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.

About 

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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S B
S B
3 years ago

I’d like to read the transcript

C. Walters-Knight
C. Walters-Knight
3 years ago

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.

Judy
Judy
3 years ago

Thank you! I would like to read the transcript.

Dorothy
Dorothy
3 years ago

Yes, I would like to read a transcript. Thank You.

Jane
Jane
3 years ago

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.

SN
SN
3 years ago

Interesting. I’d like to read the transcript.

Wendy
Wendy
3 years ago

Yes I would love to read the transcript!

Lori Collins
3 years ago

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.
Thanks,
Lori

Ann Veilleux
Ann Veilleux
3 years ago

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.

Maureen Brumby
Maureen Brumby
3 years ago

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.

Maureen Brumby
Maureen Brumby
3 years ago

I would like to receive the transcript please.

Lin Jovanović
Lin Jovanović
3 years ago

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.

Aurel Bahnaru
Aurel Bahnaru
3 years ago

Yes, Thank you, I would love to read the transcript!

Nagwa Maksy
Nagwa Maksy
3 years ago

IDE love to get the transcript to your session.
Thank you

Charley Strickland
Charley Strickland
3 years ago

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.

Kathy Jarosz
Kathy Jarosz
3 years ago

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

Selma Fields
Selma Fields
3 years ago

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.

Talli Rosenbaum
Talli Rosenbaum
3 years ago

I’d love to receive the transcript

Jerry
Jerry
3 years ago

Yes, I would also like to read the transcript.

Jerry
Jerry
3 years ago

I would very much like to receive a transcript.

Libby Balch
Libby Balch
3 years ago

I would like to receive the transcript. Thank you!

Olivia
Olivia
3 years ago

I would like to receive the Transcript!

Joanne
Joanne
3 years ago

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?

Ellyn Bader
Ellyn Bader
3 years ago

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?”

Joanne Kilpatrick
Joanne Kilpatrick
3 years ago

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!

Bev
Bev
3 years ago

I would like a copy of the transcripts

Merry Long
Merry Long
3 years ago

Yes, please! I would like the transcript!

Letta Venegas
Letta Venegas
3 years ago

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!

Matt
Matt
3 years ago

I would love to also receive the transcript. Thanks for all you do in couples work.

Frances Nelson
Frances Nelson
3 years ago

Thanks very much. I’d like very much to receive the transcript.

Jo
Jo
3 years ago

I’d also love to receive the transcript you mentioned.

Elany Mueller
Elany Mueller
3 years ago

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.

Edel
Edel
3 years ago

Yes please I would like the transcipt/

Meg Luce, LMFT
Meg Luce, LMFT
3 years ago

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.

Debra Donovan
Debra Donovan
3 years ago

Yes please would appreciate a transcript.

Marie & Brian Carlson
Marie & Brian Carlson
3 years ago

Yes, please! We would love a transcript–that would be helpful. Thank you.

Tami Kuhnwald
3 years ago

A Glossary of Terms that are sometimes Confusing

Couples Therapy is a counseling procedure that seeks to improve the adjustment of two people who have created an interdependent relationship. There are no standard procedures to help two people improve their adjustments to each other. Generally, a more experienced therapist will offer more perspectives and tools to a couple. Length of treatment will depend on severity of problems, motivation and skills of the therapist. A couple can be dating, living together, married or separating and may be gay, lesbian or heterosexual.

Marriage Therapy is a term often used interchangeably with marriage counseling. The term marriage implies two people have created a union sanctioned by a government or religious institution. The methods used in marriage counseling, marriage therapy and couples therapy are interchangeable and depend more on the specific challenges of each unique couple.

Psychotherapy is one or more processes to help improve psychological and emotional functioning. Examples are psychoanalysis, cognitive therapy, behavior therapy, Gestalt therapy, Transactional Analysis, Rational-Emotive therapy, or group therapy. Many forms of psychotherapy are blends of different approaches. For example, newer forms of psychotherapy called energy psychology draw upon recent advances in brain and neuroscience. These approaches often build on cognitive behavioral methods.

Clinical Psychologist. After graduating from college, it usually takes about five years of graduate school to get a Ph.D. in Psycholgy. It then requires an additional two years of supervision and passing a written (and often) an oral exam. There are a few states that allow psychologists to prescribe medications (with additional training) but that is uncommon.

Psychiatrist. After graduation from medical school, there is a generally a 4-year psychiatric residency. After the completion of this training, psychiatrists must pass an exam issued by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology to obtain certification and legally practice in the field. Psychiatrists can prescribe medications.

Clinical Social Worker. This profession usually requires two years of study after obtaining an undergraduate degree. While specific licensure requirements vary by state, most require clinical social workers to obtain 3,000 hours or 2 years of supervised clinical experience, after obtaining a Masters degree. Social workers can also specialize in diverse fields such as human services management, social welfare analysis, community organizing, social and community development, and social and political research.

Marriage and Family Therapist. Obtaining this license requires a Masters degree which takes approximately two years of post graduate study. The license also requires 3000 hours of supervised work and passing written exams.

The Couples Institute. We have assembled a group of top notch therapists at The Couples Institute. Whatever marriage help or marriage advice you are looking for, we are here to serve you. While most other therapists see only a few couples a week, we specialize in marriage and couples relationships, working to develop and bring you the most current and effective approaches to couples therapy. For more information about couples therapy or marriage counseling, see our couples therapy section.