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The American Journal of Family Therapy, 42:232–242, 2014
Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 0192-6187 print / 1521-0383 online
DOI: 10.1080/01926187.2013.808138

Intimate Partners Who Struggle With Formal
Commitments: Attachment Styles, Major

Challenges, and Clinical Implications

Couple and Family Therapy Program, California School of Professional Psychology, Alliant

International University, San Diego, California, USA

In this article, we explore attachment perspectives of romantic rela-
tionships and intimate partner commitments. We then present four
challenges faced by individuals who are in a relationship where
an expressed problem is the lack of a formal commitment. The four
challenges that we address are (a) lack of recognition for the rela-
tionship, (b) cultural/religious pressures, (c) not being financially
ready for a formal commitment, and (d) differences in what a for-
mal commitment means. We then provide real-life examples of four
people struggling with formal commitment, and we conclude with
clinical implications of this phenomenon.

In the United States, many people view dating as the first step before making
a relational commitment. As individuals observe how parents and families
model relationships while taking in relational messages from the media, they
learn about cultural norms of romantic relationship progression. Such views
often reflect the values that we hold closest in life, such as religion, culture,
and personal life ambitions. In this way, beliefs about what is right and
wrong for relationships can create problems when two dating partners do
not share similar values. Even when both relational partners hold the same
ideals, problems can arise for a couple when their values do not fit societal

In this paper, we explore attachment perspectives of romantic rela-
tionships and intimate partner formal commitments. We define formal com-
mitments generally as culturally accepted norms of long-term dedication to

Address correspondence to Jacey Saucedo Coy, California School of Professional Psy-
chology, Alliant International University, 10455 Pomerado Road, San Diego, CA 92131. E-mail:
[email protected]


Formal Commitments 233

monogamous intimate partnerships. These cultural standards may vary ac-
cording to contextual variables such as religion, socioeconomic status, race,
ethnicity, and nationality. Examples of such norms are a wedding or com-
mitment ceremony (religious and or secular), moving in together, buying
a house, or having children. We also delineate four challenges individuals
may face when no formal commitments exist in their relationships: (a) lack
of social recognition for the relationship, (b) cultural/religious pressures,
(c) financial reasons, and (d) divergent perceptions of what a formal com-
mitment means. Within each challenge, we provide case examples of four
people struggling with formal commitment.


Intimate Relationships and Attachment

Myriad academic writers have focused on romantic and intimate relation-
ships. They have written on many aspects, including how these partner-
ships develop (Knapp & Vangelisti, 2005; Owen & Fincham, 2012), continue
(Ysseldyk & Wohl, 2012), and terminate (Madey & Jilek, 2012). In earlier
studies, researchers have explored commitment and attachment within these
relationships (Hazan & Shaver, 1994; Levy & Davis, 1988; Shaver & Hazan,
1988; Shaver, Hazan, & Bradshaw, 1998). Couple and family therapists and
researchers have also applied attachment models about caregiver-child re-
lationships to romantic partnerships (Johnson, 2004; Woolley, Wampler, &
Davis, 2012).

Although attachment theory emerged from extensive work with infants
and caregivers (Ainsworth et al., 1978), Bowlby (1988) introduced the notion
of applying the theory to adults and their relationships. From this perspective,
an individual’s past relational experiences influence future his or her intimate
partnerships (Hazan & Shaver, 1994). People, therefore, develop attachment
styles in past adult romantic relationships that affect their behaviors in current


Individuals who have endured negative relationships can formulate attach-
ment styles that set them up to be unsuccessful with romantic commitments
because they anticipate failure (Birnie et al., 2009). Researchers have sug-
gested that people who expect rejection in their relationships often engage
in rejection behaviors (Downey et al., 1998). Such individuals typically dis-
play avoidant attachment styles and are frequently less committed in their
relationships (Pistole, Clark, & Tubbs, 1995) than people who indicate less
avoidant styles.

