If you have seen the movie Runaway Bride you have been introduced to the concept of differentiation. You saw an undifferentiated Maggie Carpenter adopt the interests and hobbies of each new fiancé. Time and again she changes who she is to mirror a future mate. She even adjusts how she orders her eggs to match her present man…scrambled with one, over easy with the next. It is sadly optimistic to watch her flee from commitment time after time, as an inner voice tells her ‘this one is not you’. Still, Maggie meekly accepts the mascot role in her family, allowing herself to be the target of seemingly innocent but none-the-less demeaning jokes.
As Runaway Bride continues we witness the significantly idealized process of Maggie’s journey to self-differentiation. It begins as she sets a boundary with her father regarding his belittling jokes. It continues as she sits at a table covered with plates of eggs cooked in a variety of ways. She tries one, then another. Her journey ends as she develops the ability to form a healthy relationship with Ike and declares boldly, “Eggs benedict!” The movie ends as they marry and presumably live happily ever after.
It would be wonderful if it was that easy, but it is not. Maggie’s lack of differentiation was likely the result of unhealthy attachment patterns in her family of origin. There may have been enmeshment with her mother, which on the surface appeared as closeness but was really over involvement and entanglement. It was a good thing that Maggie’s inner voice did not allow her to marry any of her earlier fiancés. It could not have ended well, as her undifferentiated self would probably have led to a high level of emotional reactivity and dysfunction within the relationship.
There are many real life and not so humorous manifestations of the undifferentiated self. The woman who panics each time her husband is late coming home from work and then verbally attacks him as he walks in the door. The girl who waits for a phone call, trying to figure out what she did wrong to cause him not to call. The man who receives his wife’s desire to spend time with friends as evidence of his worthlessness. The young mother who internalizes criticism of her parenting and angrily insists that her husband confront his interfering mother. When undifferentiated, we do not separate ourselves from the actions and issues of others. We internalize and become emotionally reactive, escalating conflict and often perpetuating dysfunction to the next generation.
I have a dear friend who is a magnet for what appear to be undifferentiated women. He is a good looking guy with a great personality and a warm heart, eager to love and be loved. This outdoorsman has a passion for kayaking, fishing, cycling, golfing, camping and just about anything else that takes place outside. Reminding me of the romantic, Gatsby, he is ever hopeful as he meets woman after woman who surprisingly enjoys all the same things he does. He proceeds without caution and is inevitably disappointed after a few months as he discovers that the object of his new relationship does not really share his passion. She simply fooled him and herself, because she wanted him. My friend and I have had many discussions about differentiation and the slim chance that he will meet someone who shares all of his interests and has no passions of her own. Now when he calls to tell me about a new relationship, I remind him of these discussions by asking, “Does she know how she likes her eggs?”
As a therapist, much of the work I do is to accompany clients on their journey to self-differentiation. I enjoy walking this road with them, because it reminds me of my own path and the peace and calm that can be part of life…especially when we know what kind of eggs we like!
I thank God for guiding me on this journey and I thank you for joining me.