6 Commentsby   |  09.14.09  |  Uncategorized

Differentiation is the emotional maturity one has developed over the course of life which is displayed in everyday actions with family members as well as romantic partners. According to Kerr & Bowen there are different levels of achievable differentiation, ranging from the basic level, 25 or below, which is classified as “the inability to differentiate between thoughts and feelings” (101). A person who hasn’t been able to define exactly who they are and what they personally believe but has begun to develop a sense of differentiation is scaled in the 25-50 range. The next classified range of differentiation is 50-75 and people who fall within this range are able to make decisions that are well thought out and developed. Also, the intellect is able to make rational decisions outside of one’s current emotional state. The last range of scaled differentiation is from 75-100. Reserving 95-100 as hypothetical, this range of differentiation is one where the intellectual state and the emotional state are not directly influenced by each other but can work together.

There are two extremes of differentiation, being cut-off from those around you or to be completely fused or enmeshed. The term of being cut-off is when you don’t allow yourself to become close to others stemming from different fears. For example, they may fear becoming too close to others and not having an identity of their own. The second term enmeshment or fusion, is when you don’t ever emotionally/ intellectually separate who you are from another person.

My first media example is of a father being cut off emotionally towards his daughter. Even though they are still within the same household and family system, they rarely talk and never emotionally engage one another. It’s a song by Reba McEntire called Greatest Man I Never Knew. My second media example is of a father and daughter who are very close but she’s at a point in life where she is ready to leave his guidance and set out on her own. The song is about him recognizing that she’s ready to leave and allowing her to. It’s by Billy Ray Cyrus and his daughter Miley Cyrus. The song is called Get Ready, Get Set, Don’t Go.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Kerr & Bowen (1988) stated that “the higher the level of differentiation of people in a family or other social group, the more they can cooperate, look out for one another’s welfare, and stay in adequate contact during stressful as well as calm periods.” (93) Spending my last year in Asia, I saw the exact opposite of this claim. Families were extremely close, forming few of their own opinions, and at times living together their entire lives. Yet these families worked together well as a team, somewhat of a one mind one body concept. Is there a possibility that families that are fused together could possibly be helpful towards them functioning as a family?
  1. The readings never intentionally state that emotional differentiation is positive and being enmeshed or cut off is not desired but it’s definitely implied. So, in correlation to question #1 is it healthier, better, or more desired to be emotionally differentiated? If we say yes, how can our answer be correct for everyone in every situation?
  1. Differentiation is talked about as an achieved state of a person’s balance between dependence and independence as if once you achieve a level you are always at that level. Understandably, with hard work you may emotionally mature some as life moves on if you are intentional about maturing. But, is it possible throughout life for your level of differentiation to fluctuate? For example, could the people you are surrounded with and influence by have an effect on your level of differentiation?

Kerr, M. E., & Bowen, M. (1988). Family evaluation: The role of the family as an emotional unit that governs individual behavior and development. New York: W. W. Norton. (89-111)


  1. Tyson Alexander
    9:05 pm, 09.16.09

    Differentiation can be a tricky thing, like Tara said, is differentiation always the answer? I think that overall yes, the goal should be differentiation, but at times it might not be the best. For instance, a couple during a crisis may find that being more enmeshed may help them get through a time of crisis. For example at the loss of a child a couple may find solace only in themselves and for a time may be enmeshed.

    However, I do believe that overall the goal should be differentiation. In the example, a season of this couple’s life might lean more towards enmeshment on the continuum, but swing back towards differentiation after the crisis. This is probably just a rewording of Tara’s question, but can there be a continuum of differentiation that fluctuates depending on the context of peoples lives?

    I also agree, that differentiation is a very western view and ideal. Families from other cultures might not understand this concept or even see a need for it. Tara mentioned China, I spent some time in Chile a couple of summers ago and found a very similar experience with the family culture there. How does this affect our therapy outcomes with families of different cultures? This should definitely be something to be aware of.

    Oh, and bravo on the Reba and Miley Cyrus references in your blog…bravo!

