Ellyn Bader

As relationships grow and develop, we often see couples who have gotten stuck in a particular developmental stage.

In a previous blog post, I outlined what I see as the normal, predictable stages of couples relationships development. If you missed it, you can check it out here.

When you approach couples therapy from a developmental framework, you can assess and diagnose each partner’s developmental stage and use stage-specific interventions to help both move into the next stage.

In my experience, I often see couples get stuck in the very first stage of development in one of two ways:

1. Hostile-angry Couples

These are couples whose relationship is characterized by tremendous hostility and competition and, in the worst cases, domestic violence. These couples will typically have no problem fighting right in front of you. And when they describe how they fight at home, you’ll often see competitive, escalating interactions.

Usually the underlying message, which may be present in one or both partners is, “You are not meeting my needs well enough.” Often, these partners expect you to make the other change. Part of the work here is in helping each partner see their own contribution to the dynamic.

2. Conflict-avoidant and Intimacy-avoidant Couples

These couples have so much fear around seeing the ways that they are different or raising issues where they differ, that they may collapse, withdraw, or disengage. You will likely see a high level of dependency, passivity, and reactivity with very little self-initiation between the partners.

They will frequently present for therapy by saying “we are bored.” Or they may experience little or no sexual intimacy. These couples are very fearful of direct engagement with one another.

Sometimes conflict-avoidant partners perceive even the smallest expressions of wants or preferences by the other as a major affront

Two Types of Developmental Differences Between Partners

In addition to seeing couples who are stuck in the Symbiotic Stage, you may see partners who have not reached the same level of differentiation. Two of the most common types include:

1. Symbiotic – Differentiating Relationships

In this dynamic, one partner feels threatened by, or afraid of loss of security in the relationship. This often occurs when the differentiating partner starts to self-define or bring up some of the differences between them. The symbiotic partner wants to maintain the status quo. Here, it’s important to remember that differentiation is normal and it is an active process of defining wants, wishes, and desires while recognizing that those of their partner may be different.

2. Symbiotic- Practicing (or Individuation)

It is also possible to see a couple where one partner works to maintain the symbiosis that the couple had, while the other partner starts to focus on activity independent of the relationship.

In this dynamic, one partner might say that they feel totally smothered while the other claims that the partner who wants space is “not the person they married.”

The task here is to be able to move both partners into a stage where they are actively differentiating. This will involve conflict as they address the ways in which they are truly different. Part of the work involves helping both partners learn to actually hear one another, and discover what is really important to each of them, even when they don’t agree.

There’s so much more that can be said about what interventions look like at each stage.

That’s why I created the In Quest of the Mythical Mate kit.

This digital program and workbook gives you a full understanding of what the stages look like, how to assess and diagnose each partner’s stage, and how to use stage-specific interventions to create breakthroughs.

You will learn how to push couples forward so they can stop triggering and traumatizing each other, repair relationship ruptures, and learn how to tolerate the anxiety of differentiation.

And until November 12, you can get it for 20% off with the code NewQuestKit at checkout .

Now I’d like to hear from you. Which of these dynamics have you seen in your work with couples? Do the majority of couples you see fit one of these types?

Please leave a comment below and tell me about your experience.


Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., 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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A Glossary of Terms that are sometimes Confusing

Couples Therapy is a counseling procedure that seeks to improve the adjustment of two people who have created an interdependent relationship. There are no standard procedures to help two people improve their adjustments to each other. Generally, a more experienced therapist will offer more perspectives and tools to a couple. Length of treatment will depend on severity of problems, motivation and skills of the therapist. A couple can be dating, living together, married or separating and may be gay, lesbian or heterosexual.

Marriage Therapy is a term often used interchangeably with marriage counseling. The term marriage implies two people have created a union sanctioned by a government or religious institution. The methods used in marriage counseling, marriage therapy and couples therapy are interchangeable and depend more on the specific challenges of each unique couple.

Psychotherapy is one or more processes to help improve psychological and emotional functioning. Examples are psychoanalysis, cognitive therapy, behavior therapy, Gestalt therapy, Transactional Analysis, Rational-Emotive therapy, or group therapy. Many forms of psychotherapy are blends of different approaches. For example, newer forms of psychotherapy called energy psychology draw upon recent advances in brain and neuroscience. These approaches often build on cognitive behavioral methods.

Clinical Psychologist. After graduating from college, it usually takes about five years of graduate school to get a Ph.D. in Psycholgy. It then requires an additional two years of supervision and passing a written (and often) an oral exam. There are a few states that allow psychologists to prescribe medications (with additional training) but that is uncommon.

Psychiatrist. After graduation from medical school, there is a generally a 4-year psychiatric residency. After the completion of this training, psychiatrists must pass an exam issued by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology to obtain certification and legally practice in the field. Psychiatrists can prescribe medications.

Clinical Social Worker. This profession usually requires two years of study after obtaining an undergraduate degree. While specific licensure requirements vary by state, most require clinical social workers to obtain 3,000 hours or 2 years of supervised clinical experience, after obtaining a Masters degree. Social workers can also specialize in diverse fields such as human services management, social welfare analysis, community organizing, social and community development, and social and political research.

Marriage and Family Therapist. Obtaining this license requires a Masters degree which takes approximately two years of post graduate study. The license also requires 3000 hours of supervised work and passing written exams.

The Couples Institute. We have assembled a group of top notch therapists at The Couples Institute. Whatever marriage help or marriage advice you are looking for, we are here to serve you. While most other therapists see only a few couples a week, we specialize in marriage and couples relationships, working to develop and bring you the most current and effective approaches to couples therapy. For more information about couples therapy or marriage counseling, see our couples therapy section.