Where most couples get stuck

 The Developmental Model outlines 5 stages that people grow through in the course of a long-term relationship

The secong of these stages is “Differentiating” and this is the place that so many of our clients are stuck at.  They cling on, unconsciously but desperately, to the fantasy of fusion, of “the two becoming one”, and don’t develop the skills necessary to deal with differences and the conflict that differences inevitably implies.

Differentiating means being aware of, and able to express, my inner thoughts and feelings in a way that it is considerate of who my partner is and where they are at in this moment.  Being able to be true to myself AND, at the same time, showing interest in and care for who and how my partner is.

This is care for the other is what makes Differentiating quite a different process from the more familiar individual developmental issue of Individuation.  Learning who you are and how to express it and assert it is only HALF the picture when it comes to relationships.

The ability to manage the anxiety that is inevitably raised by conflict, by being aware of our differences, is crucial.  Helping our clients understand that, regardless of how upset they feel, they are still responsible for their own behaviour is a key part of helping them learn to differentiate.

We don’t learn how to do this all at once.  There is a typical path that we tend to follow as we develop our ability to differentiate.  This can be broken into 5 phases:

  1. Developing the ability to self-reflect; to notice and accept our own thoughts, feelings, wants and desires.
  2. Developing the ability to express those thoughts, feelings, wants and desires.  This requires tolerating the risk involved in exposing “who I (really) am”.
  3. Developing awareness of my partner as separate and different.  Often initially I may respond to this as a threat.  For example, I see your different opinion as a criticism of me, or you wanting something different meaning I will miss out etc.
  4. Developing an increasing ability to listen, hear & respond to differences.  Exploring the differences with curiosity and openness and clear boundaries – caring about you AND myself.
  5. Developing the ability to create an environment in the relationship that supports desired changes.  Negotiating in good faith, being able to compromise on an issue without compromising my selfhood, knowing when I can afford to be generous and when I can’t, being creative in finding solutions rather than sticking to first positions etc. etc.

Recognising where each of your clients at in their ability to perform these key developmental tasks is a great way to make our work more incisive and efficient