Ellyn Bader

This month let's look at regression in couples therapy. The old adage says “where the attention goes, the energy flows.”

Regressed partners in couples therapy often demand that either you or their partner focus on them. At times, attending to and even promoting regression can facilitate change. However, often it is counterproductive and reinforces patterns that keep the couple stuck.

In this newsletter, we will briefly explore what is regression, three issues that tend to intensify regression, and how a therapist may inadvertently contribute to increasing the regression.

What Is Regression?

Regression is a retreat or return to an earlier state of functioning. “Child ego state” feelings and behaviors dominate, and the client may move into a very adapted or rebellious position; they may become passive, confused and non-thinking; they may be very emotionally flooded; or they may exhibit hypochondriac or psychosomatic functioning of an earlier age level. In this state, a regressed partner may demand being indulged or stroked by their partner or by the therapist. This will intensify more when the regressed partner does not want to think, self-activate, or take a risk that seems big.

Three Issues That Intensify Regression

First, a partner may hold a powerful inhibition against wanting something that they do desire in the relationship. The more unable they are to be direct about the desire, the more this spouse will exhibit their desire through regressed behavior. An extreme example of this occurred with a wife who wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. Unable to negotiate or problem-solve about this directly with her husband, she became increasingly depressed and non-functional at work until she was put on disability leave and forced to stay at home.

Secondly, some partners have a powerful inhibition against even knowing what they want and desire. This results in their easily emerging with a partner, not activating their own thinking and becoming highly dependent on the spouse.

Last, some partners feel wrong for expressing their desires and feel powerful guilt when they do express them. They may have come from homes where having personal desires was defined as selfish or greedy. These partners tend to regress in couples' sessions and hope that the other “will read my mind.” They also frequently withdraw from their sexual relationships rather than risking putting their desires into words. The inhibition of their desires and non-action protects them from feeling the shame or guilt of being wrong or bad.

In all of the above issues, direct knowledge or expression of internal desires puts the client into an internal conflict. The conflict exists between the want or desire and the internalized, intrapsychic parent who says it is not ok to want or desire.

As a result, regression to earlier coping mechanisms occurs when a spouse fears being direct or when they can not allow themselves to want directly. Regression also occurs when a spouse distorts the behavior of their partner, and the behavior becomes a transference trigger. Partners who don't have the capacity or skill to check out their perceptions will move deeper into a transferentially-triggered regression. Other partners hold tightly to regressive/symbiotic beliefs like, “A relationship should be easy. I shouldn't have to work this hard. I shouldn't have to put my desires into words.”

How the Therapist May Inadvertently Contribute to Increasing Regression

Couples therapists may inadvertently support or induce regression during a couples' session. Have you ever asked a partner to tell their spouse what they want? And after they have done what you asked, did you end up with a pit in your stomach, recognizing that you were now in a mess? Maybe Joe has asked Ann to love him for who he is. He has done what you asked. But you know his request is impossible. You know Ann can't deliver. Now you must either correct him, which places you in a difficult parental role, or support an infantile regressed and impossible desire. Neither alternative is very good.

In a couple's session, don't say, “Ask for what you want.” This sets up a regressed orientation in which one partner goes to the other as if on bended knee. This partner is then at the mercy of the other's good will. It is much more effective to say instead, “Describe your desires to your partner, and tell him (or her) what it would mean to you to be able to realize your desires. Then I will also ask you to listen to what your partner desires.”

A therapist may also be overly supportive of a regressed partner. Perhaps you find the client's rage intimidating. Perhaps their pain resonates with some pain or loss that you have experienced. Perhaps the client does not want to self-activate in an arena that you also find difficult. A common example is women not wanting to think about money and finances.

You may end up being overly nurturing, too helpful, or especially empathic, without leading them out of or confronting the regression. This process may be especially intense when you get attacked for not being caring or sympathetic. You may feel anxious, desire to avoid the attack, and end up being too nice or overly giving. Sadly, this will not help the client master their regression. An alternative is to listen actively, acknowledge the distress, empathize and then even say, “It feels good to be understood.” After that it is time to work actively on a way out of the regression.

If you have never read Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy (Condor Books) by Eric Berne, give yourself a gift and read his wonderful explanations of the child ego state.

Keep us posted on your ideas for managing regression. Use the comment link on this blog. Have a satisfying month challenging yourself and challenging your couples!


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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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.