*This article is based on an interview conducted by Diane Poole-Heller with Ellyn Bader as well as ‘Stepping Stones to Intimacy:  A Positive Outlook on the Challenges All Couples Face’, published by The Couples Institute.

I do a lot of work with couples: married, defacto, not living together, in the midst of a break-up, separating, divorcing and reconciling.  The couples who come in for relationship counselling are in their teens, twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties and sometimes even their seventies.  The duration of relationships have ranged from a few weeks to 40+ years.  So I think it is safe to say that I work with a broad spectrum of couples, in all stages of life, and of course no two couples are alike.

Some years ago I did an online couples course with Ellyn Bader who is co-founder with husband Peter Pearson of The Couples Institute in Menlo, California.   The course was The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy and was both extremely useful in my work with couples as well as confirming my own beliefs about how couples grow and what is necessary for a healthy and vibrant relationship.

Differentiation:  A Key Component to a Successful Relationship

Like children and adolescents, couple relationships go through developmental stages.  The first stage is the Symbiotic: Exclusive Bonding phase.  This is when you first meet and develop a relationship with your partner. Often called the romantic stage, this is a time to experience ‘oneness’ and the thrill of giving and being given to by a special someone.

Differences tend to be minimized and similarities emphasized.  You may have seen only the best parts of each other and experienced unconditional love.  The ‘we’ that is formed in this stage is inevitably based in fantasy.  The bliss of the powerful connection of symbiosis eventually fades, creating a need/opportunity for change.  This stage of creating a strong and exclusive bond provides a foundation of trust.

Differentiation is a key component to the success of a relationship.  Ellyn was recently interviewed on the concept of differentiation which she believes is paramount to maintaining a successful relationship with your partner.  She defines differentiation as the active ongoing process of a person being able to define their thoughts, their feelings, their wishes and their desires to one another and to be able to tolerate their partner doing the same thing.

Ellyn says that people in a primary relationship want the rewards of a really healthy, flourishing, vital relationship and they want it without doing the hard work of differentiation:  ‘I just don’t believe that a long-term enduring relationship that is alive gets there without people doing the hard work of differentiation.  I think a lot of partners have the misperception that they’ll lose their relationship if they differentiate.  There is a fear of really showing yourself as deeply, as broadly and as expansively as you might.

 When people are afraid of differentiating, they are afraid if they show their authentic self and the other one doesn’t like or doesn’t agree with it, that they’re going to end up in a big fight or they’re going to end up with the other person leaving.  When this is true, they don’t show themselves very well to each other.’

The developmental phase of Differentiation is about managing anxiety over differences.  Eventually, as each individual re-emerges in the relationship, differences between you begin to appear.  Parts of you or your partner that have been dormant begin to surface.  Disillusionment and disappointment may arise as you notice imperfections.  The desire to spend more time alone or with others as well as the ongoing expression of different values, desires and behaviors can become quite disturbing.  This can be a truly 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.

According to Ellyn, both of these may result in repetitive, stifling, unproductive interactions.  ‘Without differentiation, relationships get stale.  Partners end up bored because the relationship isn’t growing and it isn’t changing or they end up competing with each other and being really angry and nasty to each other.  That’s one of the reasons that relationships fail.’

 Ironically, these same sources of tension also hold the greatest promise of personal growth and relationship evolution.

The most stuck relationships are those where each person wants to keep the other unchanging.  They remember how they were when they met and they want that to last forever.  Then they don’t explore or push each other to grow.  They don’t take risks or try new things.

When you are able to resist the pressure to return to a symbiotic state, you begin to re-establish your own identity and self-esteem that are independent of how your relationship is faring.  This is about the balance shifting from the ‘we’ to the individual. This vital and important stage can present a real crisis for each of you.  It may seem as if love and caring have all but disappeared and the timing may be different for each of you.  The more one distances, the more the other may cling.  If you both distance at the same time, you may feel more like roommates than lovers.  You may feel isolated and emotionally disconnected.  The purpose 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.

Connection is the phase where 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 a time when a different quality to the ‘we’ comes into being – one which includes a respect for the existence of two separate individuals.  You feel more supported than stifled in the relationship.  There is an increased tolerance for your differences.

The final stage of the model is Synergy:  Independence & Interdependence.  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 an actively support your partner’s right to do the same.  Each benefits from the synergy and the ‘we’ has an energy all its own.  Deep intimacy, vulnerability and emotional sustenance abound.

Ellyn says, Differentiation is the route to aliveness and expansiveness, to authenticity and vulnerability, and resolving conflicts and handling not liking each other at times.’

For more information, visit www.couplesinstitute.com where you can sign up for valuable couples’ resources.

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