A Developmental Model for Healthy Couples

Throughout my experience as a couples therapist, I’ve observed that couples relationships typically progress through 5 normal and predictable stages. In healthy relationships, a couple’s development closely parallels the stages of early childhood development originally conceptualized by Drs. Margaret Mahler and Fred Pine.

In what ways are these developmental processes similar? And how does understanding the Developmental Model increase your effectiveness working with couples?

The Beginning: Symbiosis

Mahler describes a brief period of time in early childhood development during which a newborn becomes acclimated to being alive. Similarly, couples need to become acclimated to the “new life” of their relationship.

The symbiotic stage of early childhood is characterized by bonding and connecting between parent and child. Parents learn to attune to the child, for example, by learning to recognize different types of cries. This stage is where strong attachment develops.

When couples meet, they are two different people. They have their own likes, dislikes, fantasies, and dreams. When two people fall in love, there is a symbiotic process of merging boundaries. This is a healthy blurring of boundaries that allows the couple to put a boundary around both of them and decide to become a couple.

In this stage, there is a period of “I love you, and you love me,” which I often refer to as a “temporary psychosis,” because there is so much focus and energy on the other person and on similarities.

Over time, however, people begin to realize that they are not as alike as they originally thought they were. Maybe their dreams and fantasies are not as similar as they once thought.

When partners in a committed relationship begin to realize these differences, they start to experience anxiety. They may wonder if these differences are going to drive them apart, or even if they are meant to be together.

Separation and Individuation Stage

In Mahler’s work, separation and individuation occurs through four sub-phases:

1. Differentiation

Differentiation in early childhood is defined as the stage where a child begins to recognize a boundary between “who am I” and “who you are.”

For couples, the differentiation stage is, by far, the most difficult. This is the stage in which partners begin to express their own thoughts, feelings, wishes, and desires, and listen to the other’s thoughts, feelings, wishes, and desires without attacking, blaming, or trying to overpower them. When differentiation is occurring smoothly and well, you’ll see partners who are able to manage their discomfort while grappling with their differences.

2.Practicing or Individuation

In early childhood, the practicing stage was described by Phyllis Greenacre as the child having a love affair with the world.”  Here, children begin developing the ability to propel themselves away from attachment figures and into the world.

As couples mature, this stage is where the “we” becomes smaller, and one or both partners becomes more focused on their individual development. They focus on what brings them self-esteem apart from the relationship itself. This can bring its own set of issues depending on how the previous stages have gone. Partners who successfully navigate this stage, or have a therapist to help them, emerge as two people with self-esteem that is not dependent on the relationship itself.

3.Reconnecting or Rapprochement

Rapprochement means “back-and-forth” or “coming and going.” In this stage we see children going back and forth between the love for independence and the desire to regress, be nurtured, and cared for.

As couples develop in their relationship, we begin to see the independence of each person as well as a rebuilding of the “we.” Partners may look to deepen their connection through participating in couples retreats, working on their sexual connection, or creating something together. They also notice that they place a deeper value on the “we” without overshadowing the “I.”

4.Synergy or Mutual Interdependence

According to Pine, the last of the childhood sub-phases is libidinal object constancy. In this phase the child starts to see Mom and Dad as separate from themselves, and from each other. The child learns to hold on to the image of being cared for, even when the parents are not in the room. The child who has this image is able to use it to self-soothe and to maintain connection and attachment through frustration, disappointment, and disillusionment.

In healthy couples, this is where we see that the “we” is very big. You as the therapist can often feel the energy in the relationship when they are together. They usually have something that they share  together. This is where 1 + 1 is truly greater than 2.

The Symbiotic Bind

Over time many partners create symbiotic binds for each other. These binds arise out of unresolved issues from each partner’s early development, beliefs about what makes a perfect relationship and experiences within the relationship. Couples lose sight of their strengths and talents, and they focus on each other’s flaws. They don’t have the ability to build upon these strengths, so they become regressed and pull the relationship down instead of building it up.

Many of the couples who come to see us have gotten stuck at a particular developmental stage.

Learning how to spot the developmental stages can eliminate lots of messy trial and error. When you know the stage your couples are in, and can identify the symbiotic binds, you’ll be able to tailor your intervention to exactly what’s needed in that moment.

That is the power of the Developmental Model.

I created the In Quest of the Mythical Mate kit to give you a way to get started learning the stages and some basic interventions.

It’s designed to give you a strong understanding of what’s really going on, so you don’t get misled by what your couples say, but can zero in on the problem.

In ten hours of audio, the “Quest kit” will show you how to use the developmental stages as a diagnostic tool, and teach you the interventions to use with each stage.

In the meantime, I’d like to hear from you. Do the developmental stages make sense to you? Where do you most often see couples get stuck in their relationship? Please leave a comment below.

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The article was very informative & made sense. I think most couples get stuck in stage 3, rapprochement.

Joel McArthur
Joel McArthur

I loved your training at the 2020 evolution of psychotherapy conference. The part about obsessing about an affair was something that I have applied since I watched it.

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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