Here are some questions couples need to ask themselves:
1. Why do we "perforate" our relationships with Exits?
2. What are some of the ways we use to avoid each other?
3. What can we do to gradually change this dynamic in our relationship?
To one degree or another, most couples in the Power Struggle structure their lives in such a way that true intimacy is
virtually impossible. The differing ways couples find to do this is often ingenious. Sometimes the things they do seem "natural"
or unavoidable because they are frequently in denial about why they don't spend more time with one another. Most often,
however, couples are not really conscious about why they do what they do. On the other hand, some are fully conscious of
why they seem to "need" to distance from each other. Whether they are aware of their motivation or not, in Imago Relationship
Therapy we call this dynamic "taking an Exit."
One definition of an Exit is "any behavior that acts out a feeling, rather than expressing it verbally." An Exit is an unfortunate
way of trying solve problems in a relationship. An Exit drains energy from the relationship which in turn contributes to
further disconnection and perpetuation of the Power Struggle. In his book, Getting the Love You Want, Harville Hendrix,
Ph.D. describes this substitute need gratification as being like a hungry cow stretching its neck over a fence to munch on
green grass. Partners look elsewhere for gratification. This way of trying to solve relationship issues inevitably fails, and
can lead to misery, affairs, and/or divorce.
There are many conscious and unconscious reasons partners avoid each other, seldom spending quality, private time
together. However, continuing to practice these behaviors ultimately drains so much energy from their relationship, that, like
a balloon with a tiny leak in it, the relationship will eventually go completely flat! In our society "flat relationships" usually lead
to divorce. So, closing Exits is crucial to ending the Power Struggle and creating a vital and passionate relationship.
There are some problems with closing Exits, however. One problem is that, with good intention, you may attempt to close
an Exit too rapidly, simply by stopping the behavior. This seldom works, because the root of the problem has not been
addressed. Usually another Exit opens in its place, often equally or even more detrimental.
Some partners focus on identifying each other's Exits, then criticizing and nagging once they have been determined. Partners
need to know that this behavior not only reinforces the Power Struggle, but is an Exit in and of itself. Partners only use
Exits when feeling unsafe, unloved or some form of the worthlessness we call self-hatred. Therefore, if your partner's Exits
are nagged, criticized, or complained about, they will only open wider. Please understand that both of you have been
trying your best to solve a problem in your relationship that you haven't known how to solve otherwise. These very same
Exits probably worked well for you as children, helping you to emotionally survive childhood; however, now they are
sabotaging getting your deeper needs met for safety, connection, and intimacy.
Even though it may be difficult to do so, it is important that you both learn to respect and honor each other's Exits, as
well as remember that you have been trying to protect yourselves from the pain perceived coming from each other.
Stay in Dialogue about your deepest pain at the root of your own Exits. This mutual process allows each of you to see
how you sabotage your own needs creating more of the same pain you are attempting to avoid with your Exits. It is only
with validation and empathy that partners feel safe enough to begin to close Exits. Meanwhile, each of you can work on
becoming a source of Love and Safety for your partner. This mutual process deepens yours and your partner's
vulnerability and empathy thereby creating feelings of safety, trust, and respect. As both of you work toward creating a
Conscious Relationship and provide your partner with increased safety and love, each partner's Exits will gradually close.
You will move closer to a more satisfying, safe and passionate relationship, one you can trust has a solid foundation.
Source: Information adapted from Chapter 7, "Closing Your Exits", Getting the Love You Want, A Guide for
Couples" by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. We also wish to acknowledge the contributions and years of combined effort of
many Imago Therapists.
Looking at Ways I Avoid Intimacy
Carol Anderson & Carole Kirby
Complete the following in Dialogue. (Mirror each statement and then validate and empathize at the close. )
1. One exit I use is __________ when____________________ (describe behaviors occurring in the relationship.)
2. The core pain that I am trying to avoid by using this exit is feeling ________________________________________
3. and what that reminds me of when I was a child is (tell the story) ________________________________________
4. By using this exit, I sacrifice my deeper need of ______________________________________________________
5. which leaves me feeling ______________________________________________________
6. What hurts me about using this exit is ______________________________________________________
7. What hurts you about my exit is ______________________________________________________
8. What hurts our relationship & others in our family about my exit is ________________________________________
9. If I continue to use this exit, ultimately it will lead to ___________________________________________________
10. What I could do instead is ___________ and dialogue my deepest pain of feeling ___________________________
Note: Doing this exercise on each of your own personal Exits will help you understand how you are sabotaging your needs
and contributing to a cycle of pain and disillusionment. If you "dig" down to the root of each statement above, and if you
are totally honest with yourself and your partner, you will likely discover that you have inadvertently only created more of the
same feelings that you were trying to avoid by using that Exit. While Terminal Exits must be closed immediately, if you close
other Exits too quickly, another may open in its place. Instead, each partner must substitute positive behaviors for their
original Exit behavior. Owning your Exits and dialoguing about your desires and deepest hurt will create the possibility
for lasting change and intimacy. By doing the above, the Exits will gradually close and intimacy will be established.
Most couples who come to me for help define their problem in terms of communication:
"We don't communicate well."
Our communication has broken down."
"Our problem is lack of communication."
I used to dismiss this as a simplistic attempt to diagnose a highly complex human problem. But the longer I work with couples and their problems (almost 20 years now!), the more I agree with their assessment. Although we marriage therapists may draw on a lot of theories to help us understand and explain the difficulties of marital relations, in fact what we all do in our various ways is help couples to understand each other. Since communication is so central to good relationships between intimate partners, let's look at what communication is, why it breaks down and how to improve it.
The purpose of communication.
Unless were asleep or dead were always sending signals that have some meaning (communicating) to those around us, through words, behavior, gestures, voice tone and volume, and facial expressions. Frequently were not aware were communicating or how our signals are being interpreted:
John has deep wrinkles in his brow, and they're even deeper tonight because he is worried about a job review coming up in the morning. His deeply furrowed brow signals to Mary, his wife, that he is angry, probably with her because she didn't have sex with him last night. And so she gets busy fixing his favorite meal to make up for it. He observes her busyness and thinks, "She doesn't care how I feel about this review; in fact, she's totally disinterested in me!" He goes into the living room without speaking to her and buries himself in the paper. Mary thinks, "Boy, he is really mad!" They both go to bed without talking, each feeling lonely and uncared-for.
