Getting The Love You Want

Getting the Love You Want

Harville Hendrix, Ph. D., a Clinical Pastoral Counselor who is known internationally for his work with couples, and his wife Helen LaKelly Hunt, Ph.D. co-created Imago (Latin for "image") Relationship Therapy and developed the concept of “conscious partnership” based on nurturing intimate relationships and parenting. The first of their several books, Getting the Love You Want, was originally published in 1988 and has helped millions of couples attain more loving, supportive and deeply satisfying relationships. Imago is effective as a way to create stronger relationships, because it helps us become more aware of the way that we are all deeply interconnected. It offers insights into the unconscious agenda we bring to our relationships, encouraging us to grow together in a creative, non-controlling, and healing way. Hendrix's Getting the Love You Want has gained international acclaim, and even grabbed Oprah's attention (she's said to have employed the Imago theory to revitalize her own relationships).

For more info check out Harville Hendrix's personal site or the Imago website for Getting The Love You Want. Below, YourTango provides an exclusive excerpt from the book.

Chapter 11: CREATING A SACRED SPACE

Before you speak, ask yourself: Is it necessary? Is it true? Does it improve on the silence? —Shirdi Sai Baba

Throughout this book, I have been talking about the vital role that safety plays in creating lasting love. Two people cannot be passionate friends unless they feel safe in each other’s company. Couples need to feel physically safe, to be sure, but they also need to feel emotionally safe. Without safety, they cannot say what’s on their minds, express their full range of feelings, or be who they really are. They cannot lay down their armor and connect, even if they wanted to. People are built that way. Danger activates our defenses.

During my early work, I designed four exercises to help couples create a climate of safety. I discussed them in earlier chapters. To refresh your memory, the exercises are: 1) closing down the exits that prevent intimacy, 2) returning to the caring behaviors of romantic love, 3) using the Imago Dialogue to deepen understanding and compassion, and 4) defusing anger and frustration by transforming criticisms into respectful requests. These exercises help couples develop trust and goodwill and experience more joy in their daily lives. In addition to developing these basic exercises, Helen and I also spent many years searching for ways to help couples manage their intense feelings of anger and rage, those outbursts that are typically fueled by childhood pain and disappointment. When people spew this archaic anger onto their partners, the relationship can become a war zone. But when they repress their anger, they can also jeopardize the relationship. When people deny this critical part of their being, they dampen their enthusiasm for life and their capacity to love. To make the relationship a safe haven, couples need to find a way to manage their anger that brings them closer together and sustains a feeling of connection.

MY STORY

I know, first hand, the destructive power of repressed feelings. I endured subclinical depression for the first 33 years of my life, and my emotional numbness was one of the main reasons for the failure of my first marriage. I was depressed because I was not in touch with my sorrow and anger over the death of my parents.

When I look back, it is astonishing to me that I could lose both of my parents by the age of six and not experience any emotional pain. My father died when I was eighteen months old, and I have no memory of that event. My mother died from a sudden stroke five years later. I am told that I showed little reaction. I didn’t even cry. I remember my adult siblings taking me aside and praising me for being such a “brave boy.” Operating out of my childhood logic, I converted their compliment into a blanket assumption: “I am loved when I deny my pain.”

I learned the lesson well. In young adulthood, I was able to look back on my early life and tell myself I was fortunate that both my parents had died. It gave me the opportunity to leave the farm and live in town with my sisters, where I got a better education. This myth had its uses. I went through my early years numb to the pain of abandonment. I pictured myself as a “lucky” person, not a poor orphan boy, and I wasted little time bemoaning my fate. I took on challenges well beyond my years and succeeded at most of them. I was on my way.

But, years later, my repressed sorrow wreaked havoc in my first marriage. Cut off from my pain, I was not fully alive. To survive, I had anesthetized an essential part of my being. Unconsciously, I looked to my wife for what I was missing. I hungered for emotional and physical contact, but she was unable to give me enough—partly because of deficiencies in her own childhood and partly because she experienced me as withholding, cold, demanding, and needy. It was a vicious cycle. The more I wanted, the more she withheld.

