Attachment, Differentiation and Neuroscience – Essential Components of the Developmental Model of Couples Therapy


It’s essential to understand the attachment styles of each partner when working with couples. The study of mothers and infants in laboratory settings (what happens when the mother is taken out and the reunion experience when she comes back in) gives us a clear understanding of the attachment behaviours that are activated by fear, pain, fatigue, or thinking that the parent is not going to be accessible.

Each person’s attachment styles have a lot to do with couples’ relationships.

People generally use one pattern of attachment primarily with a partner but when things get stressful they activate into another pattern of attachment. It can be confusing and hugely distressing for a person to see their partner change from being open and loving to distant and shut down so by educating couples on their attachment styles you are helping them make sense of what they each do when their relationship is under pressure.


This is an active, ongoing process of awareness which takes place within a committed intimate relationship of defining what you think, feel, want and believe and then expressing what’s on your mind calmly and openly.

Differentiation enables partners to be more known to each other so there’s an inevitable amount of anxiety in the process. Differentiation involves realising that your partner has a different history and equally valid hopes, thoughts, feelings and beliefs, which will at times make it difficult for them to hear what you are saying. So it’s important to be sensitive in your conversations without thinking that either partner is wrong or bad or believing you have to give up what is important to you.

Differentiation also involves being interested in your partner’s opinions, managing any difficult feelings you may experience such as anger, anxiety or frustration and resisting the urge to interrupt while they are speaking. Differentiation is the energy that helps relationships grow and thrive.  It enables us to experience empathy, connection and intimacy with our partner.

Effective differentiation means having the ability to self-soothe, to stay in connection with your partner when you are disagreeing, and to live in the tension of not knowing what is going to happen until you arrive at a solution that works for both partners.


When we experience being physically hurt the part of our brain where pain is processed gets activated and we go into survival mode: the flight, fight or freeze response. Studies in neuroscience show that the very same part of our brain processes painful emotions such as rejection, sadness, hurt, shame or embarrassment and when this part of the brain gets activated it overrides any desire we have to be in a loving relationship.

This can cause huge distress in couples as it often re-triggers early unresolved painful life experiences for both partners and they no longer have the ability to operate from their adult selves. They quickly feel inadequate, hopeless and helpless. Both look increasingly like the enemy – someone they need to defend themselves against. Issues become very black and white – who’s right and who’s wrong? Defensive actions look like further threatening attacks.

This is the human paradox. We are wired to protect ourselves and we are wired to connect. Reducing pain, stopping partners from hurting each other and teaching couples about our reactive brains are essential components of effective couples therapy.

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