234 J. S. Coy and M. M. Miller

In fact, individuals who demonstrate highly avoidant attachment are
less likely to feel satisfied in and commit to their relationships than peo-
ple who have less avoidant attachment styles (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007).
Furthermore, those who are avoidant may struggle to trust dating partners,
often expecting future hurt and abandonment (Baldwin et al., 1993). They
are likely to make destructive choices in intimate partnerships (Vicary &
Fraley, 2007) and struggle with relational commitments in general (Morgan
& Shaver, 1999).

It is not surprising that individuals with high avoidant attachment styles
may also experience difficulties in committing to relational partners. This pat-
tern reflects the research because one defining characteristic is that they may
become distressed with relational dependence (Brennan, Clark, & Shaver,
1998; DeWall et al., 2011). These individuals differ from those who display
highly anxious attachment styles. People with highly anxious attachment
may commit easily to relationships (Morgan & Shaver, 1999).

Relational Commitment

Arriaga and colleagues (2007) described intimate partnership commitment
as “the ‘glue’ that keeps relational partners together when relationship chal-
lenges arise” (p. 389). Without commitment, couples may not survive difficult
obstacles. If, however, individuals commit seriously to each other, they will
more likely endure such challenges. Despite numerous extant definitions of
relational commitment in the literature, we define it broadly as “the mo-
tivation to stay in a relationship and work toward its success” (Lydon &
Linardatos, 2007, p. 223). Commitment issues can affect the progress and
direction of relationships. Rusbult, Drigotas, and Verette (1994) argued that
strong commitment is a good predictor of high relational investment and can
reveal how long the intimate partnership will continue.


Intimate partners with strong commitment have a greater likelihood of
engaging in spontaneous relational maintenance behaviors that engender
relationship satisfaction and keep the relationship intact (Le & Agnew, 2003).
In addition, relationships with strong commitment can handle long separa-
tions (Lydon, Pierce, & O’Regan, 1997). Forgiveness after betrayal also occurs
more often in such partnerships (Finkel et al., 2002). Therefore, having com-
mitment assists relationship maintenance and facilitates the management of
difficult situations.

Relational commitment is so powerful that simply perceiving one’s
romantic partner as committed may positively influence the relationship
(Drigotas, Rusbult, & Verette, 1999; Miller & Rempel, 2004; Murray et al.,
2003). Having intimacy in a relationship reduces the amount of uncertainty

Formal Commitments 235

(Solomon & Knobloch, 2001), which is important because of the negative role
that uncertainty can play in romantic relationships. In particular, uncertainty
has been linked to lower satisfaction in relationships, less closeness, and
greater relational distress (Campbell et al., 2005). Also, having strong com-
mitment may reduce uncertainty in couples (Solomon & Knobloch, 2001).


Given the extant literature on commitment in relationships, many researchers
have suggested that there are several factors that influence predicting com-
mitment in romantic relationships. One factor is whether or not an in-
dividual contends there is an alternative to the current partner (Rusbult,
Drigotas, & Verette, 1994). If a partner perceives that there are superior
partners available outside the relationship, he or she may not express as
strong of a commitment as someone who does not think that better options

Another variable that has predicted commitment in men is perceived
family support. Perceived family support as a predictor is specific to Latino
and Caucasian men and may influence the likelihood of these men actu-
ally committing to marry their relational partners (Umaña-Taylor & Fine,
2003). Perceived family support cannot generalize to all men but it does
have important implications regarding the similarities between these two
racial groups. Also, although perceived family support is a specific predictor
for a specific population, most researchers have suggested that there are
many other variables that can affect relational commitment in various rela-
tionships. These variables include personality traits (Rusbult, Martz, & Ag-
new, 1998), the quality of the relationship (Adams & Jones, 1997; Karney &
Bradbury, 1995), and contextual factors outside of the relationship (Huston,

A third predictor in making formal commitments is having relational
goals. Individuals more often commit to their relational partners when they
have goals of wanting to start families (Salmela-Aro, Aunola, & Nurmi, 2007).
When they have this desire, they are more likely to commit to the overall
relationship. Expressing a strong commitment makes sense because having
children might make couples become more dependent on one another,
and commitment grows through partners fostering this dependence (Rusbult
et al., 1998).

