Divorce Mediation Metro DC

Divorce Mediation and Differentiation: Help with Impasses and Other Communication Issues

The process of differentiation, as defined in this blog post, has utility for mediators, particularly those who work with separating and divorcing couples.  Divorcing clients base their decision making about the future and the future of their children either on family beliefs or contrary to family beliefs.  When decisions, as to the conditions of a separation and divorce agreement clash, the mediator must use techniques that help clients get beyond their differences as to the future.

This is necessary if spouses are to truly differentiate from one another and begin separate and individual lives. Exploring family emotional and rational practices and beliefs and how they affect divorcing spouses’ decision making is a useful tool for mediators.  The article suggests that exploring these family belief structures and the role they play in present decision making can be an aid to overcoming communication impasses. Even if the role of the mediator is to help individuals think about the future.  Commitments to the past are not always useful particularly when negotiating with someone who may be committed to other oppositional emotional and rational beliefs. Differentiation and its related processes are useful for both mediators and clients. Acknowledging that spousal differences based on family of origin practices may not help to forge a path to the future.

Divorce Mediation Metro DC


The study of differentiation, one of the many ways we relate to one another, must consider the life-cycle from childhood through adulthood.  Each person relates to current family members and, in a manner, relate to family members who are in previous generations. Some would contend that communication between children and parents in aid of socialization begins at the prenatal stage. However, observing children with their parents and others in various settings sheds further light on how children learn to communicate. Parents learn the basics of communicating with their newborns even though they have their own parents as models for how to communicate. Every baby is different, and every parent brings to baby-care their own ideas of what is important.

Communication is the bridge for how and why differentiation occurs and, for parents, starting at birth it is not simply repeating the child-rearing practices of their parents; although, new parents often try that approach.  However, they soon begin to institute child-rearing practices that are directly related to whether or not they have differentiated from the child-rearing legacy of their parents.   

In every culture, common themes appear for how children learn to communicate. But it is not just children who are (in their early years) learning to communicate.  Although each culture has common paths for learning how to communicate, the variation in learning to communicate is influenced by family member group placement as well as other numerous factors. Communication is the means by which behavior as well as attitudes are passed from generation to generation.  As mediators, we should approach each situation addressing the many levels of influences on communication.

Divorce & Differentiation

 This paper examines divorce issues that present themselves in mediation from the standpoint of whether, and how, parents and spouses differentiated from their family of origin, if at all; how they mimic family of origin patterns in their relationship to their respective spouses; and how they negotiate their differentiation from each other.  Thus, child rearing and spousal relations represent significant touchstones in any family mediation.  If there are disagreements, not only are they focused on the very practical issues of support, visitation, and holidays but they also dictate the nature of the decision-making process as to these and all other issues. In other words, decisions are often made as they were made when the couple was getting along.  Or, the basis for decision-making may have changed.  Perhaps, one spouse now thinks that the basis of decision-making is wrong or should change.  Regardless, the parties will rely on family-legacy patterns.  A mediator’s role, if appropriate, can focus on patterns of behavior and the experiences of the parties.

Past Differentiation

Past differentiation decisions relate to how parties in mediation think about the future.  In general terms, differentiation experiences are usually rooted in the past; however, in mediation, which is not therapy, the parties are working on future arrangements. This does not mean that mediation can’t have a therapeutic outcome. If a spouse has completed differentiating, is maintaining a connection with the past family-legacy, or going through a differentiation experience currently, then these current decisions and their implications will soon be part of the couple’s past. Married spouses find that divorce decisions require a commitment to the future and most find it difficult to put past decisions and family legacies aside in favor of current and future decisions about their future.

Divorce Mediation Differentiation Metro DC

Michael Kerr and Ruth Riley Sahar, identified eight “concepts” central to Bowen’s theory of the family. Again, these concepts have been interpreted to serve the interests, and make sense to, family mediators and are not meant to suggest any agreement between how Kerr and Sahar intended to use these concepts. These terms include: (a) triangles, (b) differentiation of self, (c) nuclear family emotional system, (d) family projection process, (e) multigenerational transmission process, (f) emotional cutoff, (g) sibling position, and (h) societal emotional process. I will add to this list, (i) boundary reinforcement, (j) boundary breaking, and (k) reconnecting after differentiation. My interpretation of these aforementioned concepts may depart from how others define them. However, regardless of the context, they raise important considerations for working with clients in conflict. 

After a discussion of the above topics the following will be addressed:  Mixed Patterns, Signifiers and Strategies, How Intergenerational Emotions and Rationality is Transmitted, and Good Legacies and Bad Legacies; keeping in mind that these organizing observations are not meant to oversimplify the complexity of spousal patterns of emotional expression and rationality facing the mediator.  The terms we use are merely gateways into the rich minefield of differentiation processes.  Mediators use words to describe what is presented by the parties based upon their comfort level, training, and what has been proven to work. 

The foremost question to begin with is, of course, “Why does differentiation occur”?  Balance is maintained between emotions and rationality which provides the standard for one’s behavior.  Each family can be described by their particular configuration of the emotional-rational dyad.  Understanding how a person learns, maintains, and modifies communication patterns is important.  Therefore, the process of differentiation has merit in understanding the communication interchange between mediation clients.  

Studying differentiation patterns is useful. For example, there may be a time when a mediator finds that impasses, communication problems, maintaining a future focus, and collaboration can be more clearly understood by looking at patterns of differentiation.  Also, through thoughtful questioning, the mediator can help parties understand their decision-making and communication patterns. As a result, parties may begin to understand how these patterns undergird their decision-making.  Understanding how these patterns of communicating originate in their family-legacy communication patterns can be a breakthrough for the parties. 

