The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy

We know of course, that infants and children go through developmental tasks and challenges, emotionally, cognitively, and physically. But theorists, Drs. Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson argues that a couple’s relationship also goes through developmental stages, as a normal part of becoming a team and being emotionally mature.

The Developmental Model describes these stages using developmental challenges, not pathology. These stages are:

  • Bonding (Symbiosis)
  • Differentiating
  • Practicing
  • Rapprochment

Let's talk about each of them briefly.

Bonding (Symbiosis)

To these theoreticians, a couple bond early, and fall in romantic love. They focus on their similarities. They don’t want to be reminded that they have differences, although, of course, they realize intellectually that they do.

Regardless, it doesn’t appear to matter in this bonding stage. They are “soul mates” who are “destined to be together.”

Sex is usually at a high frequency, and they become inseparable, maybe threatening other friendships.  Some call it the Limerance Phase.  Whatever you call it, it is intoxicating, marvelous, and engulfing.

Mother sleeping wiht infant holding hands

Bonding is an important stage for babies, mothers and couples

couple sleeping in hammock in each other's arms

However, as time goes on, these differences become impossible to ignore.

Differentiating

“Difference” becomes more pronounced at this stage. Whether they fight about these differences, or try to peacefully co-exist, one or both can’t help but notice they are no longer “inseparable.” In childhood, this is the time when the infant realizes that the Mother is a separate creature, with her own wants and needs. The Mother is no longer an extension of the child, magically knowing what the child wants and needs, and instantly providing it.

In normal couples’ development, each learn this same lesson: “We’re separate human beings with different wants and needs.” More importantly, in this stage, couples learn that expressing themselves clearly and openly isn’t “dangerous” to the love they share. They can be different, but not be “bad” because of those differences. If they both get to this stage at roughly the same time, (which isn’t the norm…) it is a time of frank discussions that help each clarify their values. But intimate sharing of those differences can also bond them closer. It is the normal tug of personalities wanting different things. When they maneuver this developmental challenge successfully, they learn a way of fighting, without escalating or manipulating the other. And they don’t “give up” what they want and need, either, feeling “hopeless” that they’ll never get their needs met.

They learn to listen without taking their partner’s feelings as “accusations,” and becoming “defensive.” They learn to speak about their own experience, without projecting their hurts or feelings onto their spouse. They don’t blame or accuse. They talk about how the events impacted them, personally.

Their sentences start with “I feel…” or “I think…” They are going through the important phase of defining these thoughts and feelings in front of their intimate witness. The more they talk, the more able they become clearer about what these issues really mean to them, and why they are invested emotionally in them. With the help of an understanding listening, they learn more about themselves: their goals, values, hopes and dreams. They learn more about themselves through sharing themselves as a result of the differences that arise between the two of them. This is the role of the “Initiator” in the Developmental Model.

Ideally, the listener (“Inquirer”) learns to become more open, curious and less defensive. Even if their partner is angry at them, they learn to remain calm internally.

“He/She is telling me about their experience of me. They aren’t talking ABOUT ME.”

This can be hard to do, because it assumes that two realities exist, not just one. They become empathetic when their partner is hurting; curious when their partner is angry with them; and reassuring when their partner becomes fearful.

In the role of the “Inquirer,” they learn to ask the hardest types of questions there are: truly open ended questions. Questions that help the speaker go deeper, while feeling they are in the presence of someone who truly wants to understand.

Mother and Baby list squarely facing each other

Infants face the reality that Mom is separate.

Couple sit eating and looking directly at each other

Differentiation is the normal stage, a 'tug' of personalities, and clear discussions are needed.

...it assumes that two realities exist, not just one.

Practicing

At some point, like the child that is no longer content to sit on their parent’s lap, the Practicing stage starts when one or both partners begin to focus on the world around them to a greater extent.

Having learned that “difference” doesn’t damage their relationship, they now begin to explore the world around them. If successful in Differentiation, they’ve learned how to manage differences, speak up clearly for themselves, and the manage the anxiety of doing so.

Now, in Practicing, they test out what it means to them, and how it impacts the relationship, to have “selfish moments,” separate friends, private thoughts, distinct career ambitions, unique hobbies, or periods of emotional withdrawal. If both are at this stage at the same time, it is a busy time of growth for both.

Man is scaling a wall rockclimbing

Each hardly notices the other’s exploration and independent activities, or if they do, they are proud that they are able to function so well, without being overly “needy.” Both are enjoying the ability to become more creative, more curious about themselves and the world around them, and to identify themselves as loving, worthwhile, powerful individuals.

Toddler is climbing a ladder

Children are driven to explore the world around them.  It is a normal developmental task.