One of the most telling moments in our relationship took place the day after her father died. We were alone in our bedroom, and her grief over his death was just hitting her. She cried and cried. I circled my arms around her, but my body was stiff and unyielding. There was no warmth in my embrace. Inside, I felt deeply conflicted. Intellectually, I knew that it was reasonable for her to cry over her father’s death, and I wanted to comfort her. But a larger part of me was cold and unsympathetic. It was thinking,“What’s the problem? I lost both of my parents when I was a little boy, and I didn’t cry. Why is she so emotional?” Lessons learned early in life persist.

A few years later, when I was thirty-three, I saw a therapist for the first time—not because I thought I needed any help but because personal therapy was a recommended part of my training. In one of the first sessions, the therapist asked me to tell him about my parents. I told him that they had both died when I was very young, but that a lot of good luck had come my way as a result. Because they both died, I got to live with my sisters, get out of South Georgia, get a better education, and so on and so on.

“Tell me about your mother’s death,” he said to me, cutting short my highly edited autobiography.

I started to tell him how she died, but for some reason my throat felt constricted.

“Tell me about her funeral,” he said.

Once again I tried to talk. Once again, my throat seized up. Then, to my great astonishment, I burst into tears. I began to sob. There was no stopping me. I was an adult man, and there I was sobbing like a six-year-old boy. After a few minutes, my therapist looked at me kindly and said, “Harville, you are just beginning to grieve over your mother’s death.”

After that momentous day, I began to feel my own pain and anger—not just from the past, but from the present as well. I became less anxious. I had more compassion for other people. If my needs or wishes were disregarded, I experienced the normal feelings of sadness or anger—but not rage or depression. Because I was being reunited with my full range of feelings, I was beginning to feel fully alive. I was more in touch with who I was and where I had been, and I became open to the rhythm of my own heart.

AN EXERCISE THAT FAILED

IN THE ORIGINAL EDITION OF THIS BOOK, published in 1988, I included an exercise to help couples release their repressed sorrow and anger. I called it “The Full Container Exercise.” It was based on the psychodynamic model of psychology that views the self as a container that is filled with pent-up emotions. According to this school of thought, purging those emotions helps people relieve their anxiety and depression and go on to live more satisfying lives.

I agreed with this theory, so I adapted a new technique for couples. Here’s how it went. First, I asked a couple to sit down in chairs that faced each other. I designated one partner “the sender,” and the other “the receiver.” Then I asked the sender to identify a chronic frustration that was interfering with their relationship: “You’re always late.” “You don’t really listen to me.” “You don’t help with the housework.” “You’re on my case all the time.” “You don’t value what I have to say.” Then, I asked the sender to think about how that frustration might be linked with painful childhood experiences.

Once the connection was made, I encouraged the sender to express that frustration to the partner, amplifying the annoyance until it turned into outright anger. To protect the psyche of the receiver, I asked the receiving partner to create an imaginary shield to deflect the partner’s anger and keep from feeling under attack. “The anger is not just about you,” I would advise. “Its roots are deep in your partner’s childhood.” Once the catharsis was over, I helped the couple deal with the original frustration by using the Stretching Exercise described in the previous chapter.

Years ago, I viewed the Container Exercise as one of the flagship techniques in Imago Therapy. But as time went on, I saw that it produced mixed results. The final portion of the exercise, the Stretching Exercise, always worked. But, sometimes, the emotional catharsis had the opposite effect of the one I intended. Couples would become more conflicted than they were before.

Eventually, I discovered literature from other therapists that confirmed my experience. I stopped using the Container Exercise in workshops and private sessions, and I have removed it from this revised edition of Getting the Love You Want. Having two people in a love relationship vent their anger at each other—even within the confines of a structured exercise and under the watchful eye of a therapist—could cause more harm than good. This was a clear example of reality not fitting the theory.