A bad case of mixed signals! Yet this kind of unconscious communication happens among couples all the time.
Of Webster's many definitions of "communication," I think the exchanging of information or messages is the one that best describes what should be happening in relationships. Only I would advocate for conscious communication (or the conscious sharing of information) because some variation of John and Mary's exchange is what happens when were unconscious. If only John and Mary had consciously shared their thoughts and feelings, a very different outcome might have occurred:
John comes home from work and greets his wife, who notices his brow is more deeply furrowed than usual. She asks him, "You look like you might be upset. Is there something wrong?" John tells her he is worried about his job review in the morning. She listens sympathetically, then confesses, "I thought you might be mad because we didn't have sex last night." He answers, "I was a little disappointed then, but I'm fine now. We have many more nights for that."
The barriers to communication.
Why weren't John and Mary as direct and clear in the first scenario as they were in the second? Why don't we all communicate so clearly, especially when were sharing information about our feelings, reactions and desires?
Some of the obstacles to communication are:
ou may not be aware of what you feel or what you want.
You may have a belief that if your partner really loved you and was tuned into you, you wouldn't have to communicate; she'd just know.
You may fear that if you expose yourself and share your real feelings and wants, you'll get hurt (or worse).
Your self-centeredness and defensiveness to your partners point of view makes you believe yours is the only reality.
These barriers to communication are so deeply imbedded in our instinctive natures that even the best of us communicators frequently stumbles over them. And many of us need a guide (such as a marriage therapist) to help us over these hurdles - someone who can help us to feel safe, to see what needs to be expressed and to learn how to communicate.
The roles of sender and receiver in couples communication.
When we complain that our partner won't communicate or when we say we want better communication with our partner, what we usually mean is we want to be heard and we want our partner to listen. Careful listening is one of the important skills we need to develop in couples communication, where there is a sender and a receiver of information. A lot of attention has been paid to the responsibility of the receiver, or the role of listening, in the literature on marriage therapy, perhaps because the need to be heard and understood is such a fundamental human need. I've discussed the responsibility of listening in previous articles when I described Imago Therapy's Couples Dialogue. This process emphasizes the receiving skills of mirroring, validation and empathy before responding. However, I believe sending skills are equally as important as receiving skills, so I'm devoting the rest of this article to the role of sender.
How to responsibly express your feelings and needs to your partner.
One of the ways you learn about your emotional needs in your relationship with your partner is when you don't get what you want. And not getting what you want stirs frustration (from mild to intense). Therefore, often a negative emotion, such as frustration or pain, fuels your attempt to communicate with your partner, which can get you off to a bad start. Frustration generally triggers a primitive part of our brain and causes us to react in some pretty belligerent, coercive or manipulative ways (criticizing, blaming, accusing, attacking, shaming, guilt-inducing, etc.). In the heat of frustration, your old brain identifies your partner as someone dangerous, an enemy or your persecutor that you need to protect yourself from or punish. Add to your reaction the feelings of loss and betrayal (because, after all, you selected your mate to love and protect you, not to frustrate or hurt you), and you get a pretty volatile mix of emotions. Its no wonder that when couples communicate, it sometimes ends up feeling like war!
What follows are some ideas about how the message-sender can lessen the possibility of war and increase the possibility of dialogue:
Calm yourself before you express your feelings. Remember that your reason for communicating is to share information with him about you so that he can learn more about you and so that you can ultimately get his cooperation. It is not communication if its your aim to teach him a lesson, punish him or make him hurt like you hurt.
Think through your frustration before telling your partner how you feel. When did your frustration start? What did your partner do or say that triggered your reaction? And is the current trigger the real issue or a byproduct of another frustration? E.g., Donald got upset when Sally told him she was going to visit her sister for a weekend. After he thought about it, he decided his reaction to her news was a symptom of a persistent feeling of neglect since the birth of their daughter. What other feelings does your partners behavior trigger in you besides anger? Anger is a secondary emotion, a reaction to some emotional pain or fear; so what is the primary emotion? Christine hates it when her husband gets angry with other drivers. Upon reflection she realized that his reaction also triggered a fear in her that his aggression might cause him to take risks that might endanger them. Could your current reaction to your partner reflect any painful or frustrating feelings left over from experiences in previous relationships? On further reflection Christine remembered that she used to fear for her safety when she drove with her father, an alcoholic who was prone to explosions of anger when drinking. And lastly, define what you want from your partner instead. What would you like for him to change about his behavior? And be specific rather than global in defining what you want. Global requests like "I'd like you to be more affectionate," can be confusing, overwhelming and not indicative of what you really want. What feels like affection to you? A more operational request might be, "Before we part in the morning, it would make my day if you gave me a warm hug and said, 'Have a good day!' "
Make an appointment when you want to discuss something serious with her or when you want to say something controversial. This gives your partner a chance to prepare herself to listen non-defensively and to choose a time when she can give you her undivided attention. It is also in your interest to do this, because if you have such a discussion when she's unprepared she will likely feel attacked. Then she will not only not listen, she'll probably attack back, and war begins!
Stick to one topic, issue or problem at a time. Resist the temptation to dump all your frustrations at once because finally, at last, you have your partners attention!
Too much information or too many problems at one time will overload and discourage your partner, and at some point he will stop listening, or worse.
Speak calmly and unthreateningly, in an information giving way. Share all the information you've previously thought through: the trigger behavior, the primary and secondary feelings it evokes in you, what and if it reminds you of anything from past relationships, and what you want (giving several very specific examples of what you want).
Ask your partner for their response and also ask them if there's anything you can do that will help them to feel better. Also, ask them if they can do what you're asking. Listen with interest to their reactions and try to give them the kind of cooperation you're asking of them. If your partner feels you also care about his feelings and needs, he'll be more likely to be respectful of your feelings and wants.
If you do all the above and get off track or if communication breaks down because feelings get too intense, come back later and try again after feelings have cooled down. To either give up or escalate the communication because it didn't work the first time is to sabotage your relationship. Keep trying. You and your partner have a lifetime to perfect your communication!
