As an Imago therapist, I consider the couple's space a living entity that, if fed, nourished, and protected, will strengthen into what Martin Buber termed the I-Thou, a sacred place where each can meet the other's full being and becoming. I make it a point to bring the couple's attention to this from the outset and ask them to each assume a new level of responsibility for it. I liken it to a diver's air hose. If it gets crimped or ruptured, they both strangle for the needed air of connection. I also say it is like a garden. Left untended, neglected, they can only reap weeds and thorns. If they are raising a child together, I'll remind them that their child is growing up in that space. It's not just a lot of noise, but, given the stakes, is a serious life pact with each other and with me. I'll ask them to uphold several principles, four of which I'll briefly treat in this article.
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I. Intentionality. This is the sine qua non of couples counseling. It is easy to keep lashing out verbally or avoiding, and is done quite mindlessly as part of the universal survival dance. This is what usually has been going on. I cite their initial phone call to me as their first act of consciousness about the relationship. They must now continue to focus on and to build what John and Julie Gottman call Positive Sentiment Override. That's our target. It starts with eliminating all disrespect, violence, contempt, criticism, threats, manipulation, avoidance, or neglect. I talk about how our brains, when threatened, are structured to pay more attention to the negative. When couples start to misfire and the disconnect sets in, the space in between them actually feels unsafe or even uninhabitable. Less and less accurate contact happens. The primitive part of mind focuses on this, filling in the gaps with the negative. A negative narrative about the other is gradually created and maintained, and it functions in a way similar to propaganda-- it starts to demonize the other while blinding each partner to their own destructive influence. I emphasize this is not willful, but a completely automatic brain-based process. To make the case, I mention the United States did this with the USSR for 30 years, and we called it the Cold War. Both sides had an intense focus on the other and filled the widening gaps in their relationship with terrible meanings and threatening gestures. During the Cuban Missile Crisis this dynamic nearly brought us to the brink of nuclear annihilation. It continued until leaders on both sides in the 1980's intentionally turned it around. To become consistently conscious and intentional is a tall order for partners who are hurting, but it has to be done.