The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy

The developmental model is a therapeutic approach for solving relationship issues. It doesn’t pathologize people, but instead frames their problems as developmental hurdles. It provides a clear map for growth stages of a relationship and teaches the skills needed to progress from one stage to another.

This model was developed in the 1980s by Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson. Over many years they observed how couples development closely parallels the stages of early childhood development as described by Margaret Mahler and Fred Pine. Their approach incorporates Mahler’s concept of differentiation (balancing needs for autonomy and attachment) as well as attachment theory and neuroscience.

It facilitates the growth of each person and teaches collaboration. It encourages people to start thinking developmentally instead of constantly having a navel-gazing focus on a partner’s mistakes.

Relationship Stages

According to Bader and Pearson, healthy long-term relationships are likely to proceed through the following stages:

  • Bonding: This is the initial honeymoon period during which couples seek closeness and focus on their similarities. A powerful cocktail of neurotransmitters is set in motion. Some beliefs, values and behaviors may be temporarily suspended.

  • Differentiation: During this stage, couples begin to acknowledge and address their differences. Quite often they use ineffective behaviors to cope with this such as conflict avoidance or engaging in angry arguments.

  • Exploration: During this period, the focus shifts from “we” to “I”. Aspects of personality neglected in the previous stages re-emerge and people want to have more “me” time and time with other significant people. They are trying to sustain their identity under the stress of the relationship and this can feel like a crisis.

  • Rapprochement: This is a stage during which partners are able to maintain their own identity and views without hostility. They learned to replace automatic reactions with more productive ones. Often, a couple’s sex life will deepen during this phase.

  • Synergy: This phase of development happens when partners are able to manage their emotions quite well. They are able to effortlessly switch back and forth from “we” to “I”. What happens outside of the relationship is not a threat – it enriches it. Partners as a unit are able to achieve more than as individuals. Energy is not trapped in conflict, accordingly, partners can create and give to the world around them.


Techniques Used in the Developmental Model

Typically, couples therapy sessions start with exploring the course of the current relationship. Many questions are asked as we dive into their world:

  • What stage are they at? Together we determine the stage of the relationship – partners are often at a different stage, for example one moved on to differentiation while the other is still holding onto the symbiotic phase.

  • What are their attachment styles?

  • What were the first disillusionments and how did they approach and/or resolve them?

  • Which approaches haven’t worked so far? How are they similar to the dynamic in their families of origin? We take a closer look at ineffective patterns they developed in attempt to resolve conflicts.

  • Are they repeating the same drama hoping for a different outcome? We all do that – the big step to the maturity is to learn to not project parents onto partners and see them as separate and unique people instead.

At this stage there’s also psycho-education about what happens in the brain during fights. Partners learn new ways of talking during conflicts that help them grow together. They use this new model while discussing their patterns and issues in sessions. With the help of the therapist they start thinking developmentally and practice a few key principles:

– Getting in touch with their feelings and needs

– Speaking their truth from the place of vulnerability instead of blame

– Getting curious about a partner’s internal logic and developing empathy for it even when they’re disagreeing with what they hear

– Demands are transformed into requests that involve genuine interest in the price a partner has to pay to deliver.

Acceptance of differences frees the energy that was trapped in the conflict and that energy is finally used for constructive collaboration. Developing these capacities is crucial for the survival of the relationship. Their mutual purpose is to create emotional safety – they are like a lightning rod that passes all the information that needs to be communicated without creating a big explosion.

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