The Atlantic

Editor's Note: Every Wednesday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

My partner has a strong tendency to see everyone else’s behavior in black or white. People are either saintly and wonderful or diabolical and dangerous, and the switch between the two can be lightning fast. I understand this is coming from his past—he comes from an emotionally abusive home. After much gentle nudging, he’s now been in therapy for over a year and I can see the results slowly emerging.

Meanwhile, I try my best not to react to his judgments, though they cause havoc with our friendships. He insists that when he writes someone off for an infraction that he sees as unforgivable (but that I probably didn't even notice, or brushed off as an everyday misunderstanding), I should support him by also cutting ties. In our early days I complied, but after a while I could see how much it was affecting my life.

Now, my approach is to explain that I support his decision not to speak to so-and-so anymore, but that I’ve decided I will keep seeing him or her. I emphasize that I am never, ever disloyal and I say nothing I wouldn’t want him to hear if he were present, and that I will defend him if anything negative is said. On good days he grudgingly accepts this; on less good ones it becomes a really big issue.

I’m struggling because I want my partner to feel I have his back, but at least on this issue, he doesn’t. I can keep doing this forever, but at times it’s very difficult. Do you have any advice?

David
Sydney, Australia


Dear David,

What you’re essentially talking about has to do with a concept in relationships called “differentiation.” When partners are differentiated, it means that they’re comfortable having thoughts, feelings, desires, interests, and opinions that might be different from each other’s. Often in therapy, we tell couples that differentiation is about the freedom to be who you are in the presence of who your partner is—and vice versa.

In poorly differentiated couples, on the other hand, there’s little room for each person to have their own internal experience. They imagine that the more similar they are (what we call “fused” or “merged”), the more “we-ness” there is and the stronger the bond. It may seem like being on the exact same page signals a kind of intimacy, but really it’s a kind of imprisonment. Fusion isn’t about closeness; it’s about control: “Be obedient to my feelings!”

It might help to think of a differentiated relationship as a Venn diagram where two circles representing each partner overlap, but not entirely. You still care about the areas where your circles diverge, but don’t have to inhabit them. This is the case with you, David: You can care deeply about your partner’s feelings without feeling exactly the same thing. You can feel compassion when he’s angry or hurt by these friends, but you don’t have to share his anger or hurt (or agree with his perception of their behavior).

These differences become “a really big issue,” though, if your partner struggles with differentiation. For him, the gulf between how you think about what a friend did and how he thinks about it feels threatening—he might say he feels unsafe, abandoned, or unsupported—and if he came from an emotionally challenging household, that’s probably how he felt growing up.

I say that because we all come into this world feeling merged with our parents—unable to distinguish where we end and they begin—but eventually we discover our separateness in relation to them. If those differences were nurtured in us, if we were loved and accepted for who we are in those places where our Venn diagram circles didn’t overlap, we grow up able to tolerate (and even welcome) those differences in our adult relationships.

Instead, your partner likely toggled between merging with his parents (for approval) and distancing himself (for independence), so that the circles in his Venn diagram resembled either a total eclipse or two planets in separate orbits. (That’s the polarization you’re also seeing with his view of your friends as either wonderful or evil.) And now he’s playing this out with you—trying to pull you from your more nuanced position over to his all-or-nothing side—because he has trouble reconciling your individuality with the partnership you two share.

I see this often in couples. One partner “can’t believe” that the other feels a certain way: How dare you not feel the way I do about this! (Meaning: Don’t you love me?) Or one partner “can’t understand” why her spouse loves his mother, even though she finds his mother unlikable: Choose me! (As if by loving both, he’s choosing one and not the other.) Similarly: “My friend and I had a falling out, so you can’t be friends with her husband anymore.” (Subtext: You’re either with me, or against me.) Often there’s manipulation involved—guilt, threats (“If you don’t do this, I’ll….”), acting aloof or snippy, withholding sex, escalating the conversation into a huge fight. All of this is intended to block a partner’s bids for differentiation—if the response is unpleasant enough, many people will just give in to keep the peace.

But that “peace” comes at a cost. You say that you “can keep doing this forever,” but I’m not so sure. We all want to have agency over our hearts and minds and it’s very hard to live peacefully with someone who tries to take that agency away. It’s also very lonely—how can you be close with a partner who shuts down your true thoughts or feelings? Over time, relationships like this either break apart or partners retreat into their respective silos—the opposite of what your partner craves.

The response you describe giving is a beautifully differentiated one: He can end friendships with whomever he wants; you can continue friendships with whomever you want. You don’t get to choose each other’s friends, opinions, or feelings.

But that also means that you can’t force him to feel the way you want him to feel. Only he can come to feel that you “have his back,” and my guess is that getting there is an important part of his therapy. Yes, change takes time, but consider his progress. Maybe a year ago he wouldn’t even “grudgingly accept” your choice to keep your friends. Hopefully, with hard work, he’ll become more and more accepting of your thoughts and feelings—which is to say, more accepting of who you actually are and not who he wants you to be.

Meanwhile, now that your partner knows where you stand, there’s no need to repeatedly justify your position. Whatever he sends your way—guilt, drama—you don’t have to accept delivery. Simply say, just once, “I love you, and we’re going to have to agree to disagree here.” If he can’t move on, tell him that you’re going to the gym, or to get some work done, and that you’ll catch up with him later. He may not like this at first, but in the long run, you’re giving him a gift—the modeling of a healthy relationship—that he didn’t get growing up. The more you can show—rather than attempt to tell—him what it looks like to be a separate person who’s also a loving and committed partner, the faster he’ll learn to differentiate, too.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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