WHY ANGER BREEDS ANGER

What was wrong with the exercise? First of all, some partners on the receiving end of the anger still felt threatened by the outburst, no matter how much they tried to deflect the torrent. Their old brains didn’t know that the partner’s anger was part of a clinical exercise. When the receiving partners felt threatened, they had a hard time feeling empathic. They might mirror their partner’s experience and mouth the right words—“I’m sorry you’re in so much pain.” But their primal instinct was to batten down the hatches or abandon ship.

There was another, more puzzling problem with the exercise. After the exercise, the partner who had vented the anger could feel angrier than usual in coming days. The exercise that had been designed to release stored up anger could generate it as well.
I began to understand why when Helen began reading books about neuroscience. She was fascinated by the information, partly because it shed new light on relationship dynamics. She learned that the adult brain is far more adaptable than first thought. I was intrigued and began reading the literature myself.

Scientists have known for decades that a young person’s brain is greatly influenced by experience. If nerve connections are not stimulated, they are “pruned” away. When a child has new experiences, however, new pathways are formed. This plasticity gives the child a highly efficient, adaptable brain, ready for all that life has to offer.

Scientists believed that the adult brain was hardwired, thus immune to experience. The only way the brain changed, according to early thinking, was to lose neurons with advancing age. This bleak view of the adult brain has now been revised, thanks to sophisticated imaging devices that can show physical changes in brain activity. These images have made it very clear that what adults do, think, and even feel alters the physical structure of their brains. Although the adult brain is not as adaptable as a child’s brain, it remains a highly responsive organ.

Here are a few examples. A number of studies have shown that the more time adults engage in a particular activity, the more nerve cells are marshaled to the task. The brain acts like a military commander summoning new troops as they are needed.

In one study, Harvard medical researchers instructed a group of volunteers to practice a simple piano exercise for two hours a day for a week. After each practice session, the neuroscientists took images of the volunteers’ brains so they could measure the size of the area devoted to finger activity. By the fifth day, they observed a significant increase in the size and activity of that area. Apparently, one of the reasons that “practice makes perfect” is that repeating an activity commandeers more neurons to the job.

Remarkably, researchers discovered that the same brain expansion takes place when people merely imagine doing a specific activity. As an extension of the piano experiment, the Harvard team asked another group of volunteers to imagine they were playing a simple piece of music. They had no pianos in front of them. In fact, they were asked to keep their hands and fingers perfectly still. When the volunteers were scanned at the end of a week, the scientists were amazed to see that the virtual piano players had the same expanded neural pathways as the people who actually played the piano. They had discovered that mental training and imagery can literally rewire the brain.

For the purposes of my work with couples, I was keenly interested in the fact that changing your thoughts can change your brain. In a type of therapy called Behavior Change Therapy or BCT, people are trained how to use their rational minds to challenge thoughts and beliefs that can trigger depression.

As an example, a person might generate this irrational train of thought: “I’ve made a number of calls to family and friends, and only one person has called back. Nobody loves me anymore.” Taken to its illogical extreme, it becomes “Because no one loves me, I’m going to be abandoned and die.” The emotional part of the brain reacts to this depressing thought as though it were real, and the person feels rejected, lonely, and scared.

When people see the absurdity of this type of catastrophic thinking, they can begin to think more rationally. “So, people are not returning my calls. That doesn’t mean that they don’t love me. They may be busy or out of town.” Removing the doomsday thinking can prevent the depressive feelings.

Research now shows that CBT can relieve depression just as well as antidepressant medications. Brain scans help explain why. When people use their rational minds to defeat depression, the part of the brain that is linked with rumination and obsessive thinking calms down. On a computerized image, that area appears darker, indicating that less oxygen is being consumed. This calm state extends beyond the mental exercise. People trained in CBT can go through life with a less reactive brain, no longer triggering depressive or anxious thoughts. Once again, thinking alone has been shown to alter the physiology of the brain. Mind over gray matter.

THE HOLDING EXERCISE

TAKEN TOGETHER, these new findings about the changeable adult brain, coupled with my own observations about couples and similar observations of other Imago Therapists, have changed Imago Therapy. First of all, my colleagues and I no longer encourage couples to direct their archaic rage at each other. The new research shows that dwelling on anger has the potential to enhance anger, not defuse it.

