Ellyn Bader

It’s easy for partners to say, “I want more intimacy” while having no idea what they mean and no history of expressing their desires to one another.

They may be afraid to pursue what it is they really want. Or perhaps they don’t really know what it is.

Clients often mask this ambivalence by talking intellectually about the issues that are getting in the way of closeness. Or they may complain, “There is never enough time for us.”

To help deepen their connection, we often have to help each partner face their ambivalence and stand behind what they truly desire.

When I sit in a session and hear an intellectual discussion of intimacy, I know the intellectualizing is often covering up something that’s painful or scary.

Then it’s time to stop talking about what isn’t happening and start creating more intimate moments with themselves and their partners.

The first step is to recognize that this discussion is “Adult-ego state” as described by Dr. Eric Berne, author of Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy. Our clients are telling long stories, giving facts, offering information, and responding to words.

But they’re not connecting to themselves or each other on an emotional level.

And it will become exhausting for you to keep following your clients down the same conversational rabbit holes without being able to address their core issues.

When a person is operating primarily from the Adult-ego state, there’s usually very little felt experience of intimacy. Intimacy is experienced in the Child-ego state.

So as therapists, our challenge is, “How can I facilitate moments in the room where there is either a Child-ego state to Child-ego state connection, or an empathic, nurturing, connection?”

When there are too many words going on in a session, it’s usually an indication to me that the clients are more in their heads than in their bodies.

So the roadmap I follow when helping couples work through ambivalence is to keep framing their conflict, asking emotional questions, and guiding their interactions to an emotional level.

In my work, I’ve found Gestalt 2-chair work to be especially helpful in seeing both parts of each partner’s ambivalence.

First, I’ll ask one partner, “When you have the goal of becoming more intimate, do you know what that means? Do you know what you hope for? What is an example of an emotionally experienced moment of intimacy for you?

I’ll ask them to tell me, “What feels intimate to you? What are you doing? What is your partner doing? When do you have that feeling of being close, connected, or intimate with someone else?”

I’ve found it helpful to give partners lots of short examples to see what they latch onto and what feels intimate to each.

For example, I might say, “Some people feel intimate when they joke and laugh together. Some feel it sparring with one another in a playful way. Other people feel it much more sensuously, like when they’re taking a bath together or making love. Others feel intimate when walking side by side exploring ideas, talking philosophy or dreaming about future goals.”

Once the client has been able to describe what intimacy looks like and feels like, I’ll then ask them to switch to another chair, or change positions.

I’ll ask them to talk from the part of them that is scared to be open about these desires and won’t risk creating emotional intensity.

I might say, “Could you say to the other part of you, ‘I am scared to unleash my desires’ or ‘I’m scared to show you what I want because you will make fun of me or belittle me’?”

And then, “Tell her a bit more about what you think might happen if you unleash that part of you.”

The dialogue can continue moving through the unexpressed fears and ideally towards a collaboration between the two parts.

You can support each partner to continue moving towards a deeper understanding that, “You and your partner are different people, and may each want a different kind of intimacy. But you two are in this together. You can learn together and create it together. But it won’t work if you try to create something that satisfies only one person’s intimacy, and not the other’s.”

Intimacy is very much like a fingerprint. No two partners are exactly identical. Each couple is stretched by learning about the intimacy “template” of the other person. Each of you will feel close and connected to one another at different times and in different ways. Your relationship will thrive when you can give to one another in a way that feels meaningful to each of you.

If you'd like more strategies on helping couples develop deeper connection in their relationships, please check out our one-hour training audio and written transcript, Creating Intensity in Conflict Avoidant Couples.

In the meantime, I’d like to hear from you – how do you think about intimacy and ambivalence? How do you support risk taking? Can you use some of these ideas in your work with couples? Please leave a comment below.

Also, let me know if you would like to read a transcript of a session like the one described above.


Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy.

Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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  1. Ellyn, I love the idea of two-chair to explore ambivalence with intimacy. Thank you for this post. I recently encouraged risk-taking with a couple stalled out in their intimacy by offering them each an intro. Take hands and turn to each other and say, “I would like…” The husband said, “I would like to make love to you.” They then kissed and it was lovely. Next session I will find out if it helped.

  2. Yes, I would love to read the transcript. I have a couple I’ve been working with for about two years. The wife has been asking for a closer connection where they can share more of each other and her husband who is about 8 months sober just isn’t on the same page. I don’t think he has the capacity to offer her more of himself or to be curious to know more about her. They are definitely stuck.

  3. I have a couple in which the husband is wanting more intimacy and the wife is just finding her voice and saying no to sex or other ways in which they used to be intimate. They have been together for 17 years, she was 15 and he was 17 year old. This post is very timely for me given what has been coming up for them in therapy. I would love to read the script! Thank you Ellyn!

  4. Wow !
    I wish I’d seen the opportunity in that mocking client, as you did. Honestly, I was so frustrated I told them I couldn’t help them any further until they were both ready to work together. Thanks for your insight. Next time …. I’ll be ready!

  5. Joanne-Your question is a good one-and it fits really well with an online workshop I am planning for August. I will be taking tough situations like these and role playing answers for part of that workshop. I hope you and many others will join me.

    To answer now, to the mocking client I might say, “I am wondering who treated you that way in the past? Your spouse just took a risk in exposing tender feelings, and as I watch your response I am overcome with wondering who could not handle your tenderness-your aliveness?” Who was that ? Do you remember the pain it caused you?”

  6. Thank you Ellen for offering this transcript. Yes please! My question: How do you handle the situation where one member of the couple buys in and shares emotionally, then the other changes their agreement & instead sabotages the moment by mocking their partner’s vulnerability?

  7. I feel the sadness in this; the fear of not being known pushing into the fear of being known. I sense the importance of the therapists making it a safe place to explore. Thank you for your commentary.

  8. I thought this piece on intimacy was the clearest thing I’ve ever read about intimacy. I really liked it. Thanks Ellyn!

  9. I’ve noticed the child ego state coming out in men and it’s really unattractive to women when mean regress to their child state. As an additive, I also noticed that the expectation of men wanting sex and placing this on the woman is starting to become an issue and women don’t want sex because of the expectation. I’m going to be doing a vlog on this soon.

  10. Such important points. It can seem enough to have people speak from their adult ego state, but then change does not get risked. Thanks for this.

  11. Thank you, very helpful guidance here. Intimacy does not just refer to sexual connection, so many ways to feel emotionally bonded and close, I will be passing this on to my clients, very exciting work to witness such movement towards eachother.

  12. What you say is SO true, and I would love to read the transcript. I am old enough to have that ego state therapy, Berne’s Parent – Adult – Child work, be something I learned long ago and often include in working with couples.

  13. Thanks Ellyn fit this blog post and very helpful description of how to help couples define their intimacy desires from their child (emotional) ego state versus their adult (intellectual) ego state. I really liked your examples of how to help couples along. Looking forward to using this info tonght with my couples.
    I too would be interested in the transcript.

  14. Thank you – its interesting to think about intimacy in connection with ego states. We have created such a “ marketing”, resume driven, appearances trump content world – intimacy and connecting authentically are important work in our times!

    I would like to receive your transcript.

  15. Good morning Ellen, thank you this is great. I have a couple that I’m working with and will try this approach.
    I would love to read/hear the transcript.