Improve your love life with this exclusive excerpt from Harville Hendrix.
AN EXERCISE THAT FAILED
IN THE ORIGINAL EDITION OF THIS BOOK, published in 1988, I included an exercise to help couples release their repressed sorrow and anger. I called it “The Full Container Exercise.” It was based on the psychodynamic model of psychology that views the self as a container that is filled with pent-up emotions. According to this school of thought, purging those emotions helps people relieve their anxiety and depression and go on to live more satisfying lives.
I agreed with this theory, so I adapted a new technique for couples. Here’s how it went. First, I asked a couple to sit down in chairs that faced each other. I designated one partner “the sender,” and the other “the receiver.” Then I asked the sender to identify a chronic frustration that was interfering with their relationship: “You’re always late.” “You don’t really listen to me.” “You don’t help with the housework.” “You’re on my case all the time.” “You don’t value what I have to say.” Then, I asked the sender to think about how that frustration might be linked with painful childhood experiences.
Once the connection was made, I encouraged the sender to express that frustration to the partner, amplifying the annoyance until it turned into outright anger. To protect the psyche of the receiver, I asked the receiving partner to create an imaginary shield to deflect the partner’s anger and keep from feeling under attack. “The anger is not just about you,” I would advise. “Its roots are deep in your partner’s childhood.” Once the catharsis was over, I helped the couple deal with the original frustration by using the Stretching Exercise described in the previous chapter.
Years ago, I viewed the Container Exercise as one of the flagship techniques in Imago Therapy. But as time went on, I saw that it produced mixed results. The final portion of the exercise, the Stretching Exercise, always worked. But, sometimes, the emotional catharsis had the opposite effect of the one I intended. Couples would become more conflicted than they were before.
Eventually, I discovered literature from other therapists that confirmed my experience. I stopped using the Container Exercise in workshops and private sessions, and I have removed it from this revised edition of Getting the Love You Want. Having two people in a love relationship vent their anger at each other—even within the confines of a structured exercise and under the watchful eye of a therapist—could cause more harm than good. This was a clear example of reality not fitting the theory.