A Closer Look at Early Differentiation

What is real developmental progress? How do we recognize and support it?

Many couples in therapy are starting to move from the symbiotic stage into early differentiation. It’s not the kind of progress that comes with fanfare and celebration. In fact, the couples might not even recognize their progress.

So it’s especially helpful for you to know exactly what’s happening in this stage.

Let’s examine what is going on during early differentiation and look at how you can support your clients at this stage.

Clients in early differentiation start to express their own thoughts, feelings, and desires more actively. They get a sense that it actually feels good to focus more on themselves and their own issues. This is the time to build on that early progress, to recognize and strengthen it.  

For example, let’s say a husband has, for the first time, been more actively initiating his desires. He used to withdraw because he feared his wife’s criticism. When he reports a positive experience, no matter how small, build on it by focusing his awareness on the change he is making.

It might sound like this, “So as you reflect back on that experience, you said it felt awkward at first, but then it felt really good. Can you tell me more about what felt really good to you?”

Your goal is to strengthen his ability to recognize his desires and risk the initiation. Check to clarify his individual reaction and to help him integrate his experience  internally.

In early differentiation you will see clients slip and regress. They get triggered and withdraw or disengage from risking with one another. This should be expected. You are engaged in a process with them that facilitates new patterns: they are connecting with their bodies and their own issues, instead of focusing so much on each other.

At this stage, your work is to strengthen the parts of themselves that will continue to allow them to be open, present, and engaged with each other.

Another challenge that can come up during this stage is that partners are often fearful about different aspects of differentiation. Let’s say, for example, that a wife has decided to pursue a dream she’d once had of become an artist. She’s started taking classes again at a local university and has begun spending a number of hours working late in her studio.

Although it’s taken her husband some time, he now expresses some loneliness. He misses her and suggests they get a dog so he doesn’t have to come home to an empty house. They begin having a “yes or no” dog conversation.

One night, she comes home and is greeted at the door by enthusiastic barks and wet, sloppy German Shepherd kisses. Her reaction is cool at best.

She doesn’t like it that he got the dog without her consent. She says they never talked about how they’d handle dog care and besides, she’s doesn’t like big dogs. They start getting tangled up and fighting over the details of who said what and about exactly what they had discussed, and when they had discussed it.

He acted too quickly and now feels criticized again. Suddenly, the progress they started seems to have imploded.

While it might seem like this couple has taken a step backward, in reality, this kind of conflict offers evidence that they’ve each bumped up against their own growth edges.

The husband had acknowledged missing her and that he wanted a dog. Both of these actions were real progress for him. The wife wanted them to problem solve real issues and she wanted a solution so she would not always resent him and the dog. Both were right. The earlier tension about the dog resulted in the husband acting prematurely.

At this point, it becomes important to jump in and acknowledge all the good work that had taken place and then point out their growth edges. When clients reach their edges, they have an enormous opportunity for substantial growth.

With this couple, you’d want to hold them in the unresolved conflict and encourage curiosity. You might invite her to ask him to describe more about his loneliness and missing her. You might invite him to ask her about her fears of being saddled with dog care and how that might interfere with her growth.

These questions allow each one to define what is real for them and to become more known to one another. Each may also have unexpressed fears about their unfolding changes. This is normal and healthy because they are indeed growing!

Early differentiation requires us to use our sessions to create opportunities for our clients to do and say what they are afraid to do. This creates powerful experiences in the room. Our job is to structure the sessions to support these moments happening. In fact, I’ve often found that the true art of couples work comes in asking, “Am I able to help him or her take another step? Am I able to create that structure now?”

The work we’re doing, no matter how slowly it seems to be unfolding, is crucial to  helping our clients build developmental capacities that they will need, and that will serve them long term in their relationship. We need to let go of thinking that we can move our clients farther and faster than they are ready to go. At this stage, change is likely incremental.

This is important because when couples start differentiating, at some point, a very difficult issue will likely be created – one where they have very different desires.  Perhaps one is exploring a new and different spiritual practice or evolving in their political views. Maybe one partner wants to take up target shooting, while the mere idea of guns and shooting terrifies the other. Maybe one becomes a vegetarian and the other wants to cook meat in the house.

A couple in early differentiation is completely unable to take on these kinds of big conflicts and wrap them up quickly. This is exactly how it should be!  It is the process of doing this well that will enable them to build necessary internal strengths.

Over time they begin to be more authentic, understand each other’s conflicts, and respond better to the insecurities that have previously been hidden. They become stronger and more flexible. They create many more options to respond when they trigger each other.  

When couples have a tough issue and they’re willing to hang in and keep working it, we can be confident that we’re seeing true developmental progress.

