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3 Things Couples In The Happiest Relationships Do — To Keep Things From Falling Apart

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Best Advice On How To Improve Communication Skills For Healthy Relationships From Marriage & Couples Therapists Harville Hendrix & Helen Hunt
Love, Family

Stop having the same fight over and over and over.

Have you ever noticed that the more you try to fight fair and work things out calmly with your significant other, the worse an argument gets? Why do your positive attempts to talk things through devolve so quickly into shouting matches, silent treatment or someone storming out?

If we’re honest, most of us know what we’re supposed to do if we want to communicate more effectively with our partners: listen without judgement, use “I” statements, criticize the behaviors and not the person, etc., etc., blah, blah, blah. We all know the drill.

The problem is that most of us —even couples in happy, healthy relationships — simply don't do any of these things while we are actually in the middle of fighting.

When our partner's point of view doesn't immediately align with our own, tempers flare, feelings get hurt, defensiveness sets back in and tension escalates.

The cycle gets so painfully dysfunctional that you may sometimes wonder if it's even possible to stop your emotional, gut reactions from sabotaging your best efforts to improve communication skills and talk openly and honestly with the person you love most.

To gain some insight into this maddening dilemma, we reached out to renowned marriage and couples therapists Harville Hendrix, PhD, and Helen LaKelly Hunt, Phd for their best tips and advice.

Oprah Winfrey herself referred to Harville as the person "who's been the greatest teacher for me about validation, about the common thread and the human experience, about what we were all looking for."

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The two have been married for more than 30 years, sharing six children and six grandchildren, and just released a fully updated 30th anniversary edition of their classic, New York Times best-selling book, Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples: Third Edition.

More than three decades ago, while struggling within their own marriage, they co-created a methodology known as Imago Relationship Therapy, which remains among the most respected relationship therapy techniques practiced by couples counselors all over the world to this day.

Basically, they're the GOAT (read: greatest of all time) when it comes to helping couples learn how to communicate more effectively in order to deepen their intimacy and understand of one another.

As explained on their website:

"The Latin word 'imago' — meaning 'image' — refers to the 'unconscious image of familiar love.'

"What we find is that there is frequently a connection between frustrations in adult relationships and early childhood experiences. As an example, individuals frequently criticized as a child will likely be highly sensitive to their partner’s criticism. Childhood feelings of abandonment, suppression or neglect will often arise in a marriage or committed relationship.

"When such 'core issues' repeatedly come up with a partner, they can overshadow all that is good in a relationship and leave one to wonder whether he or she has chosen the right mate."

RELATED: Here's Everything You Need To Know About Imago Therapy

As part of the Imago dialogue process, Harville and Helen encourage couples to stop making common mistakes such as competing within conversations or attempting to move straight into problem-solving mode. Instead, they say, you first need to establish a connection with the emotions each of you are feeling beneath the surface of the issue currently at hand.

To do this, they teach couples to move through the following 3-step process:

  • Mirroring: Listening to what your partner has to say without interrupting, disputing, or deflecting, and then repeating it back to confirm you’re understanding fully.

  • Validating: Acknowledging your partner’s point of view and the logic in what they’re saying from their perspective (you don’t have to agree with it, just acknowledge it).

  • Empathizing: Connecting to and experiencing the emotions of what your partner is saying.

All of which sounds great on paper, right? The approach is incredibly logical, healthy and mature.

But, as we all know, in the heat of an argument, egos, especially hurt ones, rarely do what’s logical, healthy or perhaps least of all … mature.

When your attempt to talk it out immediately goes off track, here are Helen and Harville's 3 best tips for using effective communication skills to halt emotional reactions and get back to active listening.

1. Take a (brief) time out

Harville says, “The only thing I’ve seen work when communication breaks down is to take a time out.”

At this point, the lower brain — e.g. the brain stem and limbic system, where your emotional reactions and threat responses occur — is activated. Couples need to create space for the amygdala to calm down so that the prefrontal cortex — or upper brain, where logic, reasoning, and empathy reside — can come back online.

Your time out should only last about 10 minutes, as it’s important to not abandon each other. Just take a brief breather, whether that’s sitting quietly, or going in separate rooms, to let one another’s brain re-balance. Then it’s time to come right back together and try again.

Helen offers a great tip here, encouraging couples to establish a code word they can say in times of conflict to signal that communication is going south and they need to change course.

The mutually agreed upon code word can be something like “ouch!” or something silly like “bananas.” When either partner says it, that’s the signal that you both need to pause immediately and let each other’s brains calm down before things get out of hand.

RELATED: Good Relationships Don’t Just Happen, They Take Work

2. Do a quick repair

After taking a time out, resist the urge to dive right back into the conversation. Instead, do a quick repair to restore a sense of safety and connection first. Harville and Helen stress that healthy conversation can only happen in safety.

In attempting a quick repair, it’s important to know what gesture each person prefers to receive from the other, as they’ll likely be different.

“Helen is very happy with an apology,” says Harville, “but if she apologizes to me, I’m not fine. I want a behavior shift: a firm, sincere hug … maybe a compliment.”

Once those small but sincere gestures are made, reset the energy of the conversation. Harville recommends using the sentence stem “let’s redo that” which acknowledges your shared intention to communicate in a better, healthier way moving forward.

After doing this, you’re ready to step (carefully) back into the conversation.

3. Use "sentence stems"

Helen emphasizes the importance of each partner remaining in their upper brain as they re-engage in dialogue.

“In the aftermath of conflict, we say things like ‘I’m sorry, I just lost it’ or ‘I flipped my lid',” says Helen. “In a way, you really did. You lost access to your prefrontal cortex. If you want to have a healthy relationship, live in your upper brain.”

Harville and Helen say the best way to do this is to use sentence stems, an educational theory-based technique in which you essentially provide the beginning of the other person's response, allowing your partner to "initiate their responses more quickly, utilize full sentences to express their answers, and be more likely to stay on topic to structure your conversation."

Their Imago Dialogue technique provides examples of specific phrasing for sentence stems designed to keep each of your prefrontal cortexes engaged.

For example, while explaining your point of view, avoid “you statements” which put your partner on the defense back in their lower brain.

Instead use this stem: “When [blank] happens, I feel … And when I feel that, I think …”

Likewise, when mirroring back what you heard your partner say, use stems like, “Did I understand that right?” and “Am I understanding how you felt accurately?”

Another particularly safety-building stem is, “Is there more about that?”

RELATED: Why Your Relationship Could Use Couples Therapy (Even If It's Already Pretty Good)

Above all, remember that you are allies on this journey, not competitors.

When talking things through quickly turns into tearing each other down or ignoring each other altogether, the goal is to quickly shift from your lower brain back into your upper brain so that loving, transformative conversation can happen with respect, understanding and safety.

The goal, Harville and Helen say, is to “create a conscious partnership and have each other’s back.”

“You’re not just saving your relationship,” Helen says. “Learning to communicate this way helps save you, too … from the unpleasantness of losing it and getting upset. It also helps your relationships at work, your relationship with your kids. All of your relationships get better.”

RELATED: 101 Smart Ways To Improve Your Relationship Right This Second

Cris Gladly is a writer, speaker, and connection strategist with a passion for positive human relationships. She writes about travel and community, as well as love, relationships, social change, and parenting.

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