I used to think that venting anger was like blowing the foam off a glass of beer: A few puffs, and you’re done with it. Instead, it’s like blowing on a fire—the more you blow, the hotter the flame. On a physiological level, expressing anger on a regular basis enlarges the part of the brain devoted to negative emotions. What you do is what you get. With so much cerebral real estate devoted to anger, an angry response can become a conditioned response.

Another fact about the brain is that the unconscious mind experiences all anger as dangerous to the self. It cannot determine whether the anger is directed at itself or someone else. Indeed, new studies in the neurosciences of a phenomenon called “mirror neurons” tell us that when neurons fire in someone else’s brain, identical neurons fire in our own brain. When others are angry, we become angry. In other words, what you see is what you feel.

So now, we encourage couples to share other emotions they experienced in childhood, such as grief, fear, and sadness. These less volatile emotions underlie the anger, and we have found that expressing them to a receptive partner helps relieve the hostility without reinforcing it.

When couples share their childhood wounds with each other, they deepen their understanding of each other’s past. They also experience renewed empathy for each other’s suffering. Ultimately, they begin to see each other as “wounded” people, not “bad” people. Through this more accurate lens, they can see that most of their conflicts come from pain that originated in childhood, not from any intention to hurt each other.

One of the exercises we use to facilitate the sharing of childhood experiences is called the Holding Exercise. Unlike the container exercise, this exercise helps relieve repressed feelings without generating more negative emotions.

I got the idea for the specific form of the exercise while going for a walk. I found myself looking into the window of a bookstore—a predictable habit for me. In the window I saw a parenting book with the word “holding” in the title. The cover drawing showed a woman holding a child on her lap with the child’s face on the left side of her chest, over her heart. Many mothers instinctively hold their babies in this position. It appears to be a great source of comfort for babies, perhaps because hearing the mother’s heart and being held close to her body is reminiscent of being inside the womb.

As I studied the drawing, I began to imagine couples holding each other in this fashion and talking about early childhood experiences. My intuition was that this primal holding position would elicit a flood of emotions.

When I went home to share this idea with Helen, she reminded of her earlier work with a “reparenting” model of therapy in which the therapist holds and comforts a client—essentially reparenting them. Using her insights, we developed a similar holding exercise. But instead of having the therapist hold the client, we asked the partners to hold each other. We wanted the bonding experience to take place between the partners rather than with us. We asked one partner to sit in a comfortable position and hold the other partner with his or her head across the heart. From this position, they would recall painful childhood experiences while the holding partner gently and warmly mirrored their comments.

We decided to experiment with it at the next couple’s workshop. An older couple, John and Vivian, volunteered to be the first guinea pigs. I instructed John to sit against a wall and then hold Vivian in his arms as though she were a young child. I positioned her head next to his heart. Then I asked John to ask his partner to recall memories from childhood. To facilitate the flow of memories, I suggested that he make encouraging sounds and mirror back to her what she was saying. When she was through expressing a thought of feeling, he might ask, “Is there more?”

After momentary embarrassment, John and Vivian began following my instructions. Vivian talked in a very quiet voice, keeping most of what she had to say between the two of them. John bent over her, listening intently. Their murmured expressions went on for five or more minutes. Then, suddenly, Vivian began to sob. John held her more tightly and began to rock her. Tears filled his eyes as well.

The experience was very powerful for the couple. John’s compassion for Vivian’s pain was evident to everyone in the room. Later in the session, I had them switch roles, with Vivian, and John was able to experience what it is like to feel safe and nurtured as he told his own story. When the two of them talked about their experience in front of the group, they said that they had learned a lot about each other’s inner world and felt deep empathy for each other. Like many couples, they discovered that they had endured many of the same insults in childhood, but had adapted to them in different ways. The unconscious agenda that each brought into the marriage was beginning to be revealed, and their wounds were healing in the process.

