The People-Growing Process of Relationship with David Schnarch, PhD

Marriage is not reducible to communication problems, old wounds, or two peoples’ unconscious feelings. Sex and intimacy difficulties are not “symptoms” of other things happening in your relationship. They are the process of a marriage—the “people-growing” machinery of emotionally committed relationships—differentiation in action.

Differentiation is your ability to balance attachment (connection) and self-regulation (self-soothing). It develops by going through difficult situations in your relationship that challenge your ability to keep both needs balanced. There are four aspects to differentiation:

  1. Maintaining a clear sense of yourself while being close to (or away from) people important to you
  2. Soothing your own anxieties and calming your own fears
  3. Controlling your own reactivity to your partner’s reactivity
  4. Your willingness to tolerate discomfort for growth

Marriage challenges your ability to remain clear about “who you are” while you’re physically and emotionally close to your partner. You have to go through difficult times without giving up and without always giving in. When you reach an impasse, it’s not that something is going wrong—it’s part of the grand design of emotionally committed relationships. In other words, marriage is the process of finding out who you really are while fending off a partner who’s all too ready to tell you!

David Schnarch

David Schnarch Return to top of page

David Schnarch, PhD, directs the Marriage and Family Health Center of Evergreen, Colorado. He is a licensed clinical psychologist, a certified sex therapist, a clinical member of the American Associat...


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