Major Challenges


One of the most difficult challenges for partners can be the lack of recog-
nition that they receive regarding their relationships because they do not
have formal commitments. One example is the experience of Lily, who

236 J. S. Coy and M. M. Miller

is a 26-year-old heterosexual Caucasian woman who has been dating her
Caucasian boyfriend for seven years. Lily is ready for a formal commitment,
but her boyfriend is not. She tires of the numerous questions from people
regarding when the couple will get married.

Lily’s experience of not receiving social recognition parallels that of
same-sex couples living in geographical locations where they cannot legally
marry their partners. Relationship labels, such as engaged or married, are
important. Common usage and acceptance of these labels reveal shared
cultural values within communities (McConnell-Ginet, 2006).

A lack of recognition and acknowledgement of relationships is a phe-
nomenon that can especially face gay couples. Heterosexual relationships,
historically certified via marital arrangements, are the social norm. Marriage
then emerges as the preferred relational status in U.S. society (Clarke, 2003;
Goodwin & Butler, 2009). Gay couples, who frequently cannot access this
institution, often suffer severe social repercussions. Tim is a 38-year-old gay
Caucasian man who has been dating his Latino boyfriend for two years.
Tim would like to marry his boyfriend someday; however, numerous road-
blocks prevent it from happening. Because he is a gay man in a state
where same-sex marriage is illegal, Tim recognizes the importance of re-
lational labels and the challenges inherent in the inability to access such

At times, the lack of recognition can result in partners feeling pressure
to make a formal commitment. This pressure can come from diverse sources
and result in partners frequently facing questions regarding their relationship
status. For Lily, these questions intensify the fact that she was ready to
make a formal commitment. Individuals may believe that there is a lack
of recognition for their relationship simply because they do not have a
formal commitment. Lacking a formal commitment may result in partners
feeling as though their relationship is not as important as committed intimate


Pressure to have a formal commitment in one’s relationship can also stem
from a broader system of culture and religion. Amar is a 30-year-old
heterosexual Middle Eastern man who is heavily involved in his Christian
community of faith. At present, he is dating his Caucasian girlfriend of three
years and feels the pressure of his religious community to take the next step
and propose marriage.

Some researchers found that there are many stress-relieving benefits
of religious behaviors (Plante, Saucido, & Rice, 2001; Smith, McCullough,
& Poll, 2003). In contrast, other researchers demonstrated the importance
religion plays in promoting stress by advocating a strict adherence to tra-
ditions (Bourguignon, 1992). Amar believes that most of the pressure he

Formal Commitments 237

experienced originated from his family’s strong adherence to their religious
community. Because Amar and his girlfriend do not follow the traditional
progression for their relationship, he said that the couple has experienced
intense pressure from their families.

Vanessa is a 24-year-old heterosexual Latina who also strongly identifies
with her Christian community. She has been with her Latino boyfriend for
four years. Vanessa’s Latino culture and her Christian background are two
factors that hinder her from making a formal commitment. She thinks that her
culture expects couples to have children quickly after getting married, and
she is not yet ready for this responsibility. Simpatı́a is a word used to describe
the Latino cultural expectation that relationships will be pleasant and conflicts
will be avoided in the family; an expectation that Latina women and girls
experience (Gloria & Peregoy, 1996). Hispanic cultures also promote values
such as collectivism, strong family ties, and interdependent relationships
(Santiago-Rivera, Arredondo, & Gallardo-Cooper, 2002).

Given the strict expectations from her culture and church, Vanessa be-
lieves that she has to hide her relationship with her boyfriend from church
members. These religious and cultural expectations were something that she
was not ready for at the time, and so she and her boyfriend choose not to
reveal their relationship to the public and to her family. Not divulging this
secret has allowed the couple freedom from expectations. Keeping such a
secret had its difficulties, but it is easier for Vanessa than following the strict
rules of her culture and church.


For some individuals, having a formal commitment is something that they
are not ready for because of their financial situations. Edgar is a 34-year-
old heterosexual Latino male who has been dating his Caucasian girlfriend
of three-and-a-half years. He believes that there are two aspects to their
financial situation that hinder him from a formal commitment: finances and
job security. There are certain steps that Edgar thinks they must take before
they make a formal commitment. In particular, he contends that the couple
must get their financial situation in order and increase job security for both
of them.

