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Richard Bach, in his love story The Bridge Across Forever, described a love relationship in trouble by using musical metaphors. Many have looked at the form and structure of music as following the dynamics of our human connectedness in relationship.

Bach (1984) wrote:

The most commonly used form for large classical work is sonata form. It is the basis of almost all symphonies and concertos. It consists of three main sections: the exposition or opening, in which little ideas, themes, bits and pieces are set forth and introduced to each other; the development, in which these tiny ideas and motifs are explored to their fullest, expanded, often go from major (happy) to minor (unhappy) and back again, and are developed and woven together in great complexity until at last there is: the recapitulation, in which there is a restatement, a glory expression of the full, rich maturity to which the tiny ideas have grown through the development process. (page 231-232)

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Relationships (or a musical composition) can become stuck or dysfunctional in any of these sections. There can be never-ending openings that state and restate themselves. Openings that do not move on and develop are at risk of dying of boredom. Many marriages struggle with the development, failing to do the work to carefully weave together the depths of the separate themes. Expanding the ideas and motifs to their fullest is compromised, leading to a lack of richness that cannot progress to maturity. Many do not know how to live in mature love and seek the limerence and romance found in a new relationship.

Psychologists have often described human development as also progressing through various stages. Psychological models of development generally state that the stages of development must proceed in a specific order and one stage cannot be skipped. Successive stages are more complex than preceding ones, representing transformations from what previously existed. Each stage is based on the preceding ones and prepares for succeeding ones. Incomplete working through of issues at one stage will likely show up again later. Bader and Pearson (1988) use Margaret Mahler's developmental model of childhood development to describe development in marriage. They assume that couples' relationships go through a progression of normal developmental stages that parallel childhood development.


The autistic stage lasts from birth to approximately the second month of life. It is during this time that the infant's task is to integrate physiologically into the world. The infant must learn how to establish a balanced life process outside the womb. The child, at this point, responds almost totally to its internal needs.

As the infant's sensitivity to external stimulation increases, the child moves into a symbiotic stage. In this state, there is still somewhat of a psychological fusion with the mother/father in which the "I" is not yet differentiated from the "not-I" and in which inside and outside are only gradually coming to be sensed as different. This stage lasts from approximately two to five months and near its end is dim awareness in the infant that the mother/father exists separately. Critical to a successful development in this stage is parental capacity to nurture and the child's capacity to perceive and accept nurturing. The symbiotic phase creates building blocks for emotional attachment and relationship. As the infant is capable of shifting focus from within the self to the external world, the child moves into the separation/individuation stage.

Separation/individuation involves four sub-phases: differentiation (six to nine months), practicing (ten to sixteen months), rapprochement (seventeen to twenty-four months) and consolidation of individuality.

At approximately five to six months during the peak of a symbiotic relationship, the differentiation phase is beginning. There is more alertness to external environment, the learning of physical body boundaries and an increasing sense of other and self. Practicing this differentiation is occurring well by ten to sixteen months and the child's energy is often directed outwardly. The child becomes excited by abilities to do things away from the parents and is moving toward a high excitement of mobility. At this state, the child can play across the room from a parent, enjoying them from a distance.

Rapprochement is often a difficult time for children and parents. It is a time of both independence and regression. The child experiences the need for mothering and fathering, yet wants comforting only at specific times. This leads to confusion and power struggles on both parts.

Consolidation of individuality is a result of the infant obtaining a capacity to remember and form an internal image of the mother and father, even when they are not present.


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 rediscover 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., and 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

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Robert MacCaughelty, Ph.D.
4918 Park Road
Charlotte, NC 28209

Phone: (704) 527-1220
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