The essential developmental processes of the counter-dependent stage of development involve achieving full separation armed with the secure bonding of the previous stage. The goal at the end of this stage is to achieve individuation and the psychological birth of the individual. In order to achieve individuation, or the psychological birth, a child needs good bonding experiences with his or her mother and father or other adult caregivers during the first six to nine months of life.
Margaret Mahler, a researcher and child psychologist, did extensive observational research with mothers and their babies to better understand this developmental process. 
She found that holding, singing to, and talking to the child; mirroring back the child’s essence; giving patient attention to the child’s needs; and providing nurturing touch were essential ingredients for strong maternal-infant bonding. She described this normal state of infant-mother bonding as symbiosis. 
Both mother and child have an innate drive to enter a deep state of emotional attunement, and this is at the core of symbiosis. Mahler and others  found that there are degrees of symbiosis, which depend on the quality of the relationship between mother and child. She found that the stronger the emotional attunement between the two, the more likely that the child would complete the psychological birth and become emotionally separate. Mahler says that this occurs between ages two and three.
Mahler believes that the separation stage is prompted by the child’s innate drive to explore the world and to become an autonomous person. These desires create an internal conflict for the child, who also enjoys the comfort and warmth of oneness with the mother and father. When a child begins to separate, the kind of bonding relationship he or she has with both parents is crucial.
If the mother is depressed, tired, or not available emotionally because she is frightened by the intimacy or stresses of parenting, or anxious because the father is unavailable, this will affect the starting time and the pace of the process. If any of these obstacles are present, the child will actually delay these initial moves toward separateness, wanting more bonding before venturing out too far.
If this bonding need is not met completely, children eventually move on without the inner security they really need. Physical development continues forward to the next stage, even when children have not completed their social and emotional development. Some babies who are faced with this dilemma develop a false self and pretend to be strong enough for the task. They project a false independence, characterized by the statement, “I’m strong and can do it without you”.
Some children separate unusually early, particularly when mothers or fathers cling too tightly or are too intrusive, trying to control every facet of their lives. These babies may even prefer strangers and, as early as three months, may stiffen against their mothers efforts to hold them. This can cause anxiety in the parents. A mother may wonder, “Why doesn’t this child like me any more?”. Depending on the mother’s self-esteem, she may see the child’s attempts to separate as a threat to her identity as a mother.
A father may withdraw even further if the child doesnt want to be held or played with. In either case, the move from bonding to separation is a delicate process, requiring not only that mothers and fathers have good information, but that they also have dealt with some of their own unfinished business regarding bonding and separation.
Children’s struggle between oneness and separateness creates the framework for the journey toward selfhood.
The Four Sub-phases of the Separation Process
Mahler  and Stephen Johnson (1985 & 1987) [4, 5] , another developmental psychologist, found that the internal conflict between oneness and separateness can be resolved if the child is supported in his or her efforts to successfully navigate the four distinct phases of the separation process. A careful look at each of the phases may help you better understand which of your needs might not have been met, and therefore, why you are stuck as an adult in the counter-dependent, or separation, stage of development. If you can locate the specific unmet developmental needs in any phase of this process, then it will be easier to find ways to meet them now.
The following descriptions of the phases of the counter-dependent stage of development show some of the important developmental processes that must be accomplished at each phase. For each developmental process, there is a set of developmental needs. The writing exercise called The Sins of Omission and Commission at the end of this chapter will help you identify your specific unmet needs from the co-dependent and counter-dependent stages of development. As you read the following descriptions of these four phases of the separation process, ask yourself: Knowing what I know about my parents, how did they probably treat me during each of these phases of development? This might help you begin to remember what actually did happen to you and either what you might have lacked but needed, or what you might have gotten and didn’t need.