1. Call your partner unexpectedly just to say you love him/her and were thinking of him/her.
2. Call your spouse/partner just to tell them one thing you appreciate about them.
3. Send your spouse/partner flowers (home, office, hotel room) “just because”, or ‘thank you for. . .”, or ‘because I love you’, etc..
4. Send a fax to work or hotel (or an e-mail) saying that you love your partner and can’t wait to be with him/her again.
5. Pick up flowers or dinner on the way home and surprise your partner. (If dinner, you might want to call and feel things out first!)
6. When you come home, find your partner and just hold him/her close for a moment (prolonged hug)–no words necessary.
7. Call your partner at 10:00am and tell them you are going to take them out to lunch.
8. Call your partner, tell them you’ll meet them for lunch, pick up cheese, crackers, and then find a place to make love!
9. When you walk by your partner at home, touch him/her, or give a hug, or caress.
10. Wake up to the day as if it was ‘the first time’ you were alone with your spouse. Greet him/her enthusiastically. Sit and just look lovingly at him/her for a few moments. Ask about them and their day and just listen and try to let them know you understand (even if you disagree)–no problem solving unless asked for!
11. Write a note and put it where your partner will find it during the day. Tell the person loving things.
12. Make a list of 10 things you love about your partner and leave it where they will find it (or mail it).
13. Try a new way to make your love-making more sensual and prolonged. (Can use candles, incense, longer foreplay, times of just kissing and holding, caressing, exploring each other’s bodies by touch, etc.)
14. When you go to bed, sleep naked together without sex. Just hold your partner or snuggle next to him/her so your bodies touch.
15. Just hold your partner in bed (can be dressed) without sex until one of you falls asleep.
16. Bring home balloons (or hide them and put them out at night after your partner goes to bed) with a note or sign with something like “I celebrate YOU!” “You are wonderful!” or something similar.
17. Pamper your partner one evening. (Examples: If watching TV, ask partner if would like anything–offer to put stool under feet or take off shoes and massage feet. If cooking dinner, volunteer to clean up, do dishes while partner just relaxes. Give back rub. Put on soothing music. Etc…)
18. Next time you kiss, pause, look into your partner’s eyes remembering what it was like when you first met. Touch his/her face. Trace his/her lips with your finger. Slowly bring your lips to theirs–first gently kissing his/her upper lip, then lower lip. Embrace your partner and gently kiss them fully, letting your lips part, and enjoy every second of it. After the kissing is finished, just hold each other a few moments longer.
19. Plan a ‘date’–arrange for baby-sitters, clear calendar, etc. (Good to do this one once a week or at least every two weeks!)
20. ‘Surprise’ your partner by taking them someplace they have said they wanted to go–a sporting event, a concert, a restaurant, a computer show, the mall, etc. Do it even if it isn’t something you like. Enjoy your partner enjoying it and do it simply for love.
21. Make a list of 10 romantic things to say to your partner and say them from time to time throughout the week.
22. Create a romantic dinner either out or in.
23. Take a bath together with bath oils, or bubbles, and candles.
24. Do what you would do for an anniversary on a regular day–just because.
25. Buy a gift for your partner–it can be a blouse or shirt s/he wanted–or something simple and inexpensive.
26. Plan a picnic in the park (or your own yard, or living room).
27. Even when you still have chores to do, take the day off, go to a movie or do something else fun.
28. Call your partner unexpectedly during the day (or at night if they are out of town) and talk sexy to him/her, telling them how much you long to feel him/her, etc.
29. Plan a surprise getaway weekend for just the two of you–arranging for baby-sitters, dogsitters, etc. Take your partner someplace you think he or she will love. You can go to a nice hotel in your own city!
30. Greet your partner at the airport with a balloon or flower and enthusiastic ‘welcome home’.
31. Take out an ad in the Lost and Found with something like “I’ve found love with you.” or something similar. Have a florist deliver a rose, the newspaper and a note telling him/her which page to turn to and where the ad is.
32. Make sure your partner can sleep in one weekend morning. Take care of telephone, kids, dogs, etc.
33. Leave your favorite romantic song (even if from when you first dated) on your partner’s voice mail or answering machine.
34. Give your partner a massage on any part or all of his/her body (if full body, create climate with candles, etc.)
35. Sit and talk about fun and romantic times in your relationship–when you were dating, first married, etc. Enjoy the memories and think about how to bring some of that into the present.
36. Write a short poem (even if it doesn’t rhyme and even if you think you could never write poetry) telling of your love. You can start with lines like, “Like the light of a harvest moon. . .” “Heart to heart. . .” “Like the water caresses the sand. . .” etc.
37. Lip sync a romantic song for your partner after dinner one night.
38. Bring home or to the office your partner’s favorite sweet thing.
39. Leave a flower on the pillow before your partner goes to bed–even if it is one you pick from your own yard.
40. Take the afternoon off and just go someplace with your partner.
41. Plan a ‘secret rendezvous’ in your own town, in the city where your partner is on business, etc.
42. Send your partner a postcard when you are out of town saying you were thinking of him/her and love him/her. It doesn’t matter if you get home before the postcard does!
43. Write a love letter as if you were just falling in love with the person.
44. Tell your partner you that instead of watching TV tonight (or doing work, or fussing with the kids, etc.), you simply want to be with them.
45. Go for a walk together after dinner, holding hands and remembering good times you’ve had.
46. Write “I love You!” on the bathroom mirror with lipstick or shaving cream.
47. Shower together.
48. Paint a heart or something else on your partner’s body or body part with whipped cream, chocolate syrup, and lick it off slowly, and saying “MMMMMMMmmmmmmm”.
49. Tell your partner before you go to bed, or before you leave in the morning, one of the things you love most about him/her (quality, physical characteristic, behavior).
50. Agree to meet at a social event or public place and act as if you are meeting each other for the first time—flirt, make ‘eyes’ at each other or other gestures from across the room, rub against each other when walking by, etc.
51. Go skinny dipping in pool or hot tub or at the beach.
52. Test drive a Porsche or a convertible with the top down and pretend you are seeing each other although it has been ‘forbidden’ by your parents.
