Stepping Stones to Intimacy: A Positive Outlook On Problems

If you believe problems and disillusionment are inevitable, you're right. Curiously, it is not the problems that create so much distress. Your relationship satisfaction will actually depend upon these things as you experience different stages of intimacy:
♥ How you think about your difficulties
♥ How you manage your feelings
♥ Where you focus your attention
♥ How you act and communicate under stress

If you can change your conviction that your partner is the source of your unhappiness -if you can understand that struggles are not a sign of a failing relationship, if you can see your relationship as a journey along a path of development-then you will be well on your way to a more positive outlook.

In the pages that follow you will learn about the normal and natural stages and struggles that growing couples encounter. Equipped with this clear overview of the terrain you can redirect your efforts and energy toward a more vital, satisfying relationship.

Separate Selves No More: What happens after you fall in love.

Our professional research and practice has revealed a sequence of developmental stages that relationships go through over time. In the very beginning, two separate individuals, join together and form into a “we”. This “we” begins to exert a strong influence on the two individuals.

From this point onward, the balance between two individuals and the “we” will fluctuate due to the struggle between the need for autonomy of the individual and the desire for intimacy of the “we”.

Because you are two different individuals, you may not progress through the stages at the same time. The five stages that follow will help you know and identify the appropriate next steps and goals that can move you both towards greater intimacy while remaining true to yourself, your values, feelings and thoughts.


This blissful merging of the two individuals into a “we” is known as symbiosis*. This is often called the romantic stage-a time to experience “oneness” and the ecstasy of giving and being given to by a special someone. The individuality of you and your partner is less sharply defined. In hindsight, you may notice that a significant part of your beliefs,behaviors and personality were temporarily suspended in order for the “we” to become primary. Differences were minimized, and similarities were emphasized.

You may have seen only the best parts of each other and experienced unconditional love. Love is, somewhat, blind. So far, so good. However, the “we” that forms is inevitably based in fantasy. The bliss of the powerful connection of symbiosis eventually fades, creating a need/opportunity for change. This crucial stage had a valuable purpose. This strong, exclusive bond provides a foundation of nurturance and trust-a resource you can draw upon as you journey onwards.


Eventually as each individual re-emerges, differences between you begin to appear. Parts of you or your partner that may have been dormant begin to surface. Disillusionment and disappointment may arise as you notice each others' imperfections.

The desire to spend more time alone or with other friends as well as the ongoing expression of different values, desires, and behaviors can become quite disturbing. This can be truly a difficult and stressful time. Some couples rise to the challenge by developing effective means of dealing with differences through healthy conflict management and negotiation.

More often, however, struggling couples attempt to solve this crisis by two ineffective solutions designed to return to the comfort of symbiosis:
1) hiding/denying differences to avoid conflict, or, 2) engaging in angry escalating arguments, hoping to convince their partner to agree in order to find togetherness.

Both of these may result in repetitive, stifling, unproductive interactions. Ironically, these same sources of tension also hold the greatest promise of personal growth and relationship evolution.


When you are able to resist the pressure to return to a symbiotic state, you begin to reestablish your own identity and self-esteem that are independent of how your relationship is faring. The “we” loses its dominance – now the balance shifts strongly toward the individual. This vital and important stage can present a real crisis for each of you. It may well seem as if love and caring have all but disappeared.

To make matters worse, the timing may be different for each of you. The more one distances, the more the other may cling. If both of you distance simultaneously, you may feel more like roommates than lovers. You may feel isolated and emotionally disconnected. The objective of this stage is to redefine and sustain your identity under stress. This will bring greater richness to your relationship and form a new foundation for reconnection.


In this stage you have strengthened your identity and learned to maintain your own point of view without hostility. You think more productively about your differences and disagreements instead of having automatic negative reactions. A return to a deeper, more sustainable level of intimacy is occurring. This is often accompanied with an enlivened sexual relationship. Though there may be moments of back and forth oscillation, this is a time when a different quality to the “we”-ness comes into being – one which includes a respect for the existence of two separate individuals.

You feel much more supported than stifled in your relationship. You hear fewer statements of “I need” from your partner and hear more of “I would like” or “I really want.” When your partner hears a “no” from you, it will more likely be heard as an expression of who you are vs. a harsh barb of rejection. Every difficult discussion does not turn into a high wire act because of the increased tolerance of, and respect for, your differences.


Intimacy deepens as you increase your abilities to manage your emotional reactions when differences cause tension. You are capable of, and committed to relating in ways that are true to your most deeply held values and beliefs. You can actively support your partner's right to do the same – even if this becomes inconvenient. The flow between the individual and the “we” is becoming easier… almost automatic.

The relationship is now more vital than either partner separately. Each benefits from the synergy and the “we” has an energy all its own. Partners desire to create and give back to the world. Deep intimacy, vulnerability and emotional sustenance abound.

As you might expect, these stages do not unfold in a smooth linear fashion. There is stress and angst along the way. But it might be encouraging to know you are very normal in your struggle.

* * * * * *

Note to therapists: This information is available in a brochure, with graphics to illustrate the couple's progress from symbiosis to differentiation. The brochures are sold in packs of 25 for professionals to distribute to their couples who would benefit from a practical understanding of the developmental model. For information or to order them, click here.

* Adapted from Mahler M., Pine F., and Bergman A., “The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant.” New York: Basic Books, Inc. 1975.
© Copyright MMIV The Couples Institute

Discover the Last Relationship Training You'll Ever Need

Have something to say?

Notify of

1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
razvan laichici dan
razvan laichici dan

Good blog you’ve got here.. It’s hard to find quality writing like yours
nowadays. I really appreciate people like you!
Take care!!

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."

Discover the Last Relationship Training You'll Ever Need

Read Other Popular Articles