...they test out what it means to them, and how it impacts the relationship, to have “selfish moments,” separate friends, private thoughts, distinct career ambitions, unique hobbies, or periods of emotional withdrawal. If both are at this stage at the same time, it is a busy time of growth for both.

Rapprochement

However, a shift happens, that causes the partners to look back onto the pleasures of being a team, and feeling bonded. Like returning home to the familiar, after an extended absence, this “returning to” is both tender and more open. What was once “ordinary” and “nothing special” is more greatly appreciated.

• There’s greater vulnerability, and openness in this stage.

• More satisfaction with the relationship.

• A greater appreciation for your partner’s unique place in your life.

Like the child that happily explores the world, Rapprochement resembles, the tired child after a long play date: happy to go home and see their family, their toys, and the comfort of their bed.

It becomes easier to say: “Let’s negotiate on that. I want you to be happy, too.” Getting what you want is no longer seen as a win-lose proposition. Each wants to assist their partner in getting what’s important to them, as well as reach their own life satisfactions. True teamwork emerges. Only “win-win”solutions are acceptable, even if there is not a true 50/50 division. “Making you happy makes me happy,” might have been heard in the Symbiotic phase, but now it is genuinely meant on a much deeper level. One spouse IS personally enriched by the happiness of the other.

the partners learn to give, even when it is inconvenient to do so, because partnernship is no longer a “zero sum game.”

In this stage, the partners learn to give, even when it is inconvenient to do so, because partnernship is no longer a “zero sum game.” Loving enables them to develop greater maturity as people, and a greater capacity to respond consistently and with greater care to their partner’s needs. They voluntarily choose to give up those things that they realize are distressing to their partner, without resentment or feelings of deprivation. The power struggles of the practicing phase, or the struggle over how to manage difference, just gets easier.

Sex gets better at this stage, too.

siblings in bad preparing for sleep

Attachment and ordinary pleasures are more appreciated.

Couple in an office preparing to work cooperatively

Synergy

As a teen truly learns teamwork, they discover the power of cooperation. Like the Lessons of the Geese, there is a recognition on a visceral level that working together is just easier than working alone. Whether it is team sports, a musical band, or a game of competitive chess, the group that works together succeeds.

At this stage in the couple’s relationship, they are in flow, and are able to settle on joint projects and ways to work together to achieve them. They can integrate their emotional connection easily into everyday life and work well together sexually. In this stage, “Two heads are definitely better than one.”

In fact, two heads gives you three or more volts of brain power!

Not in Sync in Your Developmental Couples Stages?

Ahh, wouldn’t it be great if we could all transcend these stages so effortlessly and at the same time?

Alas, for many couples, this is not to be.

Understandably, some couples rigidly hold on to that “bonding” state, and become expert at either denying the inevitable differences when they arise, or battling with each other, as if in a life or death struggle. In both cases, couples have a difficult time articulating what they want, how badly they want it, and at what cost. They believe that their partner, if “kind enough,” or “sensitive enough” or “generous enough” or “caring enough,” would do a better job of mindreading — and knowing what they want, and effortlessly giving it to them without having to ask.

Symbiotic Conflict Avoidant

Instead of “give and take,” there is pressure to avoid negotiation. For the conflict avoidant couple, this looks like a mighty effort to read non-verbals expertly, and quickly drop potentially conflictual topics. Neither wants to create waves. A “pseudo-agreement” develops in which both agree to not disagree. However, often this tension for harmony comes at an enormous cost. Life crisis prevents the conflict avoidant couple from always having sunny skies and smooth sailing. Many can handle the toughest storms, as long as they don’t challenge fundamental belief systems. However, when they face an issue that challenges the deeply held (and conflicting) values of the other, they have no tools to use to tackle this conflict.

They may have successfully avoided their fear of aggression and self-assertion, but it often comes at the price of a lifeless (or sexless, passionless) marriage.

older couple resting on floor with paint bucket, enjoying their work

Couples are in flow in Synergy, and are able to settle on joint projects and ways to work together to achieve them.

Symbiotic Hostile Dependent

In contrast to the conflict avoidant symbiotic couple, the hostile dependent couples fight easily and intensely. But like the Conflict Avoidant couple, they also have little ability to self-define, or ask for what they want in a calm and rational way.

They might find it easier to criticize, than to complain and ask for what they want. It might feel "too risky" to ask.  There is sometimes an assumption that their partner isn't willing to be there for them, isn't open to helping them to feel more at ease and at home.

We see two traits commonly in Symbiotic Couples: Mindreading and Projection.

Mindreading

Fights might begin this way:

P1: “I’m pissed off at you…”

P2: “Why?”