53. When your partner is coming home late in the evening (after meeting, etc.), have bed turned down, hot bath ready with flower petals floating in it and candles.
54. Rent a video you know your spouse would like or liked in the past, make popcorn and have an evening together like teenagers.
55. Create your own ‘slumber party’ for just the two of you.
56. Drive to the beach (or spend the night) and go for walks on the beach holding hands.
57. When you have to go out of town on business, add an extra day and invite your spouse to join you for all or part of your trip.
58. Undress your partner as if it were the first time–slowly, touching their body as you go.
59. Make sexy comments to your partner throughout the evening.
60. Use your imagination—this is a person you are just falling in love with–be creative in ways to express that, be together, etc.
by Dale Bailey, Th.D.
Imago Relationship Therapy posits that there are compelling reasons beyond the moral ones for honoring one’s wedding vows. One’s emotional well-being, physical health, and spiritual evolution are also at stake. It is well documented that married people live longer and are happier. But marriage is in essence therapy, and one’s partner’s needs charts one’s path to psychological and spiritual wholeness. Rather than leaving it to find oneself, one finds oneself through marriage. Here are some behaviors of conscious partners.
About the author:
Dale Bailey has been in practice for over 35 years. A licensed Psychologist and Marriage & Family Therapist, Dale is also an Advanced Clinician in Imago Relationship Therapy. Dale is also an ordained Presbyterian minister. You can visit his Website at: Therapy Corner
They communicate their needs and desires to each other in constructive ways — without criticism, provocation, or coercion.
They accept all of each other’s feelings, especially anger. Anger means pain usually rooted in childhood. Since spontaneous “dumping” is destructive, they learn constructive ways of expressing and containing anger and other negative emotions, which includes asking their partner for appointments for discussing them. This converts anger into passion and deeper bonding.
They are committed to healing each other’s wounds as the unconscious purpose of the relationship. They recognize their partner’s needs to be a blueprint for their own personal growth, and that to use that will require intentionality and hard work.
They educate each other about their childhood wounds. And taking inspiration from the romantic phase of their relationship, they commit themselves to target their behavior to meet their partner’s needs and heal their wounds — unconditionally — without asking for anything in return.
They accept each other’s absolute separateness and different perception of reality — as an equal. They explore each other’s reality — mirroring, validating, and empathizing with each other’s experience.
They keep the energy of the relationship within its bounds. When frustrated or uncomfortable, they bring their concerns to their partner rather than withdrawing or turning to outside compensations.
They learn to own their own negative traits instead of projecting them onto their partner. They accept, manage, and integrate those parts of themselves which they wish to disown and deny.
They develop their own and encourage their partner’s contra-sexual energy, breaking out of gender or sexual stereotypes. Each strives toward androgyny in the sharing of responsibilities — income, household chores, childcare, etc.
They develop their own lost strengths and abilities rather than relying on their partner to make up for these. They call each other to wholeness.
They care for others and the world with which they are able to experience their oneness. Being aware of their power, competence, caring, and capacity for intimacy with each other, they want to direct their excess energies to the world outside their relationship.
How would you like to reduce conflict in your dialogues by 25 to 50 percent? Prevent toxic meltdowns from happening or get up to speed again quickly when a breakdown occurs?
There is a tool for doing this. It’s simple enough to use. Start each dialogue with statements of positive intention. Mirror your partner’s statement of positive intention.
I recommend the following well-tested version: My intention is to stay in this dialogue until both of us feel understood.
Making such a statement at the beginning of your dialogue is like taking hold of the steering wheel of your car or the rudder of your boat. You wouldn’t dream of pulling out of your driveway with your foot on the gas and your hands in your lap. That would insure disaster.
So, too, unless you establish an intention to truly understand your partner at the very outset of dialogue — and renew that intention throughout — you’re going to end up in a head-on collision.
Intentional dialogue must be exactly that: intentional. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough.
I would like to see this point become part of standard Imago practice throughout our community: Intentional dialogue starts with statements of positive intention.
So now you have the key to successful dialogues, right? I can just end the article at this point.
Wrong. A simple statement of positive intention made as a mechanical opening to your dialogue will get you no better results than you’ve gotten in the past. Opening your dialogues with a statement of intention is only useful if it triggers a corresponding mindset in you and your partner.
That’s what the rest of this article is about — building the associations in your mind that make up the mindset that will get the best results for you in your relationship.
Several years ago I was working with a particularly challenging couple. These partners truly cared for each other but could set off emotional crises and high drama in one another in an instant. Somehow, despite the chaos, hurt feelings, rage and everything else that happened in session, I managed to help them walk out the door at the end feeling connected. This seemed miraculous. They would finish up each session — well, almost every session — on each other’s side.
As I analyzed what I was doing to help them get to this point, I began to see that I was mainly assisting them to understand each other. This didn’t, in itself, seem particularly remarkable. But as I continued to muse on the point, I came up with an observation that is key to all my work now: Conflict only exists when one or both partners are feeling misunderstood.
I thought back over every conflict I had observed and every one I’d been in. The constant was indeed the experience of feeling misunderstood. By contrast, when partners felt mutual understanding, their differences didn’t trigger conflict. They often experienced tensions around the differences, but not conflict.
Because of this observation, I started targeting breakdowns in understanding as my primary point of intervention. Then it occurred to me that conflict could be avoided altogether or greatly minimized if one used this insight to front load the dialogue process.
I was greatly aided in my thinking process by Jordan and Margaret Paul’s classic work, Do I Have to Give Up Me to Be Loved by You? I had to modify their formulations to bring these into line with my crucial observations. In addition, unlike the Pauls’, I had my clients state their positive intentions out loud and mirror their partner’s statements of intention.
In retrospect, I can’t believe this step has not been part of intentional dialogue from the very beginning because there is nothing more crucial to effective communication than understanding intentionality.
There are only two basic intentions you can have in communication:
To protect and defend (closed)
To understand and learn (open)
All the different ways you can handle conflict grow out of these two intentions.
By intentions I mean your motivation or purpose. You can be either aware or not aware of your intention. But you always have one. Learning the difference between the two is crucial, because you can never resolve conflict from the closed position, when you’re in “protect” mode. “You can’t there from here,” as the old saying goes.
