Improve your love life with this exclusive excerpt from Harville Hendrix.
REMOVING ALL negativity from our love relationship was the final turning point for Helen and me. When we succeeded, we finally achieved the relationship we had wanted all of our adult lives—a relationship that was safe, intimate, and passionate.
For us, eliminating negativity was a two-stage process. The first stage was a gradual working through of the power struggle. One would think that two therapists would be able to avoid the power struggle altogether, but this was not so. Like many readers of this book, Helen and I had difficult childhoods. We are also intense, highly motivated people, each burdened with a heavy dose of perfectionism. On top of that, we have strong opinions about nearly everything, and we both tend to think that we are “right.” It took us a long time to realize that each of us could be “right” all the time, or we could be in a relationship! During the worst of times, our conflicts were on a par with many of the couples I counseled.
Over a period of many years, we overcame most of our problems by using the exercises in this book. We practiced the Imago Dialogue and used it with some success within our own relationship and with our children. We still marvel at its power to defuse conflict and forge understanding. We became more thoughtful lovers and made frequent expressions of love and gratitude through words, notes, gifts, and thoughtful gestures. Over time, we learned how to work together harmoniously as business partners. We had moments when we felt deep love and empathy for each other. But it was not enough. We still felt a lingering tension between us.
The underlying problem, we eventually discovered, is that we were allowing negativity to rupture the connection between us. It didn’t take much. A critical comment. Impatience. A raised tone of voice. Sometimes, we would degenerate into loud arguments. Whenever we descended into negativity, our pain was acute. Negativity never got us what we wanted. It always made matters worse. When we cooled off, we realized that it would take us hours or even days of repair work to feel connected again. Eventually, it became clear as day that being negative with each other was irrational, abusive, and counter-productive. We agreed that the only solution was to eliminate all forms of negativity once and for all. We decided to go cold turkey.
To enforce our decision, we decided that whoever initiated a negative comment or behavior would have to counter it with three positive statements about the other person. “I appreciate the fact that you were an attentive listener to me last night, even though you were very tired.” “You gave me such great feedback on the letter I was writing to the board members.” “I loved it when you took the time to go for a walk with me, even though you were busy.” Each positive statement had to be unique and specific. We couldn’t repeat what we had said before. A hidden benefit of this rule was that we discovered many wonderful things about each other that we had overlooked when we were upset.
This ”penance” worked in two ways. First, it was a great deterrent. It required a lot of effort to come up with original words of praise for each other each time we slipped, so our lapses became much less frequent. It was too much work to atone for them! Second, our statements of appreciation increased the flow of love between us. Every time Helen told me something she genuinely admired about me, I was deeply moved. Each and every time. She had the same response when I praised her. Our admiration gradually evolved into a state of “chronic adoration”
Finally, we were giving each other the respect we wanted on a continual basis. What’s more—although you may find this difficult to believe—we found it easier and easier to do. Our relationship had become such a sacred place for us that we had no desire to violate it. To slip back into old behaviors became unthinkable.
We felt so blessed by what we had achieved that we had two recommitment ceremonies. One was with our colleagues in the Imago community at our annual conference. We made new vows of commitment that were in keeping with all we had learned. Afterwards, our colleagues lifted us high in the air and paraded us around the room while everyone sang and danced. The New Year’s Eve ceremony was held in the majestic Riverside Church in New York City, where we are members. Our pastor led us through our vows in front of 250 family members and friends. Then we retired to a grand hall on the Hudson River where we ate and danced and were roasted and toasted until midnight. When the fireworks exploded, we felt they were just for us. We included all the celebrants of the New Year as witnesses to our love and our future.