When couples take part in the Holding Exercise, they get the response they have been longing for all their lives. Their old brains perceive their partners as surrogate parents. Only this time around, their parents have become attuned parents: accepting, nurturing, calm, attentive, and non-judgmental. Pain from the past can be healed in the present when you receive attention and empathy from a loving partner.

REMOVING ALL NEGATIVITY

Once we removed the Container Exercise from Imago Therapy and added the Holding Exercise, couples began to make more rapid progress. Their conflicts became more muted and their mutual admiration grew. But there was yet more ground to gain. We discovered that couples had an even more joyful relationship when they abolished all forms of negativity.

This involved getting rid of blatant forms such as anger, shame, and criticism, but also eliminating more subtle forms as well, including such well-known ploys as “helpful” criticism, inattention, condescension, “the silent treatment,” and using a bored or weary tone of voice. Ideally, this ban would extend all the way to negative thoughts. We all have an internal radar that detects any signal—spoken or unspoken—that tells us that it is not ok to be ourselves, to be “different.” to do what we want to do.

The goal is not to repress the underlying feelings themselves—that would cause more pent-up emotions—but to bring them out into the open and see them for what they really are: a warning sign that some aspect of the relationship needs work. And as you have learned in earlier chapters, the best way to start solving a relationship problem is to look at your own contribution. “Here I am, having critical thoughts about my partner again. What does this say about me? What am I doing or not doing right now that is feeding my negative attitude?”

The task may seem daunting, but the rewards are great. As negativity recedes, goodwill rushes in to fill the void. Without conscious effort, you find yourself focusing on your partner’s admirable qualities, much as you did during courtship. Only this time, you will have the insights and tools you need to sustain your regard. Meanwhile, your partner will be seeing you in a much more positive light as well, and you will both thrive in the warm glow. Eventually, a sacred space will well up between you, one that both of you want to nurture and protect. With conflict removed, connection will deepen and passion will flow.

WHAT IS NEGATIVITY?

I WANT TO STOP for a moment and clarify what I mean by negativity. Negativity is any thought, word, or deed that tells your partner: “You’re not okay when you think what you think or act the way that you act.” In essence, you are rejecting your partner’s “otherness.” We feel the need to negate our partners when they do or say something that makes us uncomfortable. Usually, they are just being themselves. But from our point of view, they are threatening an image that we have of them, or they are failing to meet an unspoken need.

Typically, negativity makes its first appearance in a love relationship as denial. “I can’t believe you did that!” “You never said anything like that before!” “You can’t really mean that.” “You’re not that kind of person.” The fact that your partner is a separate individual with wishes and needs different from yours is starting to dawn on you, and you feel threatened. Your denial is a desperate ploy to hold on to your illusions. “Say it’s not so!”

When your partner continues to depart from your projected image, the tendency is to bring out the big guns, one by one. Your arsenal includes shame, blame, criticism, invasiveness, avoidance, and, finally, blanket condemnation. First you shame. “How do you think that feels?!” “You ought to be ashamed by the way you treated my friend.” In essence, you are trying to make your partner feel guilty for being who he or she is.

Then you blame. “You were late, and that made me really upset. That’s why I haven’t been talking to you.” “If you hadn’t been so angry, we would have been able to settle the matter in very little time.” When you blame, you put all the burden for your frustrations on your partner.

Next, you begin to criticize your partner’s character traits in addition to unacceptable behaviors. “You are so insensitive.” “You always think about yourself first.” “You are untrustworthy.” You are attempting to make your partner not only the source of all your frustration but a “bad” person as well.

A more subtle ploy is to invade your partner’s psyche and act as if you had x-ray vision. “That is not what you really think.” “The reason you’re so crabby is that you are obsessing too much about work.” “If you’ll just listen to me, I’ll tell you what you need to do.”

The final weapon is absolutism. “You never listen to me!” “You always leave the hard work for me.” “That’s just the way you are.” “Every time I make a simple suggestion, you have a big fit.”