You can only get to resolution from the open position, the “learning” mode.
you operate from the intention to protect whenever you are trying to defend against hurt. Maybe you see yourself as dangerous, and your partner as fragile, and you are afraid of hurting him or her. Or maybe you view yourself as vulnerable, and your partner as the dangerous one. When people act from the intention to protect, it can look like rage, or walking on eggshells, or anywhere in between.
The tactics of protection are closed, shut down, and lead to a dead end. Whether one tries seduction or coercion, without a genuine openness to learning more about what’s really going on for one’s partner, there can be no real intimacy.
The intention to understand, on the other hand, leads to the breaking down of walls, to closeness and a freedom to find new solution to problems, solutions that work for both partners.
Consider the following case:
Charlotte has a frustration with Eddie. It can be about almost anything. Charlotte is not one to let frustrations build. She wants to talk about these things. So she brings up the problem. What she gets from Eddie is a glassy-eyed fish stare. Silence hangs heavy between them. She can almost see the anger building up inside him, resentment, maybe even hatred. She explodes in anger, and he storms out of the room.
A few cycles of this, and Eddie begins to believe that Charlotte is impossible. She’s always critical, controlling and hysterical, the way she goes into a rage.
Charlotte feels Eddie is cold, angry withholding. She begins to believe he really has no desire or intention to do the work necessary for a relationship. He’s probably storing up rationalizations for walking out of the relationship.
They are experiencing each other’s intentions as hostile. Polarization has set in. The walls are building.
Both are mistaken. Charlotte just wants to make the relationship work. That’s why she brings up problems. Eddie just want to make the relationship work. That’s why he’s slow to answer her. He is surprised by Charlotte’s complaint, wants to run it around his mind a couple of times, to check it out, and most of all, he doesn’t want to say the wrong thing and provoke an argument. He hesitates — a long time. And Charlotte explodes.
Pretty soon, even though both want to make their relationship work, neither one believes that the other one does. What’s gone wrong for Charlotte and Eddie? They both want their relationship to work. What’s wrong is they have gotten off course. One of them needs to take hold of the steering wheel. One of them needs to take conscious control, and pull hard to get back on course — to get out out of the intention to protect, and to set course on the intention to understand.
Most partners think the problems they have in their relationship are the results of their differences. “We’re just so different,” they say, as though this explains the problems. “We want different things.” “We just can’t see eye to eye.” These partners were just as different when they fell in love as they are now. Only when the relationship works people say, “Opposites attract.”
Problems in relationship are not caused by differences, but by how those differences are handled.
What is really at the root of the problem is fear. you believe that if your partner is different that you want him/her to be, you won’t be able to get your needs met.
You won’t get the kind of sex you want the way you want it.
There won’t be enough money to spend on the really important things.
The kids will out all messed up.
You will end up doing all the dirty work around the house.
It is my contention, from my experience with families I work with, that the only way to solve these problems and make sure both parties’ needs are met is to take the time to really understand each other’s different point of view. Because when partner don’t know how to do this, one misunderstanding is heaped upon another.
It is not that partners don’t want to understand each other. Usually they have tired every way they know ho. But the hurts multiply. Partners become angry with one another. They become polarized. Pretty soon, what started out as a little misunderstanding leave them miles apart — with a thick all in between.
Polarization involves a certain sequence of beliefs:
Both partners progress down a similar track, becoming more and more distant.
This sequence gets triggered by partners when they are overwhelmed by fears and frustrations. Then, misunderstandings escalate into polarization, because of the intention to protect.
Establishing The Intention To Understand
If you want to improve your relationship, the single most important thing you can do is to take control of your intention and keep it positive in al your communications. This action has turned around seemingly hopeless situations. Even one partner acting without the cooperation of the other can often straighten out a deteriorating relationship by doing this.
Intention is the rudder. If you are in a long-term relationship where a lot of walls have been built up, it may take a while to reverse direction. Relationships, like boats, don’t have brakes. It is more like turning an ocean liner around. Take hold of the rudder, intentionally, which most partners don’t even know exists, and take charge of the direction you are going. An ocean liner comes around slowly, in a wide arc. But if you despair that you are not getting instant results and let go of the rudder, the forward momentum of the years will carry you in the same direction you have been going.
Less damaged and less polarized couples will get quicker results.
But exactly how does one go about establishing and maintaining a positive intent to understand?
The first step is to become aware. You already operate from both the intent to protect as well as the intent to understand. Become aware of the differences between these two. Become aware of how each one feels in your body. Notice how when you are operating from the intent to protect, your body may become tense, and you hold your breath. Notice how when you gently resume full exhalation and inhalation of your breath, and assume an open and relaxed body posture, this definitely will support your efforts to move more and more into understanding.
Notice, also, that the tendency to go into protect mode is automatic, while shifting to the intent to understand usually requires a conscious decision on your part. it is very easy to slip into the protective mode. To stay in understanding requires vigilance, determination, and patience with yourself and your partner.
Staying in understanding also requires humility on your part. By humility I mean a realistic view of both your strengths and limitations, and of what you can know what you don’t know. The more we explore ourselves, the more we realize how complicated our motivations are. We sometimes accuse others of having faults that are actually our own faults. We have blind spots. We commit to making changes we think will be easy, and then discover that our own stubborn natures resist being told to change. Or we ask for changes, and when we get them, we find ourselves irritated and unsatisfied with what we thought we wanted. Our memories are faulty. We misperceive events.
The second step then is to state your intention to understand out loud to your partner and to yourself.
For many years I taught intentional dialogue by simply explaining to the partners the differences between protection and understanding. The idea is easy to grasp. Most partners get the point quickly. So move on to the next point, right? But that didn’t work well for my clients or for me in my own relationship.
What was missing? The answer was simple. State your intention to understand out loud. But it was years before this simple point became obvious.
There is enormous power in the spoken word. When you agree to start any difficult discussion with a statement of positive intention, you move your relationship to a new level.
