Individuation and Togetherness

Individuation and Togetherness

A plea for peaceful coexistence

There is no differentiation without connection,
no autonomy without healthy interdependence
(or as Michael Kerr wrote:
…differentiation of self and togetherness
are two distinct, counterbalancing life forces
that can operate as a working team.)

(N.B. see author’s notes below)

In response to my blog post On Differentiation: The Mindfulness of Murray Bowen, Bonnie Hall wrote:

Ron, I really like your succinct explanation of the togetherness and individuality forces. I have a question about this that I’d appreciate feedback on: Bowen believed these two forces to be “equally intense.” I’ve often wondered about the “equal” part. If they are equal, then why is the individuality force the one that needs the attention (hence also called the differentiating force)? It is hard to differentiate out of the togetherness force, not the individuality force, right?

Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST) understands family functioning and behavior as arising from an emotional unit or system. The operation of this emotional system reflects the interplay between two counterbalancing life forces – individuation and togetherness. Michael Kerr writes that “Togetherness and individuality are instinctually rooted forces and, therefore, anchored in something deeper than psychological need” with the caveat that, “While one can never be sure that such forces actually exist, what has been observed about the family emotional system is consistent with their existence”.

Both forces are always present and their interplay helps to define oneself as same or different. Differentiation of self is the process of developing conscious decision making and managing reactivity while maintaining emotional connection with all members of your extended family of origin.

The individuation force propels the developing child to grow to be an emotionally separate person, an individual with the ability to think, feel, and act for self. The togetherness force propels child and family to operate in reaction to one another, to think, feel, and act as one.

The individuation force promotes personal responsibility and self-determination based on firmly held principles, values and beliefs. It helps one assume responsibility for one’s own happiness, comfort and well-being. The togetherness force motivates kinship, loyalty and love. It helps facilitate responsibility towards the well-being of others.

The individuation force helps develop the capacity for autonomous functioning. Papero defines the togetherness force as the “human tendency to group together.” It is the pressure for group cohesion and sameness.

Given all of the above how might we begin to answer Bonnie’s question? Both forces are always present, constantly at work, and absolutely necessary for human survival. While distinct they are nonetheless complementary. Autonomy and emotional connection become congruent and not adversarial.

Consequently, one does not “differentiate out of” anything. One works to increase one’s functional level of differentiation, and develop a more solid self in the relational sphere. This includes the ability to be an individual while remaining an active part of a group.

When the balance of forces is tilted too far one way or the other, consultation with a well-trained Bowen Family Systems Theory coach can help reduce systemic anxiety and restore a more functional equilibrium.

Best of Luck on Your Unfolding Journey of a Lifetime.

Author’s Note One: This blog post was written, approved, electronically signed and good to go on 15 January 2015. On 17 April 2015 Michael E. Kerr, MD spoke about “The Differentiation-Togetherness Concept of Counterbalancing Life Forces” as the initial presenter at the Bowen Center for The Study of The Family Spring Conference, “For Self and For Family: The Process of Differentiation.” I will report on his talk and the many other insights I gained from the two-day conference in subsequent blog posts.

Author’s Note Two: Thanks to Bonnie Hall for some advanced feedback after reading a preliminary pre-print.

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Ronald B. Cohen, MD
Bowen Family Systems Coach
1 Barstow Road, Suite P-10
Great Neck, NY 11021
(516) 466-7530
[email protected]