Integrating The Best of Attachment and Differentiation Theories

Another year has arrived. I will continue to write blogs and give you thoughts and transcripts. One of my aims for this year is to encourage more involvement on this blog from you, my readers. My online training groups have been using their blogs in stimulating discussions. I’d like you to jump in and do the same. For this first blog of 2011, I’ll make this kind of interaction easy. I'm going to ask you to list attachment based and differentiation based interventions that you frequently use with your couples.

I focus a lot on 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.

In a vibrant, growing marriage, as time passes, partners begin to define their own thoughts, feelings, and desires.  During this stage, too many couples encounter moments of deep disappointment with one another. Sadly, unfolding differentiation frightens many partners because it signals that “we are different”. This often triggers 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 misinterpret their differences 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. To overcome this we must be able to help partners develop resilience,  manage their inevitable differences, and find solutions that incorporate both partners' desires.

When we work to help partners strengthen their differentiation, we enable them to be more 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.

And now I turn it back to you. How do you support attachment? How do you support differentiation?  Let’s all create 2 lists together. Look at the next 2 posts and add your comments to each. You will see that I have started each one with ideas from me.

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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Ann Andrews
Ann Andrews

When my couples start a communication with “We ….
I invite them to begin with “I feel or think….. How do you(to the partner) feel, think…..?

Many partners think that the way they feel and think is the way their partners feel and think-mind reading/attachment
This helps couples to realize, using this intervention in their every day communications, their partner thinks and feels differently than they do. This they find is okay and makes for understanding and better communication.

Mary McFarland L C S W
Mary McFarland L C S W

Some of my clients are afraid to name their differences to their partner, I often restate one partner’s preference as “you really enjoy …..” and then turn to their partner and ask “what about you… how do you feel about this?” Over and over again I ASSUME each partner may feel differently and ask questions to emphasize their points of differentiation. In a variety of ways I continually communicate my comfort and acceptance of their differences which seems to decrease their anxiety about communicating more openly. I often state that their differences are very common, that happy couples learn to express and negotiate their different needs and interests, and that discovery of differences is a normal step in all long-term relationships.

I find that many couples remain stuck in wanting to find the “perfect” mate who mirrors them, agreeing with them always, having the same interests and desires, having the sames opinions and goals.

I find it challenging to help move a stuck partner who is deeply disappointed in their mate, who continually longs for this merger and wants to look outside the marriage to find their “soul mate.”


There are no dates to see how old the post/replies are, but Mary’s comment caught my eye: “I find it challenging to help move a stuck partner who is deeply disappointed in their mate, who continually longs for this merger and wants to look outside the marriage to find their “soul mate.””

I think talking about how to work with the partner who thinks this type of merger is a positive and necessary state for the relationship would make a great post (or even a mini-series). It’s tricky to approach without pointing out it’s an unhealthy dynamic and triggering shame, etc.

Dorothy Anderson
Dorothy Anderson

I don’t want to take priviledge with your wonderful tool, the I/R. I have found it helpful to ask each person to avoid using the word, “you” or “we” when bringing up the problem…. this seems to help keep the defenses down in the other person as well as helps the initiator define more clearly what their problem really is about. It’s easy to blame, and I find that this seems to help both parties be heard plus being more clear about the problem, seems to bring them to a deeper level of understanding. I would hope that I am not undercutting part of the process by doing this. Thanks, Dorothy


Yes, avoiding we and you is essential in keeping partners out of symbiotic/merged transactions. And you are correct that we and you will increase defensiveness in the listening partner.

Elise Orman, Ph.D
Elise Orman, Ph.D

In the first session I explain to couples that one of the problems I see in most is the difficulty in listening to one another. I ask them to agree to not interrupt one another and I will give them each a chance to express their disagreements and agreements. Then I will explore questions about why they have come to therapy at this time in their relationship. I do this individually. This is a format that I have found to be very helpful in drawing out their ability to address the issues and to notice how they deal with the discomfort in having to listen to their partner without defending their opinions. It also helps to set the groundwork for differentiation and eventually the I/I model.


Rebecca-Thanks for your comments. You are correct about the gentleness needed in the situation you describe. I use a combination of giving them a copy of the Stepping Stones Brochure to read (
and talking about moving into differentiation as an essential part of healthy growth and development. For many folks this involves a grief process of facing loss and disillusionment.

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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