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See how couples therapy can turn your relationship around

O what a heaven is love! O what a hell!” said the 17th century poet, Thomas Dekker.

Does love ever feel like that to you? Given that 50% of marriages end in divorce, and all sorts of other grim statistics, I guess there’s a good chance that your answer is “Yes.”

But do you know why? Why should love have its dark side – other than to create a large market for romantic movies, paper handkerchiefs and voodoo dolls?

I decided to ask some experts. I’m in a good position to do that since I work with 1,200 couples therapists from around the world. They are no stranger to loving relationships that have turned nasty and taken the unfortunate turn to the dark side. I asked some of these amazing experts to help me write about what goes wrong in love. And more importantly, how to put it back together again when it falls apart.

This article introduces a series which features stories of real couples who have climbed back up the loving ladder to bliss. First let’s look at some of the most common issues couples bring to therapists, and some of the common elements that help couples restore their connection.

To begin, I asked Imago couples therapists about the situations they most often encounter. Their top list included the following issues:

Rebuilding trust after an affair was near the top.

Followed by couples whose new child had introduced tensions, especially when the parents fought over parenting styles.

Finally, were couples whose sex life had become unsatisfying, or who had simply become bored with each other.

Then I had a conversation that changed everything.

“I don’t like looking at it that way” said Imago Couples Therapist, Pam Wood, “I don't work with situations, I work with connection”. Pam told me that using Imago therapy, her primary goal is to help the couple to improve the quality of connection to their partner. Once the connection is rebuilt, couples have the ability to work through pretty much any situation.

Imago Therapy was developed by Dr. Harville Hendrix and his partner Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt. It’s a favorite of Oprah’s, as well as thousands of therapists worldwide. Harville is fond of saying “Conflict is growth trying to happen” because Imago views the current situation a couple is experiencing as a symptom of something deeper. Underneath there’s another story going on that’s all about the couple’s emotional needs. That’s the conversation that will make a real difference.

When I looked at my survey notes again, I noticed that therapists most often found couples were saying “we need help with communication”. It sounds like couples themselves sense that there are things which need to be discussed, but they can’t seem to find a way to get them out into the open. Sometimes sharing things of the heart makes them feel too vulnerable, or creates too much of an angry reaction from their partner. For example, it turns out that it’s relatively common for a therapist to encounter couples who give each other an “F” in sex. That’s not so easy to talk about, without getting your partner quite hurt and defensive.

I talked to 6 different therapists about 6 completely different situations, asking them to map out a five-step process which the couple could use to resolve their problems. The common theme that emerged was that these five steps followed a structure for a meaningful conversation. Often the first step was about recognizing the problem; the next steps were about becoming curious, and looking underneath the surface.

To do this, Imago therapists use a central tool, called the Imago Dialogue. It’s a way to guide a conversation about our feelings that can feel safe enough, so that each partner can share openly. It is also carefully designed to build connection at each step.

Whether it's understanding what to do if you want a baby and your partner doesn’t, or why your step-kids are destroying your marriage, the key solving both, and countless others, is to understand what is going on for your partner. To truly step into their shoes and see the experience and feelings through their eyes and heart. That’s why the Imago dialogue is central to the work of Imago therapists.

That doesn’t mean that all the therapist needs to do is to run through a standard approach in every situation. Each couple is unique, and over the series we will show you how different situations require a different therapeutic approach. For example, when you have just found out your partner is cheating you may not be ready to hear what the emotional circumstances that in their mind led to the affair. But eventually, this is one of the goals. Each article in the series includes an interview with a therapist who will help outline the steps needed to resolve a particular conflict.

I’ll leave you with one question to ponder: If conflict leads to growth, what’ so good about growth anyway? It starts with one core belief: as people we’re simply able to grow grow more complete through our deepest relationships with others, especially our partners. The more complete we are, the more we can get out of life, and the more we are available to love deeply and in a rewarding way. But, often, the road to true connection has major obstructions – often those “elephants in the room” that we’ve always known were there, but never talked about.

Clearing those obstructions, together, can be one of the most intimate experiences you will ever have, leaving the way clear to a wonderful, full relationship.

Just remember this, when you walk in to see an Imago Couples Therapist, and start telling them that there are problems with the in-laws, or you can’t agree about money, the therapist may not be thinking about your problem. Instead they may be saying to themselves “Here’s an opportunity to bring the two of you closer than you have ever been before, and make your relationship more rewarding than you might believe to be possible.”

Next week we’ll address: Second marriages & making them work.

Tim Atkinson is Executive Director of Imago Relationships International

Imago provides couples therapy and couples workshops around the world.

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