  2. Tara Stephens
    9:58 pm, 09.20.09

    I do agree that differentiation is healthy in our Western individualistic society. In regards to clients coming from different cultures, I think it would prove difficult to really help them if you don’t have a deep understanding of their culture and where they are coming from.

    I like your example of fluctuating degrees of differentiation depending on life events. A couple would definitely need to be closer in order to help each other deal with such a difficult time.

  3. Sabrina Johnson
    10:50 am, 09.22.09

    Thanks for you cultural diversity Tara!

    1.) I do think a family can function while being enmeshed as in the example you gave with Chinese families. It would seem that our American beginning as immigrants from all over would have something to do with the high value we place on differentiation. Our nation started with the mindset that we wanted to get away from that which we knew and to start something of our own. I do not think either is better than the other, just different.

    2.) I think for people in America, the goal is differentiation. It is important to us to test our own beliefs and know they are our own. It is not that we do not value those of our origin, but rather we want to know them as true for ourselves and not just because they have always been. At least, this is how it is for me personally.

    3.) It would seem to me that if there is the option to increase differentiation, there is also an option to decrease differentiation. Although, it would seem to me that the higher your differentiation, the less your level should fluctuate.

  4. Emily Savage
    3:03 pm, 09.24.09

    Having spent the last year in Asia myself, I have thought quite a bit about your first question Tara. Honestly, I think I had somewhat the opposite learning experience as you. Before I went to Asia I worked hard to not be judgmental and assume that my values were the “right” values. However, in Bangladesh family systems are very enmeshed and this is to the detriment and blatant degradation of women in the society. Women in many ways are not supposed to have their own thoughts and feelings and this makes them unable to stand up for basic human rights (e.g. adequate food; non-violence).

    While I was there a friend of mine had an arranged marriage. After the marriage she talked to me about the tension she felt as to who her allegiance was to (her husband or her FOO)and how to go about making good decisions. Now that she had more than one family telling her what to do She did not know how to reason out a decision. We discussed what her religion told her to be true, how she felt, and what she hoped for her in life, within the options available to her, and her view of proper hierarchy. It seemed that being able to emotionally disconnected herself from her family in order to make a decision, evaluating her own thoughts and feelings was extremely helpful.

    I feel like the issue here is not so much about whether or not differentiation is very healthy in most cultures, I think it is more about different kinds of hierarchies, and core values. Even with these differences I think being differentiated (being able to think through decisions individually while being connected to others) is the most healthy and growth promoting way to live.

  5. Jacqueline Roberts
    9:32 am, 09.28.09

    (1) I beleive the some fused families are healthy, especially those in different contries such as Asia. Extreme situtions, such as famine or natural disasters bring families closer together to the point of emeshement, in order to survive. Other cultural norms require a higher amount of involvment or emeshment then considered healhty in American culture. However, even for Americans I find myself asking the question ” If the family system is emeshed, but healthy is it wrong”? Just because a healthy functioning family meets the criterian for being emeshed, as a therapist do I still need to interfear?

    (2) I think that having a higher level of differentiation is importnat in American culture. In today’s, society people are encouraged to be indepedent and challenge thier beliefs. However, every family system has their own unique challenges and strengths that determine an individual’s level of differentiation.

    (3) There are opportunities in life, I beleive, where one can increase thier level of differentiation. In contrast, there may be instantces such as personal tragedy, that may decrease one’s level of differentiation. Like Sabrina mentioned, I too think that if an individual is highly differentiated they are less likely to fluctuate throughout their lifetime.

  6. Jaime Goff
    4:27 pm, 09.30.09

    I think that differentiation is often misunderstood as meaning that you can’t or shouldn’t be closely connected to others. I don’t think that’s what it refers to at all. The core question of differentiation, imho, is this: Is disagreement permitted/tolerated? And how does a family respond to it? Do they kick a person out who chooses a different lifestyle, makes a decision they disagree with, or believes something different? Or are they able to maintain close connection, in spite of areas of disagreement? Even in more collective cultures, I think differentiation can be healthy for families. I think there’s a reason Japan has such high suicide rates for young adults…the pressure to conform to their families’ expectations are overwhelming and to disappoint them seems worse than dying.

Add a Comment