Working to Build Attachment while Facilitating Differentiation

Last month I invited readers to list Attachment and Differentiation-based interventions in two different lists on the blog. A special thanks to those of you who shared your ideas. Developing a strong direction with a high probability of success in couples therapy often involves supporting the couple's bond and simultaneously stressing differentiation. What does this actually look like as you start out with a couple? In early sessions, it is important to define what positive outcome each partner is trying to create. Ask the partners, “What kind of relationship do you want to be in?”  Often couples come to therapy because they are stimulating negative, traumatic reactions in each other and can't extract themselves from these cycles without help from a third party. When I ask partners what they want to create in their relationship, I am looking for answers that represent a vision of a strong bond and a secure attachment. Common examples would be:
  • I'd like to feel safe expressing my thoughts and feelings.
  • I'd like us to function more like a team.
  • I'd like my partner to support my career.
  • I'd like us to parent together more successfully.
When partners have a positive picture to move towards, they will be more positively motivated to work in therapy. However, I know that accomplishing their positive image will require an increase in differentiation from each partner. It is quite common for partners to wish the other person would magically change while they passively wait for nirvana.  I use their positive image to facilitate a discussion that leads to uncovering nodal points of change. For example, a partner says, “I'd like my partner to support my career.” This is an other-directed goal that is meaningful in life, but will not be achieved without some changes from the partner who wishes for the career support. Here is how a dialogue might unfold to elucidate a needed shift: Ellyn: What do you do that you believe gets in the way of your partner supporting your career? Client: I work long hours, 60-70 hour weeks at least. I come home exhausted. Ellyn: Would it be fair to say that you are asking your partner to support something that takes you away from him/her both physically and emotionally? Client: I suppose so, although I hadn't thought about it that way. Ellyn: Have you ever told your partner what your career means to you, why you work so much, and why you don't set limits that could leave you with more to give to your relationship? Client: Maybe, but probably not quite like that. Ellyn: It sounds to me like you’re driven to work a lot and that even you may not be aware of all your motives. It must mean an enormous amount to you. I am curious to know what it means to you and also why you will exhaust yourself and sacrifice quality time with your partner. It seems to me that it would be valuable for you to understand yourself more completely. Does that make sense? Client: Yes. Ellyn: And also learn how to describe the support that would be the most meaningful to you. This dialogue paves the way for goals that involve greater self awareness and self-definition, more openness and clearer boundaries by this partner. While of course all dialogues do not go this smoothly, this demonstrates several principles:
  1. I am using the client's desired outcome as a stepping stone to increase this partner's awareness of the self-defeating nature of their overworking behavior.
  2. Sprinkled into the questions are statements where I hold and express the value of a strong, quality partnership.
  3. There is an implication that to get what is desired will require more self- awareness and stronger boundaries.
Here is another example: Client: I'd like to feel safe expressing my thoughts and feelings. Ellyn: Let's separate the two of these. What happens when you express feelings and end up feeling unsafe? Client: I say something and my partner looks hurt. I hate that look on her face so I stop talking. She is so sensitive and gets hurt easily. Ellyn: Do you know why she feels hurt? Client: She says I am a bully. Ellyn: Well is she ever correct? Do you sometimes bully her? It is an unusual partner who doesn't jockey for control sometimes. Client: Probably. Ellyn: How difficult would it be for you to fess up and acknowledge what you do? Client: Very difficult. I feel like I’d be bad. Ellyn: And even worse, how hard would it be to own up and quickly apologize to her at a moment when maybe you are bullying? Client: Horrible. I feel like I am eating crow and groveling when I apologize. Ellyn: So you don't recognize an apology as a course correction, but see it as shameful or humiliating? Client: Yes. I hate to apologize. Ellyn: In a committed relationship, we all step on each other sometimes. An apology is like putting salve on a burn. Being able to repair painful interactions actually strengthens you as a partner and also strengthens the connection between the two of you. While you may believe that safety to express yourself would come from your partner changing, actually it will come from you strengthening your ability to regroup and repair when things go poorly. Each of these examples demonstrates some beginning dialogues that integrate attachment and differentiation-based interventions. Also, sometimes Pete and I use these questions in an early session:
  1. What kind of relationship do you want to be in?  What is your vision for why you are together and the kind of relationship you want to build with your partner?
  2. What will be required of you to make it happen?  In adult relationships, it takes persistent effort to be proactive and to remember what is important to you and what is important to your partner.
  3. What are your internal obstacles that interfere with you doing what is required of you to bring about the relationship you want to be in?  For example, I don’t listen well when I hear something that seems to be judgmental.  Or I push my point seeking to get my way before I try to understand my partner.  If you don’t know, ask your partner. They will probably add some insight and be glad to mention a few.
These questions ask partners to become aware of attachment desires and stalled differentiation. If you’re interested in learning more about how to integrate these concepts into your sessions with angry couples, you might be interested in our CD set on Hostile Angry Couples. It’s from a course I taught three years ago and includes two 1-hour CDs plus written transcripts of those recordings and printed handouts to accompany them. Visit Hostile Angry Couple. A great source for information in attachment, differentiation, and much more is the Couples Conference, sponsored by the Milton Erickson Foundation. I help plan the clinical program for this event every spring and this year’s lineup is particularly exciting. It takes place April 1-3 in Newport Beach, California. Visit Couples Conference for more information and registration. Couples therapy is often an art and one aspect of the art is holding two different realities at once. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “It is the mark of a 1st rate intelligence to be able to hold two incompatible thoughts at the same time and still function.” The couples therapist does exactly this by supporting closeness and pushing differentiation in the same interventions. We welcome your comments about these theories or about any methods you have developed to integrate attachment and differentiation in the same intervention. To join the discussion, please scroll to the comment section at the bottom of the page.

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i liked the way you speak to your clients, it has a feeling of acceptance even if they are acting badly like bullying.I thought it was interesting that when the client admitted he sometimes could be a bully you stepped in closer and asked what it would mean to him to acknowledge that. Recognizing just how difficult that would be for him. I also liked the way you framed an apology to a corrective action.


Good stuff! Would love to see more examples.


Despite not having abusive parents, I nevertheless developed the nervous attachment style as a result of other unpleasant school-related childhood events. I think it’s critical to emphasize that even with excellent and loving parents, people can still develop adversely. Bullying or other adult figures who are unreliable and harmful are just two examples. Here is a referral if you need one: 

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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