Amelia also expresses that finances are a hindrance to moving forward
with a formal commitment as she wants to feel financially secure before being
married. Amelia is a 26-year-old, heterosexual, Caucasian female who is has
been dating her Latino boyfriend of five-and-a-half years. Amelia thinks that
she needs to be able to support herself financially before marrying, in case
the relationship does not work out at a later time. Being financially secure is
important to her because she does not want to rely on her boyfriend to take
care of her. This caution emerged out of what she saw her mother endure
when Amelia was a child.

238 J. S. Coy and M. M. Miller


The challenge for some couples is that they might hold divergent ideas
of what formal commitment means. Lily thinks that the differences in her
intimate partnership stem from relationships they observed in their families-
of-origin. Amar also contends that his caution about progressing into a mar-
riage has to do with the bad relationships he saw growing up, whereas his
girlfriend had the opposite experience. Tim wants to marry eventually and
enjoy all of the benefits that heterosexual couples have through marriage.
However, his boyfriend does not believe that same-sex marriage is right for
him. Embarrassment by the expression of one’s same-sex desires and be-
haviors can often result in what is referred to as internalized homophobia
(Szymanski & Carr, 2008). Internalized homophobia can be especially promi-
nent for Latino gay men who are more likely to be surrounded by traditional
masculine cultural ideology with negative messages about same-sex relation-
ships (Estrada et al., 2011).


Implications for clinicians working with people in similar situations include
increasing awareness of societal pressure on clients to formalize commit-
ment in order to enjoy equal recognition with marriages. It is important for
therapists to be aware of personal beliefs, stereotypes, and biases about
marriage, which often come across to clients. Clinicians can unknowingly
pressure clients to marry or not to marry based on therapists’ values and
experiences regarding marriage. They also need to acknowledge that clients
may want their relationships as equal to couples with formal commitments.
Handling this sensitive topic with care and determining how to reaffirm the
importance of the relationship could help partners to feel validated and un-
derstood. Therapists also can help clients find creative ways to reaffirm the
importance of their relationships to outside systems. In addition, it is vital to
assess for the degree of influence of clients’ families on the relationship and
on decisions regarding commitment. Such awareness can help guide sessions
for clinicians as they focus on how these influences affect stress levels and
relational dynamics. Clinicians could invite family members to join some ses-
sions to increase support and build advocacy for the relationship. It is also
important not to overlook cultural and religious elements when working
with these clients. Therapists must remain open-minded regarding clients’
varied cultural and religious expectations. Rather than working against these
systems, clinicians can respectfully make these expectations overt and work
with clients to find healthy ways to manage stress while staying true to their
cultures and religions.

Formal Commitments 239


A portion of this article was presented at the 2011 Annual Convention of the
American Psychological Association in Washington, DC.


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articles for individual use.

The American Journal of Family Therapy, 42:257–265, 2014
Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 0192-6187 print / 1521-0383 online
DOI: 10.1080/01926187.2013.838928

Differentiation of Self and Its Relationship
With Family Functioning in South Koreans

University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon, USA

Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas, USA

Purdue University Calumet, Hammond, Indiana, USA

Soongsil University, Seoul, South Korea

This study examined relationships between differentiation of self
and family functioning within the South Korean culture. The par-
ticipants in this study were 235 Koreans residing in South Korea
and ranged in age from 20 to 70 years. An analysis of variance
revealed that older South Koreans had higher differentiation levels
than younger South Koreans. Results of a multivariate analysis of
covariance revealed there were significant differences between the
high differentiation group and the low differentiation group across
family functioning, family satisfaction, and family communica-
tion. The authors briefly discuss implications for clinical practice
and future research.

