A Developmental Model of Couples Relationships for Couples Therapists

Edna, 28, and Steve, 30, had been living together for two years when they requested couples therapy. In appearance Edna was dressed immaculately, while Steve looked disheveled. Their fights, not surprisingly, focused on his slovenly appearance and sloppy household habits, and on her fastidious behavior and frivolous patterns of spending money. Theirs had been an intense, dramatic relationship.

In the beginning they had met and fallen in love on a blind date. Now, two years later, they described a highly conflictual relationship with serious communication problems. An initial session began as follows:

Edna: Again, you left two days' worth of cruddy dishes all over the living room floor for me to trip over! And your farting is getting worse! I can't stand it any longer!

Steve: If you hadn't bought those new chairs without asking me, maybe I wouldn't create such a mess. You were just trying to get even!

During the worst of their fights at home, Steve and Edna would slam doors, throw dishes, and spit at each other. In the initial therapy sessions, given the slightest opportunity they would bicker childishly without listening to one another. On two occasions Edna became so angry that she marched out of the room, throwing a pillow rudely at Steve on her way out of the door.

What is it, after all, that compels adults such as Steve and Edna, who have all the best intentions, to regress to childlike behaviors where spitting becomes a means of communication? How does a developmental model of couplehood relate to Steve and Edna? We have found that particular aspects of childhood development will influence an adult's capacity to create a successful relationship. Understanding these aspects allows us to identify each partner's current stage, which in turn identifies the overall pattern of behavior within the relationship as a unit.

Developmental theory addresses growth as a complex process. When early biologists studied the structure of plants and animals, they discovered growth to be a process of transformation. Cells divide and group themselves into new forms with new functions, and development involves progression through successive stages. These stages are successively more complex at each level of growth. In fact, each successive stage is based on a preceding stage and represents a transformation of the earlier stage into a more complex form. This same process of biological organisms evolving into increasingly forms also occurs in the psychological development of human beings. Freud, Erickson, and Piaget each contributed to the process of shifting the focus of developmental thinking from the biologically oriented sciences into the cognitive, social, and intrapsychic areas of individual human functioning.

Loevinger (1966) has provided a clear summary of the main features of a developmental model:

1. There is an invariable order to the stages of development.
2. No stage can be skipped.
3. Each stage is more complex than the preceding one, representing a transformation of what existed previously into a new form.
4. Each stage is based on the preceding one and prepares for the succeeding one. (cited in Breger, 1974, p. 9)

In this book we will demonstrate how these assumptions apply to couples and to the evolution of effective relationships. We will show how the influences of childhood enhance or inhibit an individual's ability to progress through the normal stages of growth and that characterize adult relationships.

Reprinted from Chapter 1, “In Quest of the Mythical Mate,” by Dr. Ellyn Bader and Dr. Peter Pearson, Ph.D. Click the title for more information or to order.

The Stepping Stones brochure is also a valuable resource for couples. The brochure describes the Bader-Pearson developmental model and normal stages from Symbiosis to Synergy in terms your clients will understand, please click Stepping Stones to Intimacy for more information.

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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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