3. Development Happens in Stages - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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3. Development Happens in Stages

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Out of Dev Chrysalis Intimacy/Relationship

Out of the Developmental Chrysalis in Intimacy and Relationship Therapy
by Ronald Mah

Development is not steady and gradual.  While there may be periods of steady development, there will also be sudden accelerations or jumps in development from accumulated quantitative changes.  Stages are distinguished as being qualitatively different from each other.  Running is qualitatively distinctive from walking.  In terms of language development, babbling versus saying words with meaning versus using two-word sentences constitute different stages.  There are many normal developmental stages among various aspects of growth.  There are normal developmental stages for intimate or romantic relationships in the evolution towards becoming couples, including initial attraction as a distinct stage from getting to know each other.  Successive other stages would be making a monogamous commitment, meeting the parents, and making a lifetime commitment.  An individual may come to therapy, or in couple therapy, the partners may present for therapy because of a transition from a "honeymoon" or otherwise idyllic stage to a disjointed stage brought on by the harsh challenges of blending two life patterns, two cultural models, and/or numerous other issues.  While the individual or partners may describe the transition from harmonious connection to acrimonious emotional disengagement as gradual- perhaps taking years, they can also clearly identify a current or past stage of the couplehood as distinctly different.  While the stages are labeled as better or worse, the descriptive phrase often given is that "it's not the same anymore."

Family life cycle theory for example, has distinctive developmental stages where demands and the experience is "not the same anymore."  The family goes through several stages of development each with their own particular needs and challenges.  This is an American mainstream model, which may or may not be relevant to the model of relationship development, couples, or families that the therapist is dealing with.  Many non-mainstream American models are two, three, and four generation models.  It may be useful to explore what the implicit or assumed model is for a particular individual, couple, or family the therapist is working with.  It is possible that there are two simultaneous and culturally distinct models.  An individual may arrive in therapy distressed that the love of his or her life sees the relationship primarily as a sexual hookup.  One person may consider sexual monogamy and co-mingling finances to be deep intimacy, while another seeks emotional and spiritual intimacy as well.  Perhaps, there is even a third model- for example, in the case of a family if the children are doing their own thing socially.  The models may coincide at times and be in conflict at other times.  This or another model may also have implicit heterosexual couple's dynamics that may or may not be replicated in same-sex couples.  Or, there may be nuances or distinctions unique to same-sex couples, older couples, or other family compositions, including blended families, older couples and bi-racial couples.  These nuances or distinctions, in and of themselves may conflict with unidentified assumptions of couplehood and family.  Here are eight stages that many Americans consciously or semi-consciously hold for themselves.

1. As a young couple with mobility and energy to explore and experiment socially (a form of "coupled" adolescence).

2. As a committed couple developing a household and home together.

3. As a couple with young children (dealing with new demands of having young children; major adaptations in couple's relationship, i.e. being parents and social world).

4. As a family with latency age children (into the groove of having and dealing with children's day to day needs).

5. As a family with teenagers (dealing with greater autonomy, beginning separation, preparation for launching).

6. As a couple in the "golden years", still young enough and healthy enough to "play" without the physical, emotional, and financial burdens of children in the home.

7. As grandparents, settled and rooted in the community.

8. As seniors, cared for by the younger generations.

As a middle-class model it may have major complications in the modern social and economic times.  It is arguable if it ever was an accurate model in the early or middle twentieth century.  In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the ostensively launch-age children sometimes don't launch.  Or, sometimes they come back as boomerang children during young adulthood.  It is important to remember that this is not a static model but is itself in major transition over the past decades.  For some individuals and couples, the financial security to have "golden years" is non-existent or become illusionary.  In many communities, a multi-generational model is more appropriate with movement through different generational roles within the same home.  