South Korea is one of many countries where the profession of Marriage
and Family Therapy (MFT) is continuously growing. Not only can students
learn MFT in South Korean universities, but interesting research based on
MFT theories has been carried out with individuals, couples, and families
in South Korea (Sim & Kim, 2000). Among various MFT theories, Bowen
Family Systems Theory (BFST; Bowen, 1978) is especially well-known and
frequently used by therapists and researchers who work with South Korean
families (Jung & Sim, 2007). Part of the reason for the special interest in
BFST can be because this therapy model emphasizes family-of-origin issues

Address correspondence to Hyejin Kim, Couples and Family Therapy Program, University
of Oregon, HEDCO 240, Eugene, OR 97403. E-mail: [email protected]


258 H. Kim et al.

and intergenerational interactions, which are greatly valued by South Korean

Bowen (1978) explained that differentiation of self, often referred to
simply as differentiation, was an important process in which an individual
comes to think, feel, and act for her or himself as an emotionally distinct
human being. Bowen purported that individuals with higher levels of differ-
entiation had healthier family functioning. He believed that individuals with
higher differentiation would mean that they would have a better ability to
distinguish their thoughts and feelings from their family members’, which
would enable them to interact more responsively than reactively (Kerr &
Bowen, 1988). Yet the concept of differentiation may not be properly ap-
plied to Koreans living in South Korea where close family kinships are highly
valued. South Korean families who emphasize togetherness and family unity
might be viewed as less differentiated and yet they may still maintain healthy
family functioning. In this regard, the present study investigated how levels
of differentiation were related to family functioning, family communication,
and family satisfaction in South Koreans. This study also explored if there
were differences among different age groups of South Koreans with regard
to the level of differentiation.


Kerr and Bowen (1988) stated that a family was an emotional unit, in that the
members of the family responded in similar and repetitive ways. In families
well differentiated members were able to maintain both their autonomy
and intimacy with other family members effectively. A poorly differentiated
family, on the other hand, struggled with the pressures of togetherness which
inhibited family members from becoming autonomous individuals (Kerr &
Bowen). Furthermore, the lack of autonomy in the poorly differentiated
family could create a high intensity of reactivity among the family members
(Kerr & Bowen, 1988; Papero, 1990).

Based on the BFST, the togetherness pressure within South Korean fam-
ilies might lower differentiation levels in their family members and increase
their reactivity to one another. Yet an important consideration is that South
Korean society highly values togetherness and interdependency in families.
South Koreans’ family values have been influenced by Confucianism for
several hundred years (Kim & Rye, 2005; Shon & Ja, 1982). Confucianism
stresses clear hierarchical roles among family members and close family and
kinship networks. (Shon & Ja, 1982). Indeed, Confucianism is still deeply
embedded in the structure, relationships, and roles of South Korean families.
For instance, people value the family unit to a great extent, and familial
harmony and interdependence among family members are stressed. Also,

Differentiation and South Koreans 259

according to the hierarchical roles of Confucianism, children are educated to
respect and obey their parents (Kim & Rye, 2005; Lee & Mock, 2005). Lastly,
within the traditional Korean culture, an individual is viewed as a product of
all the generations of his or her family. Thus, individuals are not only closely
connected with their extended families but obligated to continue their family
names to the next generation (Kim & Rye, 2005; Shon & Ja, 1982). Due to
the close family kinship, South Koreans might be measured as having low
levels of differentiation on a western assessment scale. However, the cultur-
ally accepted family value, togetherness, could still permit them to maintain
healthy family functioning.

At the same time, it is important to look into fast-changing cultural values
in South Koreans during the last a couple of decades. South Koreans have
increasingly adopted American culture and values, which could possibly
influence South Korean family functioning. In fact, younger South Koreans
appear to enjoy the American culture and to have adopted its individualistic
values more than older generations (Yi, 1993). For instance, younger South
Koreans are more likely to be independent from their parents by living only
with their romantic partner after marriage. This living style is actually quite
different from the traditional norm of the collectivistic Korean culture that
values married children living with their parents in order to be able to care for
them. When considering the greater influence of American individualistic and
autonomous values on younger South Koreans, it is expected that younger
South Koreans might be assessed to have higher differentiation levels than
older ones.

Based on the theoretical framework of BFST and the likely greater influ-
ence of the individualistic American culture on younger South Koreans, the
present study developed two hypotheses: (1) Younger South Koreans will
have higher levels of differentiation than older South Koreans and (2) South
Koreans with higher levels of differentiation will have healthier family func-
tioning, more positive family communication, and greater family satisfaction.