A mediator need not use the term differentiation or other terms associated with differentiation when speaking with parties in mediation.  Labeling these processes simply helps the mediator focus on what is happening in the session. Specific questions should not be framed in professional jargon.  In each of the following sections, suggestions are offered as to how to phrase questions that will tap into each of the various differentiation processes.


How do the eleven differentiation processes identified above assist in understanding people-to-people communication and how are they useful in family mediation?  The first of these processes is:

  1. Triangles

These configurations are evident in any non-divorcing family as well as important when spouses are involved in a divorce. Types of triangles that form are those including the parents and a child or children. Sometimes members of a spouse’s family, as well as those outside the family unit such as therapists, friends, and attorneys, are involved.  A mediator has an opportunity to observe first-hand how the parties communicate with each other.  It is not unusual for mediators to hear one parent describing how the other parent relates to the children. Often such descriptions are not positive. A tactic mediators often use is to encourage parents to address how the other parent is a positive influence on the children. In this case, the triangle is two parents and a child or children. Using “balance theory,” when a system is in balance, there is a positive relationship between all parties. When a child enters the dyadic spousal relationship, this can be an upsetting development. Parents and children often will gravitate toward bringing their relationships into balance if possible.

Occasionally, the addition of a child upsets the positive balance between the spouses if it isn’t already upset.  What do parents as well as children learn about balanced communication?  Often, there is a positive emotional stasis that happens; even if only in the moment. Stringing a number of these positive emotional states together is not only satisfying but it can be addictive in the sense that unless a child is severely emotionally damaged from the pre-divorce interaction, between and with parents, the stasis will be preferable to the insecurity and fear that comes from a system out of balance. In addition, family specialists speak of the “parental alienation syndrome” meaning that children in this type of unbalanced situation are often placed in the position of favoring one parent over the other. 

Decisions about what behavior and attitudes are appropriate are often a by-product of triangulation.  A system out of balance encourages the mediator to use skills that bring the parties’ interaction into balance. A number of mediation techniques to help address this imbalance will be addressed later in this paper. If these techniques are not useful, then perhaps looking at the role that differentiates the individual spouses from one another, as well as patterns of communication from previous generations, could be useful.  The specific language and dynamics of triangles, and their relationship to the process of differentiation, provides useful insight into how spouses communicate in mediation.  

For example, a person who differentiates from their own family unit may not believe what others in the family say about communicating with others.  However, the opposite can occur in which failure to differentiate dictates how relationships with others in the family contain guidelines for behavior.  Thus, a person who can’t decide what to do without involving others will be strongly committed to relying on the advice of friends, an attorney, or relatives when discussing a topic with their spouse.  

Mediation relies on the independent decision-making of the parties.  Every mediator has encountered the situation in which a party has an idea that appears to be original but is really the by-product of failing to differentiate from the advice or opinions of significant others from whom one has not differentiated.  At times, parents also teach their children that independent decision-making is not as preferable as relying on the “voices” of others.  Recognizing how triangles in a marriage develop, became institutionalized, and are related to differentiation patterns could be a powerful tool for mediators. The use of “advantageous” triangles or those created by the mediator for purposes of change can be used to help clients manage impasses.  That topic requires more detailed analysis beyond the scope of this paper.  

2. Differentiation of Self

Differentiation is a  process whereby individuals learns to distinguish themselves from others. All of this is to “untie” the individual from others; to become an independent person with one’s own thoughts and destiny.  Yet, at the same time, a person learns to balance individual interest with concern for others. To see oneself as distinct from others begins at an early age (as a child is being socialized).  An example of differentiation that is often mentioned is that of preteens or teenagers, particularly in the United States, who begin a process of differentiation from their parents while at the same time becoming enmeshed, at least for a time, with their peers. Perhaps this is true in other countries as well.  When differentiation occurs with teenagers, a great deal of experimentation occurs.  Parents are often bewildered and wonder what they may have done wrong.  One or both parents may become complacent and abdicate their responsibility for socializing their children. This gives children a license to experiment. It is not unusual for parents to describe this experimentation as “and this too shall change.”   

The differentiation of adolescents from their parents is neither solely a straight-line nor a variable process.  This adds to parental bewilderment.  Influences that make this a variable process include availability of drugs, peer pressure, changing sexual mores, and the availability of social media.  The individual temperament of the child also plays a role.

Differentiation is a continuous process from infancy into adulthood. Some individuals never differentiate from others whereas others differentiate at an early age. Who children differentiate from may also vary.  Sometimes it is a member of the nuclear family. At other times it may be the legacy of a member of the family (such as a grandparent. aunt, or uncle).  

Parents often try to control the amount of independence shown by offspring.  However, as children become teenagers the influences outside of the family are too powerful to stop most of them from differentiating from their parents.  Peer group pressure is great. Teens must deal with this pressure, including the influence of social media. Differentiation of teenagers is a double-edged sword because most don’t totally give up their autonomy in favor of peer influences. Some observers suspect when autonomy is totally surrendered the outcome could be detrimental to a teenager’s social and emotional development.  

Parents who are divorcing create an abrupt change in all parties’ differentiation process – parents, children, and others. It is instructive to hear individuals in the divorce process talk about the advice they get from others, whether friends, relatives, or professionals (including attorneys).  Such advice doesn’t always help individuals differentiate from their spouses.  Individual spouses may not reveal to the mediator what advice they are given.  If they do, it might come out when they detail what their best friend or relative has told them about their divorce and what to expect in court. This advice ties the spousal differentiation process to “it’s only fair” as they discuss their “must haves” when they separate from one-another.  