Every model has challenges throughout the family life cycle while also having unique challenges within each stage.  Challenges that are not successfully negotiated within a stage will often create problems in subsequent stages.  This is true not just for individuals but also when individuals enter important relationships.  Miller, et al. (2003) found that couples often share common problems areas, such as friends, money, and relatives that did not change significantly over time.  Religion and jealousy problems lessened significantly from before marriage to early marriage.  On the other hand, problems of a sexual nature increased.  In particular, sexual intimacy and communication problems increased from early in the marriage to the stage of early parenthood.   Couples who had been married the longest reported fewer problems in their relationship than couples in other stages of the family life cycle.  Problems were often related to a family developmental transition such as death, divorce, or a child moving out (page 397).  Miller also found that leisure activities and emotional intimacy was more of a problem with husbands married 3–10 years versus those who had been married for less or more years.  The same group had more problems overall as well (page 404).  It is possible that both of these findings correlate with stages in the couple/family life cycle that present greater stress and demands.  Specifically, complaints about sexual intimacy and communication are common when having and raising children, which may fall in the beginning 3-10 year period of marriage.  Having and raising children places many demands, changes, and transitions for a couple.  However, an individual or a couple may come to therapy with problems that are not simply from the functional stresses of raising children.

Randy and Terri had a very positive first five years of marriage.  However with the birth of their two children, there was a transition into the parenting stage of the relationship.  Things changed dramatically.  Terri's expectations of herself as a mother and her expectations of Randy as a father created major issues.  The children jumped to the top of her list and Randy dropped down the list.  Functionally, Terri felt she didn't even exist on the list.  This transition can be more extreme in some traditional cultures where there is little or no role for women aside from being mothers. Terri also expected Randy to devote himself to parenting in the same manner as her.  He didn't.  He was a very hard working corporate vice president and was away a lot.  When Randy was with the children, he played very well with the children; and in the rare opportunities it occurred, he played very well with Terri.  However, she felt he failed miserably as a parent to the children logistically and emotionally and as a parent partner to her.  In comparison to his father, Randy was more involved and present (Randy's own father's model of parent was very poor), but very inadequate compared to her total dedication to the children.  Superficially, their relationship seemed stressed by the demands of balancing parenting with other life stresses.

The couple can benefit if the therapist helps them explore and articulate their expectations for this developmental stage of the family.  Upon processing, Terri's expectations became clear.  She was done playing as a young adult or in the young couple and was now devoted to the work of raising children.  However, Randy had not satiated his need to play.  It was not just less play time, but wholly different attitudes about play versus the work of parenting.  When his wife turned her attention to the children upon their births, he felt rejected and abandoned.  Terri had moved on to another stage of the family while he was stuck in an earlier stage.  There was no one to play with.  With further processing, it was revealed that Randy's parents did not adequately mirror him when he was young.  They did not play with him.  Randy talked nostalgically about his and Terri's early relationship together including the first years of the marriage.  It was a wonderful time.  They played!  The therapist framed this by saying, "It was easier then when there were only two kids… Randy and Terri!"  Terri had been willing to be a playful kid with him then.  Then she stopped.  Terri was able to deny her own need to play from her somewhat co-dependent mothering model acquired from her mother, while Randy could not.  

The therapeutic challenge is to get both partners to articulate and honor their respective developmental needs.  Family-of-origin and psychodynamic work will be useful here.  Unless Terri understood and accepted Randy's need to play, she could not understand his feelings of abandonment.  And she would see him instead as immature, or worse… as betraying her as a father to their children.  The therapist guided the couple to incorporate time together as a couple to play, as well as clarifying expectations as to how to be parental partners.  A specific intervention was to schedule dates with each taking a turn to organize the date: childcare, tickets, transportation, etc.  The date could be to share something one enjoyed with his or her partner, and then alternating with the next date to treat one's partner to something one enjoyed.  Dating and dates were originally excuses to spend time together as prospective partners learned about each other and developed intimacy.  Becoming parents often means stopping being a playful couple as it did for Terri.  The couple can often go for years and years after children are born without further development of the couple's relationship.  And, once the children leave home, the relationship may fall apart.  Terri was able to appreciate the need to work on their relationship with the future in mind, along with balancing current needs raising the children.  Randy appreciated that he did not have to rush through his unsatisfied play needs.  He was delighted to have his play partner back and accepted that the logistics and substance of his pre-children play expectations needed to be adapted.