A total of 235 Koreans living in South Korea were recruited for this study
and the sample size was proper to maintain adequate statistical power in this
study (Cohen, 1992). The participants in the study ranged in age from 20 to
70 years. There were more female participants (75%) than male participants
(25%). The majority of participants were living with their partners or other
family members, and none of married participants aged between 20 and
29 years lived with their parents. The level of education of the participants
was high; the majority of participants was either attending college or had a
college or a post-college degree.

260 H. Kim et al.



Individual’s differentiation level was measured with a Korean version of Dif-
ferentiation of Self Inventory-Revised (DSI-R; Skowron & Schmitt, 2003). The
DSI-R includes four different subscales: Emotional Reactivity, “I” Position,
Emotional Cutoff, and Fusion with Others. These four subscales used in this
study showed good reliability: Emotional Reactivity (α = .83), “I” Position
(α = .77), Emotional Cutoff (α = .81), and Fusion with Others (α = .78).


A Korean version of Family Adaptability and Cohesion Evaluation Scale
(FACES) IV (Olson, 2011) was used to assess individual’s family functioning.
The FACES-IV has six subscales, which generate three ratio scores (Cohe-
sion, Flexibility, and Total Circumplex). When the Total Circumplex ratio is
one or higher, the family system is viewed as more balanced and functional.
In the current investigation, reliability of the six subscales was adequate:
Balanced Cohesion (α = .81), Balanced Flexibility (α = .77), Chaotic (α =
.79), Enmeshed (α = .65), Disengaged (α = .66), and Rigid (α = .66).


A Korean version of the revised 10-item Family Satisfaction Scale (Olson,
1995) was used to measure individual’s family satisfaction. A higher score
on the scale indicates greater satisfaction in family system. In the present
study, the Family Satisfaction scale had a good reliability (α = .94). Indi-
vidual’s family communication was assessed with a Korean version of the
revised 10 item Family Communication Scale based on the parent-Adolescent
Communication scale, developed by Barnes and Olson (1985). The Family
Communication scale in this current study had a good internal consistency
(α = .93).


Levels of Differentiation in South Koreans

To test hypothesis 1 that younger South Koreans will have higher levels of
differentiation than older South Koreans, an analysis of variance (ANOVA)
was conducted with four different age groups as the fixed variable and
differentiation as the dependent variable. There was a significant linear trend
F (3, 231) = 12.01, p = .000, indicating that older South Koreans showed
higher differentiation levels than younger ones. The result did not support

Differentiation and South Koreans 261

FIGURE 1 Differentiation levels of different age groups.

the hypothesis 1. Figure 1 shows different mean scores according to different
age groups.

Differentiation and Korean Family Functioning, Communication,
and Satisfaction

In order to test the hypothesis 2, a multivariate analysis of covariance (MAN-
COVA) was conducted with family functioning, family satisfaction, and family
communication as dependent variables, a high differentiation group and a
low differentiation group as a factor, and age and gender as the covariates.
This multivariate general linear model was significant for family functioning,
family satisfaction, and family communication (all p’s < .001). Using Pillai’s
trace, there were significant effects of differentiation levels on family func-
tioning, family satisfaction, and family communication (V = 0.18; F (3, 228)
= 16.71, p < .001). Univariate significant between-subject effects were found
for family functioning F (1, 230) = 38.11, p < .001, for family satisfaction F (1,
230) = 17.28, p < .001, and for family communication F (1, 230) = 35.98, p
< .001. It indicates that the high differentiation group reported higher levels
of family functioning, greater family satisfaction, and more positive family
communication when compared to the low differentiation group.

