Relationships change over time, and those changes are necessary for growth. But each new step into the next relationship stage creates a new dynamic, and this can lead to relationship conflict. Here, Maitreyi Mehta of Connect Counselling in Hong Kong shares some insights about the stages of love and types of conflict that can arise, and discusses how relationship counselling can help!
Dr Ellyn Bader and Dr Peter Pearson of the Couples Institute devised what’s known as the Developmental Model of couple relationships, which offers a general relationship timeline. What I really like about this model is that it removes the focus from the content of the relationship and instead understands conflict based on where the couple’s relationship is psychologically – that is, how much growth has occurred versus how much has not.
Stages of love – a relationship timeline
Symbiosis is that exciting first stage of love when similarities are emphasised and the focus is on the “we”. There’s lots of dependency, as well as a loss of individuality, and interactions generally focus on masking differences.
Differentiating is when the focus begins to return to the individual and away from the “we”. There’s a reestablishment of boundaries, and differences return to the forefront.
The practicing stage of love includes a heavier emphasis on the self as an individual. Attention is refocused to activities and relationships outside the relationship. In some way, it mirrors the self-centeredness you see when a pre-teen turns into a teen.
Rapprochement involves a redirection back to the relationship for intimacy and vulnerability. Boundaries remain in place, but more importance is placed back on the “we”.
#5 Mutual interdependence
This is when a balance is finally struck between the “I” and the “we”.
Types of relationship conflict
Most often, conflict arises when there’s a low or negligible level of differentiation between partners. For example:
Symbiotic-symbiotic: When both partners are still in the symbiosis stage of love, most issues arise because couples are conflict avoidant or hostile-dependent (“I can’t live with you, and I can’t live without you”).
Symbiotic-differentiating: Here, one partner feels like the other doesn’t care enough, and may revert to controlling or criticising behaviours in protest. On the other side, there’s a heavier focus on differences, and a disillusionment around the romantic fantasy.
Symbiotic-practicing: In this type of conflict, one person starts to feel lonely and may want their partner to “be like they used to be”; they feel betrayed or abandoned and may express this with disengaging or forms of anger. If the other partner has a low level of differentiation, they become cold and stubborn, wanting to continue self-exploration; they may withdraw or get defensive, diminishing the emotional connection to the partner.
Differentiating-differentiating: This is a “quid pro quo” attitude; both partners look like they’re testing one another to see how committed they are. This type of conflict also involves pushing interests onto one another while questioning differences if they arise.
How relationship counselling can help
You’ll see that the majority of conflicts appear when one or both partners remain in the first symbiotic relationship stage. Yet for a relationship to continue growing, both partners must differentiate. That can be scary and uncomfortable because it means some degree of separation, but this ultimately leads to a more sustainable balance in the long run.
Relationship counselling can help individuals or couples reach that higher level of differentiation, in which partners gain the ability to identify and express important aspects of themselves while also remaining curious about the other partner. This helps avoid the collapse, disengagement, disillusionment and withdrawal that occurs when partners remain stalled in one of the stages of love or when they move into the following stage too quickly.
Also, understanding this model helps couples understand their problems not as a prognosis, but instead as a reflection of where they are developmentally instead.
Find out more by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the website at connectcounselling.co.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.