed to participate in fourteen extracurricular activities so that our calendars ran the house. A part of me is grateful for the sacrifices our parents made. I mean, at least we were prioritized. But what was the cost of the “sacrifices” our parents made?
I believe that our generation can build health families by first sustaining healthy, committed relationships. Relationship maintenance involves being reminded daily that I’m safe and secure both with my partner and with myself. We should absolutely have great sex, and have fun while doing it, using our bodies to physically represent that safety. There are numerous ways to prioritize our partners, our relationships, and ourselves, and I’m excited about exploring the messy, complicated experience of commitment with you.