One of the pioneers of the secular model of differentiation was Dr. Murray Bowen, a psychiatrist who served as the first president of the American Family Therapy Association. Here is a brief synopsis of his work (from Sussman and Steinmetz, eds., Handbook of Marriage and the Family).

The crux of Bowenian theory lies in the degree to which individuals are able to distinguish between the feeling process and the intellectual process. In his earlier research, he had found that parents of schizophrenics, who superficially seemed to function well, had trouble differentiating between the subjective feeling process and the more objective thinking process. Such fusion and confusion of affective and cognitive processes was found to be most marked in close personal relationships. As those with “the greatest fusion between feeling and thinking, function the poorest while those who function best demarcate these processes, Bowen and colleagues began to stress the concept of differentiation of self (1974). Bowen spoke of the schizophrenic family as being characterized by an “undifferentiated family mass”; it followed that an objective of treatment was to foster individuation of all members.

Dr. Dennis Guernsey is a highly respected Christian professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He referred to a highly differentiated person as one who is “able to develop a sense of self while in relationship” with a “sense of separateness but not in isolation.” There are two opposite extremes of an undifferentiated person. On the one hand is the person with highly “enmeshed” or “fused relationships. On the other hand is the person who is actually “disengaged” from true relationships. Both of these extremes are harmful to the health of the individual. The goal for every individual person should be to engage in relationships while at the same time retaining one’s own sense of identity of personhood.

In enmeshed families there is no sense of boundary. Everything is controlled by the rules of “the family.” The individual has no rights or feelings other than those which fit in to what is proper for the entire group. The son/daughter dutifully follows in the footsteps of the father and the daughter/son might seem to be a “clone” of the mother. 

When the son or daughter misbehaves the parent will say, “How could you do that to me?” Or, when the child succeeds, it is seen as the parents succeeding. There is no differentiating between what one person is and does and what other family members are and do. All are enmeshed into what Murray defined as an “undifferentiated family ego mass.”

Enmeshed people are so stuck to their families of origin that they never become truly separate and distinct people. The emotional stickiness in the family holds people bound to the family so that they find it painful to be independent. It is the story of the elder son in Luke 15, who has never left home. The enmeshed person might be characterized by compulsive patterns of communication such as needing to talk with a parent every day by phone or needing to visit the parent every week. 

Contrasted to the person or family that is enmeshed, is the individual or family that is disengaged. The disengaged family is one in which each member lives as if only he or she exists. There is no emotional attachment. Activities are mere rituals of formality. The father knows little about the school life of the teenage son and the son does not care about his father’s occupation. The mother is more interested in her own society than what is happening with her daughter’s love life. The daughter might seldom even speak to her mother in anything more than a mere civil language. Eventually, this usually leads to physical separation. 

Here is Dr. Guernsey’s explanation and example of what it means to become disengaged. 

To become disengaged is to become an unplugged kind of person, who handles the problems of relationships by walking ways from them. It is the position of the prodigal son in Luke 15. He thought that he could solve whatever problems he had at home by running away from them and from the relationship with his father. But when he got to the far country he found that his problems had increased and that his father was psychologically still with him. In the midst of his struggles, he had a conversation with his father in his head. What an irony. He had run away, putting miles of distance between himself and his father, only to find that his father was right there with him. To unplug and disengage rarely solves any problem. It usually makes things worse. 

Dr. Guernsey relates the problem of disengagement to the problems we have in our homes today in this way: (p. 70):

Disengagement means to unplug, to withdraw, and to leave when relationships become stressed. In the extreme it means to sever the relationship as a means of dealing with the strain. It is the dynamic that underlies the action of a teenager who runs away from home or retreats into drugs. To a lesser degree, it is the mind-set of the person who handles family stress by unplugging emotionally, using distance as an emotional buffer, or who becomes a bystander rather than a participant in the family. 

The goal of a healthy functional family is to guard against both enmeshment on the one hand and disengagement on the other. That is, that every person in the household feels a sense of self identity rather than simply being enmeshed into the emotional milieu of the rest of the family, while at the same time not becoming emotionally disengaged from the other family members. This is a differentiated individual.

“Differentiated people,” says Dr. Guernsey, “are able to distinguish themselves as unique persons, separate from others, and able to determine for themselves the level or degree of emotional closeness between themselves and others.”

Dr. Guernsey elaborates further on the story of the Prodigal son in order to illustrate enmeshment, disengagement, and differentiation:

We learn about the elder son only after the prodigal son has returned, but we can infer from the dialogue what might have occurred before the wayward one left. It is likely there was a great deal of strife and tension between the two. It’s not inconceivable that the elder son was glad when the prodigal left. He then had the father to himself. Probably he hungered for the father’s approval. The elder son is enmeshed. Enmeshment involves the psychological glue that holds families together. It’s a kind of emotional stickiness between us. In a healthy sense that glue is supposed to loosen and allow us to grow up, leave our families, and start families and or lives of our own. But in some families that loosening doesn’t happen. The people stay stuck together, just like the elder son and the father. 

