Marital symbiosis and separation-individuation: A developmental model

Judith Choate Flower (1991)

The model of marital symbiosis and separation/individuation is presented as a normal developmental process common to marriage. It describes the phenomenon that when a couple marries they go through developmental phases that parallel somewhat the developmental phases of symbiosis and separation/individuation in the infant described by Mahler (Mahler, 1967; Mahler, Pine, & Bergman, 1975). When first married, each spouse gives up some of his or her individuality for the sake of relationship by de-emphasizing likes, dislikes, values, and even some personality characteristics. The couple lives together as if "one". After awhile, one or both spouses becomes aware of this lost identity and works to regain it. This creates conflict, ambivalence, and fear and is usually a rocky time for the couple. If the process goes well the couple learns a new way to relate which provides for sharing one's self and allowing for personal differences to flourish. The model is organized around its five central characteristics: (a) That it is a whole new discrete developmental event peculiar to marriage and another occurrence of separation/individuation; (b) that the couple matures in a co-developmental process which involves mutuality and reciprocity; (c) that growth takes place at the intrapsychic, the interpersonal/couple dyad, and the intrafamilial levels; (d) that the marital symbiosis and separation/individuation process is ignited by forces coming from psychological, sociological, and religious spheres; and (e) that the phases of development progress along lines which resemble Mahler's model and these phases can be recognized by clear, though subtle, dynamics and behaviors. This study suggests that clinicians must first assess for normalcy rather than pathology. It further suggests that non-clinical couples' path through the stresses and changes brought on by the developmental phenomenon can be made smoother by using psycho-educational written material, workshops, and seminars. By understanding the predictable dynamics and behaviors provided by these resources, couples may feel less alarmed about their stressful experiences as their marital relationship develops.