SAM AND AMELIA
It wasn’t long before Helen and I were integrating all we had learned about negativity into our therapyour therapy sessions and workshops. We have been pleased to discover how rapidly some couples can weed out negativity, even those who have been in great distress. Helen and I witnessed an amazing and rapid transformation at a recent week-long Imago workshop. Sam and Amelia’s story is a poignant illustration of the healing power of “owning” and then withdrawing the negativity that you bring to a love relationship.
Sam and Amelia stood out from the other couples from the very first day. During group sessions all the couples sat side-by-side in a semi-circle. Most of them talked easily with each other during the breaks. Several couples who were there to enrich, not salvage, their relationships give each other affectionate looks and touches on a regular basis. But not Sam and Amelia.
They talked to each other only when taking part in an exercise. They kept their chairs more than a foot apart, preventing even casual contact. Whenever I looked at them, I saw that Amelia’s face and body were heavy with grief. Sam had a blank look on his face, and he seemed withered and wan. The two of them came to the dining room at different times or sat down at separate tables. They seemed to be a couple barreling toward divorce.
On the third day of the workshop, however, after Helen had spent some time working with them, Amelia had a profound breakthrough. She and Sam were working on an exercise designed to help them identify their exits—the tactics they used to distance themselves from one another. At one point, Amelia put down her notebook, walked over to Helen and asked her a question. “Is criticism an exit?” she asked in a quiet voice. “Is it possible to exit a relationship by constantly criticizing your partner?” She replied that criticism was a tried and true exit and that intimacy was not possible when two people were under attack. Amelia nodded and went back to her chair.
When the exercise was completed, it was time for a break. We asked the couples to spend 30 minutes of their break time talking with each other about their exits. To keep the experience positive, we asked them to share the information using the Imago Dialogue.
The group reassembled in the early afternoon, and Helen asked if anyone wanted to talk about what they had learned. Amelia was the first to raise her hand.
“I feel utterly devastated,” she whispered, her voice low and tremulous. The other couples leaned closer so they could hear. “I’m at a total loss. I’ve just realized that I criticize Sam all the time. I’ve been in therapy before, several times, and we’ve been to two marital therapists, but I’ve never seen this about myself. I feel so horrible about what I’ve done to this relationship. And I have no idea where to go with it. I don’t know what to do. If I take away the criticism, there’s nothing left. I’d have nothing to say to him. I feel like I’ve just stepped off a ledge and I don’t know how long I’m going to fall or where I’m going to land.” We were all transfixed. People rarely make such a candid confession in front of others.
We asked Amelia and Sam if they were willing to come up to the front and continue their story. They both nodded. We took two chairs and turned them so they were facing each other. As Amelia and Sam sat down in the chairs, Amelia drew in a deep, ragged breath. Sam reached out and took her hands, and they looked directly into each other’s eyes. All exits were closed.
I knelt down so that I was at their eye level. “Would you be willing to talk about what it feels like to be in your relationship?”
Amelia began. “My criticisms aren’t subtle,” she said. “They are overt. Right in your face. If Sam does anything that threatens me, I won’t let him get away with it. If he does something I don’t like, like flirting with a woman at a party, I give him the third degree on the way home. I tell him exactly what I saw him do. And he will say, ‘No I didn’t do that.’ I’ll tell him, ‘For an hour, this is exactly what you did. You looked at her this way. You said this. You touched her there.’ The blaming has been so intense, and I was 100 percent sure I was right. I thought that if I could just beat him into believing how bad he was, he would change. I did that for 20 years. More, maybe.”
“Did it work?” I asked.
“No. Never!” she laughed at the absurdity.
Sam took his turn. “We almost didn’t come to this workshop because we were going to get a divorce, anyway. During most of the first day, I was mentally planning where I was going to live. I wasn’t even thinking about resolving anything. I couldn’t listen to what you and Helen were saying. There was nothing I had to learn. Nothing I had to resolve. I just kept thinking. ‘What am I doing here with this person? I have to get away.’”
I asked Sam how he defended himself against Amelia’s criticism. Amelia jumped in and answered for him.
“Sam didn’t counter-blame,” she said. “He’d just retreat. He’d disappear emotionally or go to another room. And I chased him so I could blame him some more.”
Amelia continued with the same remarkable candor. “During these last two days, I have had no place to go but to accept the fact that I am a blamer. To deny it, I would have felt even more pain than I was in already. It was the bottom. I was so overwhelmed by my insight into myself, I couldn’t listen to anyone. I couldn’t talk. I realized, ‘This is what I do. I blame all the time. I try to control everything. I want to keep Sam in a little box so that I can know what he’s doing. I want to keep him in box so that I can try to survive over here.’ But all of a sudden, this afternoon, I realized I couldn’t control him or blame him anymore. I have to stop. I have no choice. Now that my eyes are opened, I have to stop the constant criticism. It’s insane. Criticism doesn’t work. It gives you the opposite of what you want. It makes you feel very bad.”
Later that day and the next, Amelia and Sam sought out Helen for more private counseling and support. During breaks, the two of them would sit off by themselves, talking intently, looking dazed and earnest. Their body language was the opposite of what it had been when they came. They leaned toward each other, looked into each other’s eyes, and touched each other constantly. The connection between them was palpable.
On Friday, the final day of the workshop, Amelia asked if she and Sam could talk to the group once again. Something remarkable had happened to them the night before that they wanted to share. They came up to the front of the semi-circle holding hands.
Sam began, “We haven’t slept in the same bed for years. We didn’t want to be that close to each other. So, last night, I was lying in my bed unable to sleep, and Amelia was over in her bed. I could hear her sighing.”
Amelia said. “I was wide awake, and I was having negative thoughts about Sam. I tried to stop them, but I couldn’t. Suddenly, I knew that if I stayed in my own bed and remained in my critical state of mind that that was going to be the end of our marriage. There would be no hope for us if I didn’t act on what I was learning. I knew I should go over and talk with him. But I was frightened, if I broke out of our mold, everything would be different. I had no idea what was going to happen.
"Then I heard Harville and Helen say in my mind, ‘Just keep on pedaling. Keep on working the exercises.’ So I got up and lay down next to Sam, and said that I wanted to have a dialogue with him. He agreed. I began telling him what I was thinking and feeling. He was present. He listened to me. He supported what I was saying. He mirrored me back. He validated me. He was absolutely incredible. The next thing I knew, all my fear had turned into peace and calm, and I felt this amazing love for him. I’ve treated him so badly, yet he still was willing to listen to me and understand me."
“It was easy for me to do,” Sam said. “I just followed the steps of the dialogue exercise. Because I knew how to respond to her, what would work, I felt much more self-confident. I could handle her. I didn’t need to retreat or run away. I could just hold her in my mind and see her as a wounded child.”
“This was my very first glimpse of real power in this relationship,” said Amelia. “The REAL way to be safe. Before, I thought that safety depended on being on guard. I found that being honest and vulnerable in front of him—instead of being critical and controlling—was the only way to connect. For the first time in decades, we both feel safe enough to reach out to each other. We found the bridge to connection.”
In just one week’s time, Sam and Amelia had gathered most of the insights and skills they needed to transform their relationship. They have a great deal of work ahead of them, and they’ve wisely decided to continue the work with a therapist. But in my mind, they’ve made the most important transformation already. They’ve realized on a gut level that their reliance on the complementary defenses of criticism and avoidance was destroying their love for each other. Once Amelia found the courage to acknowledge the extent of her negativity, Sam was able to open his arms, forgive her, and comfort her. For the first time, Amelia felt safe enough to lay down her weapons.