No man is an island. Each relationship is a way of being connected to another person. Which is valuable to humanity and is a need for every spiritual journey. However, sometimes relationships are challenging and can be a tough job, this is why we will need some spiritual relationship advice. Partners inevitably encounter emotional gridlock. When things get tough, many people believe their relationship is doomed, but it doesn’t have to be.
Tough times may actually signal that your relationship is inviting you to grow spiritually, as an individual. So you can grow within your relationship too. The antidote for gridlock is differentiation. Or in other words, for you to work on yourself, instead of blaming your relationship. Or expecting your partner to change.
Psychologist, and author of the book Passionate Marriage, David Schnarch, defines differentiation as your ability to maintain your sense of self when you are emotionally and/or physically close to others who are becoming increasingly important to you and who may pressure you to conform to their beliefs.
He views the process of differentiation as a spiritual journey. That gets activated when partners reach gridlock. The points in a relationship when partners are unwilling to adapt to the other and unwilling to confront themselves.
If you define a healthy relationship as one in which you are fused with your partner, coming together because you complete each other, you may be mistaking emotional fusion with intimacy.
According to David Schnarch, “intimacy is often misunderstood as necessarily involving acceptance, validation, and reciprocity from one’s partner—because that’s what many people want if they’re going to disclose important personal information.”
“Differentiation involves balancing two basic life forces: the drive for individuality and the drive for togetherness,” Schnarch explains. When these two drives are healthy and balanced, they result in a meaningful relationship that doesn’t depend on emotional fusion.
Believing you need to choose between your individuality to be together versus giving up your relationship to maintain your individuality is common. But they are not the only choices. You can also learn to validate and soothe yourself so that you can relate from a centered sense of self.
So what do we do when things get tough in our relationship and how do we get through it? I use the acronym CALM to help remember some of Schnarch’s key principles:
Calm yourself down first
According to Schnarch, an important first step in the differentiation process is to learn to self-soothe or to calm yourself down so that you can regain your emotional balance and feel centered in your own body. Self-soothing has two parts – first, not losing yourself to the pressures and demands of others, and second, developing your capacity for stabilizing your own emotions and fears.
Many people believe this will cause you to become self-centered and indifferent to others, but that is not the case. Schnarch states, self-soothing “actually helps us to tolerate the tension in recognizing our partners as separate individuals with competing preferences, needs, and agendas.”
Anxiety is contagious, so don’t spread it
Another important point to know about differentiation is that it provides you with the ability to soothe your anxiety and resist being infected with other people’s anxiety. According to Schnarch, poorly differentiated couples pass anxiety between them like they might pass a virus on.
He equates what we typically call empathy in emotionally-fused relationships as an infection. This happens when you rely on your partner to relieve your anxiety. As your level of differentiation grows, you have a choice as to whether to catch your partner’s anxiety or not, as well as whether you pass yours on.
Learn to validate and share your self
This leads us to another important principle – the importance of self-validation for intimacy to grow. Self-validated intimacy involves providing support for yourself while letting your real self be known. When you are willing to show who you are, instead of who you think your partner wants you to be, you can be in conflict and not be torn apart because your sense of feeling okay is not dependent on your partner’s validation of you.
In relationships with emotionally-fused couples, this upsets the idea that your partner needs to accept and validate all of you, all the time.
Maintain a relationship with yourself
Schnarch encourages those going through the differentiation process to maintain a relationship with oneself to navigate the change and self-confrontation involved being in the “crucible”. He calls it “holding onto yourself.”
This encompasses learning about yourself, confronting yourself and shifting to self-validated intimacy, and taking care of yourself or self-soothing. It requires a willingness to face your fears, admit when you are wrong, maintain a sense of self within the relationship, and maintain a sense of perspective about your limitations.
It helps you break patterns and break free of emotional gridlock within your relationship. You can respond instead of reacting to your partner. Be empathetic and open to your partners’ perspective, and become more intimate with your partner.
To be CALM in your relationship when things get tough, realize that gridlock is inevitable and that it is a choice point for you and your partner. You have the choice to differentiate and learn to bring your authentic self to the relationship.
This choice requires personal growth. It does not mean that you will never experience tough times, but it will give you a level of resilience and choice from which to engage.
Lastly, do not hesitate to seek help. This type of personal, interpersonal, and spiritual growth requires courage. You can start by reading the book Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch in which he provides steps couples can take.
You may decide to work with a marriage counselor or therapist on your relationship. Or you may also find it helpful to work with a spiritual life coach who can lead you to where you want to be. So that you may be CALM in any tough relationship situation.
Passionate Marriage, David Schnarch, Ph. D.