Some young children will blame themselves for the failed marriage.  With preteens or teenagers the blame is often placed on the parents.  A teenager might say: “You have not respected one another” or “It is your fault that the family is breaking up.” There are lessons that parents and their offspring are learning; lessons that impact the differentiation process for both. The interfered-with differentiation that normally takes place for both children and parents becomes confusing.  Every event pushes parents and children either closer or further apart. 

The implications of divorce for differentiation are obvious.  Younger children may fear the loss of either or both parents.  They may become overly-dependent and resistant to change. Parents may sense a clinging closeness that interferes with their ability to function rationally. Older offspring may want to “lose” both parents.  In such cases, differentiation may accelerate to where teenagers disengage from the family system in a fashion that creates dangers.  For example, the teenager may run away or get involved with risky behavior (sex and drug use).  The reasons for differentiation may vary and be outside of the “normal” processes associated with differentiation.

If a mediator decides to delve into a strategy that explores differentiation because  problems exist in coming to a mutual agreement, they can work at two levels. One method involves asking how the parents and children are managing their relationships.  Is there too much closeness or, conversely,  too much distance? They are putting all of their energy into finding a way to relate to one another at a very difficult time; however, they may not have the internal resources to manage all the challenges they face.  Simply asking the question “How are things going between?” might open the door to understanding why talking about divorce is extremely difficult for both spouses and children. 

3. Nuclear Family Emotional System

All of the above is, of course, filtered through the “family emotional system.” Each member of a family participates in this system.  As children develop they participate in other emotional systems as well, e.g. the peer system. The pressures that  bind teenagers to their peers is so emotion-laden that they can result in diverse outcomes, such as the testing of leadership ability, emotional entanglements and even suicide.  Each family member’s personality reflects both emotional and intellectual components. Those dimensions of the personality ultimately become uncoupled to the degree that both parents and children become differentiated. 

Children learn from their parents how to balance emotions and intelligence throughout life. The more challenges a child encounters, the more the emotional may become reinforced at the expense of the intelligent response. Even though children are developing a “rational self,” the early ages are often characterized by emotional reactions rather than intelligent responses. Differentiation can become patterned by emotional reactions and not a balance of the rational and emotional.  Depending on the age of the child, this balance is learned by the lessons parents teach and the child’s particular blend of emotional response and intelligence.  

Many guidelines exist in literature explaining how children develop their rational sense.  For example, some child development specialists believe children begin to develop and elicit their rational powers at the approximate age of 4.  In several years, depending on the child’s  experiences and parental child-rearing practices, the rational and emotional will be connected in some fashion. In some cases, this connection will remain with the individual for most of their lives. It is important to remember that this connection is not necessarily permanent and, more often than not undergoes change. 

For divorcing spouses, differentiation from one another is difficult.  Spouses struggle with this adjustment, often relying on family legacy patterns.  Perhaps they use other relatives’ experience in divorce. They also may model an emotional response similar to that exhibited by their family after the death of a loved one. Unraveling deep emotional problems of mediation parties may not be the proper role of the mediator; however, referral to an appropriate professional could prove helpful.  Mediators monitor the degree of difficulty their clients have in separating, particularly when the difficulty is responsible for impasse and is rooted in past experience. 

4. Family Projection Process

Parents, deliberately or unconsciously, will transmit to their child or children how they react (emotionally and rationally) to difficult situations.  This usually will determine the way children react to situations. Frustration, anger, fear, and hostility are emotions that are often present when children face difficult situations. Most mediators will recognize that these same emotions are present during spousal communication. Although cathartic, they generally are not helpful when communicating about matters of separation and divorce. 

Projection, is the process whereby a person ascribes their own personal reactions to a situation to others rather than acknowledging ownership of those reactions. This can affect the ability of any person to communicate and collaborate “normally”. Children under prolonged projection can be vulnerable to certain clinical symptoms such as depression and impulsivity. Unfortunately, clinical symptoms can appear from an early age through adulthood depending on the seriousness of the projection as well as the vulnerability of the child. In some instances, knowledgeable adults will recognize serious emotional problems.  Of course, that is what one hopes will happen in a setting that either has resources or recommendations for helping-resources outside the family, school, or neighborhood setting.  

A mediator can explore with clients the relationship between projection and differentiation.  At times, spouses may project by “putting words” in the mouth of the other spouse; in other words, speaking for the other spouse.  In such cases, the mediator can stress the importance of speaking for oneself and not the other.  When spouses speak for themselves, it is easier for all, including the mediator, to see the position being taken by the individual; helpful or not.  Perhaps family-legacy includes learning that speaking for someone else is acceptable.

5. Multigenerational Transmission Process

Emotional and rational content is passed down from parents to children through a multi-generational process.  Patterns of behavior are imbedded within stories that make up family history.  The number of generations in which content is borrowed and shared in any family are varied.  Some families make reference to many preceding generations.  Others may reference only two generations, having no knowledge of previous ones.  Even in cases which reference predecessors, the stories may have no basis in reality and, rather, are “myths”.  Whether myth or not, they may be part of the family-legacy and can either be accepted by family members or not.  This is the substance upon which differentiation or non-differentiation may be based.  

