Tim Atkinson interviews Wendy Patterson, MSW
Lisa settles into the couch, rests her hand to her stomach, and smiles when she feels a tiny kick. Late afternoon sunlight filters across gleaming tables, and the neat array of family photos, and spotless ornaments.
Minutes later she’s on her feet screaming abuse at Geoff. How could he come home like that, dump his coat onto the chair, grab a beer, and once again put his shoes up on the coffee table! “Calm down honey” he says “it’s my home too! Hire a cleaner, and stop fussing so much.”
Soon enough their infant son is screaming too. Another day has brought yet another fight, and a long night sleeping angry and tearful in separate rooms.
“We love each other” they told Wendy Patterson, MSW “Some days together are heaven. But our fights are hurting our child. Maybe we are just so different that we should divorce?”
Wendy is an Imago Therapist and Clinical Instructor, and she was able to guide Lisa and Geoff through a 5 step process, which helped them talk to each other in a way which brought them much closer together.
Step 1: Decide that this much pain is no longer acceptable
“The sad thing is that couples spend an average of 7 years experiencing this kind of pain before they do something about it” says Wendy “And often by then it’s too late. The damage is done.” Geoff and Lisa could go from blissful happiness to a full blown fight in 60 seconds, and Wendy’s advice to couples is to seek support from someone who can provide a safe environment for talking about what went wrong.
Their critical first step was to acknowledge the problem and seek help.
Step 2: Become aware of the cycle you are going through
At the heart of Imago couples therapy, is a way of talking to each other called the Imago Dialogue. “It’s really about listening carefully to your partner, so that you can learn what is really going on for them” Wendy explains. Using this approach Lisa and Geoff learned to step back from their fights, and see the pattern.
Geoff began to understand that when he wasn’t tidy about the house, Lisa read into this that it was because he didn’t love her or care for her. Lisa learned that Geoff saw her need for tidiness as a lack of love for him or appreciation for his need for a relaxed comfortable environment to chill out in.
Step 3: Own your part of the problem
“Nothing can change until you take responsibility for your part in it” says Wendy. Most couples who argue tend to blame the other partner. “If my partner loved me they wouldn’t do that…” is a phrase she hears only too often.
Using the Imago dialogue, Lisa and Geoff began to shift in the way they saw their contributions. Lisa would describe her frustration, and Wendy would ask Geoff “What do you think it felt like for her?” That invited Geoff to take a moment to see things through Lisa’s eyes. “I understand how important tidiness is to you, and it makes sense that when I come home and dump my clothes on the floor, you feel unloved” Geoff would say as he took responsibility for his part. In saying this, Lisa could hear that he was beginning to really see her, for who she was, and that he was connecting with her feelings. She also took her turn to understand and relate to him, and to take responsibility herself for her contributions.
Step 4: Practice with patience
Wendy coached Geoff and Lisa through some profound dialogues where they learned how to listen deeply to each other. But old habits die hard, and soon they found themselves back home screaming at each other. “But that’s what happens” says Wendy “This work is hard and it takes time. The important thing is to learn how to recover when the wheels fall off.”
Wendy pointed out that in this stage of the process, things can feel worse than ever. That’s because as Geoff and Lisa begin to feel more connected again, when the arguments happen they are even more painful. They also feel like failures, because they know how to dialogue, but haven’t yet mastered how to fall back on it in the heat of the moment.
“It’s like learning anything new” says Wendy “You’ve to practice!”
Step 5: Make it part of your life
The core skill of Imago is the ability to talk with your partner about difficult things in a way that you are emotionally available and connected to them. That can be tough when a fight is starting, so the best approach is to make this an ever present part of who you are. “It happens when you use the new skill for a new purpose, not just in the original situation. For example, when Lisa was upset about her mother, Geoff was able to use the Imago dialogue to listen to her in a way that felt deeply supportive and caring”
“A great relationship isn’t about not having fights” says Wendy “but it’s about building the competence to use those conflicts as a way to connect more deeply.” The couple that fights hardest, has the opportunity to convert all their negative energy into a deeper love.