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The Developmental Model

"The human paradox: We are wired to protect ourselves and wired to connect"

The Developmental Model, provides the foundations for couples therapy and the primary way I approach relationship issues. It is a robust model which has stood the test of time, having helped many couples and individuals enrich, grow and repair their relationships.

This model of therapy was initially created in 1984 and has been refined over the last 30 years by its founders two Psychologists Dr Ellyn Bader and Dr Peter Pearson, of The Couples Institute in San Francisco. 


 “The Developmental Model explains normal and natural stages and struggles that growing couples encounter. The model provides a structure for couples therapy by identifying the developmental tasks, developmental stalemates, diagnosis and specific treatment interventions for each stage of development.” - Ellyn Bader

The Developmental Model is organised around a number of intersecting bodies of theory. The theory developed by Ellyn Bader & Peter Pearson underpinning the model and gives the model its name is related to the work of Margret Mahler on child development. Drawing on their belief that couples’ relationships have the potential to evolve through a series of normal and predictable stages and when couples are not able to work through these stages it can result in them feeling stuck and result in problems. These stages parallel some of the stages of early childhood development and as a result of being able to identify the stage where a couple are stuck targeted interventions can be implemented to provide specific support for the couple. Development in adult relationships move through five predictable stages as illustrated in the Stepping Stones to Intimacy from The Couples Institute.

The Developmental Model draws on and integrates three key areas of existing knowledge and research: Attachment Theory, Neuroscience and Differentiation.

Attachment Theory

Attachment theory helps us to understand how early childhood experiences have shaped the way we engage and relate within intimate relationships. Evidence exists to support the understanding that an adults ability to seek care relates to their childhood experiences with their primary attachment figures i.e. parents or caregivers. Individual attachment styles have a big influence on a couple’s relationship.


Attachment theory suggests that when we believe we are under threat the attachment system will be activated. This is often an unconscious and reactive response, due to our recorded experiences from limbic brain.


The aim is to recognise the unhelpful repeating patterns in your relationship and gain a greater understanding as to why you do what you do, supporting you take responsibility for your role in the unproductive habits or behaviour you engage in and develop a more supportive and caring dynamic.


We are all shaped by life experiences and by understanding the basic neuroscience we can get a new perspective on why we behave the way we do and why we react to situations in the way we do. It is not always about the skills we have to manage our problems, but about our history being triggered. 

Studies have shown that the same part of the brain that processes and stores physical pain also stores and processes painful emotions such as hurt, rejection, sadness, embarrassment or shame. This activates the survival response of the fight, flight, freeze which overrides the desire to be loving.


By understanding how your brain works, particularly when you are triggered, you can find ways to effectively calm yourself in order to remain more engaged to resolve difficult situations and reduce conflict. 

Differentiation Theory

“Differentiation Matters. It matters a lot because it is the route to sustained intimacy” - Ellyn Bader

Differentiation helps couples become better known to each other. Differentiation helps you understand how to manage the differences that emerge in your relationship along with the anxiety or conflict this may cause. It is an unrealistic expectation that couples will always agree or hold the same perspective or opinion and it is important to find ways to explore the differences rather than fighting about them or avoiding them. 


It is recognising the active and ongoing process of awareness that requires individual partners to reflect and self-define their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, wants and desires and have the ability to communicate these in a calm, open, non-defensive manner that supports your partner hearing you, even when they don’t agree with you. It is about tolerating the anxiety that may arise and developing the ability to stay in it from time to time while not knowing what is going to happen.


Differentiation is also about being able to hear and be interested in understanding what your partner is saying while simultaneously managing the difficult feelings that may arise. It requires both partners to self-manage rather than self-protect, engaging in productive ways to self-soothe and stay connected during the tension of disagreeing until you can arrive at a solution that works for both partners. It is through differentiation that relationships can deepen and grow, creating greater intimacy and connection.

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