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Portland Marriage and Couples Counseling
 
Bernard McDowell, LCSW
Psychotherapist & Licensed Clinical Social Worker
  811 NW 20th Avenue, Suite 104, Portland, Oregon 97209

503-234-9904
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Phases of Growth in Relationships From One Stage To the Next

         In the table below is a bare bones model of three “phases” of growth that relationships typically cycle through as they progress from one stage to the next; from “puppy love” eventually, perhaps, to great maturity and refined love. This information is frequently useful for therapists. Couples, of course, want the direct experience of building and/or regaining love and respect, so the information presented here may only be useful as an alert to some common pitfalls. However, it is included because 1) relationship dynamics are of general interest and 2) couples occasionally report that this information alone was helpful to them for keeping perspective through the painful twists and turns their relationships invariably encounter. 
         Here is a quick tour of the growth dynamics of a relationship.  Couples usually engage in an initial, intense phase (fusion) when both members of the couple are focused on ways to bond.  Certain realities are overlooked in this first, fusion phase when couples are "sorting" for ways to connect.  But once one person grows secure (or bored) enough in the relationship to begin expressing more individual needs that had been on hold during the fusion phase, conflicts arise marking the beginning of the second phase.  Called differentiation, the challenge in this second phase is to stay lovingly connected while each person's unique personal interests are allowed to blossom.  For example, one person may decide to put more serious attention on a time consuming passion-e.g., playing a musical instrument, starting a business, or graduate school.  That person is emerging out of the bonding phase a little quicker than their partner, but such a shift frequently threatens the feeling of togetherness of the other partner who then gets anxious, lonelier, etc.  But if the first “hatching” partner starts the bad habit of giving up important individual interests just to alleviate the second partner's anxiety or avoid anger, he or she may eventually end up depressed.  “Oh, oh, listen if it's that upsetting to you, dear, it's no big deal, I'll drop the night out with the book club (guys, piano lessons, skiing, etc.).  It's not that important”.  Another unsuccessful strategy to navigate this second phase occurs when the first partner ”cops an attitude” toward their partner's anxiety by distancing (e.g., working late, having an extra beer for the little extra time away from the spouse, etc.).  When confronted by their partners' anxiety or anger, they may respond brusquely or direct the partner to “get a life!”  When this type of response congeals into a pattern, a crust will soon cover both partners' hearts.
           There are alternative ways to cross these waters to a third phase, Integration!  Here's one very specific way this might happen.  The first emerging partner can empathize with their partner's anxiety but still honor their own need to express their particular unique flavors.  A skillful response may be as simple as saying: “OK, I see that it's really difficult for you that I'm giving more time to the piano.  Do you want to say more about how you're feeling?”.  That response allows for emotional connection rather than painting oneself into a corner by instantly dropping the piano or being critical of the other.  Now, of course, navigating through conflicts is much more complex than the examples above.  But the basic theme of these phases repeats itself throughout the course of a relationships: feeling settled for awhile as a couple (fusion), encountering significant conflicts between each person's preferences (differentiation), and reorganizing as a couple that now has a greater capacity to enjoy their differences as part of or even a celebration of their togetherness. 