The method for doing this is simple. Make short statements that start with the phrase “I intend…” or “I am committed to…” or, “I want…”
Let’s start with the statement I began this article with: I am committed to staying in this dialogue until both of us feel understood. I recommend starting all your dialogues with this specific formulation. It makes sure that the focus is on both of you getting to the point of feeling understood. In my experience, if this is kept in mind as the primary goal, everything else works out. You can, however, individualize and add important variety to your openings with additional statements like:
Statements of intentionality should be broad and general. Don’t start by getting into the actual subject matter — for example sex, money, kids, in-laws, etc. — during the statement of intention. Doing that is likely to ignite an argument before you get started.
Make these general statements of intention clear and simple.
You can make the statement either about your “process” or about your “end goal.” “I want us to end up with a win-win solution,” or “…where we feel more connected,” is an end goal statement. “I intent to really listen to you,” or “I’m willing to keep working at learning to make our dialogues safe, ” is a process statement.
The third step is that if anywhere in your dialogue your process begins to break down, then immediately stop discussion of the issue, and go back and re-establish your intention to understand.
It is very easy to get off track. An unexpected misunderstanding can trigger lots of pain, and suddenly one or both partners are back into the intention to protect.
Stop the process. “We’re getting stuck here. Can we go back to the intention to understand each other?” Or, “We’re off track. Would you help me get us back on track?”
If you can catch yourselves off track early enough, it is a simple process to right your direction. If you are a more reactive couple, you may find yourselves in flare-ups where you need to separate physically to calm down. This is fine. When powerful emotions are triggered, all kinds of chemicals get dumped into the bloodstream that keep us on edge. Many partners need a space to calm down in.
But if you do need to take a break, be sure to make an appointment to come back to finish the dialogue. that can be ten minutes from now, or an hour, or the next day. You be the judge of what you can handle, and how long you need to get more centered. But the problem is not going to go away by itself. You don’t want to add your problems by stirring up your partner’s abandonment issues. Take the breaks you need, but always make the appointment to complete an interrupted dialogue — and then keep the appointment.
The three rules for establishing intentionality are:
These three rules are the cornerstone of effective communication for couples. With them you can take charge of the direction of your relationship, by controlling fears and establishing safety between you and your partner. they are your tools for learning to love in a deeper way.
NOTE: This material is adapted from How to Love Your Porcupine, available on the Internet for a fee at www.1stbooks.com.
I love my husband. But, for the past 15 years, we’ve done a dance of wills, and had innumerable power struggles and issues. Despite a handful of therapists, we haven’t gotten it right. In many ways, we’ve just “missed” each other, always going down separate paths. Until this past weekend.
I’m not one to share the intimate details of my life, but since I feel “saved,” I think my story might serve someone else well. Here goes: this past weekend, we attended an Imago Workshop originally created by Harville Hendrix. I won’t lie – it was a last ditch effort, not before divorce, but before we began the old, tired conversation of what we would do next/differently/in the future, to repair/rebuild/start a better relationship. Trust me, we’d gotten weary of this; we both felt that life was passing by too fast to always hit this brick wall. Right about now, our heads constantly hurt and we were hurt – there was a lot of anger and pain in our lives. One thousand dollars at one time would stave off months of unsuccessful therapy. If it worked, we would set ourselves on another course; if it failed, I’m not sure what we would do.
In the past, I had suggested a separation, but ultimately realized that I’d be alone/might not do better/would lose out on something not achieved here/the grass probably wouldn’t be greener on the other side, and didn’t follow through. One time I really intended to go through with this, but my husband sought help and I felt that I owed him the time to work on his issues.
In either case, that same struggle and that same last ditch effort was apparently true for the four other couples who also attended the workshop. No one looked very happy. In fact, several people and couples seemed in dire straits.
Our therapist, Tammy Nelson, herself on a second marriage, served as part cheerleader, part counselor and part den mother always encouraging us to use the “I” word, and never allowing pointed fingers or blame. She was determined to have us face ourselves in the process. She never waivered in her firm belief that if we did not heal our own wounds, no marriage could survive and none of us would find the happiness and peace we all craved. By the looks of things, all of us could use some peace, and more than a little sleep.
Imago is the Latin word for “image.” It rests on the premise that as humans we take in love from our primary caretakers, getting positive and (often mostly) negative messages while attaching (or not) and receiving love. To further our existence, we then develop survival patterns learning how to act or “be” in order to get love, approval or most importantly safety.
These basic patterns become our modus operandi for life. We nearly always partner or marry the very person who gives you the (same) good and most often bad parts of our caretakers. If you craved affection as a child, you would naturally be attracted to an affectionate, sometimes smothering person. You would believe that this person would make you “whole” again. However, while they served you well in the early stages of your relationship, as your own feelings became stirred, their affection may become oppressive to you. You might think that they need to change (they can’t!), but, according to Imago, it’s you who needs to transform.
The very conflict that occurs at these moments is the process of healing and growth trying, but not succeeding in happening. When you are tempted to look for a different partner, the Imago theory is that you are probably with the right person, and that they most likely have the reverse story of their own to work out. In fact, our therapist was adamant in stating that individuals look for partners whose story and essence forces us to confront and heal our own wounds. So, to use our own relationship as an example, it isn’t my husband’s inability to listen, give me time and “be present” that is the issue, it is my childhood wound of never being listened to and never having parents “be present,” that needs to be addressed. Painful words, but a truth that just cut all of us “to the quick.”
The Imago Theory wants us to know this:
We have chosen our partners to heal certain painful experiences, and that the healing of those experiences is the key to the end of longing. When we do so, we have taken the first step on the journey to real love.
Conflict is supposed to happen. This is as nature intended it: Everything in nature is in conflict, and it is a sign that the psyche is trying to survive, to get its needs met and become whole.
Divorce does not solve the problems of relationship. We may get rid of our partners, but we keep our problems, carting them into the next relationship.
Romantic love is supposed to end. It is the glue that initially bonds two incompatible people together so that they will do what needs to be done to heal themselves.
Relationships are not born of love, but of need; real love is born in relationships as a result of understanding what they are about and doing what is necessary to have them.
And understand this:
You may already be with your dream partner, but at the moment, he or she is in disguise–and, like you, in pain. A Conscious Relationship itself is the practice you need to restore your sense of aliveness. The goal of Imago Practice is to change the power struggle and set you on the path of real love.
