“How do I get off this emotional rollercoaster?”: Coping with divorce through self-differentiation

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How do you separate logic from emotion? Is it a skill you can learn? Is it possible when in a divorce? The quick answer is, yes.

How? Self-differentiation.

Divorce is a major change to the family system. A family shifts from one household to two households that function separately and there are typically significant emotional challenges during the transition. Family system problems we see in therapy, like distress from divorce, need family system resolutions. One key concept that is important to acknowledge is self-differentiation. This is a concept from the infamous, Murry Bowen, in Bowen Family Systems Theory. It is a key to healthy adjustment outcomes for individuals experiencing divorce. It is a process to improve one's differentiation but the results can be life-changing.

Self-differentiation is an individual's ability to separate their thoughts and feelings, allowing them to think logically without being swayed by their own emotions during conflict (Thomas et al., 2020). Someone who has a high level of self-differentiation is not reliant on others for validation, can cope with life stresses, is able to access logical thinking, and can focus on what's in one's control (Bowen, 1978). This is such an important characteristic not only for one's own well-being, but a must in the divorce process or in relational conflict. You can make decisions based on what you want and believe instead of emotionally reacting to others.

Interestingly, those who have high self-differentiation can experience security in closer relationships. So, this is not only to reduce negative interactions in one’s life but promote positive interactions with loved ones. The idea is that if you feel solid and can easily cope with emotions, you make room for more intimate connections. Our relationships and personal well-being from working on different areas of self-differentiation can have positive outcomes.

The first step in having higher self-differentiation in any type of relationship is recognizing one’s own role in a certain situation. Improving your self-differentiation is a very important skill that is especially useful in conflict with someone else. For example, in a conflict, self-differentiation is noticing what YOU do that is helping or hurting in problem-solving, paying attention to YOUR emotional reactions, and recognizing YOUR ability to step out of the conflict. This is something that can be further expanded on in therapy to gain your own skills in working through relationship conflict. As I said, this could be your emotional reactivity when parenting a teenager, working with a coparent, or dealing with difficult coworkers. It is a skill we all can keep improving on.

Who is knowledgeable of self-differentiation? Marriage and Family therapists are familiar with this family therapy concept. However, it depends on the individual therapist the extent of their knowledge and if they incorporate it in their therapy approach. It is important to find a therapist that is knowledgeable of self-differentiation and incorporating it in the therapy outcomes. Self-differentiation can be helpful in many ways and is important to talk through with a mental health professional.

- Erin Guyette, MS, LAMFT


Bowen, M. (1978). Family therapy in clinical practice. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.

Thomas, R., Shelley-Tremblay, J., & Joanning, H. (2020): Anxiety explains self-differentiation: Implications for bowenian approaches to marriage and family therapy, The American Journal of Family Therapy, https://doi.org/10.1080/01926187.2020.1841586