Counseling Today, Features

Tapping the inner child to bolster couples counseling

By Scott Gleeson February 4, 2022

Robert Jackman, a licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC) in St. Charles, Illinois, found common couples counseling practices such as the Gottman method and imago relationship therapy to be helpful over the years in his work with clients at his private practice in the Chicago suburbs. But he also discovered that the one-size-fits-all approaches — by themselves — didn’t always get to the root of the problem right away within a given couple’s struggling relationship. That’s why he began to think outside the box. Or rather inside it.

“With almost all of my clients, I was seeing unresolved childhood wounding showing up in their adult relationship,” Jackman says. “I believe that a client understanding his or her own inner child, as well as their partner’s inner child, can help a couple reach past a familiar pattern and go deeper into a state of compassion and respect for one another.”  

Renowned psychologist Carl Jung originated the concept of a divine child archetype, and the term inner child was popularized by Lucia Capacchione and John Bradshaw in the 1980s and 1990s. The term has been used to describe a childlike aspect within a client’s unconscious mind, meant to identify a subpersonality to discover unmet needs and suppressed emotions from childhood. 

“I’ve heard at conferences for a while that this is an old term, as if it’s not really all that resourceful,” says Jackman, a member of the American Counseling Association. “But what I realized, as a psychodynamic therapist, is how much focusing on this concept can help cut through all the noise for a client.” 

Jackman wrote his first book, Healing Your Lost Inner Child, in 2020. He quickly followed it up with his second book, Healing Your Wounded Relationship, this past year because he found inner child work to fittingly parlay into couples therapy. “Couples come into therapy wanting hope,” Jackman says. “Understanding why they act the way they do, as well as the behaviors of their partner, can help restore a lot of that hope.”

Sara Schwarzbaum, an LCPC and founder of Couples Counseling Associates in downtown Chicago, likewise believes that conceptualizing the inner child can bolster therapeutic progress and help clinicians better understand disruptive patterns. 

“Within every couple lies their parents. The adult relationship is essentially a psychological regression because it reminds people of the emotional dependence they had as children,” explains Schwarzbaum, an ACA member. “When a couple comes in, one of my jobs is to identify their interactional pattern, which is based on ways in which they became organized growing up. Their defense or coping mechanism will often present as their inner child — where they’re trying to get those unmet needs through their partner. Understanding who they were as a child and what they needed from their parents gets right to the heart of the conflict.” 

A direct avenue to vulnerability

Thais Gibson, a certified counselor in Montreal and founder of the Personal Development School, specializes in attachment-based trauma. She says a couple are often drawn to each other in the first place because of a subconscious pull to heal wounds from childhood through their partner — hence creating an inner child bond. 

“The subconscious can rule so much within ourselves,” Gibson says. “The inner child can be an intuitive relationship with yourself that’s really a collection of subconscious wounds. Whatever we didn’t heal at age 5 or age 8 will show up in our 20s and 30s.

“The therapist will often play the role of helping to unpack those retriggered wounds with the person they’re usually most vulnerable with in the world — their partner.”

Reaching that place of vulnerability alongside a couple doesn’t happen overnight, so building awareness of the inner child through psychoeducation can be a helpful method for clinicians to parachute into the fray and spark healthy dialogue, Schwarzbaum says. “I firmly believe that vulnerable expression of feelings is essential for couples work. Unless you get there or a client gets there, you’re not going to make much progress,” she says.

The first step in building necessary trust quickly with a couple is getting to that place of vulnerability as a clinician. Jackman says understanding his own inner child and bringing that version of himself to life was fundamental to his incorporating the concept with clients. As he points out, it isn’t unusual to have six personalities in the therapy room: himself and his inner child, and a couple and their inner children. 

“We’re trying to create a safe container for clients, so we have to show that we have one for ourselves,” Jackman says. “That might seem [cluttered], but as a therapist, that immediately deepens the approach and can be easily folded into other models.” 

The next step is helping clients build awareness of their inner child on an individual level. Gibson first pushes to help her clients one-on-one in “reparenting their subconscious (inner child) with their conscious mind” based on the premise that healthy self-love can foster external love.  

“We’re drawn to people with patterns we’re still carrying,” she says. “If we’re drawn to a dismissive avoidant partner, we might be used to dismissing our own needs. Sometimes, we have to face our shadow to tell a different story than the one that we’re used to of being unworthy or unlovable.”

