Something was bugging me recently. It was making me feel irritable, and I couldn't quite put my finger on it. So I spent some time thinking hard about what was up.
Finally, the thing that was nagging at me became clear. When I realized what it was, I blurted it out to my unsuspecting spouse, “I want you, me, and us to move into the stage of Synergy!” He looked up from his newspaper and said, “Huh.”
Synergy is the final stage of development of the Bader-Pearson Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. I gave my husband a quick review of the developmental stages, which he has heard A LOT about.
The first stage of development is called Symbiosis, also known as the Bonding Stage. This is when people join together and become “we .” They focus on appreciating each other’s qualities and the similarities they enjoy. The bonding hormones of oxytocin and vasopressin flow freely, making the bonding stage feel dreamy and delightful.
The next stage of development is called Differentiation. It is the stage that often takes relationships down. They misunderstand this stage's challenges and often think something is wrong with the relationship. “You changed!” is a common form of thinking. Whereas things felt easy in Bonding, things can feel rough in Differentiation. People don’t realize that the challenges of the stage are normal and healthy parts of relationship development. Differentiation Stage tasks involve learning to be clear about your thoughts, feelings, and desires while being open and curious about your partner's.
Exploration is the next stage in the Developmental Model when people focus on their individual talents and consolidate self-esteem. Members of the couple are concentrating on their own thing, and less concerned with their partner. If they zip through Differentiation without learning all it offers, they can feel disconnected from each other in the Exploration Stage. Only by going back to Differentiation to learn its lessons more fully will they be able to move on to the next stage, Reconnecting.
According to the Developmental Model, Reconnecting is characterized by “solidifying the ability to move close and move apart.” In this stage, partners have distinct, independent interests and activities, as well as closeness and intimacy. Previously, I had self-assessed that my spouse and I were in the stage of Reconnecting. I had felt satisfied with Reconnecting. But now something was changing, and I wanted some Synergy, the stage where one plus one is greater than two.
I knew a lot about Synergy from studying the Developmental Model of Couples therapy. I knew it described those couples that were relationship masters. It characterized those couples many people look up to that are each strong individuals and a dynamic team. They often have foundations, retreat centers, big ideas, and big bucks. Think of the Obamas, the Gottmans, or Bader and Pearson, the originators of the Developmental Model.
Could regular folks like my hubby and me have Synergy? And why did I want it anyway?
Identifying and expressing my ardent wish to move into Synergy felt great. I felt a shift by announcing it, even though nothing else had changed. I realized I didn't need to be in the stage of Synergy as much as I needed to say that I wanted it.
Then, as I described to my husband what it was that I meant, my desire became more apparent. I wanted that feeling when you are motivated and excited about life, and your partner is motivated and excited about life. You generate your own enthusiasm and share it with your partner who is generating their own enthusiasm, and you each feel even more motivated by each other’s energy. A team of dynamos, dear. That’s all. Are you in? Fortunately, it was before 8 PM, and my husband remained fully awake for the conversation.
Synergy for regular folks
I had always thought that a requirement of relationship Synergy was to be a couple halting climate change, curing diseases, or ending world hunger or at least having a foundation. But was that what I was after? Selfishly, no. I didn't even want to take in a foster dog. But, I did want that feeling of propelling forward in life, making things happen, sharing in, and multiplying excitement, even if it was just getting our taxes done on time and doing high-fives.
My husband and I have been discussing Synergy a lot around the house. We spring it on each other when we want some recognition. “I made your lunch. Synergy.” Or when we want the other to do a chore. “It would be a boon to our Synergy if you would clean the bathroom.”
I feel like it’s happening the more we talk about it, joke about it, and keep it in mind. Maybe grand accomplishments aren't necessary to enjoy some synergy. I think it's partly an attitude, and I think it’s working.
Meg Luce, M.S., is a Marriage and Family Therapist in the Sierra Nevada Foothills of California where she helps couples create satisfying relationships. You can find her contact info at https://NevadaCountyTherapist.com
Thank you, Meg! It is a delight to read your article. I love the way you are paying attention to your desire for synergy, and that you are sharing your thoughts and feelings with your husband even before being fully clear about why synergy is appealing to you! Bringing freshness and energy to a longstanding relationship is one of the keys to ongoing growth, and the Developmental Model gives us a roadmap to continue growing and developing at every age and stage of relationship.
You’re welcome and thank you, Nancy! Yes, I thought it was interesting how paying attention to and voicing my desire (differentiation) felt even more powerful than achieving my goal for synergy. I love finding ways to bring freshness to decades-long relationships. It’s a thing! And thank goodness for the roadmap of the Developmental Model.
Love the “feeling of propelling forward in life, making things happen, sharing in, and multiplying excitement” – that is the experience of Synergy indeed for me and my husband as well. Thank you Meg 🙂
You’re welcome Wietske and thank you for your comments. Ahh yes, that feeling is the best!
Great examples of the stages and hearing about how the model has motivated change. Like your notion that it doesn’t have to be grand endeavors, but small shifts in everyday interactions, that improves synergy.