The mediator can’t verify the truth of a family’s legacy nor should this be the goal.  If appropriate, spouses can be encouraged to acknowledge how they use a particular family-legacy to support the positions they take.  Questioning how an idea rooted in the family’s past makes sense in the current lives of the parties, or recognition of the complexity of the current situation compared to the simplicity of the past, can be used to illustrate the inadequacy of connecting with the past. Conversely, particularly if a party is undifferentiated, a mediator might ask a question that uses the simplicity of the past as a guide for current decisions.   

6. Emotional (and rational) Cutoff

Differentiation is usually thought of as having both emotional and rational dimensions.  Intergenerational guidance usually involves intellectual and rational guidance.  Any situation gives all members of a generation the opportunity to teach lessons about what could be a standard response to external stimuli. For example, an economic situation may arise which calls for a response on the part of a members of a particular generation.  In this instance, a layering process occurs that combines various responses to other problems and situations that the family might experience.  A pattern of tightly connected responses has a complexity that is unique to the family.  For good or bad, this pattern of responses to external influences is the culture of the family and the substance of that which is communicated.  

In divorce, spouses rely on the culture of the family. At times, in cases where differentiation from the family occurs, there is little or no reliance on the family culture or legacy.  In cases of non-differentiation, a spouse may repeat what the family culture provides and the spouse repeats a coping pattern that has been passed down through generations. As to the role of emotional and rational cutoff, if we understand that what is transmitted contains both emotional and rational aspects, mediators need to consider how the family culture might focus solely on the emotional, to the exclusion of the rational, or vice versa. 

Perhaps, it is balanced.  That is, both emotional as well as rational lessons are contained in the family-legacy. It is difficult to say whether the ideal is to provide family members with a balanced picture of how to handle life situations. Nevertheless, each family member gets a good idea of how to live a “balanced” life.

 Interruptions to how a family member learns to handle problem situations occur.  Regardless of whether the lessons being taught are emotional, rational, or a combination of the two, occasionally learning is cut off because of some internal or external event in the family structure.  Perhaps, parental alienation theory explains the cut-off of emotions and rationality.  A parent plays a role by interfering in the relationship of a child with the other parent. Another example of cut-off can be the alienation inherent in teenage maturation. Specifically, in the United States, as a preteen matures, influences from the society and peers motivate them to speed up differentiation from others, particularly their parents.  

The cut-off of emotional and rational lessons can be based on both external influences and self-perpetuated influences. Cut-off is the significant part of this process.  A party is removed from many different forms of contact from an individual or individuals in the immediate generation as well as cut-off from the patterns of behavior of individuals in the generation before the current generation. This cut-off takes many forms and often involves different people.  A person may not communicate directly with the mother of his/her father but still be influenced by the memory of grandparents or of a mother who made an impact but now happens to be deceased.  

Of course, the combinations and patterns of real, or imagined, relationships, are varied. For the mediator, discovering if cut-off plays a role in the decision-making process of a spouse may help explain why future decision-making is difficult. Perhaps a resentment, or other emotional or rational factors rooted in the past, influences the ability to think about present and future possibilities. If a spouse can understand the influence of family-legacy and acknowledge it, perhaps a breakthrough will occur. The spouse can then acknowledge interests that help movement toward the future.  If understanding is not possible, the mediator may consider referring the spouse to a therapist.  

7. Sibling Position

Professional literature is replete with studies of the role of birth order in sibling behavior and the role of the “identified patient” in the conjugal family unit.   Every sibling in a multi-child family is affected by the presence of other children, developing their personalities as a result of interacting with siblings and parents.  Every child in the family may go through some type of differentiation both with parents, relatives, or even siblings. As a result of differentiation dynamics, some children are closer to their parents than others.  Other children may be closer to relatives outside the family unit. We often hear children speak of a favorite aunt or uncle.  

What influences closeness between children and adults in the family, whether conjugal or extended?  One explanation is grounded in the dynamics of differentiation.  Another possible factor is sibling position.  Some child-rearing literature identifies the middle child in a family in of three children as an outsider, at times describing that child’s reactions to situations in school, for example, as inappropriate.  It is possible to interpret this behavior as a byproduct of the differentiation process.  One usually doesn’t think of analyzing the relationship between siblings in the context of divorce mediation but imagine the following.  Spouses may marry one another because of the affinity of that spouse with an undifferentiated sibling.  One spouse’s virtual sibling may either be influential in the decision-making of the divorcing sibling or the virtual sibling may have experienced divorce the likes of which the divorcing sibling wishes to avoid.  This is an example of not wanting to make the same mistakes made by the differentiated sibling.  

This same example can also shed light on the situation where a divorcing spouse is the product of a broken marriage.  The interconnectedness between spouses and their siblings, and the resulting influences, produce a complexity that the mediator, through questioning, can use to help the parties understand why they make the choices they make. If those choices are rooted in the past, particularly in sibling dynamics, the past may determine a spouse’s decision-making in mediation. Again, this is a question of whether acknowledgment of the influence of siblings’ decision-making behavior is useful for resolving spousal disagreements that must be both present and future focused.    

8. Societal Emotional Process

Society, families, and other collections of individuals present everyone with possible choices to make including whether, and how, to differentiate from others.  It is helpful to separate the rational components of these influences from the emotional components. Emotions that are learned include fear, anger, love, and resentment. Much of what spouses learn about emotion is based on what the society considers appropriate.  Some families have unique emotional responses to situations; however, even these unique responses don’t stray far from what society considers appropriate.  For example, mediators generally don’t see frivolity in spouses that are separating. Fear, anger, resentment, resignation is more often the rule. Emotional motivation is not necessarily more important than rational motivation.  Quite simply, emotion, whether on the surface or hidden, is a significant motivation for behavior.  