According to their website, the techniques look like this:
You use effective communications techniques to restructure the way you talk to each other, so that what you say is mirrored back to you, validated, and sympathized with. By stating your frustrations clearly, you articulate exactly what you need from the other person in order to heal.
In the Dialogue, both partners are motivated by the Receiver’s desire to hear and be understood, and by the Sender’s need to be heard and understood. The dialogue forces partners to devote specific uninterrupted time to the relationship.
One of the greatest learnings of Dialogue is the discovery of two distinct worlds – the realities of each person. The reality of the other person can be understood, accepted, valued and even loved, but not made to be identical to our own.
The Dialogue must also be turned into action to give our partners what they need, not just what is easy to give. In a Conscious relationship, we agree to change in order to give our partner what they need. In this, change is the catalyst for healing.
The process by which we alter our entrenched behaviors to give our partners what they need requires that we conquer our fears and do what comes unnaturally. Often we may feel that we’re losing ourselves, but we are not ourselves now. It is the crucible of change that we regain ourselves.
Over time, as our partners demonstrate their love for us, and as they learn about and accept our hidden selves, our pain and self-absorption diminishes. We restore our empathic feelings for our partners and our feelings of connection to the other that were foremost in the pain of our childhood. Finally, we learn to see our partners for themselves, and not merely as extensions of ourselves or as we wish they were.
A conscious relationship is a spiritual path which leads us home again, to joy and aliveness, to the feeling of oneness we started out with. All through the course of Imago Practice, we learn to express love as a behavior daily, in large and small ways: in other words, in stretching to give our partner what they need, we learn to love. The transformation of our relationships may not be accomplished easily or quickly; we are setting off on a lifelong journey.
Our therapist stated that without further therapeutic reinforcement, Hendrix had determined that most couples retain positive benefits of the weekend for up to 14 weeks. I can honestly say that the information we learned about each other, the depth of commitment we made, the steps we’ve already taken to change our: approach, methods, reactions, and responses; the inherent respect for each other’s similarities and differences was as if we undertook hypnosis and woke up liking…no make that loving each other more intently and more concertedly than before.
For the first time in a very, very long time, the gloves have been taken off and we’re starting back on the small, very small things – a kiss here, a glance there, and more kindness than we’ve seen in nearly our whole marriage. So, I’m sold. More importantly, I’m encouraged that I can experience the rest of our lives together in happiness and in peace.
If you are seeking a solution to the trouble in your marriage/partnership, I encourage you to try this. It requires guts, transparency and a willingness to listen and be heard. It requires a softening of the heart and the realization that what seemed unanswerable and unfixable is actually the opposite and right around your corner.
It takes so much more energy to continue with strife, pain and anger than it does to let life unfold, especially with hopefulness and less pain. Today, we stand stronger and are doing it together hand-in-hand.
Check out Cyma’s blog for new midlife mothers at www.motheringinthemiddle.com.
by Haraville Hendrix, Ph.D. & Robert Elliott, Ph.D.
Can you remember when you first fell in love? When you saw your partner with eyes of appreciation and had positive thoughts in spite of something silly or annoying they did?
And, can you remember when you lost that in love feeling? It’s natural that we fall in love and then at some point later conflict starts, disappointment sets in and we find ourselves feeling more disconnected than connected.
And then, here comes Valentine’s Day. The day the world speaks of Candy and flowers. The day we look at our not-so-perfect relationship and silently bemoan what we don’t have and put our best faces on as we make the dinner reservation, buy the obligatory card and box of chocolates and imagine that everyone else is happier than we are.
In my experience, at least 75-80% of us are in this dynamic with our partners. If you are in a marriage that is not either on the brink of divorce or being held together out of habit and convenience, then you have a rare gem and you have done something to make this happen. But unfortunately, most couples fall in love and end up in a conflictual, disconnected or distant relationship. And either the relationship dies a silent death or the couple has done something to learn how to relate intimately. They’ve learned that keeping romance in a marriage is no longer a matter of spontaneity and desire, but happens because they make it happen.
The hopeful thing is that we can all do this. You can do this! You can have a relationship that is about being yourself, being real and being intimate and passionate with your partner. So if you want to have the Valentine’s Day of your dreams, you will be thoughtful and intentional and you will plan to put romance in your relationship, not just for a day but for a lifetime. Valentine’s Day starts today. These are the things you (and I am especially talking to the men here) could do and you do them without expecting anything in return — as a free gift, as your commitment to be a better partner.
The idea is to be conscious, thoughtful and proactive about caring and loving. This is about making emotional deposit in the bank account of your relationship. This creates goodwill that we all need in our intimate relationships if we are to break out of the parallel relationship and create intimacy and caring. Give it a try. You can do it!
This is love that goes beyond Valentine’s Day candy and flowers
by Rod Kochtitzky, M.Div.
A surgeon announces his retirement at age 55. His amazed and envious colleagues ask him how he can do it.
“Simple,” he answers with a smile. “One wife, one house.”
This joke, which was bouncing around the E-mail circuit months ago, cuts to the heart of a bitter truth. Divorce often exacts a very a high cost both financial and emotional on all the people involved. And, in some cases, they keep on paying both emotionally and financially for the rest of their lives.
As a marriage and relationship counselor, I see and hear about the high cost of divorce on a daily basis. I hear alarming statistics about the high divorce rate in the United States and the toll exacted on the men, women and children involved.
But what’s really surprising is that despite the high costs divorce isn’t even more common for a simple reason: Very few of us know how love relationships work.
Although Americans tend to have a very pragmatic view of life in general, love relationships are a big exception. A lot of us view love as a holy mystery — something wonderful that “just happens.” Few of us really understand why we choose the object of our affections or why they choose us. And when the first bloom of infatuation wears off, we lack the skills and insight we need to “grow up” in the relationship. As the less than wonderful reality of living, day in and day out, year after year, with the same person sinks in, the “something wonderful that happened” just happens to die.
At that point, some couples choose divorce.
Others settle for an unrewarding “parallel” relationship. They stay together, side by side. But like two railroad tracks, they never connect.