Assumptions that the other person or that both partners share the same developmental stage and needs can cause problems.  Mikah and Ivana have three adult children who have all finished college, started their careers, gotten married, and have had or are planning soon to have children.  Conflict has arisen because Mikah wants to travel overseas.  Ivana however is very resistant.  "It's too much trouble, it's too expensive, and I like staying at home… They need me at work… Maybe next year…" Next year has become another next year and another next year.  Next year has become 4 years and Mikah has become increasingly frustrated that it might be never.  When the therapist prompted them to explore their passions and dreams, it led them to the symbolic meaning behind their actions and behaviors.  As the therapist heard Mikah's excitement about traveling, it became clear that there was some important underlying meaning that needed to be articulated.  It was a combination of childhood dreams from the movies and books and a reward for doing the right thing- that is working so hard and raising a family for Mikah.  He wanted to share his adventure with Ivana.  It's what he is supposed to do next according to entry into the "golden years" stage of his life cycle.  It was what's they were supposed to do together.  When Ivana tried to explain why she did not want to go, the therapist looked for the symbolism of traveling for her.  What would she miss?  What was uncomfortable for her?  Examination of gender stereotypes and cultural roles proved to be useful.  Ivana's gender role superseded her participation in the couple's life cycle progression as Mikah saw it.  She is Mama and more importantly at this point in her life, she was Babushka.  She was worried about missing and not being there for her children and her grandchildren.  Mikah accepted this as a legitimate concern because he wanted to be with them too.  However, he felt they could balance time with children and grandchildren along with travel.  Ivana's intensity and not quite logical resistance gave a clue that there is greater meaning than is apparent on the surface.  At this time of her life, Ivana had not anticipated moving into the golden years.  She had anticipated being Babushka.  She knew how to be Mama and Babushka, but she does not know how to be an independent senior tourist.  She never saw her mother, aunts, her own Babushka, and great-aunts be anything else.  Cultural experiences and modeling as well as family-of-origin dynamics with stereotyped roles can all result in being stuck in a stage, or rejecting otherwise stage-appropriate behaviors.  Resolution of their issues required meeting her developmental needs at her Babushka stage.  Some family-of-origin, cross-cultural, and psychodynamic work helped Ivana accept joining Mikah in golden year-traveling rewards stage, while simultaneously letting her be Babushka.

Sometimes, it is the departure of children rather than their arrival that challenges a couple.  Jacque and Jim had managed the challenges of being an openly gay couple raising a couple of wonderful children- twin boys.  By all accounts, they had done an outstanding job as the boys had graduated from high school and recently gone off to college clear across the country.  As joyful and fulfilling it was to see the boys successful launching into the next phase of their lives, Jacque and Jim were having a hard time.  They were surprised at how much the boys and their needs had dominated their time and energy.  They had known that they would really miss them, but did not know how it could affect their ability to find or reestablish their equilibrium as a couple.  "The actual separation can also obviously trigger intense feelings of loss, which the parent may regulate in adaptive or maladaptive ways. And because this transition often involves physical separation for long periods of time, it can result in a chronic activation of the parent's caregiving or their own attachment behavioral systems.  This is why it's not uncommon for marriages to fall apart during the empty nest process – one or both of the parents is needing caretaking themselves and either doesn't know how to seek it out, provide it for the other or both.  And of course, not only do parents need to manage these intense feelings of loss, but also the transition requires learning new ways of relating to their child – such as finding a balance between giving greater autonomy, while at the same time staying connected – not an easy balance to achieve for most parents" (Sonkin, 2010, page 8).  Like many couples who dedicate themselves to their children's needs, Jacque and Jim had not really attended to their couple's relationship for almost two decades.  There interactions had been focused almost entirely on co-parenting issues.  They had done that extremely well without considering that an eighteen-year pause in their intimacy development could challenge them when they eventually pushed the play button again.  Fortunately, co-parenting had deepened their respect and affection for each other and the therapist was able to activate the relationship with relatively simple interventions: dates, times to share, excursions, hobbies, etc.

These are only three examples where relationship, couples, or family life cycle theories can be useful in determining both the underlying issues in conflict, but also for therapeutic intervention.  The key issues the therapist can look for include:

Dealing with transitions from stage to stage,

New demands or stresses of the stage,

One partner moving to another stage while the other partner has not (or resists),

Disappointing stage expectations,

Inadequate skills or modeling for stage demands,

Mismatched stage expectations between partners,

Unfamiliar stages or stage demands due to cultural issues,

Incomplete satiation in the stage.

Stage stresses activating previously dormant but unresolved issues.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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