According to observers of this phenomenon , the emotional underpinnings of social media are apparent when depressed teens commit suicide.  It cannot be said that when a person differentiates from parents and/or siblings that rationality is not involved.  However, although parents present children with the consequences of not doing what parents think is in their best interests, the emotional component is present and strong.  Infants, for example understand love, comfort, warmth, and deprivation in emotional terms.  They don’t care for the rational reasoning associated with the time that it takes to heat a bottle.  They want warm milk now.  

The child socialization process involves a merging of both the emotional and rational.  A divorcing couple’s over-rationality is palpable at times and can alert the mediator to future problems based on ignoring the emotional dimensions of the relationship.  A mediator rarely has  occasion to meet parties who say they’ve already worked everything out, indicating that most their decisions are totally rational.    Also, an overly-emotional response by one spouse can elicit a judgment on the part of the other spouse that the expressed emotions are making a collaborative decision more difficult. Of course, family mediators must address both dimensions.  However, for mediation practice effectiveness it may be important to work solely with the emotional basis of behavior, particularly if that is the way the issue is presented by a spouse.  

For purposes of a discussion of differentiation, it is important to consider how emotionality is used to convey important life lessons and the role it plays in our differentiation processes. For some, emotionality is the basis for not differentiating and for others it is the motivation for differentiating. A mediator should understand what strategies will help spouses recognize whether responding emotionally to situations is making differentiation from their spouse impossible, thereby making decisions for the future difficult.

  The mediator’s role is to help each spouse acknowledge the emotional basis for their behavior and integrate both the emotional and rational to help generate decisions for the future; decisions that reflect both what they are feeling (emotion) and what will reasonably work (rational).  Impasse in negotiations may reflect that spouses cannot integrate emotion and rationality.  At the point of impasse, the mediator could ask directly what a spouse may “feel” (emotion) about a proposal and also what he or she may “think” (rational) about a proposal.  Favoring one or the other of these two dimensions and not being willing to modify that position (or failure to separate the two) may indicate the need for referral to a therapist.           

9. Boundary Reinforcement

Boundary Reinforcement refers to actions that solidify emotional and rational boundaries which add predictability to what one can expect from others.  For example, when separating spouses begin their own differentiation, they may also start to control the differentiation of their children. Whether deliberate or not, this differentiation encourages the child or children to see the parent reinforcing boundaries as the “primary“ reinforcer.  This situation becomes even more complicated if the reinforcer is living apart from the other parent. This situation can be disastrous for children.  Also, parents consider it appropriate that they create boundaries for the children, usually with respect to the role the other parent plays.  Parents will also set boundaries for each other.  Remembering, these boundaries may also be understood from the point of view that differentiating or not differentiating may determine what these boundaries are with respect to the other parent.  Of course, some parents will agree on mutually acceptable boundaries for their relationship as well as for their children. That could be considered an ideal outcome of the negotiation between spouses in mediation.

For some parents the difficulty lies in relation to the child’s relationship with the other parent. Does one parent’s relationship with the children remain more constant than the other parent’s relationship with the children?  As previously mentioned, the “parental alienation syndrome” consists of a parent attempting to undermine a child’s relationship with the other parent.  In this way, the child “prefers” one parent over the other. Actually, this may encourage the child to gravitate toward or away from one or both parents. Each parent may try this alienation maneuver creating difficulty for the child as well as the other parent.

An attempt at boundary reinforcement excluding the other parent is fraught with difficulties.  First, it is confusing for a child.  They may have been involved in seeking out and exploring new boundaries.  Second, it is confusing for parents trying to establish new boundaries or maintain status quo boundaries.  All of these ambiguities create a maelstrom.  This is not to mention the ambiguities and other difficulties that arise when other famil members play a significant role in influencing the decisions that each spouse makes.

Parents will try to solidify the lessons they have taught their children.  It provides the glue to the child’s balance between the rational and emotional. With boundary reinforcement, parents’ rewards and punishments are elements of differentiation.  A “good” child is one that has an emotional-rational configuration that has the approval of their parents.  This is true regardless of the parents intended lessons.  For some parents, the child may be more emotional than rational and, therefore, is reinforced as such. Or, a parent may rely solely on emotions in teaching a child or children while others use only rational.  For acceptance by the teaching parent who may rely on an emotional explanation, the child must sublimate a rational response  by being more emotional. 

A parent may only be repeating the lessons that he or she learned in childhood.  Success is measured by the degree to which a parent’s parent approves of the behavior seen in grandchildren.  In that way, a child is the mirror-image of the parents who are a mirror-image of their parents.  Deviation, either planned or accidental, from the child-rearing practices of one’s parents could be the result of special circumstances such as rejection of parental mores, education, influence of other age-related parents, or failure to successfully implement one’s parent’s child-rearing practices. When boundary reinforcement fails to occur, a child may find him or herself in a position of not knowing what acceptable behavior is.  Failure to reinforce boundaries could be the result of divorce, illness in a parent, or some other cause.  As a child becomes more mature, boundary reinforcement may become more difficult because of peer influence.   

With respect to boundary issues, mediators should question the parties as to what restrictions or limits they have imposed on not only the children but on themselves (as well as the other spouse).  Writing down the limits, the parties should rank them in importance while recognizing the emotional and rational aspects of each.  Exposing these limits to an open discussion will possibly lead to a joint evaluation of their usefulness. Having spouses rank these limits in importance for reaching a collaborative decision is also helpful.