For divorced and “parallel” couples, Valentine’s Day or anniversaries can be sad occasions. It celebrates a romantic ideal of love they’ve failed to sustain. But, ironically, people are more likely to buy a Valentine card or present that doesn’t reflect their true feelings than to invest in counseling to find out why their relationship doesn’t work.
Although counseling in general has less of a stigma today, marriage counseling is still painful territory. Try this test: When you hear that a married couple you know is “in counseling,” what’s your first thought? Did you translate that phrase almost directly into “about to get a divorce”?
In fact, couples in counseling are there to learn to understand and maintain relationships. We go to school for years to learn the language and math skills we need to get along in our society. But we receive little conscious instruction in how to do one of the most important things in our lives create and maintain a loving relationship. So the unconscious cues we pick up during childhood usually determine the way we approach relationships for the rest of our lives. By learning these skills consciously, people can choose not to repeat the negative patterns they were programmed to act out during childhood.
Most couples tell me that the worst aspect of their divorce is the sense of failure. Few want to repeat their mistakes.
And the growing numbers of people who are now in their third or fourth marriages attest to the fact that people do repeat their mistakes, over and over, in love relationships.
As a marriage counselor, it may appear a bit self-interested to promote counseling for every couple considering marriage. But I believe that every couple should be required to seek premarital counseling before they can get a marriage license. This counseling would have three purposes:
To help each couple understand why they are attracted to each other;
To introduce them to the skills they’ll need to sustain that attraction and their marriage over the long-term;
To teach them to recognize the unconscious forces at work in their relationship.
Some couples might decide they need more counseling to improve their relationship skills and their understanding of one another.
Some might discover before marriage that they aren’t ready to be in a long-term relationship.
And others will make the happy discovery that, because or regardless of the models they had while growing up, they are capable of learning new ways of relating that result in healing, growth and intimacy.
Every couple would have the opportunity to start out with a more realistic understanding of why they want to be married, what they expect to gain from their relationship, and what they’ll have to do to make it work.
However, mandated pre-marital counseling is unlikely for a host of reasons, not the least of which is cost.
Which brings us back full circle to the high cost of divorce. The cost of pre-marital counseling is a drop in that overflowing bucket.
Sue falls in love. Sue is thirty-two years old. She is grateful to find a partner. Sue believes she has a “real catch” in Tom. Sue sees Tom as strong and dependable. Tom is grateful to have found Sue. Tom sees Sue as much kinder and understanding than his first wife with whom he divorced four years ago. Tom has confidence in their maturity to handle problems. Tom and Sue have fallen in love.
It is a natural unconscious process for people to “fall in love.” It is not our conscious, rational minds that pick our partners, but instead a mechanism rooted and projected out of our unconscious minds. These unconscious projections stem from how our needs were met in our childhood years, or even more importantly, how our needs were not met. It is a natural mechanism for human beings to “fall in love” and enter a stage of Romantic Love that is blind to the negatives and to the real agenda of the couple. This stage of relationships is built on illusions.
Tom and Sue have been married for six months now. Sue is beginning to see Tom not as strong and dependable, but as stubborn and opinionated. Tom wonders what happened to his kind wife, now she seems so angry.
It is inevitable then that the second stage of all relationships is a “Power Struggle” in which the couple’s differences and unconscious needs start to clash. Fifty-five per cent of all first marriages end in divorce. The vast majority of those who do stay married move into a parallel relationship in which partners distance from each other in order to quell the conflict. Those that do not divorce often use children, jobs, hobbies, alcohol, work, etc. as buffers to the unconscious conflict.
Sue notices that she does not want to be at home as much. Sue joins an evening aerobics class. Sue wonders what has happened to her marriage. Sue reflects on her parents’ marriage. Sue remembers that her father stayed late at work, and that her mother would start drinking even before her father came home.
There is a great conspiracy of silence to the pain in marriages and to the lack of satisfaction, mutual joy, and real intimacy. Couples come to believe that they expect too much from relationships, and they either choose to divorce or to lower their expectations. They learn to expect something less than real intimacy and mutual joy. The power of the unconscious in our intimate relation-ships is seen in the statistics of how the divorce rate increases in second and third marriages. We do not naturally learn; instead, our unconscious minds continue to re-create the same unconscious power struggle — just with a different person.
How can we make love last? I believe that the answer is in understanding the purpose of marriage which is to heal and be healed. The destructive fight or flight conflict in marriage rises out of unconscious needs. When this conflict becomes conscious and understood, it points to what is broken, and provides opportunities for healing. There is a movement today that is aimed at educating and helping couples understand that what makes love last is understanding the unconscious causes of marital conflict.
Real intimacy does not happen naturally; it is something that has to be learned. The hope for lasting marriages is that we can move away from a natural and unconscious process that bogs down in the power struggle and in distant relationships. We can then enter into the process of learning to be conscious in our relationships. Real intimacy is obtained by becoming conscious of the unmet needs that underlie our relationship conflicts.
Tom and Sue decide to go for counseling. Sue feels that Tom does not respect her. Sue feels that it is as if she does not matter. Sue feels that Tom is condescending. Sue feels that Tom doesn’t listen to her. Sometimes, Sue feels as if she is invisible. Tom says that this is just like his first marriage. He wonders why Sue gets so angry and yells at him. Tom feels that Sue is very critical.
The most prevalent pattern that I witness in the relationships of couples I counsel is a hopeless shame/blame cycle in which one partner feels “invisible” and the other partner feels blamed for not being enough or for not “doing it right.” Real love is built on understanding that these negative cycles are triggered by present events that happen between the two partners, but the resulting conflict has more to do with the past than the present. Until the unconscious agenda is brought to light the couple will stay stuck. Issues may change but the pattern stays the same until the unconscious relational agenda is understood. Then individuals are empowered to change the behaviors that are so hurtful to their partners.
Sue thinks she understands Tom more. Tom is beginning to see Sue’s anger as being about her hurt. Tom is taking things less personally. They both feel that they have a very difficult road ahead, but they also have a sense of direction and hope.
Romantic love arises out of our unconscious needs. Real love and intimate relations are built out of understanding, respect, and acceptance that happen when partners see that their role is to help and heal. Conflict becomes an opportunity to heal, and marriage partners empower each other on their individual and mutual journeys toward love and meaning. This is what makes love last!