The first stage of coupling is compared to Mahler’s second stage of infant growth, symbiosis. It is “being madly in love.” There is a merging of lives, personalities, and intense bonding between the two lovers. This serves the purpose of attachment. During the symbiotic stage, there is a great deal of passion, and mutual giving and receiving. Nurturing is freely offered and received. If nurturing is given and received comfortably and the agreement to form a couple is made, a strong foundation is built allowing each individual partner to move into differentiation. If there is difficulty giving and receiving nurturance, both partners may remain in a symbiotic dysfunctional union. One style of this is to become enmeshed, avoiding of conflict, minimizing differences, and trying to remain merged. Another style is to move toward hostile dependency. The hostile dependent couple is dominated by anger and conflict. They remain locked in endless rounds of mutually inflicted pain, too terrified to end the relationship and not mature enough to stop the battles.
In differentiation, each individual begins to emerge from the symbiosis by reestablishing their own boundaries. They become aware that each may have different feelings, different ways of thinking, and some desire to stand out as unique individuals. They may be spending more time talking about opposite sides of issues. Some couples may find these expressions of differences a source of continued exciting challenge; for others, they create disillusionment.
In this stage of development, each individual is entering a period of practicing and participating in activities and relationships away from the other. There is some diminishing of empathy with one another and an increase in self-centeredness. Each partner is directing attention to their external world with autonomy and individuation becoming primary. There is a need to re-discover themselves as individuals. Issues of self-esteem, individual power, and worthiness become central. During the practicing stage, conflicts may intensify, requiring healthy problem solving skills.
As each partner is redeveloping a well defined, competent individual self identity, it again becomes safe and desired to turn toward the relationship for intimacy and emotional nurturing. During this stage, vulnerability emerges again and the partners can seek comfort and support from each other. There are alternating periods of increased intimacy and efforts to reestablish independence. If they have become practiced at problem solving, they will be able to negotiate this path more quickly. Each is less afraid of being engulfed in the earlier symbiosis. Once they have some better development of self identity in the context of the relationship, they can afford to develop more sense of we-ness.
This parallels Mahler’s stage of constancy. Here two strongly balanced individuals have found satisfaction in their own lives and develop a bond that is deep and mutually satisfying. Their relationship is based on a foundation of growth rather than one of need.
It is helpful to know where you and your marriage fit developmentally. Since each individual can be at different stages, there are numerous combinations theoretically possible. However, it is rare to find partners who are more than two developmental levels apart because that much discrepancy often leads to separation or divorce.
Most couples who can successfully use marital therapy fit into the following combinations: Symbiotic/Symbiotic with two subtypes of enmeshed and hostile/dependent; Symbiotic/Differentiating; Differentiating/Differentiating, Symbiotic/Practicing; Practicing/Practicing; Practicing/Rapprochement.
You are encouraged to discuss these ideas with your therapist.
Bader, E., & Pearson, P. T., (1988). In quest of the mythical mate: A developmental approach to diagnosis and treatment in couples therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel.Bach, R. (1984). The Bridge Across Forever. New York: Dell