There are four characteristics of an enmeshed relationship that can be seen in the life of the elder son/brother in the story of the prodigal son. Using the elder son as a paradigm, Professor Guernsey notes four characteristics of the enmeshed person.

The first characteristic of enmeshment is resentment. After his brother’s return the elder son refused to enter the house. His father had never given a party for him. He resented his doing so for the returned brother. The elder son resented his father for accepting the prodigal son back home. He resented his brother for coming back home. 

The second characteristic of enmeshment is insecurity. The theme of the relationship between the elder son and the father is, “You always did like him more than me.” There is a deep seeded fear that the return of the prodigal brother will ruin the relationship between the elder son and the father. The elder son is insecure in his own father/son relationship.

The third characteristic of the enmeshed relationship is triangling. Dr. Guernsey says, “Triangling refers to a communication pattern in which two people talk to each other about a third person without talking to the third party.” The elder son was not willing to talk directly with his brother. Instead, the only record of his communication was with his father. “Whenever triangling occurs, the results are inevitably negative. They are by definition dysfunctional.”

He uses the following example in order to illustrate triangling in a family today. 

Suppose, for example, a teenage son is having trouble with his father. They’re just not getting along. The son goes to the mother and complains about the father. The mother listens because she is concerned but also because she has some of the same feelings toward the father. The positive emotional valence between the son and the mother never creates a positive emotional valence between the son and the father. In fact, the relationship between the son and the mother is likely to drain off the tension between the other two without requiring them to change. Without meaning to, the mother perpetuates the problem by becoming triangled.

The fourth characteristic of the enmeshed person is the “poor me” attitude. The enmeshed person is forever struggling with feeling like a martyr. “No one cares,” he thinks. “No one recognizes me. No one appreciates the work I do. I always come out on the short end of the stick.”

So an enmeshed person: (1) is resentful, (2) is insecure, (3) triangles, and (4) poormouths. 

In the church many times these persons will seem to be the most faithful of all the members. They are always present. They never leave. They work hard. But because they are not interested in establishing relationships with prodigals that have returned home, they can often be the most 

detrimental hindrances to the loving message of the Gospel.

Again using the story of the prodigal son as a paradigm, Dr. Guernsey notes three characteristics of disengagement. The first is what he calls the “me first, me only” attitude. “Very often the disengaged person becomes preoccupied with the material issues of life rather than the emotional and relational. “I want what is mine,” the person declares.” 

The second characteristic is that of physical distancing. “The disengaged person habitually uses physical distance as a means of creating emotional distance. Even though the Scriptures do not elaborate on the story, it is very highly likely that the prodigal son must have left emotionally a long time before the physical departure.

The third characteristic of the problem of disengagement is that the problems always go with the person. “You can go halfway around the world and still wake up with your mother or father figuratively in your room.” No amount of distance will ever solve the problems that are created by disengagement. Running away does not erase the difficulties of relationship. 

While the elder son is a picture of an enmeshed person, and the prodigal became totally disengaged, the father of the two sons is an excellent picture of a self differentiated person. Dr. Guernsey sees five patterns of differentiation in the relationship of the father and prodigal son when the father welcomes his son back home.

The first pattern of differentiation is that the individual takes responsibility for him/herself and allows other individuals to assume the same responsibility for him/herself. Differentiated people are able to admit when they are wrong and are willing to forgive when forgiveness is needed. 

The second pattern of differentiation is the freedom to “come and go with ease,” Since each person assumes full responsibility for his/her own self this allows others to come into a relationship with ease without feeling the pressure of being bound by that relationship. As Dr. Guernsey says, “The glue between the family members matures to allow comfortable connecting and disconnecting.”

The third pattern of differentiation is to treat other persons as individuals. This is easily seen in the manner in which the father spoke to his two sons. To the returning prodigal he said, “For this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” To the elder son he said, “Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.”

The fourth pattern of differentiation is to refuse to triangle. We are not told what the differences were between the two brothers. But the father did not try to come between them. He left them to settle their differences. It would have been extremely tempting for a loving father to try to mediate the antagonism between the two siblings. An even greater temptation would have been for him to take sides with one against the other. But the father refused to triangle in the dispute between the two sons.

The fifth characteristic of differentiation is to remain objective. Just because one member of a group becomes extremely emotional about an issue that does not mean that every other member of the group should also become emotional about the issue. Each person should be able to choose how to respond to each circumstance. While the older son was upset about the return of the prodigal, the father objectively chose to rejoice that his wayward son had returned home. He did not allow the resentment of the older son destroy his own sense of joy. 

(Developed from material prepared by Dr. H. Lynn Stone; used with permission)