Couple in bed, holding hands and smiling at each otherThe developmental model of couples therapy is an approach to relationship counseling that focuses on the growth and development of each partner individually in addition to the growth and development of the couple as a unit.

This approach assumes long-term relationships naturally change over time as they progress through a series of predictable developmental stages. When issues arise in the course of this progression, a qualified mental health professional can offer support and guidance. 

What Is the Developmental Model of Couples Therapy?

Developed by Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson in the 1980s, the developmental model of couples therapy does not focus on pathology but instead emphasizes the role of development in relationships. This model compares adulthood development of relationships to childhood procession through typical developmental stages. According to the model, it is natural for relationships to change as partners spend more time together and develop as a team.

Because partners do not always change in the same way or at the same time, potential challenges may develop over the course of the relationship. Conflict may arise when couples are not able to manage a new developmental stage, for example, or when each partner is in a different stage. 

Theory of the Developmental Model

The developmental model of couples therapy is based on the work of Margaret Mahler, who outlined the stages of early childhood development. It incorporates her concept of differentiation as well as certain aspects of attachment theory. Like other developmental models, this theory assumes a predictable sequence of developmental milestones exists.

According to Bader and Pearson, long-term relationships are likely to proceed through the following stages:

  • Bonding: This is the initial honeymoon period during which couples seek closeness, uncover their similarities, and begin falling in love.
  • Differentiation: During this stage, couples begin to acknowledge and address their differences. A central task of this developmental stage is finding ways to resolve conflict.
  • Practicing: During this period, couples explore their independence, nurture outside friendships, and spend time developing their self-esteem and competence in areas separate from the relationship.
  • Rapprochement: This is a stage during which couples move away from and then return to one another. Often, a couple’s sex life will deepen during this phase.
  • Synergy: This phase of development embraces true intimacy, recognizing a couple can come together and be stronger together than each member is alone.

    Find a Therapist

    Advanced Search

The role of development is not limited to the relationship, as this model also considers the developmental processes of each partner. Conflict is believed to be likely to occur when partners are at different developmental stages. Additionally, this model operates under the idea of healthy relationships requiring developmental growth from each partner. According to Bader, the problems a couple will face can be predicted, based on the attachment style of each partner, the current developmental stage of each partner and the relationship, and the length of time the partners have been together.

Techniques Used in the Developmental Model

In this model of couples therapy, the therapist’s role is to help both partners recognize the stage each is currently in, negotiate tasks in the current stage, and work through any issues keeping the couple stuck. In other words, the therapist aims to help couples move through the developmental stage and grow, both individually and as a couple, in the process developing a stronger, more mature emotional connection. A senior couple embraces on the beach

Therapists who practice this model may incorporate a variety of techniques, and these techniques may often be influenced by the couple’s developmental stage. In the differentiation stage, for example, a therapist may normalize the different desires of each partner in a couple, in order to help the couple grow rather than get stuck viewing differences as disastrous to the relationship.  

Therapists who practice the developmental model of couples therapy may work with a couple to help them communicate more effectively, such as by encouraging them to ask open-ended questions and encouraging the expression of thoughts, feelings, and desires. They may use exercises designed to help couples uncover the emotional vulnerability behind their unwanted behaviors. For example, a therapist may point out the feelings of shame underlying one partner’s lashing out at the other. Moreover, the therapist may empathize with a couple’s pain while simultaneously challenging and confronting problematic beliefs. The therapist attempts to change negative cycles occurring between partners by disrupting these cycles and making the partners aware of them. 

Limitations of the Developmental Model

The developmental approach is a relatively new one, so there is little to no research available on its effectiveness. Anecdotal reports from couples who have tried this approach, though, suggest that a developmental model can work well for some couples. As with most approaches to therapy, the relationship between the therapist and those in therapy may have an impact on the outcome of therapy. 


  1. Bader, E. (n.d.). A look back at the developmental model. Retrieved from
  2. Bader, E. (2010). Getting off to a powerful start in couples therapy. Retrieved from
  3. Bader, E. (n.d.). Happily ever after. Retrieved from
  4. Bader, E. (2014). Stepping stones to intimacy: A positive outlook on problems. Retrieved from
  5. Bader, E., & Pearson, P. (1988). In quest of the mythical mate: A developmental approach to diagnosis and treatment in couples therapy. Philadelphia: Brunner/Mazel. 
  6. The developmental model of couples therapy (n.d.). Retrieved from