It’s no wonder that our partners don’t want to make love, feel depressed, stay late at work, drink too much, or stay up late by themselves. Being with us is not a safe place to be. They experience being chopped up into little pieces, dissected, and rejected. This is a form of emotional annihilation. At the base level, it expresses contempt. No one can be healed or grow in such a toxic environment. To get the love we want, we need to eliminate negativity in ALL its forms.

There’s another good reason to stop negativity: the negativity that we express towards our partners comes back like a boomerang and affects us as well. That’s because the old brain does not know whether the negativity is being directed outwards or inwards. This theory has been backed up by research. For example, studies show that when one person yells at another, the person being yelled at produces more of the stress hormone cortisol. That’s to be expected. But, surprisingly, the same increase in cortisol is seen in the angry person as well. One could say that any negativity that we direct toward others is a form of self-abuse.

COLD TURKEY

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.

 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.

CORE SCENE REVISION

CORE SCENE REVISION is another exercise that I rely on to help couples eliminate negativity. It is designed for couples who go beyond criticism and avoidance and engage in yelling matches and long-drawn out fights. I call these recurring battles “Core Scenes” because they replay the central childhood traumas of both individuals. Basically, the childhood adaptations of one partner are pitted against the childhood adaptations of the other, making the encounter doubly wounding. Typically, core scenes end in an impasse, with both individuals in deep emotional pain. These futile, hurtful exchanges must end before love can begin.

One couple, Jack and Deborah, had recurring fights that would last until the early hours of the morning. They named them “three-o’clockers” because, typically, that’s when they would end. These were not explosive fights, but wearing, exhausting, repetitive confrontations that ended without resolution. Following a three-o’clocker, the two of them would be tired and depressed for days.

During one therapy session, I asked them to recount several of their recent fights to see if they could identify what the fights had in common. Jack was quick to see their repetitive nature. Once they had reduced their fights to their lowest common denominators, they both laughed. But then Jack said with a note of sadness, “This isn’t something that I feel very proud of. Why do we fall into the same trap over and over again? I’m sick of it.”

According to their description, their core scene goes something like this:
Act I: It is five o’clock in the evening. Jack comes home from work and is confronted by Deborah, who wants him to do a chore. It could be anything—help plan a vacation, do some yardwork, sort through the mail. Jack says he would be happy to do it—later. After he has had a chance to take his evening run.

Act II: Jack goes jogging. He comes home. As he enters the door, Deborah approaches him again and asks if he will now do X. Jack says, “Sure. After I take a shower.”

Act III: Jack takes a shower. Deborah tracks him down and insists that now is the time to do X. Jack says, “Just let me have a drink.”

Act IV (the climax of the drama): Jack has several drinks. He begins to relax and enjoy himself. Deborah enters the room, irate. “Why don’t you either do it now or tell me you aren’t going to do it?” Deborah yells. “You are driving me crazy!” “But I do want to do it,” counters Jack. “Just give me time. I’m tired. I want to relax. Back off.”
Jack begins to work on a crossword puzzle or watch TV and ignores his wife. She gets hysterical. “I hate you!” she cries out. “You never do what you say. You never listen to me! I feel like I’m living with a robot! I have no feelings for you!” Jack tries to block out her anger by concentrating more intently on what he is doing. Then, finding no peace, he gets up and leaves the house.

Act V: Jack comes home hours later. He’s had several more drinks. Deborah launches into her attack once more. The fight continues, with Deborah delivering devastating criticisms and Jack trying either to placate her or ignore her. Eventually they both get tired of the melodrama and turn away from each other in despair.

Let’s analyze this drama for a moment. If one were to search for Jack and Deborah in the psychology textbooks, Jack would be described as “passive-aggressive.” He is angry at Deborah for organizing his life and intruding on his space, but is afraid to express it directly. Instead he stalls, jogs, showers, drinks, works on the crossword puzzle—in other words, takes full advantage of the numerous exits he has built into the relationship.

Deborah would be labeled as “aggressive-aggressive.” “She’s a bulldog,” says Jack, not without admiration. She is up front with her demands and her anger. The irreducible element in their core scene is that the more Deborah attacks, the more Jack retreats, and the more Jack retreats the more Deborah feels abandoned. Deborah’s anger at Jack’s passivity is, in reality, disguised panic. She is terrified of being left alone, and Jack’s inertness makes her feel as if she were dealing with a nonentity, a ghost with no substance.