10. Boundary Breaking

As a person evolves, boundary breaking is often a direct result of either outside influences: changes in the family structure such as separation, divorce or remarriage; peer pressure; death of a parent.  Whether boundary breaking is complete, gradual, or only a hint, is an empirical question.  For example, what is the true picture when a spouse is alienated from parents?  Is the adult child not influenced by them?  This situation can be deceiving.  A spouse can imply that they don’t communicate with their parents, yet, may not be differentiated. Thus, the spouse would handle divorce similarly to what they have learned from their parents about handling separation and rebuilding their lives.  

Even in instances when adult children think that their parents no longer have any influence on them, they may, in fact, be a major influence on the spouse’s thinking and behavior.  Imagine a situation in which both spouses are alienated from their parents but not differentiated.  This means they may no longer communicate with their parents but mimic their parent’s emotional and rational responses to life’s challenges.  Their discussions in mediation amount to what their parents would say in discussing the conditions of the couple’s separation and divorce.  

Pressure from society to “grow up” is also relevant.  It may be expected for children to differentiate from their parents.  In order to do this, boundary breaking is necessary.  For some, the deviations from parental proscriptions may be minimal. For others it may be drastic.  A run-away drawn into drug use and prostitution might represent an extreme example of boundary breaking.  If the parents themselves are into drugs and promiscuity no boundary breaking has occurred except for leaving the family’s home.  If departing the family home was something experienced by parents this is hardly boundary breaking.  

Just as with boundary reinforcement, the mediator can help the parties realistically assess the role their parents and other family-members play, despite their insistence that they are distrustful of family members’ opinions.  Helping parties discover the “paradox” in which their decision making is grounded is powerful.  Again, if the paradox is not immediately seen or the resistance to such discovery is so strong, the parties may need the help of a mental health professional.  The mediator should keep in mind that using this differentiation analysis may not always be the best technique to overcome impasse, and problems with differentiation and communication.  

11. Reconnecting After Differentiation

Society expects people to become differentiated, particularly during the separation and divorce.  Within generations, both the emotional and rational aspects of differentiation play a major role.  That is, family stories contain lessons that are handed down from generation to generation with both an emotional and rational content.  A grandparent’s experience with an employment situation will have both its emotional and rational components.  For example, a segment of the family history might relate what a grandfather said when he was asked to do something related to his job: “I was frightened when the Boss asked me to enter that mine. Everyone knew it was dangerous.” Here the emotional content is palpable. The plans for other employment and steps taken to find it could be construed as the rational part of the story. Thus, the stories that are part of the family history contain some combination of both emotional and rational responses.  Differentiation involves distancing from either or both components.  Another configuration is developed by the individual in which part of the history is accepted but with the “twist” of the individual family member.  Part of the family history may be accepted while another part is ridiculed. 

At some points, “undifferentiation” occurs as the result of numerous influences such as a relative’s serious illness or the request of a relative that the differentiated relative reestablish connections with the family. Where there once was differentiation there is now reconnecting or “undifferentiation”. The family’s story, or a portion thereof, is incorporated into the rational and emotional life of the individual.  Family members even recall how much Johnny resembles his grandmother.  What he reflects in his problem solving is the rational and emotional component of the history his grandmother bequeathed to the family history or legacy. Previously, Johnny may have scoffed at his family’s cultural legacy.  For some reason, Johnny is now choosing to accept some rational and/or emotional component of his grandmother’s legacy to the family. Perhaps this is the result of an intense emotional experience.  The family member is now reaccepting some part of the family history as represented by the rational and emotional basis for the decisions made by forebears.  Perhaps, Johnny finds part of the family history is useful. Perhaps in his divorce Johnny accepts the message passed down through generations about divorce; what the appropriate feelings and thoughts should be. 

From a mediator’s point of view, this situation may be an occasion to probe the reason for reestablishing boundaries.  What use is it and why is there now a reliance upon something that was previously rejected?  There is another paradox that might encourage thought about the implications for cooperative decision making. If both spouses are maintaining boundaries that once were rejected, only they can explain the basis for this shift in thinking.  This might provide some insight into what is important to each of them.  Also, each might realize that they are facing similar challenges and how past patterns are blocking their joint decision making.

12. Mixed Patterns

To this point, the discussion has been focused on eleven individual concepts that are useful for understanding differentiation.  Suggestions have also been offered as to how a mediator may want to address impasses as well as other communication issues in separation and divorce mediation.  Focusing on the eleven differentiation concepts should not lead to the belief that differentiation and undifferentiation are linear (sequential).  Life in the actual mediation session won’t necessarily unfold in this manner. It first should be determined whether differentiation is a useful technique to use. Mixed patterns can take multiple forms. For example, client negotiation may not only involve boundary maintenance, the differentiation of self, sibling position, and multigenerational transmission but  economic pressures as well. .  

In addition, divorce has a profound impact on children and thereby the mixed pattern becomes complicated since parenting must be addressed.  Children may begin their own differentiation because of parental alienation.  This can result in the children, unwittingly, becoming the repositories of the family’s legacy.  As was true with their parents, children learn to integrate the legacies of their parents and two different families.  The decisions made by children as adults will be based on how they have incorporated the family legacy into their lives.    

13. Signifiers and Strategies

The challenge for a family mediator is to recognize signifiers that represent differentiation issues such as being stuck in a family legacy way of thinking, or reaction to a situation in mediation that is the result of resisting some aspect of a family legacy.  For example, a refusal to accept a proposal that is contrary to the values that have been rejected by generations of a spouse’s family.   A mediator might hear: “My parents always gave in when faced with an unreasonable demand. I’m not going to do that.” Or: “My parents told me that I should not allow anyone to take advantage of me.” A mediator might not hear these actual words and may have to make some assumptions about what is motivating a party.