 Check out the table below.  It's really an amalgam of phases and stages. For professionals or interested others, an elaboration of finer points follows the table (with appropriate credit and some theoretical critique of interest to professionals).
PHASES OF GROWTH OF RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN STAGES*
1st or Merging/Fusion Phase
In the "falling in love" or "honeymoon" period, couples often bond on basis of unconscious "contracts" and projections.
2nd: E-merging /Differentiation Phase
Also known as “he's not the same person  I married” phase or "what was I thinking" phase--the Differentiating phase
3rd or Reintegrating Phase
Freer flow of emotion, time & sharing when together; both partners are fulfilled when apart yet maintain a secure sense  of the relationship.
Characteristics: Merging Phase
Spending lots of time together; willingly exploration of  the other's interests; paying attention to how we fit together; unconscious expectation that the other person will fulfill my relationship dreams without realizing the unconscious nature of those expectations; courting according to cultural norms that do not reflect the unique character of each person.;  defining how “we are as a couple” (while many projections & assumptions go unnoticed and the capacity to tolerate differences remains untested); there is a strong unconscious pull to seek a sense of completion in another person.  That takes the form of an IDEAL mate who can never actually be found.
Characteristics: E-merging Phase
One person begins investing more into interests outside the relationship; we call that differentiating-the other may feel that as a loss (of energy initially absorbed in the relationship); as the relationship evolves, both parties eventually engage in differentiating activities--which may be reacted to by their partner as a threat.  Early in this phase, any change in the dynamics often leads to tension, anger, etc.--we fail to gain the sense of completion we hoped for as our real partner fails to meet an ideal image; relationships need redefining to manage differences in personalities, political values, etc.; practical problems surface--differences in child rearing,, sexuality, house keeping, etc.
Characteristics: Reintegrating Phase
Ultimately a relationship that is both deeply respectful and loving; both parties are good at living through times of unresolved problems while working on them by dialoguing and with confidence to work problems through; a free flow of emotions and information at times while empathy is readily expressed for one person's feelings even if the expression of those feelings is a potential threat to the other's hopes for the relationship; a free movement between time spent together and time apart; when together, focus on increasing sensitivity and deepening intimacy; increased orientation to give service together outside the relationship; independence apart, celebration in togetherness.
Typical Problems Merging Phase
Objecting with anger,clinging, and/or anxiety when the other acts outside the arena of the unconscious contracts.  In more severe cases: getting sick when the other begins investing in something outside the relationship.  If the couple survives their reaction to how the other is failing to meet their unconscious ideal, they typically settle into either a conflict avoidant mode or “hostile-dependency” (blaming and resentful yet fearful of separation); lots of “all or nothing” reactivity with quick jumps to threats of leaving: “well if that's the way you're going to be...”; blame & aggression used to maintain contact after the initial high fades and the ideal hopes go unfulfilled. 
Problems: E-merging Phase
Early in this stage, one partner blames the other as if a contract had been broken; e.g.: “I'm furious with you.  If you're not in by 9pm, its totally disrespectful not to call me!”; the differentiating partner feeling pressured & not seen for who they really are, attempts to resolve the conflict by 1) giving up their interests to alleviate the insecurity of the other, or 2) distancing to avoid the blame/pressure.  If giving up interests becomes a life style, that person will get depressed.  When both are further along in this stage, there may be a mutual distancing with an increasing lack of emotional intimacy and/or polarizing opinions.   As one differentiates that person may over invest in work, etc. and fear being intimate in the mistaken guess that the other will remain dependent forever--but the dynamic often flip-flops  (so patience is recommended).
Problems: Reintegrating Phase
Relationships may seem stable at this level but regress in the face of major external stressors like moving to a different city or country throwing a couple back into over reliance on each other.  Over the years, people may develop certain interests or even passions that become more important than the relationship.  Though the amount varies from couple to couple, too little time together is a strain subtler conflicts arise such as making a choice to give to the relationship that may be a way of avoiding anxiety of our own growth individually; the subtler moral dilemmas remain about how much to give and when to say no.  


[The following note may only be of interest to professionals and is quite abbreviated at that:]        

         Enormous evidence supports that individuals grow through stages of the development in 1) cognition/thinking, 2) moral decision making and 3) “ego development” among other factors.  Quite a few studies, validated across dozens of cultures, draw similar conclusions about how we move from one stage of development to another. Synthesizing hundreds of developmental psychologists, Ken Wilber describes that movement as a three phased process of fusion, differentiation, and integration. Harvard psychologist, Robert Kegan, sketches development of the individual through at least 5 broad stages over a lifetime.  But in the movement from each stage to the next, he also saw three phases repeated at every transition: "confirmation, contradiction, and continuity".  


         The most famous researcher of cognitive development, Jean Piaget, used a variety of terms for similar growth processes between stages: assimilation, decentering/accommodation, equilibration.  
I dubbed the three stages in the chart above as 1) merging(fusion), 2) e-merging(differentiation), and 3) integration(reorganization) to highlight a process of growth.  In this case, a process that couples undergo repeatedly throughout their life together.  A carbon copy of these phases is found in natural processes as articulated by Illya Prigogine, a nobel prize winner in "non-equilibrium thermodynamics":  From the formation of traffic jams and termite colonies to cancer cell growth , systems go through phases of stability and then turbulence before, if successful, reorganization into a new level of stability.  More complex systems repeatedly go through those phases between stages, each of which re-emerges at a higher level of complexity that holds more energy/information.

