The “High” of Symbiosis


[Part 2 in a 3-part Series]

Last week I shared my passion for doing the Bader-Pearson model of couples therapy.  I told you how it transformed my skills in a way that is making a big difference in helping couples make positive and permanent change.  I presented a roadmap for knowing how to be truly effective in your sessions with even the toughest clients.

In case you missed it, here are the 3 overlapping and comprehensive features of the Bader-Pearson Developmental Model of Couples Therapy:

  1. The Stages of Couples Development and integration of attachment styles.
  2. Differentiation as the key feature in creating a secure & lasting bond.
  3. The practical use of the latest neuroscientific research to promote both autonomy and connectedness.

The “High” of Symbiosis

In the early stage of a relationship – love is bliss.  This boding stage is known as “Symbiosis.”  This ‘falling in love’ stage can feel obsessive in nature and is imagined to last forever. Partners feel the “rush” produced by both novelty and euphoric possibility. Yet, this stage has a clear beginning and end, lasting anywhere from 1 to 2 years. In this early stage, we deposit our hopes, wishes, fears, and desires, dreaming of a future (consciously or unconsciously) filled with happy times and conflict-free pure, ecstatic love. If we don’t move on, the highs are replaced with too many painful lows.

Mature love develops over time and is grounded in the real complexities and endless challenges of life. The “rush” is replaced by a feeling of warmth & security. Mature love requires our ongoing attention to the best and worst qualities in ourselves and our partner. It stresses our acceptance that there is no ‘perfect’ person out there for us but rather commits us to growing together over time, striving to build a connection based in mutual respect and admiration.

Transitioning from Fairy-Tale Love to Real Love

This is not an easy task. There is tremendous tension and risk-taking. Along the way each partner suffers disappointments and disillusionments that must be tolerated to successfully move forward. Each person must take their partner off the pedestal or out of the gutter and place at ground level. Each must wrestle with what isn’t appreciated about him/her, and integrate that into a bigger love that can transcend daily trials and tribulations. Each partner must  also take themselves back by defining who they are outside of the relationship. This stage is known in the Bader-Pearson model as Differentiation.” Many couples get stuck in failed differentiation, usually because of either high conflict avoidance or high volatility.

What is Differentiation?

‘Differentiation of self’ is the ability to identify and express important parts of you – being able to tell your partner how you feel, what is important to you, your fears, your hopes, and your desires – especially for the two of you as a couple.  This can be scary for partners because it risks being vulnerable.

‘Differentiation from other’ involves a state of curiosity about what their partner thinks and feels, hopes and desires while at the same time, managing their emotional reactivity to what is said that they may not agree with or find offensive.

For this reason, activating either side of the differentiation coin creates tension and anxiety, especially if early childhood experiences made it unsafe to be vulnerable. Structuring couples therapy with partners who are in the early stages of differentiation, that pushes them forward, will help both to learn these essential developmental skills. Couples often enter therapy when one partner is wanting more differentiation and the other is threatened by it and continues to pull for a return to symbiosis.  This keeps them stuck, cycling in and out of early differentiation, with little movement toward the higher stages of couples development.

How Couples Avoid Differentiation

There are many ways that partners will pull for symbiosis with each other and you will see it happening in your sessions with them. Here are a few examples of what you might see:  

  1. They may be passive, not wanting to risk putting themselves out (and being held accountable) for initiating what they want.
  2. They may change the subject each time you get close to something important between them that creates anxiety or tension.
  3. They might go quickly to blaming the other person for all their apparent deficits rather than begin the painful but necessary task of taking responsibility for their own shortcomings.
  4. They may also fail to be curious about what their partner is going through and how their own behaviours are contributing to his/her stress.

These unhealthy strategies on the part of those individuals stuck on the “dark side of the honeymoon” must be addressed and encouraged to change, if any movement forward is to be made.  No parent would stop their child from learning to stand up and take their first steps – even though they will undoubtedly fall. Likewise, we must nudge each partner out of their comfort zone and into a bigger, more mature connection to themselves and one another.

