Dear Tristan: Be Differentiated

Dear Tristan,

Today you took your first trip in an airplane with your mom down to visit friends in St. Louis, and I’m sitting here missing you both terribly.

The situation is a perfect backdrop for the letter I want to write to you tonight, about a topic at the core of much of what your mom and I have been writing to you over the last several days.

That topic is “differentiation.”

Your mom and I discovered the concept of differentiation when we were in the process of thinking about getting married. We came across the concept of differentiation while reading about how to formulate and maintain healthy marriage relationships, but the concept really applies to all of our relationships.

Differentiation is the process of nurturing two aspects of relationship that often seem to exist in tension with one another: autonomy and connection.

You’ll hear a lot of people in your life refer to their husband or wife as their “better half,” or say things like “I can’t live without him/her.”

These are, when intended seriously (or even partially seriously), signs of poor differentiation. They are signs that our identity is too wrapped up in that of another person. Saying that you “can’t live without” someone is a way of saying that your life isn’t worth living if they are not a part of it. If you truly consider someone else your “better half,” then you are identifying as a part of them, rather than as your own individual self . . . and an inferior part of them, at that!

Of course, right now as I write this, you don’t have a fully developed sense of self. We don’t really develop even the most rudimentary self-awareness of our own individuality until we’re about three years old. And for who you are and where you are right now, that’s perfectly fine!

But As you get old enough to read this letter, and as you grow to be an adult, I hope you take the time to think about what it means to be Tristan . . . not what it means to be Mike Daniels’ son, but what it means to be you . . . a complete and self-sufficient individual.

But there’s another part of differentiation. Remember that I said the twin ideas of autonomy and connection live in tension within this overarching concept. Most of my letters thus far have focused on the “autonomy” piece of that puzzle, because I think that’s the one we most often neglect in today’s society where we too often consider “individualism” to be a dirty word.

But I’ve lived on the other side of that spectrum as well. There have certainly been times when I “failed to differentiate” by becoming “fused” with another person . . . by allowing my identity to become wrapped up in theirs. But there have also been times when I “failed to differentiate” by pulling away and becoming overly detached.

What does that look like, then? There will be times in your life when you feel like hiding something from me. And certainly, there are some circumstances where that’s ok. We have this notion in our society that only adults have an inherent “right to privacy.” I don’t buy that. There will certainly be some things in your life that I want to know about for your own safety, but there are others that are none of my business. The key to being a well-differentiated person is to know where that line is, and why it’s there.

If you write something in a private journal, it’s your right to expect that it remain private. But if you’re avoiding a conversation because the topic is uncomfortable and you suspect that I’ll have a different perspective that doesn’t necessarily match yours, that may be a sign of poor differentiation. Similarly, say that you broach a subject that I don’t want to talk about. If my reasoning is that I think the conversation would be better to have at a different time, place or setting, that’s largely a judgment call. If, however, I’m uncomfortable with the fact that we might have differing opinions and I just don’t want to talk about it, that might be a sign of poor differentiation on my part.

You see, a well-differentiated person is able to handle differing perspectives, uncomfortable conversations and changing circumstances without becoming offended at the other person in the relationship, because the well-differentiated person is self-sufficient. The reason I might shy away from you because of a difficult conversation is the same reason I might become “fused” with you and say that I can’t live without you . . . because ultimately I have wrapped too much of my identity up in yours.

This is also tied to what I mentioned yesterday about taking responsibility for your own feelings and needs. When we are “fused” with another person, it is easy to lose track of where their “self” ends, and ours begins. Do I hold a particular opinion because I believe it, or because they do? Do I enjoy a particular activity because it’s what I like to do, or because it’s what they like to do? If I find a particular activity fulfilling, is it because it actually appeals to me, or because I know that the other person will approve? Are my preferences, beliefs, activities and thoughts my own, or am I merely a reflection of the person with whom I am “fused”?

That part of the process of “differentiating” from a fused relationship is rediscovering what your own thoughts, beliefs, preferences and opinions are, and holding true to them in spite of the reactions of those with whom you are in relationship. This can create some incredibly tense situations, and if the other person is not as committed to the relationship or to the process of becoming self-sufficient as you are, it can mean the end of the relationship. That’s the part you have to take responsibility for.

If you feel the need for self-sufficiency, and if the other party in a relationship is asking you to give up pieces of your self as the price for staying in relationship with you, then the choice of whether to give up yourself, or give up the relationship, is up to you. Nobody can force you to remain in a “fused” relationship. Only you can make that decision. Similarly, you cannot force someone else to change alongside you as you rediscover yourself and differentiate from them. Only they can make that choice. You are responsible for yourself. They are responsible for themselves.

And often, as in the case of your mom and me, as you work through the process of differentiating, the other person in the relationship will work alongside you to differentiate themselves as well . . . they will give you the space to rediscover yourself: your own thoughts, preferences, opinions, feelings and needs . . . and they won’t be upset or offended, or take it personally, if yours don’t exactly match up with yours.

Sadly, in some cases, they will be unwilling to change . . . and equally unwilling to see you change.

That’s hard. It’s incredibly hard. Frankly, in my experience, I’ve found that it’s perhaps the most difficult thing I’ve ever done – differentiating in spite of the other person’s unwillingness to live in a differentiated relationship. Simply “going along to get along” . . . keeping your mouth shut, keeping your head down and avoiding conflict is much, much, much easier. But you have to ask yourself if the price is worth it. I’ve said several times in the course of these letters that my relationship with you is more important than actions, thoughts, opinions, differences, or any number of other things . . . but you have to decide, is a relationship in which another person is constantly urging you to sacrifice your own opinions, beliefs and thoughts, under threat of severing the relationship, really one that is healthy for you to remain in?

Frankly, is that kind of relationship – a relationship that is entirely at the whim of another person’s opinions and preferences, and where you must sacrifice much of who you are for the sake of placating them – any relationship at all?

Of course, this is one of those many areas where there is no black and white. It’s not a matter of “being differentiated” versus “being undifferentiated.” There are many shades of differentiation, and you will probably occupy many points along the spectrum – as I have – throughout your life. I’m not going to promise you that your mom and I will always behave in the most differentiated fashion toward you. Differentiation is a process, and as such there are times when we move forward and backward within that process. There are times when I am living much more fully differentiated than I was the week before, and there are times when I am living much less fully differentiated than I was the week before.

Remember to have grace for yourself in this process, and remember that just because you make a choice in one conversation to act in a way that is “fused” with another person, doesn’t mean you have to make that same choice in every instance . . . or even in the very next conversation with the same person.

And I will promise you this: I will promise you that differentiation is something that is very, very important to your mom and me, and always will be. I will promise you that we will, throughout the course of our lives, be working to differentiate from one another and from you . . . allowing you the space to become your own Self, but not pulling away so much as to sever the relationship. Because ultimately it is the relationship that is the most important part of my life with you – which is why I’m not willing to settle for a relationship that isn’t real . . . and why I want to make sure that I’m nurturing that relationship as much as possible, and sharing with you the ways that I’ve learned so that you can do the same, if you choose.

I very much hope that you will.


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