I remember sitting in a university lecture room listening to a pathology lecturer talking about differentiation and explaining that all blood cells begin life as a basic unit that might end up anywhere. It could become an ordinary old white cell, an erythrocyte, a platelet or any of at least another four options. But it would take time and would be influenced by dozens of things outside of itself: anaemia, infection and even the memories of the body. For the body has ‘storytellers’ in it that keep the memories alive and enable the ‘team’ to work together but at the same time to be individuals.

A few weeks ago I came across the concept of differentiation being used in a book called Passionate Marriage. In there the author says, ‘The polishing process in marriage is what I referred to earlier as differentiation. In a nutshell differentiation is the process by which we become more uniquely ourselves by maintaining ourselves in relationship with those we love. It’s the process of grinding off our rough edges through the the normal abrasions of long term intimate relationships. Differentiation is the key to not holding grudges and recovering quickly from arguments, to tolerating intense intimacy and maintaining your priorities in the midst of daily life. It lets you expand your sexual relationship and rekindle desire and passion in marriages that have grown cold. It is the pathway to the hottest and most loving sex you’ll ever have with your spouse. Differentiation brings tenderness, generosity, and compassion—all traits of good marriages.1

Differentiation involves balancing two life forces: the drive for individuality and the drive for togetherness. Individuality propels us to follow our own directives, to be on our own, to create a unique identity. Togetherness pushes us to follow the directives of others, to be part of the group. When these two life forces for individuality and togetherness are expressed in balanced, healthy ways, the result is a meaningful relationship that does not deteriorate into emotional fusion. 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.

In this chapter I’ll discuss several ways differentiation dramatically affects relationships. Here’s the first and most important one: differentiation is your ability to maintain your sense of self when you are emotionally or physically close to others—especially as they become increasingly important to you. Differentiation permits you to maintain your own course when lovers, friends and family pressure you to agree and conform. Well-differentiated people can agree without feeling like they’re losing themselves and can disagree without feeling alienated and embittered. They can stay connected with people who disagree with them and still know who they are. They don’t have to leave the situation to hold onto their sense of self.’

Talking of a thing called ’emotional fusion’ he uses the example of a pair of figure skaters acting in perfect harmony and the way this will arouse a crowd to rapturous applause, but he points out that this is a dangerous illusion for married couples and will undermine integrity and head them down the road of dishonest crowd-pleasing performance. He goes on to say ‘… fusion fantasies are the source of much—if not most—marital discord. The illusion that in a good marriage partners are like tightly choreographed figure skaters is impossible to live. … There’s room for only one opinion, one position. Differentiation is the ability to stay in connection without being consumed by the other person.

Our urge for togetherness and our capacity to care always drive us to seek connection, but true interdependence requires emotionally distinct people. Fusion is an invisible but tenacious emotional connection. Notice that the opposite of differentiation is a neither connection nor lack of connection—it’s a different kind of connection. You can see this if you don’t confuse differentiation with individuality, autonomy or independence. Many people make the mistake of thinking of differentiation as the opposite of emotional relationship … think of differentiation as a higher order process that involves balancing both connection and autonomy.2

Whilst reflecting on all this I was thinking about how it relates to our relationship with God, and in another book—which I was reading simultaneously ’cause I normally have about three books I’m reading at any given time—an Old Testament scholar was saying, ‘The world proposed in these psalms is covenantally shaped. That is, there’s a sovereign ruler who is bound to Israel in a mutual loyalty, and that sovereign ruler cannot be ignored. Yahweh, the God of covenant-making and Israel together are moral agents in the historical process. They must come to terms with each other. How they interact with each other matters decisively for Israel’s public life and destiny. The two parties have enormous freedom and flexibility in relation to each other, but neither party is nor ever can be free of the other. Each party is shaped by and destined for the other. History in Israel is the ongoing narrative account of that inescapable and definitional interaction.3

With all this two-sided covenant-shaping of each other going on in the Old Testament, it’s no surprise that one of the New Testament authors writes the following words, ‘In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.’ In other words, here again we have God being affected by his relationship with us: Jesus needing to be perfected via some kind of differentiation process. As the creed says, ‘He remained what he was, he became what he was not.’3 If it’s good enough for our maker surely it has to be good enough for us.

And when you think about it, a covenant-shaped life—no we’re not talking here of that favourite of preachers, that parody-covenant of all one-way barking authority—is a relief. Instead of having to live all at sea in a world with no horizon and no compass, we can live in a world where there is such a thing as right and wrong, confession and forgiveness: honest—let’s look each other in the eye and say it—closure. And not just the ‘let’s move on’ closure—which is really just another way of saying, ‘let’s pretend’—this is the grown-up and differentiated-self kind of closure: ‘balanced and healthy … a meaningful relationship that does not deteriorate into emotional fusion.’ For it’s now public knowledge that we came out of the heart of God and we live in a world where not only us but God, must behave with grace and mercy.

From the very moment that Jesus began to teach and to say things like, ‘Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy; love your neighbour as you love yourself; love your enemies,’ a great shock-wave started to ripple through the world of severe religious teachers and capricious tyrants who’s gods were nothing more than the useful weapon of preachers, witch-doctors and dictators. Talk about an undifferentiated relationship! And their tactic was simple: ‘Whatever you do, be sure to remember the Mushroom Principle: ‘Keep them in the dark and feed them on bullshit!’

That instruction of Jesus to ‘love yourself, your neighbour and your enemies’ may well have been his way of telling us to get ourselves differentiated. We see this illustrated in a beautiful way in the story of the wedding at Cana where he makes it clear that he does not need to do what his mother says and might not, but then does what she wants anyway by turning water into wine—not that she had any idea what he was going to do to fix the problem.

With Jesus, the covers were so ripped back on religion and life and everyone now knew they were equal before God, they could argue with God (in fact God happily expected that) and they could have their own personal audience with God, whether they were criminals, children, slaves or women. The Mushroom Principle had been fully exposed and that little corner of the world was now launched on a long voyage of grace, which soon led to astonishing times of open-hearted community life but also unbelievable persecution and the brutal deaths of (probably) all of Jesus’ closest followers. The ripple is still going and still healing, freeing and pulling things beautifully apart. As St. Columba said, ‘Love knows nothing of order’.

Another author—this time in a side comment by a character in a novel—sums it up this way, ‘Laws that are common to us all, dead and living, which … allow us to live and laugh and be ashamed, to be content to be helped … Not to give up your ‘parcel’ is to as much be a rebel as to not carry another’s.’4

1Schnarch D. Passionate Marriage p.51 Owl Books 1998

2Schnarch D. Passionate Marriage p.56 Owl Bookd 1998

3Brueggemann W. Abiding Astonishment p.22 Westminster/John Knox 1991

3Hebrews 5: 7 – 10 RSV

4Willians C. Descent Into Hell