Two Models for Relationship Development

Last term I read Metaframeworks, a book about Bruenlin, Schwartz, and Kune-Karrer’s integration of family therapy models. It’s a fun read, but don’t run out and buy it unless you are like me, very nerdy about family therapy and a sucker for good theoretical integrations.

Metaframeworks presents two models for how relationships can grow over time. The first is a model from the 80s, by a family theorist named Wynne. In it, people in relationships develop four capacities, in this sequence:

1) Attachment/cargiving: We have “affectional bonding” with each other.

2) Communicating: We have “communicational codes” in common.

3) Joint problem solving: We have the ability to work successfully together on complex tasks.

4) Mutuality: We have the ability to renegotiate the relationship.

Metaframeworks criticizes Wynne’s model as “epigenetic,” meaning that each stage is related to the next in the way that our genes are related to our bodies: Each stage is the source and foundation of the next. If their analysis of Wynne is correct, then Wynne thought that you can’t really communicate in a relationship until you have achieved “affectional bonding.”

The authors’ scheme is similar but more complex. It has six processes that happen in relationships, and the relationships between them are “recursive,” meaning the product of each process affects the other processes. They are ambiguous about the sense in which their processes are a developmental scheme. My best guess is that they mean that each of these processes can develop in relationships, and the better developed they are, the better off we are. They say a few things that hint at a stage model, that each stage flows from the previous, and that inadequate development of an earlier process constrains later ones. But they don’t use words like “earlier” or “later” and they are very clear that the processes are related in a web-like fashion. Very postmodern. Anyway, here are the processes:

1) Attraction: We feel drawn together.

2) Liking: We appreciate and value each other.

3) Nurturing: We create safety by exchanging care.

4) Coordinating meaning: We can agree on what it means when we do and say things.

5) Setting rules: The rules by which we operate are functional.

6) Metarules: We have ways of changing our rules when we need to.

It is interesting that both Wynne and Metaframeworks consider and then reject intimacy (where “each person comes to believe in and experience the relationship as completely safe”) as a highest stage or most complex process. Wynne, apparently, does so because it is “difficult to achieve.” Metaframeworks does so because that trust can be lost, and because some couples with functional relationships never get there.

I’m not convinced. I really value intimacy in my own relationships, and I think that if we stop short of intimacy, at “stable and successful,” in our close relationships, we are missing out. And why reject a developmental stage because it is difficult to achieve?

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, January 17, 2011.]


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