This attention to the words of the parties, combined with careful and strategic questioning may result in an “aha” moment for the spouses. Remembering that it is probably not advisable to use terms such as differentiation and boundary breaking, among others discussed previously. The idea is to see if what is happening with the couple fits the definition of these terms and then frame questions or observations appropriately.  The mediator must first decide whether to acknowledge if the conclusion made with respect to the operative differentiation process is reasonable. Then decide upon a strategy that will open the discussion.  This, of course, must be done without alienating either spouse.  

If the mediator thinks that a line of questioning will alienate a spouse, then questioning can be done in a private session. Addressing signifiers that would encourage a mediator to use a differentiation analysis would involve making these signifiers known to the parties through questioning and “what ifs.”  Just identifying the signifiers could be strategic in helping address an impasse or any stoppage in mutually cooperative communication, option building, and bargaining. Further, several behavioral, attitudinal, emotional, and rational indicators could point to the importance of mentioning the resistance or rejection of a family pattern as part of the family’s legacy and how this is affecting decision making.  Some important indicators of differentiation blockages could be: 

  1. Conscious and unconscious repetition of family legacy patterns, 
  2. Emotional expression based on rational reasons, 
  3. Rational expression based on emotional reasons, 
  4. An insistence on certain experiences for children, using one’s family legacy as a basis.
  5. Failure to trust in a spouse because they remind one of what has been rejected in the family legacy, 
  6. The desire to back-out of an agreement with the spouse because it is different and contrary to one’s family legacy or because it is similar to one’s family legacy, 
  7. Failure to trust oneself after agreeing to a proposal because on second thought it is too close to what one has rejected or accepted in one’s family legacy. [?]

This list is not conclusive but reflects the thinking necessary to open up a consideration of the role of differentiation in marital mediation. 

What does a mediator do?  Some of it will be guesswork, testing whether the mediator’s “hunch” makes sense to the parties. Often it takes more than one attempt on the part of the mediator to gain the [attention of the parties. After all, the parties have their own individual agendas to which they are often firmly wed.  When a mediator decides that it would be useful to explore a strategy that might improve a client’s understanding of how they are responding to the other spouse’s proposals there are many techniques for asking questions. These questions should be neither threatening nor inappropriately therapeutic.  If a question is threatening to a party perhaps it would be asked in a private session.  For example, the question could be phrased in this manner: 

1. “Talk a bit more about why you may think of the proposal this way.”; 

2. “Is it possible a family member might respond to such a proposal this way?”; or  

“Would others in your family think about this in the same way?”  

At that point, the mediator could assess whether the disagreement over a proposal, softens or is resolved.  If this line of questioning doesn’t lead to more open communication between the parties, the mediator might choose to explore the forceful emotion behind the client’s attitudes.  Mediators can assess when this technique results in the parties becoming more cooperative and willing to consider (even though not accepting outright) a proposal; the impasse is momentarily lifted.  If after several attempts to lift the veil of the family legacy the impasse is still intact, several other strategies can be useful; for example, “being an agent of reality”, or agreeing on tentative resolutions.  Any other mediation technique that the mediator finds useful may be used.  If family legacy and differentiation dynamics interfere with collaborative solutions, this can be a serious roadblock to the couple’s success in mediation.  Helping parties to identify and acknowledge emotional-rational blockages might aid in overcoming impasses that hinder productive communication.  

Would a mediator share with the parties what he or she is thinking and doing or is it only for analytical purposes? That, of course, is up to the individual mediator and the assessment of the impact of revealing strategies.  At times, if clients know the agenda of the mediator they will develop resistances to these techniques.  Each mediator must be the judge of how much of the mediation technique based upon this differentiation analysis should be revealed. 

What are some of the goals behind using a differentiation analysis in mediation?  The goals could include discovering: a) what lies behind positions; b) impediments to intraparty communication; c) impediments to party differentiation and detachment; d) the external influences of family and friends; d) the impact upon children of both intergeneration lessons learned by parents and parental alienation; f) the role of legal advice; breaking impasses; facilitating spousal differentiation. 

The following is a list of strategies that mediators use.  If appropriate, they can be presented as questions that shed light upon the role of differentiation in interaction between spouses during a mediation.  The most common strategies include:

  1. Building trust.
  2. Encouraging collaboration.
  3. Helping parties develop communication skills.
  4. Encouraging risk-taking (sometimes at the expense the certainty that parties in mediation look for).
  5. Encouraging flexibility in negotiations without negative consequences.
  6. Proposing how to balance emotion and rationality.
  7. Exploring the balance between individual and group influences.
  8. Helping clients develop ego-strength based on individual needs and not spousal needs.
  9. Addressing the future and not the past.
  10. Using traded assurances as a way of seeing if legacy dictates, whether positive or negative, are useful in developing mutually acceptable resolutions. 
  11. Non-committal brain storming or “what ifs” mimicking intimate focus groups using the spouses as participants.
  12. Having spouses plan a course of action based on taking small, incremental, steps.
  13. How “hot spots” are related to one’s family legacy and how one has come to own them.
  14. The lessons have been learned about how impasses are overcome.
  15. The impact of differentiation on learning to listen.
  16. Discovering and acknowledging the meaning and origin of defenses.
  17. Realism in the here and now in spite of family legacy.
  18. The parties switch roles and plan the other’s legacy for the children.
  19. The impact of the parties’ decisions on the legacy for the children.
  20. The relevance of the discussion for the total family of origin’s legacy. 

