Helping you ... Helping yourself


By Lynne Foote

Maggie Scarf, in her book INTIMATE PARTNERS, talks about five levels of differentiation for couples which is valuable both as an assessment of what level you as a couple might be functioning from, as well as offering a model for what you can aspire to. This model consists of two lower, less differentiated and more troubled levels, a third "bridge" level, and two levels of higher developmental maturity and functioning.

The lowest level is a kind of yo-yo style of relating whose essence is captured by the words: I can't live with you. I can't live without you. Ultimately this is a hell realm and reflects an addictive pattern where the individuals within the couple are tossed by the storm of their emotional desires and moods. They live as though they have no choice and as with any addiction, the "relationship" has entrapped them rather than their being free to have a relationship. Most of us have been here, especially in our early relationships and often in the early phases of our more mature relationships. Passion and desire run rampant and these drives are paired with anger, blame, fear and reactivity. This is the level that we see in couples who are caught in an intense Power Struggle stage (see my article: Why We Need a Power Struggle Stage) where they feel no freedom or ground from which to make choices but are caught in the rounds of a clinging attachment or a repulsive hatred which is based in fear, not love. It is by beginning to find our way through the power struggle stage that we move to the next level.

The second level of differentiation is when a couple has matured to the point where they are not bound by intensity, where there is more stability but no real intimacy. This couple lives more comfortably within role based boundaries. A metaphor for this is the 1950s stereotypes from TV shows like LEAVE IT TO BEAVER or DONNA REED, where the woman works as a homemaker and caretaker while the man goes out into the world to "bring home the bacon." This is more of a companionate style of relating, a style that works for raising children. The couple may function more as Mom/Dad and less as Wife/Husband, with less drama than the first level, but with less intimacy and depth than the next three levels.

The third level is considered a bridge between the first two levels of differentiation and those of levels four and five. A very essential stage of development happens at this level which allows the possibility for true intimacy and equal partnership. I call this WITHDRAWING PROJECTIONS AND TAKING RESPONSIBILITY. Let's look at this more closely.

A Projection is a psychological term for the process when an unconscious aspect of our Psyche, which being unconscious means we are blind to it, gets projected outside of us, usually onto our most intimate relationships. There is usually something in our partner to which this projected content from our unconscious can stick to, some kind of attitude or behavior. Often our partner's projections back onto us are like a lock and key in the way they interact and trigger each other. The interesting phenomenon is that we experience our own projection as something wholly outside of ourselves and located fully in our partner. A telltale sign of when we are being hooked by a projection is when we find ourselves unduly upset by something in our partner's actions (or lack of actions), when we become triggered by our partner. This is true because if we were fully conscious, with no remaining triggers, then when our partner did something "wrong," we would stay more curious about, rather than triggered by, this experience. Projections are necessary, and not an inherent problem, because once they are outside of us we can learn to see how they are reflecting what is unconsciously inside of us. We do this by withdrawing the projection from our partner and taking responsibility for our own behaviors, attitudes, and actions.

It is in level three that we stop the Blame Game. Rather than focusing on how our partner is the problem or playing the "If Only" game of wanting him/her to change, we come into greater awareness of our own role in the dance. There's good news here because if truly I needed my partner to change in order for me to be happy, then I would be in a victim position, powerless to get what I want because the decision to change would reside in the hands of my partner. In this model, the power for change remains my responsibility. And here is the further good news: in a system (and a couple is a system of two) only one part has to change for the system to change. Think of it like a mobile, you only have to touch one part of the mobile for the whole mobile to move. So if I change, and it is in my power to choose to change, then the system I am in with my partner will also change. And when both partners are committed to withdrawing projections and taking responsibility for their actions, there is a profound paradigm shift in the health and quality of their connection.

Now back to level three. It is at this level that a couple begins this process of withdrawing projections and taking responsibility but usually only after the smoke clears. What this means is that at this level, conflict still gets dramatic and even ugly, but slowly the possibility for choice dawns in at least one of the partners who then consciously shifts from a position of trying to prove and defend their point to that of owning their part in the dance. This is never a giving up or a giving in but is a conscious choice to take responsibility from a place of greater emotional intelligence. It is through these repeated baptisms-by-fire of our relational conflicts that we can either ripen and flourish and move to the two higher levels, or where we fail to thrive and sink down to either the pain and angst of the yo-yo style or the cool distant comfort of the role-based style.

In levels four and five, the couple lives consistently in the capacity for withdrawing their projections and taking responsibility for their actions. There is a lot of health in these couples and we can recognize them because we feel good in their presence. Here, love, understanding, compassion, and a deep intimacy flows through and emanates from these couples. There is a key distinction that distinguishes level four from level five and that is this: at level four, conflict still goes into the context and weave of the relationship and can threaten the connection; whereas at level five, conflict stays at the level of conflict and does not enter the fiber of the relationship itself. What I mean by this is that although level four is a highly functioning couple, conflict can still go into the fiber of the relationship and has the power to threaten the connection between the couple. And at this level there is still a tug of war between the WE and the ME needs of the partners. In level five, no serious conflict nor intense outer situation such as a bankruptcy or worse, the death of a child, has this ability to threaten the connection because the couple has matured to the point that no matter what the issue is, it stays at the level of conflict itself where they can process it together. Very few couples, perhaps less than 1% ever reaches level five but it can be a marker for us, a guiding light toward which we can set our course. At this level I have the capacity to respond to my partner as a whole and truly other person, not merely as part of my own experience.

The key to this model lies in the work we do in level three. As a therapist, I have the honor of witnessing those moments when a couple learns how to stop the blame cycle and begin to own their part in the dance. When this happens, the energy in the room shifts from an intense drama, bitter antagonism, or cold silence, to a true listening and compassionate engagement, no matter how difficult the issue is that they are facing. Smiles appear, often with warm embraces, while the fear and anger dissipates. It is a beautiful and profound turning point. It is where a healthy relationship begins.

Your feedback and ideas are welcome.

Contact Lynne Foote

Phone: 303-447-2987


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