         Back to relationships, consider a couple going along merrily for a time.  Spring boarding off that sense of security, one partner decides to enroll in an intense career training program.  The reduced time together stresses their relationship dynamics and they begin to fight more often.  The other partner wants more time together. The couple goes through a period of increased conflict eventually resolved as partner number one winds down to the end of e.g., grad school, while partner number two develops more of his/her own interests.  The couple even learns more about handling conflict and finally, almost as if a third entity, “the relationship” settles into a new harmonious balance between the two transformed partners.  However, in short order their new found financial freedom leads to the decision to have children and then new turmoil.  
The harmony at each stage enables growth that leads to a significant life turn or project which ultimately disrupts the harmony that enabled the growth.  Now, their relationship dynamics need to reorganize to accommodate the changes/growth/life project.  With luck, the couple successfully integrates the changes and settles down-until the next round of growth!  And then they're off for another round of merging, e-merging, and re-integrating. 

      Many “theories” speculate about how couples go through stages though most are not supported by scientific evidence specific to couples.  The chart above plays off a much more detailed model* of Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson who distinguish sixteen "stages" of relationship development paralleling a great deal of Margaret Mahler's research on the stages young children go through when "hatching" from their parents from birth to about age three.  The chart used here only goes as far as it does in part to highlight differences between the perspective elaborated in my forthcoming book vs. Bader's model.  She bases her theory of two adults in a relationship as if it parallels Margaret Mahler's model of how mother and child progress throught the first three years.  Mahler's model begins with symbiosis of the mother and infant; the latter is generally seen as "symbiotically" connected or fused with mom.  The child isn't much of an individual, at least in the way we think of individual adults are as they enter into a marriage.  The child doesn't differentiate between herself and her mother; though through many twists and turns by three years of age, a healthy child establishes a sense of him or herself as a separate person though intimately bonded with mom.  Bader and Pearson chart couples following a similar course--typically joined at the hip at first and only much, much later, if ever, functioning as inter-independent. The biggest problem with their model is that adult couples have gone through much more than infants and toddlers.  Their theory of couples stages doesn't claim to incorporate the research on individual cognitive, moral, and ego development throughout a human life.  There's no reason it should if it effectively accounted for all the stages couples go through; but it doesn't.  Their model would be more accurately and modestly be characterized as charting phase shifts as I'm proposing.  Bader simply takes inspiration from Mahler's descriptions of the contours of the growth between mother and child through age three, and then looks at the whole course of adult relationships through the perspective of those same "contours".  But that's overreaching.

      Because it relied too heavily on the relatively narrow window of early childhood, the Bader-Pearson model may be better thought of as an amalgam of stages and phases.  It really can't account for many stages or for relationships in which one person doesn't progress through to healthy adult development.  Stage models generally hold to a criteria requiring each more advanced stage “transcend and include” the functionality of the previous stages.  So her model doesn't shed light on what to do when one person simply progress like the other.  It's also reasonable to expect that  a couples stage model be consistent with, if not account for, the data subsumed into individual models of development.  Certainly, the examples Bader and Pearson give do describe the course many healthy couples progress through but not rigorously nor exclusively. 

       If a couple got together when they were teenagers, it may be decades before one realizes their partner never developed past their teen stage.  That couple isn't going to progress to a refined level as a couple because one member's capacity to take the other's perspective is frozen leaving the more advanced partner to never be met at levels that they long ago achieved.  In contrast, some teenagers describe their relationships in terms of characteristics fitting the highest level in Bader/Pearson's model though they'll certainly have many challenges/stages left to traverse if they stay together.  Further, people getting together much older in life do not necessarily exhibit the long list of enmeshed characteristics that Bader/Pearson list for the first stage of a relationship.  In fact, Bader has given separate seminars about how to apply her model when one person is significantly "narcissistic"--frozen in their capacity to take another's perspective; they are effectively in developmental arrest in that regard.  A narcissistic person is incapable, by any psychodynamic definition, of the relational skills characteristic of a well differentiated compassionate person who could be part of a relationship operating at an advanced level of development.  In contrast, Kegan draws on quite elaborated descriptions of development through the life cycle so that with his model it's instantly clear that a person arrested at the concrete level of thinking (7-12 years old) can't participate at the highly differentiated stage of development he named "Interindividual".]