Developmental Model

What is “The Developmental Model” and how can it help you?

The couple therapy model that our team work from was created over 30 years ago and refined by two Psychologists, Dr Ellyn Bader and Dr Peter Pearson from The Couples Institute in San Francisco ( This model has stood the test of time, having helped many couples and individuals enrich, grow and repair their relationships.

They created a way of working with couples which recognises that, as we each continue to develop through our adult life, we can get stuck or stalled. This is usually the cause of challenges and problems in our intimate relationships. As a result, these difficulties signal an opportunity for further individual growth and development which can enrich our relationships.

This positive, hopeful approach can bring about changes in relationship patterns very quickly. If I stop focusing on my partner’s perceived deficits and failings (an approach that often leaves me powerless as I wait or push for our partner to change) and instead focus on my own growth and development, then I am working on something that is under my own control AND from which I will always gain personal benefit, regardless of what my partner chooses to do.

What does this means for you and your relationship?

If you come to see one of us, we won’t be “taking sides” or blaming one of you. We will work respectfully with each of you to find out what your goals for yourself and the relationship are. We will work to support you in becoming who you want to be as a person and a partner and in creating the kind of relationship you aspire to have. We will be encouraging you each to take responsibility for your own life and to be the best person and partner you can be.

Therapy in the Developmental Model is organised around two intersecting bodies of theory.

The first is known as “the three strands”, pulling together the three key areas of existing knowledge that relationship therapy models draw upon.  These are:

1. Differentiation Theory – this is the process of understanding how to deal with partner differences without the anxiety about conflict overwhelming you. It involves recognizing that there needs to be room for two people in a relationship who at times may not agree or hold the same views. It involves working out ways to explore differences rather than fight about them or avoid them.
2. Attachment Theory – this involves understanding how early life experiences have shaped the way you engage with your partner and, especially, the way you relate intimately under emotional stress. From this you can learn to recognise your patterns and work out what to do when the habits dictated by your attachment style become unhelpful.  Replacing those habits with a caring system that supports you and your relationship is part of the journey.
3. Neuroscience Theory – in this strand, we are using recent discoveries about how our brains work (especially about how and when we get unconsciously triggered) to find effective ways to calm ourself down and/or remain more engaged even when things are difficult.

The second body of theory underpinning the model is that developed by Ellyn & Pete themselves (although it is related to the work of Margret Mahler on child development). This is the work that gives the model it’s name – the idea that, just as with our development in childhood, our development in adult relationships moves through five predictable stages (most people in relationships get stuck somewhere in the first three stages).

The Developmental Stages

1) Symbiosis: Exclusive bonding
This is the stage that is idealised in movies, books and even the bible. The “two become one” in a blissful merging, with lashings of support from our brain chemistry. The “I” of each person is less sharply defined, differences are minimised and similarities emphasised. Faults are overlooked, tolerance comes readily and love seems easy. This stage typically lasts several months but can extend out to 18-24mths.

If the couple doesn’t move on, then what was blissful becomes restrictive and suffocating, at least for one partner and often for both. Every action or utterance of one partner impacts on the other and couples typically cope by either becoming intensely avoidant of conflict or trapped in repetitive cycles of hostility.

2) Differentiation: Tolerating the anxiety of negotiating differences.
If the couple does move on then, as each person reconnects with their “I” more strongly, their differences begin to take centre stage. This can be presented as “falling out of love” when it is better understood as “falling out of illusion”. We have to use or develop the skills to understand and explain ourself while AT THE SAME TIME showing interest and care for our partner, even when what he or she says, thinks, feels or wants is very different from what we say, think, feel or want.

If we don’t find the skills to deal with our differences without resorting to reflexive self-protection then the relationship will feel constantly threatened and couples will find their unique ways to protest this stuckness – including complaining to a counsellor!

3) Exploration: Re-finding your Self in the relationship (a.k.a. Individuation)
If people DO develop the necessary anxiety-management and conflict resolution strategies to “differentiate” then typically the relationship goes through a phase where each person puts more energy into to their own interests and preferences as part of their normal self development. This can be scary but provides each person with an opportunity to cement their adult identity which gives the relationship a much more secure basis going forward. This process of ongoing self development and expression can help rekindle attraction as each notices their partner in full flight as their true selves. As counsellors we can facilitate this process and assist aggrieved partners to take another look.

4) Re-connection: Back and forth patterns of intimacy
Having learned to maintain their own point of view and sense of self without hostility there tends to be a return to a deeper, more sustainable level of intimacy, often accompanised by an enlivened sexual relationship. There is renewed joy in seeking out your partner for connection. While there is still typically an oscillation between the needs of individual and couple, difficult discussion does not turn into drama because of increased respect for and understanding of difference.

5) Synergy: Joyful interdependence
Externally this ultimate stage looks similar to the Symbiosis of the initial stage in that the relationship is more vital than either partner separately. There is frequently a great deal of affection and attention offered by both partners. However there is a crucial difference from the early stage in the basis of two clearly defined selves with a well-practiced way of managing differences and emotional reactions and healthy systems of connection and caring. Typically, in this stage the couple can create something together but outside of themselves through their healthy partnership.