Susan Heinrich stands on a rock in a river in Beaver Creek Colorado

Self Differentiation In a Midlife Marriage


 With midlife came the need to create space for myself, to remember who I was separate from my marriage

Self differentiation can mean different things at different stages. Teens differentiate as a way to form their own identities, distinct from their families.  Apparently, so do some midlife women. If a marquee had hung over 48-year-old me, it would have read Now Showing: Woman who wants to figure out who she is besides wife, mom, volunteer, writer and dog walker. 

Looking back, I was searching for differentiation before I realized I needed it. I felt an almost aching desire to redefine who I was, separate from my family – and especially my marriage.  

susan in her garden in denver, happy at midlife

Self-Differentiation in a Midlife Marriage

I had been happily carrying along in my marriage of 18 years when an emotional storm rolled in. It shook me awake to the reality that I needed to make changes in my life. Unfortunately, I didn’t know what they were. The one thing I did know: I. Needed. Space. 

Telling your husband you are struggling and unhappy is uncomfortable and scary. Understandably, he had questions. But I didn’t have answers. Even with a patient, supportive husband – which I am fortunate to have – it was tough.  I’ve since learned that being willing to have uncomfortable  conversations was the beginning of my midlife differentiation.

women on a group trip enjoy a scenic view

Self-Differentiation Within Marriage

Dr. Ellen Bayder, PhD and co-founder of The Couples Institute defines differentiation as “the active ongoing process of a person being able to define their thoughts, their feelings, and their wishes to their partner, and to be able to tolerate their partner doing the same thing.”

She says often people are afraid of showing their authentic self because they want to avoid an argument or worry it might jeopardize their relationship. But hiding your true self from your spouse – not ideal, obviously.

And yet women routinely deny our needs. Perhaps we don’t want to voice frustration because we feel like we are complaining. We might feel we are being selfish to ask for more. Or, like me, we dislike conflict and don’t want to “rock the boat”. But according to Dr. Bayder, we do ourselves and our relationships a disservice when we aren’t honest about our feelings and needs. Our relationships get stuck – they can’t grow and change along with us. 

I wasn’t even aware of the extent to which I was not voicing all of my feelings. Until midlife that is, when the part of me that knew I needed to change, got my attention in the form of the previously mentioned emotional storm. I write more in-depth about that here: Emotional Upheaval at Midlife. 

Susan Heinrich does a yoga tree pose in her backyard

Four Ways I Differentiate

It’s been three years since that upheaval, since I started speaking more openly and honestly.  And it has made a big difference in my marriage and life; I was thinking the other day how far I have come and how much happier I am. 

These are some examples of the ways that I am differentiating within my marriage: 

ONE  Using my voice. This is the most important for me. When I am tempted to stay silent about something that I need, I don’t. This isn’t about criticizing my partner, it is about acknowledging that there are things I want and need at this stage of my life and marriage. I have gotten much better at this. As I mentioned, I like to keep things harmonious, so this has been hard. But the more I initiate honest conversations, the easier it gets. And my husband Sean is very supportive.

TWO Saying no. I wrote about this in the story: Prioritizing Ourselves at Midlife, but it’s so important I am mentioning it again. I am now much more selective about how I give away my precious time and energy.  Women are not meant to simply serve others until we are so depleted we have nothing left for ourselves. And yet society seems to encourage this sort of self-sacrifice of women. I make sure I prioritize myself. I come first. Then my marriage. 

THREE Setting Boundaries. When we don’t set boundaries and agree to things that make us uncomfortable, resentment builds over time. An example of a boundary I set is I entertain less and won’t do as much around the house. I also run many less errands – it sounds trivial but I realized they were sucking up my time. More important is for me to have time for my own priorities: exercise, writing,  photography and working on projects I am passionate about.

luang prabang laos monk
Susan Heinrich at Qutb Minar, a Unesco World Heritage Site in Delhi, India

My Favourite Way to Self-Differentiate - Solo Travel

FOUR And my favourite way to self differentiate is to travel – without my husband. And I don’t mean just a girls weekend. I’ve gone away for up to three weeks without him, most recently to Paris. Do I miss him, yes. And there are times I see something I know he would love, and feel wistful. I wish he was enjoying it with me. 

But travel does two important things for me. First, it reminds me who “Susan” is – the essence of what makes me, me, separate from all of my roles and obligations. I am just Susan. And I am Susan who has space to explore new things about myself. Second, it gives me a feeling of freedom. I am free from societal expectations and obligations. I can imagine new things for myself, and I think that is so valuable at midlife. It’s naturally a time when many of us are seeking something new in our lives. 

Self-Differentiation - A Work in Progress

Susan Heinrich sits typing on a laptop and overlooking the Pacific Coast in L.A.

Like marriage, self-differentiation is a work in progress. And this is where it’s important to not care what other people think. I’ve had women say to me: How can you travel without your husband? Doesn’t your husband mind? Is it really a good idea? It might not be for everyone, but it is for me. And that’s another important point about differentiation. This is not a “one size fits all” situation. We each have different needs, desires and dreams.  


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Of course I still love my time with my family and enjoy doing special things for them. Sean and I always make time for coffee together; we are lucky – we always seem to have lots to chat about. I love playing chess with my 18-year-old son, Nate. And as much as I want to be efficient with my time, some old habits die hard. I roast homemade kale chips for my boys and still call them “Hulk Chips” (as in that green guy, the Incredible Hulk).

I think the most significant shift has been this reframe: my purpose is not just to care for and serve others. I deserve to make room for my needs and interests  – and I do.  So while the family eat Hulk chips, I flip through travel brochures and dream of the next place I want to visit –  without them. 

best place for eiffel tower photo paris
Marriage and differentiation are a work in progress. Celebrating our 20th anniversary.
Susan Heinrich riding a scooter past the Eiffel Tower at night
Even when we travel together, I make space for myself

The nice thing about differentiating is it’s in our control to start making these changes. We don’t need anyone’s permission to speak more openly. These can be uncomfortable conversations – scary even. But I’ve learned the more I do it, the easier it gets. There’s no time like midlife to start sharing more openly with the people closest to us: what makes us happy, what we want in our life now. Then we can explore who we truly are at midlife.

2 Responses

  1. Great read and wonderful advice, Susan! Thanks for sharing. Going to send it along on to my wife, Franca, as personal space is something we have both struggled with—in opposite ways though ;). Now that we live in Sicily seems like the perfect opportunity!

    1. I’m so glad you found it useful. Sicily does seem like an ideal place for new adventures – separate and together. Best wishes to you both!

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About - Midlife Globetrotter

Hey there,

I’m glad you’re here. Can we talk about midlife? I reached my late 40’s, realized my kids were growing up, and adventure began calling in a new way: big travel adventures as well as everyday ones. I want Midlife Globetrotter to be a place where we explore how to add a sense of fun, freedom and meaning to these precious years. Let’s celebrate how far we’ve come, and all that’s ahead.




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