Taking Responsibility for the Relational Space


Following these four principles can immediately improve the overall health of your relationship

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. 


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.


II. Re-Imaging.  Where do you suppose your guy learned to get suspicious or to withdraw? Or your gal to sulk or get pushy until she gets her way? Whatever the defense, partners are not usually conscious of them. They are part of the automatic mental armor leftover from other circumstances. The child or younger person within your partner is literally stuck in a past that at some level is still happening--a prior relational situation that became overwhelming, but that the more primitive part of their mind mapped very well.  Hence, the need for some defense to ensure survival. It's not an excuse, but a reality which kept them alive then and obviously impacts you now.  Much of the work of therapy is teaching people how to modify those defenses. But if you can learn to hold that wounded younger self in mind, then you begin to separate the person from the defense and not just react, not take it as personally. You can eventually develop compassion for your partner's younger self and insight as to the triggers that set the defenses off. Counseling will help you do this, and will help them feel deeply understood by you. 



III. Closing all Exits. When the pain of the deterioration of the relational space gets too intense for one or the other, someone usually jumps ship. Exiting is defined as seeking to get needs met that would normally get met in the relationship through some outside source or using an outside source to defer further investment in the relationship. Our exits can be literally anything-- from another person who provides emotional or physical relief, to a best friend who becomes a too-actively involved confidant, to computer games, travel (with long absences),  sports, reading, other pastimes done to excess.  I tell people the effect of an active exit on couples counseling is like trying to sail a boat with the bilge plug pulled out. We seem to be making headway, but then everything slows down. Energy is leaking out and it's confusing because we often can't identify the leak, especially if there isn't total honesty. The couple seems to have to start from scratch each session. And then we swamp. I challenge each person to inventory all exits. No one can make them close an exit down. It has to be an intentional choice done in the greater interests of the relationship. I have them dialog about it. Handled well, it can be an inspirational point of re-commitment and the start of real change.


IV. Reversing the Tide.  You recall I mentioned building the Positve Sentiment Override above.  The Gottmans conceive of this as the couples' emotional bank account. It has usually been drained down and in the "red" by the start of counseling. But through structured exercises, a sense of respect, good will, safety, and hope can start to build, putting the couple back in the "black". Having an account in the black is crucial during life's bumpy times. Couples that lack it are dominated by Negative Sentiment Override--each new difficulty or miscommunication is taken as proof positive the relationship is faulty or unsatisfying. And the thing is, negative override is usually inaccurate--there are statistically many more positive things happening throughout the day that go unnoticed, once again, as the negative is  magnified.  Healthy couples will language this as giving each other the benefit of the doubt or letting their friendship moderate all difficulties. One simple exercise that reverses the tide is the "What I Like" dialog. For ten minutes each day, one tells the other things they like that the other did or some personality feature they like. The receiving partner simply mirrors these words, being careful not to interject their own meanings or throw in questions. Then they switch roles. Another tool is asking, "What was it like to be you today?" As the partner reflects inside themselves to answer, they build consciousness and intentionality. The couple follows the same procedure,  mirroring, being careful not to let any criticism or curve balls enter. Together these exercises provide the couple a way of checking in, building a culture of respect and fondness for each other's total life, and begins to turn the tide of negativity around into the positive sentiment override that can set up real change and growth. 


For more articles and thoughts about Imago techniques, please visit my website at www.markchidley,com. or find me on Facebook at Mark A. Chidley, Couples Counseling.