Alexandra Katehakis, a Los Angeles-based marriage and family therapist and clinical director for Center for Healthy Sex, says the term “inner child” can often pinpoint those hidden self-loathing patterns. “When we ask clients about that, it actually reveals what their relationship with self-compassion is,” Katehakis says. “Are they disgusted at the notion of picking up the inner child and soothing them? That gives us information. Can we be kind to ourselves? So often we’re hurting ourselves, yet we don’t want to hurt ourselves. Then we’re hurting our partner.” 

Schwarzbaum notes that the individual self-discovery aspect doesn’t always have to take place only in individual therapy; it can also coincide with couples work. “A dirty little secret to couples therapy is that it’s actually individual therapy in the presence of the partner,” she says.  

Gibson agrees. Although she focuses largely on self-growth and individual work in her daily video series for the Personal Development School, she says clients often cannot understand their unhealed wounds or relational patterns without first experiencing conflict in the context of a relationship. In that sense, the inner child bond can often work as a double-edged sword in a relationship because clients can either heal through each other or trigger each other into separation. 

“That’s why communication is so important, because otherwise, trauma bonds can take over,” Gibson says. “Helping clients to understand and really know their inner child can be helpful because it creates an avenue to be more vulnerable with oneself and a partner. That makes it easier to say, ‘I feel afraid when you’re pulling away’ or ‘I feel smothered when you get too close.’ We can be our most vulnerable self with our partner, and it can be cathartic to share, to communicate our needs.” 

Katehakis believes “deep, vulnerable and empathic communication” is a goal that can be obtained through the vessel of childlike connection. She often encourages her clients to tap in to this reservoir of connectivity with their partner. 

“I think we’re doing inner child work with clients whether we call it that or not,” Katehakis says. “Clients already have a relationship with their inner child too. It’s just bringing it into awareness. When we say, ‘I want a pint of chocolate ice cream’ after a breakup, we’re giving the 5-year-old version what she wants because she’s sad.” 

Helping clients buy in right away

Schwarzbaum believes that theories and models — while necessary and resourceful — can often lead to rigidity or slower progress if leaned on too heavily. That, in turn, can offset the much-needed therapeutic alliance to win over each client in the first several sessions of couples counseling. 

“That bond and emotional safety with a client need to trump the framework,” Schwarzbaum says. “Being too married to a theory can lead to a scenario where you’re not personalizing the treatment process. 

“Couples become more stabilized if they believe you’re on both sides simultaneously. An alliance in couples therapy means that each of them believes I’m on their side and in agreement with them about what’s wrong and how to fix it. That’s where family of origin comes in.”

Many couples counseling outlooks that appeal to clients, such as The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman, will address present-day desires and needs. And with clients wanting quick forms of relief, the idea of diving into the past can have a slowed-down connotation. Yet Jackman says that immediately addressing the “internal source” can lead to quick progress by offsetting emotional flooding and naturally personalizing the treatment. 

“I’ll often ask a client how old they are when they’re screaming at their partner,” Jackman says. “They’ll usually say a teenager, and that serves as a big clue. If a client comes and says, ‘I have anger issues,’ I immediately tell them that anger is necessary, but we need to understand it. And that it might be their inner child saying, ‘We need to stay angry so we don’t get hurt.’ So, it’s a way to respect how they’ve learned to protect themselves. To say, ‘I see you.’ It can totally disarm a client’s defensiveness because they can think, ‘Somebody finally gets it.’ It’s also a way of meeting them exactly where they’re at.” 

Schwarzbaum agrees that unearthing the genesis of relational patterns and conflicts can foster essential buy-in quickly. As such, she’ll often ask a couple to write letters to their parents early on.

“I’ll tell clients the only way we can know why is to trace the family-of-origin pattern,” she says. “I won’t immediately ask a client about their mother because they’ll say, ‘That’s not why I’m here.’ But I’ll tell them why they’re doing what they’re doing. The more client A pursues, the more client B withdraws, for instance. Maybe client A wants respect because he didn’t get attention growing up with many siblings. And maybe client B learned to self-rely because they hid under the table and covered their ears during fights and conflicts growing up.” 

Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock.com

Jackman says the delivery of information to clients can be key, especially early on. “It’s important clients’ patterns of what they’re doing are delivered with deep empathy because it’s not like one person is saying, ‘I have low self-esteem and you’re an abuser — let’s get together.’ They’re not doing it consciously, and it’s the underlying wounding driving them. Then they’re getting in the same arguments over and over, dropping those arguments like a hot potato, and returning to the same cycle.”

Jackman often uses the term synergistic wounding with couples to deter one partner from pointing the finger at the other. “It’s helpful that we all have a shared language, and by knowing that childhood wounding is getting triggered, they become less [adversarial], and it becomes a very open-hearted connection because they can see that tender part of the other.” 