To examine the relationship between differentiation and South Korean
family functioning more specifically, two separated multiple regressions were
performed with two different dependent variables: balanced cohesion ratio
and balanced flexibility ratio of FACES-IV. For the regression predicting the
balanced levels of cohesion, the overall model was significant with F (8, 191)
= 12.75, p = .000, and explained 32% of the variance. Among independent

262 H. Kim et al.

variables, I-Position and Emotional Cutoff were significantly related to the
balanced levels of cohesion, t = 2.25, p < .05, and t = 8.12, p < .001
respectively. Fusion was also significantly and yet negatively related to the
balanced levels of cohesion, t = −2.43, p < .05. This result indicates that
individuals who had more fused relationships with others were more likely
to have balanced levels of cohesion in their family functioning. For the
regression predicting the balanced levels of flexibility, the overall model
was significant with F (8, 191) = 10.03, p = .000, and explained 27% of
the variance. Among independent variables, I-Position and Emotional Cutoff
were significantly related to balanced levels of flexibility, t = 2.38, p < .05
and t = 5.60, p < .001 respectively.


The results of this study showed that older South Koreans had higher differ-
entiation levels than younger South Koreans. The clear and significant linear
trend in age with regard to differentiation levels in the South Korean par-
ticipants was a valuable finding. Bowen (1978) did not directly discuss the
relationship between age and the level of differentiation. However, he did
propose that changes in differentiation required many years to accomplish.
When considering the life-long process of differentiation of self, individuals
might enhance their differentiation level as they grow older. Another con-
sideration regarding this finding is the possible effect of Korean War in the
1950s on South Koreans. Indeed, older generations of South Koreans were
more likely under the influence of the war and subsequent life challenges
than younger ones. The national crisis and separation among family mem-
bers during the war could have affected their differentiation levels to be

This finding has an important implication for how mental health profes-
sionals assist South Korean families, especially when older family members
show greater differentiation than younger family members. Traditionally in
South Korean culture elders are respected for their wisdom. Thus, older
family members’ have both cognitive and emotional skills and can serve
as guides for younger family members in therapy. In this regard, family
therapists can encourage the elders to share how they developed and/or
maintained the high differentiation, such as their abilities to remain calm
and think, take “I positions”, and remain in close emotional connection even
during stressful events and conflictual situations. The elders’ high differenti-
ation can be used as an important therapeutic resource as well as a wise and
calming force within the family. Depending upon each family’s preferences
and permission, elders could be consulted by phone, video-chat, or invited
to participate in as many sessions as they wish.

Differentiation and South Koreans 263

Our results showed that South Koreans in the higher differentiation
group had healthier family functioning, greater family satisfaction, and more
positive family communication than those in the lower differentiation group.
The results suggest that mental health professionals should consider differ-
entiation as an important factor which can positively influence healthy family
functioning for individuals living in the Korean culture. This study also found
that among differentiation measurement subscales, the “I” position had a sig-
nificant effect on both balanced levels of cohesion and flexibility in Korean
family systems. According to Bowen Family Systems Theory (Bowen, 1978),
capacity to take the “I” position indicated the ability to act in terms of what
“I” think, and to take the responsibility for the resultant success or failure
of one’s own action. It suggests that South Koreans, who acted according
to their own thoughts and took responsibility for the consequences of these
actions, were more likely to have healthy family functioning: with well-
balanced cohesion and flexibility among family members. South Koreans in
our sample reported lower emotional cutoff with others had more balanced
levels of cohesion in their family systems. This suggests that South Koreans
who are less likely to choose emotional cutoff with others are more likely to
construct healthy and balanced connection among family members.

At the same time, this study found that South Koreans who reported
more fusion with others scored higher balanced levels of cohesion in their
family functioning. The result did not support the aspect of the original
Bowen Family Systems Theory that viewed fusion with others as a negative
influence on healthy family functioning. Previously, a higher score on the
fusion statements of DSI-R was meant to be interpreted as demonstrating fu-
sion with other family members. However, many of these fusion statements
might have been more positively interpreted by our Korean participants. For
instance, a fusion statement “I want to live up to my parents’ expectations
of me” is closely related to the Korean family values that children obey
and respect their parents and follow their guidance to a great extent (Kim &
Rye, 2005). Thereby, high scores on these fusion statements might need to be
interpreted as indicating high levels of socially congruent family unity and so-
cial support, which actually positively contributes to Korean family function-
ing. The results suggest that mental health professionals working with South
Korean families should distinguish strong family unity and togetherness
among Korean family members from fusion that impedes healthy family func-
tioning. Indeed, for cultures in which tight-knit families are revered, perhaps
the Western mislabel of fusion may be need to be replaced by something
more akin to concepts that denotes collaborative health, such as solidarity.