I explained to Deborah and Jack that, in order to end the impasse, it might help to rewrite their play—not metaphorically, but literally. I suggested that they go home, take out paper and pencils, and rewrite the drama so that it had a happier ending. It might help to read their new script several times so that the new options would be just as available to them as their habituated ones. I assured them that any change at all would be beneficial. Indeed, just being able to recognize a given fight as a core scene would be a positive step. Then, even if they managed to change just one of the acts, they would be creating the possibility of a new resolution.

Here are a couple of ways Jack and Deborah’s core scene might be revised. Deborah could become less aggressive, essentially honoring Jack’s request to “back off.” After asking him once to do a particular chore and getting no response, she could stop making the request. Jack’s need to withdraw might become less intense. He might gain the psychic space he needed to be able to do the chore before taking a shower or doing the crosswords.

Or the script might be rewritten so that Jack states his position more openly. “No. I don’t want to do that job. It’s not all that important to me. I’d rather do “Y.” Deborah would be startled by his assertiveness, but if he persisted in affirming his own priorities, she would eventually become relieved. What she really wanted was a partner who was an independent, confident human being, not an automaton.

This practice of defining a core scene and then writing alternative versions can be an effective tool. When couples are able to objectify their arguments, identify the key elements in the drama, and then create different options, they are using the rational new brain to defeat the old brain’s fight or flight response. They are creating new neural pathways that channel their feelings into a more calm and positive direction.

POSITIVE FLOODING

In recent years, I’ve added another key exercise to Imago Therapy. Its purpose, like the purpose of all the exercises I’ve described in this chapter, is to help couples leave their negativity behind them and move on to higher ground. This final exercise is the grand finale, the ultimate expression of love and regard between couples. I call it “Positive Flooding.”

In its basic form, two people in a love relationship write down all the things they appreciate about each other. The list can include what they love about each other’s bodies and character traits, appreciation for favors or activities they’ve done in the past, and overall statements of love and adoration. Then the partners take turns “flooding” each other with these specific expressions of love.

In the second part of the exercise, each person gets out a piece of paper and makes a list of all the qualities her or she would like to have praised. “Tell me that you appreciate how hard I work to support us.” “Tell me that you like how intently I listen to you.” “Tell me that you like my long, shapely legs.” Then the partners exchange lists and take turns flooding each other with their specific requests. It’s like making a list of all the things you want for Christmas, only in this case, you get to have them all.

Helen and I practice the flooding exercise regularly. Even though we designed the exercise and have watched it performed over and over again, we still feel moved by the intensity of the love and affirmation we receive from each other. It makes us feel deeply, thoroughly loved.

In the workshop version of the exercise, all the couples perform the exercise simultaneously. One person in each couple sits in a chair while the other partner circles around the chair. For the first minute, I ask the speakers to describe what they like about the partner’s physical features—a graceful curve to the lips, silky skin, a handsome nose and so on. For the next minute, I ask them to speak a little louder and talk about their partners admiral character traits—trustworthiness, honesty, kindness, bravery, intelligence, etc.

The third time around, I ask them to speak louder still and proclaim their gratitude for favors their partners have done for them—nursing them through a cold, putting chains on the tires in the middle of a snowstorm, going willingly to a family reunion, being a source of comfort when a family member had died.

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At the culmination of the exercise, the admiring partners proclaim their overall feelings of love and appreciation—“I can’t believe I am married to such a marvelous person.” “I love you, I love you, I love you.” “You are the woman of my dreams!” “You are my best friend and lover!” The energy is contagious. There are shouts of laughter, bear hugs, and tears of joy. Most of us have never heard someone say to us in a strong voice, “I love you.” “You are wonderful.” Instead, we’ve heard people yell, “Be quiet!” “Go away.” “Mind your own business.” “You are crazy!” This exercise opens the flood gates and inundates people with joy.

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