Thank you, Amy. Yes, it was wonderful to stumble onto that point in my musings that it doesn’t require grand endeavors. We can all enjoy some synergy with continued growth and intention.
Thank you Meg – I love this! What a relief to read that uncomplicated joyful arrival at synergy is possible through desire, understanding, and intention – and of course, it requires a focussed travel through the prior developmental stages. It reminds me that we cant expect the rewards of synergy if we’re not consciously developing and changing ourselves – its all to easy (for me anyway!!) to focus on my clients, whilst ‘wishing’ my husband and I were like Ellyn & Pete, or the Obama’s etc!! It is refreshing and motivating to bring the concept into everyday life – and to realise that actually……. I’m not far off after all!! Thank you! x
You’re welcome, Sue! I so relate to what you said, “It reminds me that we can’t expect the rewards of synergy if we’re not consciously developing and changing ourselves.” It is so easy to focus on our clients or spouse! I love how the DM reminds us to look back at our own growth which can be so hard and so rewarding! Thanks so much for your comments.
Great article Meg … I loved your description of the stages and that you share that map with your partner so you both know where you are heading …. Your shared humour will help keep you on track.
Thank you, Cate. Humor is one of my favorite ingredients for moving through the stages!
That sounds so simple! I shall use that to encourage myself in the midst of my relationship challenges. There have been significant changes for us due to my husband’s disability, but this mindset can still be very inspiring and encouraging.
I’m glad you are finding encouragement in the article, Bronwen. There are better and worse days, that’s for sure. Good luck and best wishes with the challenges for you and your husband.
Very helpful …. I could feel their joy and motivation .
Hi Mary, thank you for taking a moment to share your reflections.
I’ve always thought 1+1 > 2. I picture my spouse and I as a scale. Sometimes we are balanced and sometimes we are not. But of us is able to carry the heavier load when the other is not. To me, Synergy means we notice when the other is struggling and transfers the load until we are able to be in balance again.
Hi Daria, sounds like you two really know how to work as a team. That’s terrific!
Meg, I really enjoyed reading your piece on Synergy, so down to earth and rooted in the ordinary “clean the bathroom” of daily life. I am currently not in an intimate relationship, but have recently been having very deep experiences of synergy within the various parts of myself as I move through some big developmental processes. Thank You for sharing. I enjoyed your lightness of being in the writing – and the vignettes of your husband joining you in it. Long may it flourish. Shayla
Thank you for sharing your response to my piece. It’s funny how so much of life happens in those mundane moments. It’s wonderful to hear about your deep experiences with the various parts of yourself as you move through your personal developmental processes. Sounds powerful! Thank you for your well-wishes; feeling the warmth as I receive them.
Fun and helpful article, Meg. Although I completed my 3000 supervised hours for a Psychologist License quite a while back, at the moment I’m focused on my own partner relationship. So it was helpful that you were real, personal and self-disclosing, and in a delightful light-hearted way. Made it easy to connect with you, chuckle with you and feel you know my experience, e.g. “unsuspecting spouse”. Your warmth toward him is obvious and the humor and playfulness is delightful.
I really appreciated the abbreviated and clear summary of the stages, also. Differentiation: “learning to be clear about your thoughts, feelings, and desires while being open and curious about your partner’s.” Loved how easy and direct you are in putting out what you want. I have been getting several signals I need spend more time with myself feeling my feelings and desires and speaking them. I’m going to start every morning to deliberately ask myself. “What do you want/desire today, my darling?” and speak it several times during the day (to plants, dogs, my photo of my partner and me, the car in front of me etc). A warm up for the harder challenge of doing so on what matters to me with my partner currently in Europe. (I’m in Eureka California) Thanks for modeling it.
With my partner, I have wonderful times of knowing the experience you celebrate. “feeling of propelling forward in life, making things happen, sharing in, and multiplying excitement” including often when we are meditating together, just too much time where communication isn’t sufficiently reciprocal Thanks for naming that experience of synergy I too want nothing less.”
I’m so glad you enjoyed the article. Thank you for sharing some of your personal journey. Isn’t it something how, as seasoned therapists, the challenges that we help our clients with can trip us up in our own relationships. I love how you are zeroing in on your own differentiation edges and the lovely intervention you’ve designed for yourself. Just perfect to inquire about your desires and in such an inviting way. You won’t be able to resist! And knowing what you want is an essential step before moving on to speaking your desires to your partner across the pond. Good luck. You’ve got this!
It’s lingering in my mind: “I feel like it’s happening the more we talk about it, joke about it, and keep it in mind. Maybe grand accomplishments aren’t necessary to enjoy some synergy. I think it’s partly an attitude, and I think it’s working.”I need to joke more about it and not nag about it. Thanks Meg
You’re welcome. I’m enjoying reading about what stood out to you. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I love how the developmental model often puts the task at hand back in our own court. How can we actively create what we most want. I forget this point, then remember, over and over again!