Attachment and Differentiation in Couples Therapy

This year's couples conference has now come and gone. Once again we enjoyed dynamic presentations from state of the art thinkers and practioners, such as Harville Hendrix, Pat Love, Cloe Madanes, Terry Real, Dan Siegel, Stan Tatkin and Jeff Zeig. I meant to share some highlights with you sooner, but got swamped with commitments that always crop up at the end of the training year and then had a wonderful trip to France with Pete and Molly.

I especially loved the panel on “Attachment and Differentiation in Couples Therapy” that I did with Stan Tatkin. I structured this panel into the conference because I believe it is time for people our field to begin integrating the best of these two theories.  Couples therapy is most effective when the therapist knows how to use both attachment and differentiation based interventions and conceptualizations.

For so many couples attachment and connection occurs easily at the beginning of the relationship, when all the endorphins in the brain are supporting the intensity of “falling in love”. However, sustaining love is much more difficult.

Primary attachment patterns from early in life become increasingly dominant as partners hurt or disappoint each other.  For example, a woman with an avoidant childhood attachment with her mother may become increasingly avoidant in her marriage as she feels hurt by her husband's deep involvement with his work.  She may shut him out of her social involvements or withdraw into internet chatting. An aloof distance will begin to infect the couple.

Stan discussed the importance of using a modified attachment interview early in therapy to delineate one of four types of attachment: Secure, Resistant/Clinging, Anxious Avoidant or Disorganized for each partner. This interview is conducted with both partners together, so that they can deepen their experience of one another.

Stan also described his experience that using this interview helps avoidant partners become more invested in therapy for themselves.

He stressed the necessity of both therapists and married partners understanding that the adult couple relationship is a primary attachment relationship. And as such it is significantly different from all other relationships. It provides an opportunity for growth as well as a haven of care and protection.

I then discussed differentiation theory. As time passes, partners begin to define their own thoughts, feelings, and desires.  The love chemicals recede and the majority of clinical couples aren't able to maintain a strong positive connection. Instead they encounter moments of deep disappointment with one another and become increasingly self protective, using unsuccessful coping strategies such as blame, withdrawal and resentful compliance.

This propels them headlong into a developmental dilemma. Their self protective mechanisms result in undermining differentiation in one another, and they devolve into pervasive conflict avoidance or serious angry escalating, hostile-dependent patterns.

They are hurt and reeling from the effects of competition, brutal accusations, intermittent accountability, passivity, and too little time together. I described my belief that to overcome this we must be able to help partners develop resilience and manage their inevitable differences to find solutions that incorporate both partners' desires.

When we work to help partners strengthen their differentiation, we enable them to be authentic and open with one another without compromising core values and beliefs. They learn to work effectively with their conflicts and differences, and to negotiate successfully. In this way, differentiation adds to the strengthening of the couple's attachment, and a synergy develops in which the new developmental capacities support ongoing closeness and connection.

I also stressed the need to recognize that differentiation is not:

  • Avoidance or avoidant attachment
  • Pseudo-Autonomy as described in the Gestalt Prayer
  • Individuation-unfolding of unique skills and talents which lead to increased self-esteem, capacities that are often developed away from the relationship in schools, community activities, and hobbies.

Differentiation occurs interpersonally. Sadly, unfolding differentiation frightens many partners because it signals that “we are different”. I believe this can trigger primitive anxiety – fear of being left or cast out. In their attempts to calm this anxiety, partners often try to inhibit growth in one another. They may also expect a lot from the other and little from themselves. They may deceive themselves about their own role in the problem.

One glorious part of being a couples therapist is the daily opportunity to support loving connection and individual growth at the same time, which brings me back to my opening thought: it is time for our field to begin integrating the best of Attachment and Differentiation theories.

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Kathleen Muschio
Kathleen Muschio

I too really got a lot out of Stan Tatkin’s presentation.

Tobias Ruland
Tobias Ruland

I am working primarily using differentiation based psychotherapy and it really suits my style of working. What often occurs is that individuals with a low degree of differentiation avoid the crucible (as David Schnarch calls it) and do not tolerate the pain for growth in therapy. Did Stan make a statement on this phenomenon?


Ellen, what do you do when the man is being triggered with this primal anxiety of being left or cast out and goes into a severe depression, which connected to his mom being extremely disconnected, old and detached (anxious avoidant?). And now his wife is detaching because he is pulling her back and inhibiting her growth. She is on the verge of leaving him because she has so much anger towards him.

Karly Pitman
Karly Pitman

I greatly enjoyed this discussion about integrating attachment theory and the need for differentiation – thank you so much for sharing it! I’m a teacher who’s created an attachment based approach for binge eating and compulsive overeating, When Food is Your Mother, and I enjoy and seek out attachment material. Mark, you may find the theory and work of my teacher, developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld, helpful in answering your question – you can find his work at The Neufeld Institute, based out of Vancouver. His theory integrates attachment, maturation/development, and vulnerability/the brain’s defense system, and is a brilliant synthesis that explains how attachment births and seed differentiation; in other words, it is not either, or, but rather, attachment is the womb that leads to maturation, differentiaton, and the ability to be a viable, emergent, adaptive, resilient human being. While his theory explains child development, its tenets can also be applied to adults. He describes healthy attachment as “togetherness without the loss of separateness;” in a marriage, this is the ability to “hold onto yourself” (his words for differentiation) while also being close to another in a close attachment. In his theory, he describes six forms of attachment, going from more surface attachment to a deeper attachment: attaching through the senses, through sameness (also taking on the form of another), belonging/loyalty, significance/mattering, the heart/love, and the deepest level of attachment, to be seen and known, or emotional intimacy. His theory resolves the conflict between the need for attachment and differentiation – because at the deepest levels of attachment, there is also freedom and room to be your own person. He also describes the attachment roots of anxiety (a fear of separation) and how to soften it; you can listen to a talk that he gave at The Dalai Lama Center on anxiety here:

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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