Jackman created nine synergistically wounded archetypes in Healing Your Wounded Relationship to help couples quickly feel understanding from patterns with which they identify. The archetypes are the Wounded Hero and the Rescued Victim, the Blame-Shame Game, the Scorekeeper, the Mindreader and the Accused, the Fabulist and the Enabler, the Bickersons, the Oversharer, the Bad Boy and the Good Girl, and the Tug-of-War Controller. 

“Even though we are each unique and special, these patterns and themes are repeated universally,” Jackman writes in his book. “I define codependency as having a higher regard, esteem, love, trust and respect for someone else than one has for oneself. … Once this heavy curtain is pulled back, we begin to know more about ourselves and others.” 

Schwarzbaum says identifying patterns of both the self and a partner is fundamental. In a first session, she’ll ask clients separately, “What are their complaints about you?” That, in turn, increases the couple’s self-awareness to the impact of their behavior and creates a space to explore not just their own past but that of their partner’s. 

“Feeling unprotected, alone, attacked, not cared for, unloved — these are all inner child feelings and triggers,” she says. “It’s important a partner knows what they bring up for the other person and not just [for] themselves because they could easily build a long list of what their partner brings up for them.”

Penetrating shame walls 

What about sex? On the surface, a focus on the inner child wouldn’t seem to apply directly to a couple’s sex life. But Katehakis, a sex therapy specialist, says a breakdown in childlike bonding can be a determining factor in a couple’s sex life suffering. On the flip side, playful and childlike connecting can be a linchpin for emotionally available sexual connection. 

“In a relationship, we’re actually safe enough to hate each other,” says Katehakis, who authored a clinical workbook, due on bookshelves in 2022, titled What Turns You On. “So, we say things that trigger and bring up all the family-of-origin strategies for functioning. If the family fought dirty growing up, then that partner will fight dirty. If a family didn’t talk about feelings, then that partner might be too afraid to be vulnerable.

“Childlike connection is a crucial form of intimacy. We don’t see images in movies of couples being childlike together, tickling and cuddling. It’s too vulnerable in a way. But performative behaviors don’t define sex and fail to represent the actual tenderness of a sexual encounter.”

Schwarzbaum says partners will often trigger a negative view of the other through shame. “What people do with the shame determines the quality of intimate relationships,” she says. “Most people want their self-esteem to be enhanced through their partner, not the opposite.”

Katehakis concurs that shame can work as a massive barrier in a couple’s connection, which is why dialing a couple back to see themselves in childlike form can be a salve to that shame. “If we have a partner who sees us in that cherishing and amazed view of a child, we can tolerate or lean into some of the smaller frustrations,” she says. “Seeing ourselves at our most vulnerable state can help build the capacity for loving ourselves through another. Then we can start seeing ourselves as handsome and beautiful instead of throwing each other under the bus.” 

Gibson says that type of approach can get a couple back to a healthier time in their relationship, including the beginning phase. She has noticed that couples sometimes start criticizing each other shortly after the honeymoon stage, when the euphoria of infatuation and childlike connection fades and helplessness and powerlessness begin to surface. One of the biggest hurdles in working with a couple can involve peeling back the protective front they have built in the interim. 

“Most of the time growing up, our parents would always win, and we’d always lose,” Gibson says. “So, a relationship becomes an opportunity to change that. That’s how our partners become our enemies on accident. In response, we’re often protecting or building those invisible walls. Wherever we have wounding and imprints, we might’ve formed a shell and then hardened it. … But we’re not healing and growing if we’re hiding or even too focused on being seen.”

Jackman says he’s commonly convincing clients to focus less on the battle of “winning” and more on the war of “loving.” The notion of a client’s inner child being drawn to another’s inner child to mirror their own wounded parts might seem counterintuitive. But as Jackman explains, it’s also true that clients who come to couples therapy are there for a more important reason: They see and feel something in their partner that can be different and healing. 

“Achieving that means seeing the inner child,” Jackman says. “And both partners have to believe the cycle can stop. Then that hidden agenda [of healing] they both have carried not just in their relationship, but since childhood, can become unhidden and come to fruition.”

 

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Scott Gleeson is a licensed professional counselor for DG Counseling in the Chicago suburbs, specializing in trauma and relational dynamics. He spent more than a decade writing for USA Today, where he won national writing awards from the Associated Press and NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists. His debut contemporary novel, The Walls of Color, will be published in 2023.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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