The Early Exploration Phase (Six Months to Eight Months)
During the early exploration phase, you became aware that there is a world outside the oneness you experienced with your mother and father or other caregivers. At first, you looked at this world from the edge of your mother’s lap or over your father’s shoulder while being held or burped. You saw your mother smile and you smiled back. Imitation helped you learn new responses by watching and doing. Also, you first began to notice strangers and may have reacted with anxiety. However, if your mothers and fathers relationships with you were strong, supportive, and nurturing, you eventually grew more curious about strangers, and less afraid of them. If the relationship was weak or you were not yet ready to separate, then your anxiety may have been stronger and you may have begun clinging to your parents when strangers approached. In the early exploration phase, you had no way of holding onto an image of your mother or father when either one was out of physical sight. You may have coped with your fear of loss by trying to keep your mother or father always in view. Eventually you were able to imagine that your parents were with you even when they were not. You could sustain this only for short periods of time at first, but gradually you learned to tolerate longer periods of being physically separated from them. If your mother was available, nurturing, warm, and secure, you could hold on to memories of these experiences when she was not present. Your mother may have assisted you in developing these qualities by being predictable and reliable. For example, when she had to leave, she would let you know in advance that you were going to be cared for by a sitter or by your father. She knew the quickest way to destroy your newfound confidence was to sneak away when you were not looking. Also, she knew any prolonged absence of several days while you were very young would leave you feeling abandoned. During the early exploration phase, you moved away and back many times during the day to confirm that the bond with your mother or father was still intact. You may also have been given a touch, a loving smile, a brief snuggle, a bottle, or an opportunity to nurse on your mother’s lap. Each time, however, you were lured back to exploring the world around you because your drive to do so grew stronger by the day. Your father knew that his role was to play with you, hold you, and help you move away from your mother. Soon you learned that your father wasn’t just a part of your mother but a separate person. You saw these differences and similarities, and your mother let you know that she trusted your father, which also helped you trust him. If your mother tried to keep you from your father, you may have picked this up and feared him. You also needed other relatives and friends to bond with. Again, you learned to trust people your mother or father trusted. One of the developmental processes of this phase involved developing a specific smile of recognition for your mother, father, or other caregivers. During this period, it was also time for you to learn to discriminate between your parents and strangers. If the bond with your mother was strong, you showed more curiosity about strangers. If it was less strong, you might have felt anxiety and distress around strangers, especially when you were around eight months of age.
The Full Exploration Stage (Ten Months to Fifteen Months)
During this phase of counter-dependency, you began to walk and you ventured out even further. Learning to walk was a celebration of your ability to master the world. This skill would lead you to the development of a love affair with the world. Separation and exploration, coupled with occasional trips back to your mother’s lap or your father’s knee for comfort and reassurance, became almost a full-time occupation. < Teething and too many donts may have slowed you down, but elation over new discoveries could distract you. The inborn drive for separateness and wholeness was in high gear by the end of this phase, and you probably had some transitional objects such as a teddy bear, doll, or blanket that represented your mother when she was unavailable. You may have carried these comfort objects everywhere you went. Eventually, you abandoned these objects when you were able to develop an inner mother figure that you could use to soothe or comfort yourself when you needed to.During this period, you loved the thrill of being mobile. In this expansive stage, you found you could explore a large area in your home and discover all kinds of new things each day. Your excitement often reached a state of euphoria, causing you to often forget about wanting to be close or even eating, unless something scary happened. Because your mother seemed so big and so powerful, you saw her as omnipotent. Because you were not separate from her, you often felt omnipotent yourself, able to do grandiose things and entitled to everything that crossed your path. Life seemed limitless to you. The developmental processes for this phase involved learning that there were limits to mother’s presence, energy, patience, time, and resources. Because you needed to learn about her limitations gradually, she gave them to you incrementally. When she had to leave you with another caregiver with whom you had bonded, she stayed away only as long as you could tolerate it. At first this was just for a matter of minutes. As you grew older, she expanded this to hours. She made sure you had a reliable person to care for you while she was gone, one who could support your feelings if you were unhappy about her absence. She also helped you learn how to take care of your own needs and to be self-sufficient while she was away. She provided you with transitional objects, such as soft animals for comfort, so that you could mother yourself in her absence. She knew that this is how you would develop a nurturing parent inside yourself. Other developmental processes for this phase involved learning that mother’s absence wasn’t personal, and that she was a separate person with her own needs and interests. She or other caregivers helped you express your feelings of frustration when you weren’t able to have things go your way all the time. You also needed a constant adult presence that could monitor your exploration and make sure you were safe. They helped you when you struggled with two seemingly contradictory fears: the fear of separation (abandonment) and the fear of oneness (engulfment). When we look at addictive behavior, we see that alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, sex, and food can become transitional objects that provide a person with the comfortable, reassuring feeling that an available mother might provide for a child. The object can be used, set aside, and reached for when the fears or anxieties of being out in the world without enough love or support get too great. The first step in eliminating an addiction requires mourning the loss of the available mother and recognizing that substitutes can replace the feeling of connection to mother only for a short time. Dependencies cant be broken until you feel your sadness about losing your available mother and accept that there is no mother who will always be available, but that there are some people who sometimes can be available to provide nurturing love and comfort if you are willing to ask them for what you want or need. Other times you may have to learn to feel your feelings alone and comfort yourself using your inner nurturing mother. Some men have difficulty in distinguishing between sex and love and wonder why they still feel empty after sex.