P1 “You know…”

P2: “No I don’t.”

P1: “Yes you do.” (wash, rinse, repeat…)

then finally:

P1: “You knew I wanted you to blah blah blah, and you deliberately (did/didn’t/ignored/did something else…)”

Can you see the mind reading expectation?

But to ask directly, simply, and pleasantly would be to risk rejection, and for many of these couples, that is much more painful than the fight that eventually follows.

african-american couple on couch looking seriously, but gently at each other

Projection

For these couples, there is a lot of talking about the other person. In fact, much more about the feeling of the other person, then expression of one’s own feelings:

“You knew I wanted X, but you said to yourself ‘No way am I going to give that to her,‘ and you didn’t because you’re still mad that I did Y.”

Got that?

This isn’t a question. It is a statement of fact. “I know you better than you know yourself” sort of thing. “Nothing will change my mind. I’ve got your number…” (and never is it a lucky number…)

To say: “I would like to go to my favorite restaurant on my birthday,” is a big risk. Internally, often there is the thought “Why should I have to say that? Why aren’t THEY asking ME where I want to go?”

So there is withholding.

And as the birthday approaches, and no reservations are made, a demand for nurturance is made hostilely, and then angrily refused:

P1: “Aren’t you even going to ask me what I want to do on my birthday tomorrow?”

P2: “Sure. What would you like to do?”

P1: “Well, I did want to go to Jack’s, but just forget it, now.”

P2: “Sure, we can go there.”

P1: “If you cared about me at all, you wouldn’t have made me bring it up. If you thought about my birthday, you never said anything. You are so inconsiderate, I can’t stand it. I don’t even know why we’re still together. Your such a withholding jerk.”

And if the couple ends up going to Jack’s, it is likely that they’ll both have a terrible time. He’ll feel beaten up, giving her what she asked for. She’ll feel resentful that “he’s only going here because I’ve asked him to.”

And yet many of these couples are terrified of leaving each other (even if they break up and get back together, over and over…) and they are terrified of being overwhelmed by the other’s demands and neediness.

There is a push/pull that says: “Come close, stay away.” Even acts of generosity are misread or dismissed. These couples often believe: “I can’t live with you, and I can’t live without you.” They are bitter, angry, and blaming. It was as if the love and connection switch suddenly turned off, and in flowed the dark, hateful and sour.

As Gottman describes, these spouses are in: “a Roach Motel for Lovers: They check in, but they don’t check out.”

These couples need new skills, and the capacity to “grow themselves up.”

The skills involve identifying individual needs, without being angry, and learning to negotiate these needs calmly. Rather than blame the other spouse for having wants and needs in a fight ,(“That’s right, go out with your friends. You’re so selfish!”) they need to learn to make their own needs clearer. Instead of being resentful that one of you is getting your needs met, and seeing it as a “zero sum game,” (“Oh sure, you can go out with your friends, but what about me? Why can’t I do that?”) they can learn from their angry feelings to ask: “What is my resentment telling me about my needs?”(“When I heard you were going out with your friends, I realized how much I miss my buddy, who I haven’t seen in ages!”)

Having needs doesn’t mean betraying the partnership. For many couples, moving into Practicing, where each can enjoy separate activities and interests without challenging the bond, is the scariest thing of all. While they may want to pursue separate interests, many can only do that in an angry or defiant way. (“Oh ya? I’ll show you!!!”)

As you see above, fights in this stuck stage don’t serve to help each person clarify their wants and desires. They serve to either maintain distance, or, paradoxically, to reinforce emotional connection. Like the child who is beaten, they have learned that only through fighting (sometimes violently so) do they show each other their “true” feelings.

They “care enough” to get upset.

One-Sided Understanding

Also common is that these partners are highly sensitive and reactive to hurts done to them by their partner, but just can’t understand how their behavior has any role in it.

Or if they do recognize that their behavior has cause pain, they justify it. It was pain that was well-deserved, (“You feel pain? Imagine how much pain I’VE felt over the years!!!) and there is little remorse (at least vocalized).


The Developmental Model: Normalizing the Push toward Growth

The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy helps couples to understand the normal and natural stages and struggles that couples cope with. It helps couples to recognize:

• the stage they’re each in;

• to learn about the developmental tasks of that stage;

• the issues that sometimes cause them to feel stuck, and why;

• and to go through very specific interventions in couples therapy that help provide them with a “developmental assist” to work through the stuck points.

At Couples Therapy Inc, the Developmental Model is part of the approaches to Couples Therapy that is taught to our clinicians. We value its clarity and normalizing approach to complex developmental relationship challenges.

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