Differentiation With a Side of Turkey

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Spending time with family always makes me introspective. We had a fantastic Thanksgiving. We stayed with my dad and had dinner with my husband’s family. I had several conversations that got me thinking about a concept that I first heard discussed in the Facebook marriage group I participate in. “Differentiation is the active, ongoing process of defining self, revealing self, clarifying boundaries, and managing the anxiety that comes from risking either greater intimacy or potential separation.” In the most simple terms, differentiation is becoming comfortable with people being different than yourself, especially people that are close to you. It is human nature, a survival mechanism really, to want to be similar to your community.

People have varying tolerances for differentiation, and I have apparently lucked out in this category. I sat with my husband and his brothers on Thanksgiving and had a conversation about this. My husband is one of the most religious people in his family. He has siblings that range the full spectrum all the way to atheists that have left-leaning politics. My brother-in-law said that when he first brought his now ex-wife to a family function, she was amazed that we could all sit in a room and get along peacefully without making a scene. This is, I suppose, unique in such a diverse crowd. (And, maybe why she’s the ex-wife. Ha!)

We almost didn’t go to Thanksgiving this year. There is a lot of junk floating around in our family right now, and I was worried that there would be drama at our gathering that we really didn’t want to be in the middle of. (It doesn’t involve us directly.) There wasn’t. It was fine. Nobody aired the dirty laundry publicly, and we had a nice meal and visit. Because the truth is, you don’t have to be just like someone to love them or respect them or just associate with them generally. You can even have hard feelings and not make a scene about it.

My dad is what you might call a “true believing Mormon,” though his path there was a bit, ahem, unconventional. He only has one child out of his dozen that is active in the church. I know that this makes him a bit sad because he posted about it on Facebook after we went home. This is the most I have ever heard him say about it. (I’m going to struggle with wording this because I have such deep feelings for my dad.) What he did say was how much he enjoys my visits because my kids are well behaved, and I never bring drama. He is one of the best men I know. He would literally give the shirt off his back to anyone who needed it. Case in point – We had a bit of a transportation conflict during our weekend. My daughter and my husband needed to bug out early to work, but the rest of us wanted to stay. The problem was that we had only brought two vehicles, and the one I was bringing home only seated five people, and seven of us wanted to stay. While we were discussing how we might be able to make it work so that my two middle sons wouldn’t have to leave early, my dad offered to drive home with us. We live 3 hours away. He literally spent his Saturday driving home my sons so that they could spend a few more days with their grandparents. Goodness, I love that man.

I have heard dozens of stories as I’ve navigated this year that are less happy than my own. People who share about how afraid they are talk to their family about renegotiating their relationship with religion. People who are uninvited to family events, shamed, talked about in less than flattering ways, lose lifelong friends and just generally are pretty devastated with the inability of others to differentiate. This not only hurts my heart but makes me realize how unbelievably lucky I am in this department.

I spent a bit of time talking to my aunt (step-mom? aunty-mom? My aunt – as in my mother’s sister – it’s complicated – is my dad’s current wife.) this weekend about what I’ve experienced this year and how I feel about life and religion. I think she was surprised about my strong reactions to some things. However, when it comes down to the brass tacks of it, I’m still her daughter. She loves me and she understands that I’ve been through a lot and, more than anything, she and my dad just want to offer me love and support. They are not inherently dogmatic people, and they live their religion quietly and in a way that works for them. I wish this was true in all Mormon (Jehovah’s Witness, Catholic…) families. I wish that I didn’t know so many people who struggle to differentiate, who take it so personally when someone experiences a shift. I wish that there was a cultural narrative that allowed for someone to step up and say, “Hey, I love you and I value our relationship, but this thing, this part over here, just doesn’t work for me right now.” I wish there was a standard reply that said, “Oh. Okay. Thanks for the information. We’re still family/friends, so don’t worry about it. You’re always welcome here.”

In the end, the truth is that we aren’t really all the same. People in the same family, the same church, the same community are incredibly different, and people change over time as they move through life. Even when we don’t feel at liberty to express our differences of opinion or belief, they are there – the sameness is an assumption. We are all unique. Our experiences are unique. We have unique histories and needs. The truth is that I haven’t changed all that much and certainly not overnight. What has happened is that I’ve found the freedom to say things out loud that many people don’t have. I imagine that is one the draws of this blog.

I’m lucky that I have friends and family who are good at respecting boundaries and offering support in my unorthodox situation. I’m glad that I’ve learned about differentiation this year. I’m even more glad that I didn’t have to learn about it the hard way. One of the kindest, most Christian things that any believer can do is offer this gift to the people in your life. I like to think that it’s what Jesus would do.

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