The Early Separation Phase (Sixteen Months to Twenty-four Months)
Near the beginning of this phase, you realize that you are a person totally separate from your mother. When you first understood this, you may have felt scared and returned to your mother to be cuddled. It may have looked as though if you were regressing back to an earlier phase of development, but if you received the comfort you desired, it was probably short-lived. Again, your innate drive to become separate took over, and you returned to exploring and mastering your world. Your mother and father kept encouraging your efforts to separate during this phase while providing you with support and nurturing when you needed it. You were likely to feel angry and frustrated when you were unable to master certain tasks or when your parents placed restrictions on you. Your parents accepted this anger and frustration and responded empathetically to you. They may have feared that if they simply forgave your outbursts of anger and frustration that they would inadvertently encourage future tantrums. This wasnt true. A warm hug and some assurance that you were still loved was all that you really needed. Humiliation or punishment only set up further cycles of tension that you needed to discharge. Their repeated reassurances helped you develop a sense of your Self, feelings of being loved and accepted, and the ability to stay connected to your feelings. Another important part of this phase is the phenomenon called ‘splitting. There were times when you mastered a task or returned to your mother and found a warm, receptive reunion. When this happened, you experienced your mother as good, and everything looked and felt good during these times. However, there were other times when you were unable to master a task or when you needed a warm hug, and you found your mother busy cooking dinner or talking on the telephone. These times you experienced her as bad, and this feeling was generalized to everything. Mother became either good mother, when she was available, or bad mother, when she was not available. The healthy resolution to this conflict occurred gradually as you learned two important things: Your mother had a mix of good and bad qualities and was basically a good person in spite of this. You had good and bad qualities and were separate from your mother, and this mixture of good and bad qualities was also okay. You were both okay. If you did not resolve this good/bad split during this phase, you will continue to see yourself, other people, and situations in the world as divided into good and bad, black and white, right and wrong. If, as an adult, you can think of only two solutions (either/or) to problems and tend to use black-or-white thinking, you still have not completed the splitting stage of development.
The Complete Separation Phase (Twenty-five Months to Thirty-six Months)
If you had loving parents who supported your needs for emotional separation, you began developing an initial sense of separateness and identity by the age of three. The ability to hold yourself as an object of worth separate from other people is called object constancy. As a three-year-old, you had enough object constancy to feel safe in the world as a separate person only if you had built up enough good-mother and good-self experiences. The struggle to maintain object constancy continues during the rest of your life in your encounters with new problems and crises that may threaten your sense of Self. We constantly have to reconcile our yearnings to return to paradise and the bliss of oneness with our intense longing to be separate, autonomous individuals. The resolution of this issue between ages two and three involves a complex set of developmental processes, particularly when we did not fully complete it during the separation stage as a child. The role of the father is critical developing a strong sense of Self. If you bonded well with your father, and he was emotionally available to you when your mother was not, it was easier to separate from your mother. If your father was physically or emotionally absent during your first three years, separating from your mother would have been more difficult. The father’s presence and active involvement as a parent is even more important for a boy, who must dis-identify from his mother in order to develop a healthy male self-image. Do you think your father was available for you physically and emotionally at this time in your life When you went to your emotionally present father and complained about your unavailable mother, he needed to know how to respond effectively. If he used your complaining as an opportunity to vent his own feelings about having an unavailable wife, you may have learned to devalue women and overvalue men. Fathers often feel abandoned when wives become consumed by taking care of their children’s needs and do not pay attention to their husbands needs. If your father took the side of your mother and criticized you for complaining about her, you learned that there was no emotional support to help you become separate from your mother. You may have felt betrayed and defeated if any of these things happened repeatedly. What your father needed to do was support your feelings without agreeing or disagreeing with your definition of your mother’s badness. (I see you are really upset that Mommy’s gone, and until she comes back I am here to play with you.) This response does not blame anyone and acknowledges your feelings, and it can be difficult for men who never learned to express emotions. Some fathers get scared and feel helpless when they find themselves in the middle of the intense separation struggle between the mother and child. They find reasons to work longer hours or have an affair or even leave the marriage altogether. Without the support of your father or another bonded caregiver to help you, completing your psychological birth between the ages of two and three would have been difficult. So what about single-parent families No research has been done on whether other caregivers who have bonded with a child, such as a babysitter or grandparents, can fill the father’s role. However, if this person is a woman, a male child will have difficulty dis-identifying with his mother, causing gender identity problems later. This area certainly needs much more research and study. You can see from the descriptions of the four phases of the counter-dependency stage of development that individuation is a series of intricate processes. Successful completion of this stage requires educated, aware parents who have completed enough of their own psychological birth process that they can guide and support the child through his or her own process. Since most parents are not taught these skills before they become parents, they often fall short of this goal, making it necessary for the child to finish this process later in life. It is now possible, for the first time in the evolution of the human species, to create functional families that can raise healthy children able to experience emotional intimacy.
Check out our book, The Flight From Intimacy for a more extensive understanding of the counter-dependent stage of development. This book gives you the information and skills necessary to make this happen in your life.
1. Mahler, M. (1968). On human symbiosis and the vicissitudes of individuation. New York: International University Press.
2. Kaplan, L. (1978). Oneness and separateness. New York: Simon & Schuster.
3. Mahler, M., S. Pine, & F. Bergman (1975). The psychological birth of the human infant. New York: International University Press.
4. Johnson, S. (1985). Characterological transformation. New York: Norton.
5. Johnson, S. (1987). Humanizing the narcissistic style. New York: Norton.