Here is a chart of the developmental stages of couplehood. It shows how Bader and Pearson used the theory of the parent child separation process originally present by Margaret Mahler to describe the stages that marital couples go through. They say there is a similarity between them.
The Bader Pearson model presents what is by and large an accurate explanation of the stages in my view.
Symbiotic stage (Attachment stage)
Differentiation (Separation – individuation stage 1)
Practising (Separation – individuation stage 2)
Rapprochement (Separation – individuation stage 3)
The first four stages seem to accurately record what happens in many marriage style relationships. The final stage – Mutual interdependence – to my mind is a bit dodgy and incurs debate as to its accuracy in describing what happens in relationships.
My concern is that systems of knowledge often define a state of perfection. This clearly happens in many religions where what is bad and sinful is clearly defined. What behaviors and even thoughts one should avoid or what makes one become a sinner or a bad person. Meditative and yoga practices do similar with their higher states of consciousness and so forth that only a few dedicated yogis achieve after a life time of pursuing the goal.
Psychology calls such states of perfection things like being script free, game free, self actualized or the state of mutual interdependence (MI). Even if the original theoretician did not mean them to be perceived as a state of perfection it seems that often they get transformed into that after some time passes. If not a state of perfection a state that is the goal that is usually unattainable for any length of time by most people. I think it is fairly safe to say that when people look at that chart their Child ego states are going to think I want MI for my marriage and it becomes that in their minds. Something that they seek with few being able to say that are there. To do that they have to pass through the commando course of the three previous separation stages and very few could honestly say they have traversed those completely. It remains just out of reach or a long way out of reach for some of us. To my mind this is not a good thing to do for the psychology of people.
MI carries the assumption that independence in a relationship is a highly desirable thing but relationship is contrary to independence. Relationship is contrary to individuation by definition. Relationship is about joining together whereas individuation is about pulling apart.
It sounds lovely. To be able to be joined and separate all in the same deal. It is most appealing to the Free Child in all of us. But that does not mean its true or possible even though we may be trying to convince ourselves it is. The stats say there is something majorly wrong. The divorce rate hovers around 40 – 50% in the western world and of those who don’t get divorced probably half would if circumstances made it more available, but they choose to just endure. If one was baking a cake and they had a failure rate of 60% one would stand back and have a major reassessment of how they were going about the task.
Is it saying to us that we are trying to package people (with MI) in a way that is not natural for them to be and hence the failure rate is so high. It seems safe to say that something is quite wrong and we need to try other ways. But at the moment the age of trying new ways of having a marriage or relationships is not on the agenda. That was done in the 60s and 70s when people really did experiment with new and different ways of having relationships and living with different types of communities and so forth. We learnt what did and did not work.
Maybe it’s time for a reassessment now 50 years later when social circumstances are quite different for many. For example in Australia we have more single adults living in their own domicile now than ever before. I would assume it is much the same in countries like the USA and the UK. National and international travel and communication is now much easier than it was before so periods of no face to face contact but some level of contact is much more possible. What opportunities does this open us up for new experimentation.
The graph shows the progress of these stages in terms of psychological attachment. The symbiotic stage involves a build up of attachment and then the separation – individuation stages show a reduction in the degree of attachment. The end of the symbiotic stage occurs when one or both parties become dissatisfied with the intensity of the attachment so they begin the protracted process of reducing the attachment. This can last anywhere from 5 to 20 years.
If one was to establish a different set of stages maybe that would result in a different outcome for marriages. The symbiosis stage is the appealing stage and the next three separation – individuation stages are less appealing as they are marked with different degrees of relationship disharmony.
If one was to experiment with different relationship stages the one most amenable to change is the symbiosis stage. The symbiosis stage in the Bader Pearson model lasts 6 to 9 months. One could extend the symbiosis stage to say 4 or 5 years.
This is shown in the graph below, which does not really tell one all that much as the outcome is by and large unknown.
How can one extend the symbiotic stage? This already happens in human relationships but it is done in a disorganized way with no plan in place for its progress. It’s called the distance relationship. In this type of relationship the symbiotic period can be extended as the attachment process is impeded. If there is not regular face to face contact then the development of an attachment between two people can not progress as it usually would.
One could take this phenomena and make it more systematic. The couple agree on a monogamy contract and agree to have periods of face to face contact and then extended periods of no such contact. This would then extend the symbiotic period as long as they wanted it to.
What is the outcome of this?
It could result in a new stage developing after the symbiosis stage and before the separation – individuation stages. Or it may result in a different kind or outcome in the separation – individuation stages, or it may result in no change at all and simply delay the onset of the same separation – individuation stages.
Indeed this same approach could be used in another way as well and this is shown in the diagram below. Have a normal symbiotic stage but disrupt the separation stages with extended periods of no face to face contact. This should result in a rapid increase in the separation and individuation process (and the concomitant rapid decrease in the symbiotic attachment). What are the long term outcomes of this approach on a marital relationship? I am not sure as I am not aware of it being done before.
Of course this is not for everyone as it requires the people to be able to have two residences or places to live of some kind. But it seems we need to have another look at the marriage type relationship as it is not working all that well for most people and we have a significant number of people living in their own domicile as individuals. And non face to face communication is very easy now compared to 50 years ago.