The Stages of Coupleship

I have extensive training in Couple Therapy. Only about 15% of therapists have any training at all in couples therapy or counseling, so do your research before hiring one! I have Level 1 training in Gottman Couples Therapy and completed the year-long training from the Couples Institute in California.

Couples, and how to create a happy relationship, is a topic that continues to fascinate me, even when working with mainly individual clients. It doesn’t take couples therapy or even the permission of your partner to make positive change in your relationship, btw. An committed individual can absolutely do it themselves, simply by looking at and taking responsibility for their own behaviors.

Let’s look at the stages of Couples Development. Most people don’t even think about these. They just say, “We’re fighting a lot.” Or “I don’t know if I like them anymore.” Or “They constantly annoy me!” They don’t realize all of those are part of growing together.

Couples Developmental Stages

  • Bonding (Symbiosis)
  • Differentiating themselves from the partner
  • Practicing Freedom / Exploration
  • Reconnecting & Synergy

Bonding (Symbiosis)

A couple bonds early, and falls in romantic love. They focus on their similarities. They don’t want to be reminded that they have differences, although, of course, they realize intellectually that they do. Regardless, it doesn’t appear to matter in this bonding stage. They are “soul mates” who are “destined to be together.”

Sex is usually at a high frequency, and they become inseparable, maybe threatening other friendships.  It can be intoxicating, marvelous, and engulfing.

Differentiating themselves from the partner

However, as time goes on, differences become impossible to ignore. Whether they fight about these differences, or try to peacefully co-exist, one or both can’t help but notice they are no longer “inseparable.” In childhood, this is the time when the infant realizes that the Mother is a separate creature, with her own wants and needs. The Mother is no longer an extension of the child, magically knowing what the child wants and needs, and instantly providing it. It’s also the tantrum stage of childhood.

More importantly, in this stage, couples hopefully learn that expressing themselves clearly and openly isn’t “dangerous” to the love they share. They can be different, but not be “bad” because of those differences. If they both get to this stage at roughly the same time (which isn’t the norm…), it is a time of frank discussions that help each clarify their values. But intimate sharing of those differences can also bond them closer. When they maneuver this developmental challenge successfully, they learn a way of fighting, without escalating or manipulating the other. And they don’t “give up” what they want and need, either, feeling “hopeless” that they’ll never get their needs met.

They learn to listen without taking their partner’s feelings as accusations, and becoming defensive. They learn to speak about their own experience, without projecting their hurts or feelings onto their spouse. They don’t blame or accuse. They talk about how the events impacted them, personally.

Their sentences start with “I feel…” or “I think…” They are going through the important phase of defining these thoughts and feelings. The more they talk, the more able they are to become clearer about what these issues really mean to them, and why they are invested emotionally in them. With the help of an understanding listening, they learn more about themselves: their goals, values, hopes and dreams. They learn more about themselves through sharing themselves as a result of the differences that arise between the two of them.

Ideally, the “Listener” learns to become more open, curious and less defensive. Even if their partner is angry at them, they learn to remain calm internally. They think, “They’re telling me about their experience of me. They aren’t talking ABOUT ME.” This can be hard to do, because it assumes that two realities exist, not just one. They become empathetic when their partner is hurting, curious when their partner is angry with them, and reassuring when their partner becomes fearful.

In the role of the “Inquirer,” they learn to ask the hardest types of questions there are: truly open ended questions. Questions that help the speaker go deeper, while feeling they are in the presence of someone who truly wants to understand.

Practicing Freedom / Exploration

At some point, like the child that is no longer content to sit on their parent’s lap, the Practicing stage starts when one or both partners begin to focus on the world around them to a greater extent.

Having learned that “difference” doesn’t damage their relationship, they now begin to explore the world around them. If successful in Differentiation, they’ve learned how to manage differences, speak up clearly for themselves, and the manage the anxiety of doing so.

In Practicing, they test out what it means to them, and how it impacts the relationship, to have “selfish moments,” separate friends, private thoughts, distinct career ambitions, unique hobbies, or periods of emotional withdrawal. If both are at this stage at the same time, it is a busy time of growth for both.

Each hardly notices the other’s exploration and independent activities, or if they do, they are proud that they are able to function so well, without being overly “needy.” Both are enjoying the ability to become more creative, more curious about themselves and the world around them, and to identify themselves as loving, worthwhile, powerful individuals.

Reconnecting & Synergy

However, a shift happens, that causes the partners to look back onto the pleasures of being a team, and feeling bonded. Like returning home to the familiar, after an extended absence, this “returning to” is both tender and more open. What was once “ordinary” and “nothing special” is more greatly appreciated.

  • There’s greater vulnerability, and openness in this stage.
  • More satisfaction with the relationship.
  • A greater appreciation for your partner’s unique place in your life.

Reconnecting resembles the child that happily explores the world and the tired child after a long play date: happy to go home and see their family, their toys, and the comfort of their bed.

It becomes easier to say: “Let’s negotiate on that. I want you to be happy, too.” Getting what you want is no longer seen as a win-lose proposition. Each wants to assist their partner in getting what’s important to them, as well as reach their own life satisfactions. True teamwork emerges. “Win-win” solutions are generally sought after, even if there is not a true 50/50 division. “Making you happy makes me happy,” might have been heard in the first phase, but now it is genuinely meant on a much deeper level. One spouse IS personally enriched by the happiness of the other.

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Yours in health,
Dr. Liz