Reflections on Attachment and Differentiation

At this year's Couples Conference in Boston, I participated in a panel discussion with Sue Johnson, one of the founders of Emotionally Focused Therapy, or EFT, on the role of attachment and differentiation-based interventions in couples therapy. This month I wanted to share with you some of my remarks and reflections on the outcome of that discussion.


I wanted to do this panel with Sue because she has spent much of her career focusing on facilitating secure attachment in couples' relationships, and I have spent years teaching and describing differentiation. I believe that in humans a dialectic tension exists between the desire for connection/closeness and the push towards individual development and self fulfillment. I believe that effective couples therapy takes place when the therapist understands the importance of both attachment and differentiation and is able to integrate both types of interventions into the therapeutic process.

For many couples attachment occurs easily at the beginning, but sustaining it is difficult.

I use a developmental model of primary relationships in which an effective differentiation stage is essential to maintain the growth and vitality of the relationship, but it is often perceived by partners as rejection/abandonment. In fact, early differentiation often stalls and partners regress into hostile dependent or conflict-avoidant, stuck relationships. In American culture our images of marriage are often stifling and contain beliefs that are not supportive of an interdependent relationship containing two whole partners.


A heated discussion then ensued about the meaning of differentiation. It was clear that many participants believed differentiation to be a type of pseudo-independent autonomy that precluded any kind of dependence on the partner.

I went on to define differentiation as, “the active, ongoing process of defining self, expressing and activating self, revealing self, clarifying boundaries, and managing the anxiety that comes from risking either more intimacy or potential separation.”

Differentiation evolves as partners:
1. Internally self reflect and identify their own thoughts, feelings, wants and desires
2. Develop an increasing ability to express and expose congruently more of who they are as individuals (without blame)
3. Develop an awareness and acceptance of the other partner as separate and different from themselves
4. Increase their ability to listen, hear and respond effectively to differences with clear boundaries
5. Create an environment in the relationship that supports desired changes

When partners in marriage are in the stage of early differentiation, they can appear indifferent or rejecting. They will frequently push their own desires at the expense of what the other wants.

Here is a case example of failed differentiation in a couple with failed therapy as well.

The couple Jan and Jim lived together very happily for 6 years until the time when he wanted to get married and have a child. She was happy to marry but was clear she did not want any more children. She had single-parented a child from a teenage pregnancy, and now she was enjoying her freedom.

Jim always wanted children and he insisted children were a condition for marriage. She did not want a child because she wanted freedom to develop herself. Their relationship became very tense and they sought therapy.

Their therapist helped them realize how strong their connection was to each other. This therapist was unable to help them tolerate having some excruciatingly difficult differentiation-based discussions.

Jan was angry and believed she “wasn't enough for him.” She believed he was rejecting her and choosing children over her. Jim felt that her not having his child was a rejection of him.

Having the necessary discussions would have required enduring some very tense therapy sessions. These sessions would have been difficult for both partners and the therapist. If they had been able to discuss these difficult issues, they would have talked about Jan's taking Jim's drive to father a child less personally. They would have explored why he was so compelled to have a child and how he would translate his intense desire to father a child into the daily care of the child. Instead they avoided these discussions and had the child and her worst fears came to pass. He worked and traveled a lot and she was essentially single parenting again.

Their relationship deteriorated as she grew angry and vengeful. He became accommodating with the child and withdrawn with her.

Originally this couple loved each other and had a strong, secure attachment. By the time they came to me their differentiation had failed and enormous damage had been done. When differentiation is not handled well, it results in hostility, passive-aggressive behavior, unnecessary pain, potential marital depression, fall-out onto kids and possible divorce.

I believe that differentiation is crucial for partners to avoid compromising core values and beliefs, to work effectively with conflict/differences, to negotiate effectively, and to develop ongoing intimacy in a loving relationship.

The lower the level of self differentiation, the more likely one partner will:
1. Set other partner up to take opposite side of ambivalence
2. Project old feelings and experiences onto the other
3. Repeat negative transferences over and over
4. Stall out quickly in important negotiations

In the lively discussion that followed, it became increasingly clear to me that there is still much confusion in the field and that strong, independent stances by one partner without regard for the other are viewed by many as differentiation. Of course, this is not differentiation. Differentiation is only strengthened in an interpersonal context, when a partner is able to hold two realities–that of self and other. At times doing this means facing tension.


As effective therapists we must continually strengthen our own capacities to tolerate tension so we can witness our clients doing this hard work. Simultaneously, we must know and communicate the value of this work to our clients.

If you'd like to listen to the whole discussion you can order a cassette tape or CD by emailing Tapes are $10 and CDs are $16. Ask for item number CC05-P2. It takes a few weeks for delivery.

For a more thorough explanation of differentiation, I recommend our CD set, “In Quest of the Mythical Mate.” It is far more comprehensive than our original text by the same name. It includes vignettes and transcripts from actual sessions with couples demonstrating how to intervene to increase a partner's differentiation. For more information or to order, visit Mythical Mate.

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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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