Troubled couple sit with arms folded in the office of the therapist
Transcript of A Stuck Couple

When partners are stuck complaining rather than working on their own growth, it can be helpful to structure the session where it will have the most impact. This couple is stuck in a chronic pattern of demanding entitlement and placating, emotional caretaking.  She longs for him to make her feel ‘special’ in a way that she never felt growing up.


This transcript shows how I attempt to push her ‘other’ differentiation and his ‘self’ differentiation.

After some time in session, I coach Kate to ask the following question:

Kate: “Do you feel I’m giving as much as you are in this relationship?” (This shifts her from self-centeredness to other awareness)

After some silence and tension  –
John: “No, not really.” 

Another long & tense silence.  Kate is struggling with her emotions. I wait to see if she can utilize the tension to move forward with her task. Instead, she says, “I need to go to the washroom,” and quickly leaves the room.

John: “Sometimes I think you are off in la-la land Sue.” He is back-pedaling away from the enormous anxiety he is feeling, attempting to undo what he said out loud to her and wanting to blame me for it.

Kate returned. I address the tension that is palpable and point out how it results in John collapsing rather than speaking up more. He goes on to explain why he was afraid to speak up.

John: “I’m afraid you’ll blow up – you’ll snap and go to ‘all or nothing’.”

Kate gets silent and the tension begins to mount again.

Sue: “Can you tell her what the worst thing is that you imagine can happen if you do speak up?” (Pushing his self-differentiation by revealing more to her rather than keeping it to himself)

John: “Yea – that’s she’ll drink.”

Sue: “Did you know that he still had that fear?”

Kate: “No, I had no idea.”  (Takes it personal; gets sulky) “What more do I have to do to convince you that I’m not going to drink.”

John: Nothing – this is not about you, this is my stuff.”

I remind her that she can listen to understand without taking it personal.  I  suggest to her,

Sue: “See what happens when you adopt an attitude of being curious rather than furious.”

Kate: “Do you think if you speak honestly and I get upset that I’ll have no other recourse but to drink.” (Demonstrating a new interest in what he is thinking and believing)

John: Yes, sometimes.”

Kate: Has that kept you from telling me how you feel in our relationship?” (Beautiful deepening of curiosity about his worry – she is staying with him)

John: “On some level…”

Kate: Can you think of an example of what you have held back?” (An impressive ability to ask very good questions that keep them focused on his issue and his internal experience)

A long silence as he contemplates whether he can say anything and what feels safe.

J: Like when we bought the dining room suite – I didn’t feel comfortable saying anything.”

She begins to escalate into a flooded emotional state, so I step in to calm & coach her, suggesting the following:

K: “What would you have said if you felt you could have?”

J: That I thought it was too much money but then I think I’m holding you back, it’s what you wanted at the time.”

Sue: “Kate, if this feels right to you and find your own words, can you ask him,

“If you knew that I would manage my reactions better and not blow up would you speak up more about what you want?”

J: “Yes, but I also don’t like the way I sometimes speak to you.  I want to communicate in a more mature and respectful way.”

Sue: “That’s great. You speaking up in a way that is consistent with the kind of partner you aspire to be will help both of you be more open and honest and will move you towards knowing and trusting yourselves and each other more. Good work.”


Developmental Progress

The process of differentiation involves the active, ongoing process of revealing one’s thoughts, feelings, hopes, and fears within a close personal relationship, and risking either greater intimacy or separation.  For this reason, the tension is high as there is a lot at stake.  As a therapist, being a calm, reassuring presence, who encourages growth and offers developmental support, you make it possible for couples to harness the tension for their emotional and relational growth. With the guidance and reassurance I provided, this couple could explore territory that they chronically avoid and by doing so, they built more internal resilience.

My Next Blog – Part 3

In my next blog, I will expand on how this model includes the latest neuroscientific research and integrates it into sound interventions that create meaningful change. The role of the therapeutic environment is rich for new and healthier neuropathways.

I hope you have found this helpful and I look forward to hearing your feedback.  I look forward to our ongoing dialogue in this series on the Developmental Model of Couples Therapy and how it can improve your effectiveness with couples.

All the best,


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