The Strange Relationship of Theories of Attachment and Differentiation
Written by Jamie Kyne Ph. D.  

I was reading today at the office, in between sessions, on Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson’s website. They’ve got some good material there for therapists and clients alike (check it out). I was reading particularly in Ellyn Bader’s short essay reflecting on her experience participating in a panel presentation called “Attachment and Differentiation in Couples Therapy”. She herself had set up this panel presentation at a recent couples’ therapy conference and she and Stan Tatkin were the panelists. Maybe some of you were there. I wish I had been.

Dr. Bader wrote:

I structured this panel into the conference because I believe it is time for people [in] our field to begin integrating the best of these two theories. Couples therapy is most effective when the therapist knows how to use both attachment and differentiation based interventions and conceptualizations.

I am intrigued by this juxtaposition of “these two theories” of Attachment and Differentiation. I’m not sure that Bader (or Tatkin) would want us to read it this way but it’s as though Attachment and Differentiation form a kind of Yin and Yang of couples’ therapy or a Hegelian thesis and antithesis that yield, in their integration, a synthesis that is the foundation for elegant and masterful couples therapy, something that transcends yet includes elements of both. Is this what Bader means when she says, “Couples therapy is most effective when the therapist knows how to use both attachment and differentiation based interventions and conceptualizations”?

I don’t really know if they belong together like this. I feel that I want them to. I want them to work as both Attached, one to the other, and Differentiated, one from the other, like a theoretical and technical Fred and Ginger. The words themselves, “Attach” and “Differentiate,” sound like a Yin and Yang pair, don’t they?

But is this wishful thinking?

I suspect it might be and I want to think this through as thoroughly as I can so as to best understand the way these theories do relate, and do not, to one another.

Undoubtedly, both Attachment Theory and Differentiation Theory deepen our understanding of human behavior. Both inform therapeutic technique. But how should we understand the way they can be applied, together, in couples’ therapy? Is it a matter of a synthesis? Or are they complementary to one another? Are the human behaviors that each theory addresses the same, different, overlapping or nonoverlapping?

Here’s a quote from Bader’s essay that illustrates what seems to me to be some confusion emerging:

[Stan Tatkin] stressed the necessity of both therapists and married partners understanding that the adult couple relationship is a primary attachment relationship. And as such it is significantly different from all other relationships.
If relationships other than those we begin life in, those with our primary (as in, those who came first and are thus, prototypical) caregivers, can be called “primary attachment relationships” then what does that do to the designation “primary?” Is it meaningful to consider a relationship between interdependent adults as “primary” in the same sense of the word as a relationship between a dependent infant and an adult is “primary” (and this one is “primary” for the infant, mind you, not for the caregiver, as the word has been used up to now). I think we’re stretching the meaning of the word “primary” at this point. I’m not sure that Attachment Theory and Differentiation Theory will be very easily organized vis-à-vis one another as applied to couples’ therapy though I intuitively sense that Bader is right when she says that both can inform couples’ therapy.

The problem of articulating the relationship between these two theories reminds me of how I feel when folks want to talk about the relationship of science to the humanities. Discussing this relationship is especially trendy nowadays when it’s science and religion.

Folks are often eager to synthesize science and the humanities, two ways of knowing, into a transcendent epistemology. E.O. Wilson’s book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, is an example of an attempt to do just that. But Stephen Jay Gould calls these two ways of knowing “Nonoverlapping Magisteria” and differentiates them, one from the other, convincingly in his famous essay bearing that title. If you’re interested in this puzzle I can also recommend to you Wendell Berry’s book, Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition. Berry offers a compelling critique of Wilson’s theory of Consilience that’s also deeply inspiring.

Anyway, back to the matter of Attachment Theory and Differentiation Theory and how they do and do not relate. I don’t have the understanding I’d like to have here. I’m very curious as to how people think of Differentiation as it affects Attachment and vice-versa.  I certainly don’t think it’s a simple or straightforward relationship. I wonder if we’re talking about the same thing as seen from different perspectives (I doubt that) or about entirely different human phenomena that happen to be reciprocally influential. Maybe folks might write a little about this for future issues of Psychobits.

Here’s one thought that came to me during the therapy session I conducted after reading Ellyn Bader’s essay. The gentleman I was working with who is, himself, quite psychologically minded said that he and his wife had been having some great conversations lately that had pushed him to really differentiate. He used the word, “differentiate,” like this, “I can really feel myself differentiating from my wife and it’s scary, both scary and exciting, to be myself and let her be herself.”

This resonates with what Bader says in her essay:

Differentiation occurs interpersonally. Sadly, unfolding differentiation frightens many partners because it signals that “we are different”. I believe this can trigger primitive anxiety – fear of being left or cast out. In their attempts to calm this anxiety, partners often try to inhibit growth in one another.

While differentiation certainly refers to the process of persons making clear the ways in which they differ, one from the other, it’s very much a process that people go through together. You cannot make clear the way you differ from someone else unless you do so in relation to them. You cannot differentiate alone.

So while this patient was right to say that he was differentiating from his wife, he would also have been right to say that he was differentiating with his wife. Differentiating is both with and from. We differentiate when attached. Differentiation cannot happen outside of attachment.

I did not point this out in the session but reflected on it quietly to myself.

I also often reflect on the way in which differentiation can be conceived as the articulation of a variety of thoughts and feelings and wishes, each different from the others, within a single person. I tend to think of psychological growth as involving an increase in our capacity to mentalize and verbalize a more and more diverse population, if you will, of mental states. I am told that a well-differentiated eco-system is very diverse. I imagine a well-differentiated mind as diverse in thought, feeling, and wish. I suppose Jungians would emphasize the multiplicity of the psyche here as different from the monoculture of undifferentiated affect or dichotomization (bi-cultured as in good/bad, pleasure/pain?).

I’m going to keep wondering about this relationship, how Differentiation Theory and Attachment Theory interrelate and how they do not. And I’d love to learn more about how to apply them in work with couples.