And as our clients start accepting themselves more, we start seeing them feel more accepted by their partner.  This is the joy in our work.

Please share a challenging topic addressed by a couple in your practice. A topic that enabled them to build strength, resilience and increased differentiation.

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This is wonderful and just what I needed right now. I am coaching a couple where they are tangled up in the anger/withdrawal dance and we are taking baby steps. She has been very resistant caught up in her anger defenses and seemingly not willing to budge. Just other day for the first time she expressed her hurt under the anger. This is a big step for her bit still a long way to go. She is so stuck behind her anger wall. She says to me often” you re not tearing my wall down, good luck” so this was helpful for me to see that sometimes it’s the small changes that you can hold onto and build on instead of being discouraged.


I’d appreciate your assessment. I’m wondering about the political level, where I see, for instance, so much rage (and lying and miscarriages of justice, particularly in the UK – I’m most aware of that situation) against freedom of speech. For instance, Tommy Robinson has been speaking out against the overwhelmingly Islamic “grooming” gangs for over a decade – and finally, after 40 years, there are some charges laid and trials of the gang “groomers” (rapists, etc). Those against him: rage, lying, etc. He has spent lots of time in prison. I don’t know if you’ve been following the situation. In not, this 30-min video can be an overview of what Tommy and those with him have been up against: https://youtu.be/9N-J66o8GhU MY FIRST QUESTION TO YOU: What main stage do you see those on the 4 sides: 1 – Tommy et al; 2 – mainstream vs Tommy; 3 – Islamics against Tommy; 4 – those not looking and not seeing. MY SECOND QUESTION; What interventions do you see as most beneficial to get general seeing and justice? My contribution has included writing a fundraising appeal for Tommy, and doing a very Tommy-the-person interview with Tommy (over half a million views through various uploadings. Tommy’s greatest strengths, as I have seen and experienced them, are staying with reality (facts), enormous courage, very effective heart and mind-centered speaking, and a sense of humor. I WOULD LOVE YOUR INPUT. PS. My own background includes a PhD with a major focus on Psychology.


Thank you, Ellen, your thoughts about early differentiation have been very helpful. I am reminded to slow down as I begin to help couples approach differentiation issues.Often the initial reaction to the idea of differentiation is that something must be wrong with their relationship if they are not always “on the same page.” I have also found resistance to moving beyond symbiosis; that has felt threatening to many couples. I now realize that I have absorbed(like a sponge!) what I have learned through my Couples Institute training and have at times not recognized how much time it takes to really grasp and work through the challenges of differentiation. Even coaching couples to talk about “I” rather than “we” has proven to be quite difficult. So, my lesson is to slow down, be patient, and appreciate the complexity of incorporating “I” into “we.” I have also wondered about the cultural messages regarding what constitutes a “good relationship” in that it often seems that the message is “we are the same in every way.” I frequently see couples who are on the verge of divorce because they think that something is terribly wrong with their relationship as they find their symbiosis to be no longer working for them.I recently saw a new couple like this for an initial consultation and, after reading the pamphlet on Developmental Stages, they both told me that they were so relieved to learn that there is hope for them (beyond symbiosis) and that perhaps divorce was not the only option!


Dear Ellyn,

Thank you for yet another insightful post! I wonder if we can look at couples with mixed agendas also from the lens of differentiation. I have recently been getting a lot of calls from couples with mixed agendas; one wants to leave the relationship and do it amicably and the other wants to stay and work on it. How do you conceptualize these types of couples whose agenda in coming to therapy is so very different from one another? While I was reading your post as well as your book, I thought perhaps this may be a matter of partners occupying different developmental stages. Perhaps the partner who is ready to leave the relationship is attempting differentiation (and most often another person is involved in their readiness to leave the relationship) but is really ending up in a repeat of symbiosis with another person? What are your thoughts? I would love to read a post on developmental model’s take on couples with mixed agendas! Thank you!


Alev-Good suggestion for a post.
I will think about it for a post in the new year. It is often difficult for therapists to have enough differentiation to accept both agendas and hold each partner true to their desired agenda.

Susan Lancaster
Susan Lancaster

Mixed agendas, a good term for this.

I have a couple who are in this stage of difficulty expressing their desires.

He has two teenage children who want to come and live with them. She is reticent to have them come. A real dilemma as they are not her children.

I see she is pushing for differentiation but finds it so hard as she will never feel like a real mother as she is passed the stage of having her own children. This seems to be the underlying hurdle for her. Accepting his children into their home is the issues presenting but the underlying issue is her desire to have her own child.

A tricky one!

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy. Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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