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.

Individuation and Togetherness By Ronald B. CohenThe 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.

Please share your thoughts and experiences concerning individuation and togetherness in the “Leave a Reply” box below. To request more information or contact me directly for any reason, please click here. If you found this post helpful, please don’t keep it a secret. You are encouraged to click on the buttons below and share this article with your own networks. Looking forward to continuing the conversation.

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

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  1. Laura Nolan on June 17, 2015 at 8:19 pm said:

    Dr. Cohen,

    I wonder what you think about this, Dr. Cohen? My studies and own personal experiences have shown me that family gives a person identity, which prepares the individual to later individuate. I am not sure that these are equal functions, because having an identity gives the person the security to then individuate. A less secure or mature person may not individuate.

    In the process of development, the child is aware of and collects so much about his or her family even without realizing it. For instance, a child is for a limited amount of time of development able to hear things, form perspectives of the environment, of tastes, of ways of relating, that are peculiar to the individual’s own primary family and culture. So a child will easily learn to hear and to produce certain phonetic sounds used by the family and certain manners of behavior, but at a later age, this person will only learn new sounds and pronunciations with more difficulty. So a person is predisposed to identify with and have family closeness.

    On the other hand, individuation even as a child requires a sense of safety. Attachment theory shows this concept well. If a child feels safe, he or she will be able to venture out from Mom to experiences of other. This same need for safety and a sense of self-identity is important for later individuation of adolescents or adults. I think it is simply that a person that is unsafe is vulnerable and must be careful not to expose his or herself to potential harm or confusion.

    So, I think that while both togetherness and differentiation may be equally important, togetherness, especially in family terms is primary.

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on June 24, 2015 at 2:12 pm said:

      Hi Laura,

      My conceptualization and theoretical orientation are somewhat different. We develop within the context of our original family. What we do with that is up to us. Ultimately we are all responsible for our own emotional well-being. Togetherness and individuality are primary, distinct, evolutionary life forces that are complimentary and can together work as a team. Differentiation of self, in relation to one’s extended Family of Origin is a response to managing the two primary life forces, and addressing unresolved emotional attachments. It is the capacity to think clearly in the face of emotional reactivity.


      — Ron

      • Laura Nolan on July 27, 2015 at 3:20 pm said:

        Thank you Dr. Cohen for your response. While we disagree on whether togetherness and differentiation is primary, I still value your insight into the process of differentiation from the family.

        I agree that ultimately the individual is responsible for his or her own emotional well-being. The concepts that you give about differentiation of self being a response to managing togetherness and individuality and that this capacity enables one to think in the face of emotional re-activity are insightful. It helps to break down the process into parts enough to evaluate what might be missing or what can be done differently to improve relationships.

        As always, I am very blessed by your insights.
        Laura Nolan

        • Ronald B Cohen, MD on August 24, 2015 at 4:07 pm said:

          Hi Laura,

          The individuation force facilitates the ability to focus on self, on one’s own needs, wants, core values and beliefs. The togetherness force drives an obligatory relationship orientation. One becomes emotionally reactive, either slavishly conforming to or reflexively dismissing the rules, roles, relationship requirements and rituals of one’s family of origin. Differentiation of self, in relation to one’s extended Family of Origin, is a response to managing the two primary life forces and addressing unresolved emotional attachments. It is the capacity to think clearly in the face of emotional reactivity, the capacity to address life’s stressor, to focus on self not others, and to take responsibility for the emotional processes in one’s own life.


          — Ron

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