Regression and its Impact in Couples Therapy

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 blog post 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 merging 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.


1) I’d like to hear from you. Please use the comment link below to keep us posted on your ideas for managing regression.

2) I’ll be presenting more about regression at our series Cracking the Code: Confronting Regression and Healing Trauma in Couples Therapy. It takes place October 2-6, 2023.

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Nice writeup..good take away

Ruth Emerson
Ruth Emerson

Very clear, and helpful. Is there a ‘typo’ in the 5th paragraph: “This results in their easily emerging with a partner . . .”? I wondered if you meant easily merging with partner, and were ‘bitten’ by ‘voice recognition.’

ellyn bader
ellyn bader
Reply to  Ruth Emerson

Thanks Ruth-Yes it is merging. We will fix it. Not voice recognition-just a missed typo.

Ann BurkeLCSWR
Ann BurkeLCSWR

I have a couple that is conflict avoidant as well as symbiotic. Rather than differentiate why they no longer want to do Zoom sessions but will only come in person was a red flag around 1 partner’s need to be seen and is using the demand for change of format couched in a United front rather than think about how the outcome to their marriage would be different with a different format. I just rtn fr a medical leave and I think their regression ( they also want a lower fee) is related to my leave. I am firm about Zoom and feel teletherapy provides a frame that this volitile couple can get grounded in and observe boundaries and recover fr intense affects.I have seen them 2x week for 2 yrs so it is quite a sea change. Thoughts welcome. Tks Ann BurkeLCSWR NYC.

Anjali Joseph
Anjali Joseph

This was a timely read. thanks. I like the suggestion to focus on client desires and opposed to asking the partner for what they want..

Stephanie Hanger
Stephanie Hanger

Very helpful Ellyn. Could you elaborate and offer an example of what it looks like when this occurs…“ Regression also occurs when a spouse distorts the behavior of their partner, and the behavior becomes a transference trigger.” What do you mean by “distorts a behavior that becomes a transference trigger?

Yolerma Rojas de Zubiandi
Yolerma Rojas de Zubiandi

Ellyn. I truly appreciate your advice on how I can avoid putting my foot in my mouth thus contributing to increasing regression. I will keep in mind what I should say :” “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.” Wow!!!

Jane Arthur
Jane Arthur

“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.” This is golden verbiage and supports the client to recognize and own what they want without projecting it onto the other.

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader 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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