Getting Started with an Enmeshed Couple Moving to Early Differentiation

Couples who marry young often establish enmeshed relationships that inhibit individual growth. They have not had the opportunity to mature and do much differentiation work prior to getting married.

When partners organize their relationships in an enmeshed way, their own desires are usually obscured and are often presented in terms of: “We are alike in so many ways.” There’s very little self-definition or ability to articulate individual desires. Everything is framed in terms of “we” or “us.”

When they arrive for therapy, they may have one partner still trying very hard to maintain symbiosis, and the other partner making tentative forays out of it. The relationship is unbalanced for the first time, and the symbiotic partner may feel as though the whole world is falling apart.

And when a couple has been interacting in one predictable way for a very long time, the developmental tension of change can terrify them, signaling the potential for major rupture or even separation or divorce.

Differentiation begins as clients learn to internally self-reflect and define what they want, think and feel.Next, they develop the ability to articulate those desires clearly to somebody else without collapsing or abandoning themselves in the process.

But sometimes, especially in relationships that are highly merged, partners may have trouble identifying or defining their own desires.

So when you ask a client to focus on one desire that really matters to him or her, you may get a response such as, “I want our relationship to be good. I’m looking for happiness. I don’t want to walk around stressed or anxious because we’re on totally different pages.” These statements do not include an individual desire.

I like to normalize their fears and how difficult this process is. I might say something like, “Of course you don’t want to walk around stressed and anxious, and yet it’s taking you a while to be comfortable with your husband having different desires than you have. You can get there, but one important goal is for you to become comfortable with him being different than you.”

As her husband is becoming more authentic and vocal about his desires, she will hear requests she’s never heard before. And when she doesn’t recognize these, she feels anxious and wonders, “

Where did that come from?”

Every step that her husband takes out of the symbiosis may be experienced as, “He doesn’t want to be with me. I’m not a priority. He doesn’t love me. I’m not enough.”

It’s like a reflex. That’s where she’s goes with her thoughts and feelings.

Here it can be helpful to support the husband to express his intentions, if he is not leaving. He just doesn’t want to be in the old relationship, the way it was between the two of them. He doesn’t want that anymore. He wants something new and different.

So now let’s focus on the partner who seems stuck in trying to maintain the symbiosis, in this example the wife. She may say “I want honesty and I want consistency. I want our relationship to come first. I don’t have huge expectations. I just want us to be together often for coffee in the mornings or go to bed together.”

Now on one hand, she seems to be saying she wants honesty from her husband. At the same time, she’s describing a lot of togetherness without leaving much room for his individual desires. And, she is framing what is important to her in terms of what she wants from her husband.

As therapists, our challenge is continuing to bring clients back to this: “Right now, I want to ask you to focus on your own desires – learning how to express them, and learning how to listen to his desires, which are different from yours.

This is something you’ll need to emphasize a lot as you move forward with a couple like this.

Sometimes with this type of couple, I’ve found it useful to say something like, “When you want to go to bed together and your husband isn’t ready or he isn’t coming to bed, what do you do or say? Could you play that conversation out in front of me right now? I’d like to see what actually happens and how you navigate this difference.”

This gives you something concrete to work with immediately in the room to help them navigate and learn how their conversation might go in a different direction. You’ll get to see the moments where differentiation completely collapses. You can support them continuing. Your challenge is helping them stay in the tension that will create change.

Your goal as their therapist is to strengthen each partner’s differentiation while structuring dialogue in a way that’s not too scary for them.

One of the resources I highly recommend for therapists when working with early differentiating couples is our Stepping Stones Brochure. It’s something we developed at The Couples Institute to give to your clients to help them understand why their relationship is changing. It helps them see their positive momentum toward a deeper, growing relationship.

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This was Very concrete and helpful Thank you Ellyn

Ceriden Nilsson
Ceriden Nilsson

Excellent article. Thanks for putting it out there. I have two questions. Are there any subtle or dramatic differences in the process you describe when a) the genders are reversed? When the one who wants differentiation is the female and the one who wants to maintain symbiosis is the male? Especially in 50+ couples, I see this when the female partner begins to get involved in inner work (going to spiritual groups, learning about energy healing, etc) and her husband becomes fanatic or content with the original structure of the partnership. There is also a transference issue for me between the female’s desire for differentiation against the structural rigidity of the male. The second is with LGBT couples who are one point were differentiated, then became symbiotic, and now one wants to differentiate but the other wants the tighter controls. Hints? Thanks

Lauren Ostrowski, MA, LPC, NCC
Lauren Ostrowski, MA, LPC, NCC

Ceriden, you ask some good questions.

For your first question, I don’t often see roles that are different based on gender alone. Instead, I see that ways of managing conflict often come down to looking at conflict was handled in previous relationships or family of origin (working through it successfully, arguing or blaming, avoiding it altogether, being passive aggressive, etc.). Attachment styles and behavior that feels protective can also contribute to ways of resolving conflict, although I also don’t see that this follows gender lines.

I have seen a lot of what you mentioned about one partner becoming involved in something else outside the marriage (which is actually practicing or individuation – two names for the same stage) rather than differentiation, but I see that when one partner is looking for change in the system so they go outside of the system because they are struggling with differentiation (being able to express their own wants, wishes, and desires while recognizing that their partner might want something different). While it is common that differentiation is skipped when one partner is pulling for that original structure of the partnership, I don’t see that it follows gender lines in any way, at least in my experience over the last several years.

With the LGBT couple that you are talking about, differentiation happens in stages. In other words, it’s very common for partners (or one partner) to take some steps toward differentiation and then fall back towards symbiosis because it’s more comfortable and familiar. There’s a lot less tension and anxiety there. For the one who wants to continue differentiating now, it probably felt safe, felt helpful, felt good for moving in the way they wanted the relationship to go. For the one who wants the tighter controls, the change in the relationship likely feels incredibly threatening. Being able to talk about what it feels like (for example, if you like you are leaving me every time you go out without me), what emotions that brings up, and especially how what is actually happening is likely quite a bit different than what it feels like, the symbiotic partner can begin to move forward as well because talking about this involves expressing what they want, wish for, desire, what they are afraid of, and even the part of them that wants to move toward differentiation compared to the part of them that feels better if things stay symbiotic. If you are familiar with 2-chair work, that works well in that circumstance.

Thanks for asking such great questions!

Carroll Coplin
Carroll Coplin

Every time I visit a page or listen to a topic I come away feeling more clear and confident about the direction I’m going with clients.
Thanks, Lauren, for your great responses.

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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