Hummingbird painted by Kim Knuth

How meditation supports differentiation

The article below, written by Katrina Gould, LCSW, is an example of how meditation can help us navigate relationships healthfully.

A couple of weeks ago, my partner asked if we could have some friends over for dinner the next night. We were coming off a flurry of houseguests and assorted dinner parties, and while he would happily have our house full every night of the week, I wasn’t so sure I was ready for more. I said I’d think about it, but what actually bubbled up in my mind when he asked was, “Please, no.”

I went through my workday with a niggling feeling of unfinished business. I knew that once I returned home again, I’d be asked what I thought about having more company. My “please, no” was juxtaposed against my partner’s request to have dinner guests. The tension between these two things was an undercurrent as I saw clients, wrote notes, had lunch, etc.

Later that day, when I sat to meditate, I didn’t explicitly invite my dilemma into my meditation. Sometimes, I just try to see what unfolds when I meditate. At some point, my dilemma drifted into my awareness. In reflective meditation, our intention is to hold our meditation with gentleness and curiosity. So, when my dilemma showed up, I experienced the same tension I’d already been feeling, but I also felt curious about it. While meditating, unlike during the other activities of my day, I could gently hold this dilemma and its resulting tension in my awareness and see what might happen next. What happened was I thought the simplest thought possible: “You can just tell him how you feel, and then the two of you can figure it out from there.”

This seems like such a small thing as I write it. But the tension had been a backdrop to my whole day so far. Ridding myself of it came with palpable relief.

It was the relief of differentiation. As long as I held in my mind both my needs and my partner’s, I held an unresolved conflict. But the minute I was able to see where I stood, it felt so clear that that was my only job: to know what I wanted and express it. What happened after that was up to me and my partner.

Expert couples’ therapists Ellyn Bader and Pete Pearson define differentiation as the “active and ongoing process by which a person defines themselves, their own thoughts, feelings, wishes, and desires.” The health of a couple’s relationship rests on the extent to which each person can differentiate. What I like about this definition is that it names the moment by moment nature of differentiation. We come into knowing what we want or hope for, again and again, each moment offering us a new situation and a new opportunity to tune into what our authentic response is. As someone who has struggled with allowing her feelings to surface in the presence of others’ strong feelings, meditation can feel almost like magic, and like the most obvious thing in the world at the same time: be still, allow what’s going to arise, and then bring your curiosity and gentleness to it.

You probably wonder what happened when I got home and shared my thoughts and feelings about having company, but I honestly don’t remember. My meditation helped me to find my differentiated, authentic desires and affirmed that this was all I needed to do at that moment. From that experience, my preoccupation lifted.  Apparently, my partner and I resolved that place where his differentiated stance and mine intersected. I say “apparently” because, in its aftermath, no residual feelings remain.

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