It is useful to think about how a mediator might frame differentiation questions from strategies on the above list.  With respect to the fact that a party places trust, in some aspect of the family legacy, ask the relevance of using that value commitment to judge what is going on in mediation.  For example, whether the lack of trust in one’s legacy affects the acceptance of what is being proposed by the other spouse or, in the alternative, whether the trust expected from others can be helpful in considering a spouse’s proposal.  This strategy can be used to judge whether other strategies would be more effective, remembering always to attend to dissonances in the interaction between the spouses and whether pressing problems are resolved.  Adding a differentiation component should not confuse the situation but should help the parties understand why they insist on making the decisions they do, and why they reject decisions made by the other party. 

How Intergenerational Emotions and Rationality are Transmitted

The influences that facilitate learning are many. They include: family experience, e.g. economic, neighborhood influences, and the physical environment.  The study of memes may provide us with an idea of how family legacy is transmitted from generation to generation.  Whether one differentiates or not, that which is either reinforced or abandoned by the individual is part of a culture that one is expected to mimic.  For example, when a parent says “Baby John is just like his father, grandmother, or mother” what is being acknowledged is that Baby John is mimicking someone else’s behavior.  It might be just incidental and important for other reasons.  Perhaps, Baby John looks like the originator of the behavior. Some judgment from others awaits the child that looks like a predecessor but acts differently from the way that person acted.  “Father would never have done that!”  In that mix of legacy, judgment, recrimination, and support lies the full understanding of the dynamics of differentiation.

“Good” Legacies and “Bad” Legacies

In analyzing the role of differentiation and behavior between spouses in mediation it is questionable whether to label some legacies as either good and others as bad.  Each can have consequences that could lead to dysfunction, impasse, parental alienation, and the inability to differentiate from the other spouse.  One could say that regardless of a specific legacy whether it is good (useful) or bad (counter-productive) whether it impedes the collaboration, cooperation, and negotiation between the parties is important. Whether a party has differentiated or not from aspects of the family legacy, a mediator should consider trying a differentiation strategy if there is a commitment to family legacy by a spouse.  This is particularly true if that commitment is interfering with party communication and results in impasse.  In other words, a party may have differentiated from patterns of behavior that would assist in collaborative work. Acknowledgment of this may foster collaborative and cooperative interaction. 

A party may not be differentiated from aspects of a family legacy and this may enable the spouse to avoid an impasse with the other spouse.  Regardless of the specific circumstances, a mediator’s goal is to help the parties reach a mutually agreeable resolution. This requires conscious awareness and acceptance by the parties of their commitment to the past (a readiness to move beyond these commitments).  The reason for moving forward is the realization by a spouse or spouses that past commitments, or a lack thereof, are impeding a joint resolution to the specific issues being discussed.  A prompting by the mediator in the form of a question would be appropriate, e.g., “How do you think your beliefs help or prevent you from reaching an agreement with your spouse?”; acknowledgement by a party as to the usefulness or not of the commitment or not to the past; and, finally, movement on to a more collaborative resolution.  This would be ideal.    


Every mediator has techniques, strategies, and frameworks they prefer to use. More importantly, they are comfortable using these techniques because this is where their strengths are.  This paper has explored another framework that has potential to help with impasses and other blockages in communication and collaborative work.  Certainly, every mediator may have a number of impasse breaking-techniques.  Even if an impasse is not the reason a mediation isn’t progressing, bringing out into the open how making decisions based on what one has accepted or rejected in the spouses’ family history may have some merit.  

Mediation parties learn about how they will relate to one another and to their children in the future.  They become aware of the goals they have in mind for their decisions and how they are establishing a family legacy (not only for themselves but for their children).   How a spouse in mediation makes decisions as to whether, and how, they will cooperate with the other spouse to arrive at a mutually agreed upon resolution can be a blueprint not only for the resolution of divorce matters but also for future decisions.  

The signifiers of differentiation issues could be reminders to parties in mediation of what to look for in their own behavior as well as the behavior of children, their former spouse, and perhaps new relationships.  There is a much broader application that the signifiers herald.  They logically lead to specific strategies and these skill-sets can be used to build one’s own family legacy.  

A number of questions are raised with the focus on differentiation dynamics. A research agenda could test the empirical efficacy of choosing to delve into past commitments and rejections.  The danger of this approach is that the mediation party might defend the past and remain committed to it.  More thinking and analysis should be done with respect to the unwanted outcome of keeping the party firmly rooted in the past.  One must think of how to avoid this unintended consequence and keep parties moving toward the future.  The connection between the past through acknowledging what one has learned or is rejecting from the past and keeping the future alive must be addressed.

It has been mentioned that every mediator has his or her unique approaches.  Self-analysis is also helpful for mediators to understand whether a differentiation approach is useful.  Do certain techniques used more than others have a connection with past experiences?  Again, defining “good” and “bad” is not the issue.  What is important is whether the approach proposed here is a needed skill for the individual mediator.  The next step for mediators would be to explore whether their own differentiation experiences enhance or limit the mediation client’s search for a way to communicate in the present when it is needed, and away from the past. Past experiences not only their family experiences but also past experiences with clients should be examined.  

Mediators have the skills to keep clients moving forward while understanding the effects of past decisions.  These include past decisions from a family legacy point of view and past decisions with respect to the other spouse. The issues raised herein, motivate the desire to do empirical and clinical research to learn more about how understanding the dynamics of differentiation can help unwrap divorce mediation practice.     


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