Limitations and Future Research

How age affects differentiation levels in South Koreans remains unclear
and warrants further cross-cultural investigation. Future research should

264 H. Kim et al.

investigate the relationship between age and differentiation with a focus
on how differentiation levels might change across the lifespan, and whether
major life challenges mediate and moderate age’s influence. Although the
present study made a great effort to ensure the reliability and validity of the
differentiation and family functioning instruments, it is necessary to develop
culturally sensitive instruments that can accurately measure differentiation
levels and healthy family functioning in South Koreans. Lastly, future research
should perform similar studies with people living in other collectivistic cul-
tures such as China, Japan, and India. The results will help to demonstrate,
more accurately, whether differentiation is an important factor contribut-
ing to healthy family functioning in both collectivistic and individualistic

In spite of these limitations, this study has made valuable contributions
to the concept of differentiation of self in the Bowen Family Systems Theory
literature. No matter how valuable and effective mental health theories and
interventions are, they can lead us in a wrong direction if they are used for
diverse cultural groups without proper cultural considerations. We hope that
this study encourages marriage and family therapists and researchers around
the world to be active in evaluating various MFT theories before applying
them to people of different cultures.


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Guildford Press.

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Materials: You will first need to select an article from one of the scholarly journals in psychology listedbelow. Articles should meet the following criteria:

1. The article must be an empirical research article. An empirical research article presents original research conducted by the author(s). The article should contain detailed information about the methods and results of the research.

2. Review articles in which the author(s) summarizes past research, but does not present an original research study are not acceptable.

3. Students must NOT use information from popular press books or magazines (NO Psychology Today articles).

4. The article should be published in one of the journals listed below.

5. The article should be at least five pages in length.

6. The article should have been published in the last 10 years.

Approved Journal List:


American Journal of Family Therapy

Applied Cognitive Psychology

Basic and Applied Social Psychology

British Journal of Social Psychology

Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice

Developmental Psychology

Exceptional Children

Journal of Applied Social Psychology

Psychology and Aging

Psychological Science

School Psychology Review

School Psychology Quarterly

Finding an article:

Many articles are available full-text online, but you will need to access them via the Cook Library website. If you have not done this before, we highly recommend that you take this instruction page to the library and ask for the assistance of a reference librarian. There are also useful instructions on the cooklibrary.towson.edu website (see need help link at the top of the page).

Writing the summary:

All summaries must be typed, be in prose (not outline form), and conform to proper grammar. Each summary should be 3-4 double-spaced pages in addition to the cover page.

Deadline: Research reports must be handed in by the last day of classes.

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Cover Page

Research Report for Research Credit

Name ______________________________Student ID Number _____________

PSYC 101/102 Instructor____________________Section number __________

Author(s) of article

Year of publication

Title of article

Journal name

All summaries must be typed, be in prose (not outline form), and conform to proper grammar. Each summary should be 3-4 double-spaced pages. You must include aphotocopyof the complete original journalarticle.

Attach a typed report in which you answer the questions on the following page:

1. Describe the general topic of the research paper (e.g., social psychology, cognition, personality, developmental, clinical disorders….).

2. Describe the specific hypothesis or question being tested.

3. If the research was an experiment, what were the independent and dependent variables? If the study was correlational, what were the important variables measured?

4. Briefly describe the method used to test the hypothesis (e.g., who were the participants, what were they asked to do, how were data collected…).

5. What did the researcher find? Note: You do NOT need to provide precise statistical data; it is more appropriate to give a summary. What conclusions can be reached from this research?

6. How are the results important (e.g. Can they be applied to solve social or individual problems, do they change the way other studies are interpreted, do they support one theory over another, do they help explain past research findings?)

7. Identify and discuss shortcomings or limitations of the research.

8. What were the author’s suggestions for future research?