James Bay Meet Murray Bowen

Posted on August 8, 2016


“Why don’t you be you and I’ll be me?” James Bay, Let It Go

Marriage and family therapy is a profession that has only been around for about 50 years.  Prior to that, mental health practitioners solely focused on individual dysfunction.  Most of the early theorists for marriage and family therapy were psychoanalysts who had come to recognize that families function as systems.  Our human experience does not take place in a vacuum, but is played out in close relationships.  Families are systems that strive to maintain homeostasis.  They have rules (usually unspoken) that define how they operate.

A number of early theorists made significant contributions by articulating a variety of ways of defining health for marital and family relationships.  Among these was Murray Bowen who was the theorist behind Family Systems Theory.

Among the concepts that Bowen put forth was the idea that optimal functioning was found in a healthy balance between togetherness and separateness in our family and close relationships.  Optimal relationship functioning was found in differentiation of self.  Though to a layperson the term may sound like a therapist’s psycho-babble, it is a relatively straightforward concept.  As James Bay summed up in the refrain from “Let It Go,” “Why don’t you be you and I’ll be me?”  Basically, differentiation is about being able to separate your own emotional and intellectual experience from that of your partner and your family.

This is not a denial of human beings’ needs for secure attachment.  As Sue Johnson observed, secure attachment and autonomy are not opposite extremes, but two sides of the same coin.  The more securely attached we are in our close relationships, the more we can be confidently autonomous, neither avoiding intimacy nor fearing abandonment.

Being securely attached and well differentiated, I can care deeply about my partner’s emotional experience without owning it as my own.  One has the ability to empathize with the emotional experience of another while having an experience that may be different from the other.  Differentiation allows us room to be individuals, have different opinions, different interests, and still be in close relationship.

You be you, and I’ll be me.

True intimacy requires that we are our authentic selves in close relationship.  If there is no room for individuation, there is not true intimacy.  True intimacy involves knowing and being fully known.  This is one of the greatest of human experiences, to be fully known and to be loved and accepted in that knowledge.  There is emotional healing and strength for coping in having another understand and care about your experience, even if it is not their experience.

In close relationships, you should care deeply about your partner’s experience.  This does not mean that you are angry when your partner is angry, afraid when your partner is afraid, or even hurt when your partner is hurting.  It does mean that your partner needs a felt sense that you understand and care about his or her experience.

As a therapist, among my working assumptions is that the things we all do and say (even those things that are harmful) make sense if we understand the other’s experience.  Being able to understand your position and agreeing with it are not one and the same.  There are two points to be made about this.  First, when couples argue, they are often arguing about the facts of what happened or what was said.  If you do this in front of me, you will find that I care little about coming to agreement or even making a judgment about the facts and who is right and who is wrong about what happened.  It is more important how you experienced whatever happened.  In close relationship, I can still be sorry I hurt you even if what you heard was not what I remember saying or the meaning you took from what I said was different then what I intended.

Second, among the findings from the decades of research into couples relationships by John and Julie Gottman is that 69% (I am not making that up) of the things couples fight about are not solvable problems.  They involve differences in temperament, priorities, values, and meaning.  What separates the masters of relationship from the disasters is how they handle the unsolvable problems.  The masters are able to dialogue, validate, and understand their partner’s position even if they still disagree.  The power is in knowing and being fully known.  Solutions and compromises are easier to reach when we are securely attached, when we care and feel cared for.

One (I think) final point here is that you are only in charge of and responsible for you.  You cannot control nor are you responsible for your partner.  Your job is to be the best husband/wife you can be not to force your partner into being a better partner.  This does not mean that you don’t ask for your needs to be met in the relationship (hopefully in healthy ways), but that you focus on how you can be a better partner (something you can control) rather that how your partner can be a better partner (something you can’t control).

You be you, and I’ll be me.