The following article is by an Imago therapist and friend of mine from Atlanta. The article is about "symbiosis". Learning to break the fusion of emotional symbiosis is learning how to have healthy boundaries. You might remember me talking about two kinds of boundaries -- an internal boundary and an external one. We use our internal boundary to contain ourselves, for example when we "park" our feelings and thoughts as we begin the listening or receiving role in a dialog. The external boundary is the one that Louis is describing below. This is the boundary that helps us accept our partner for whom they are without fearing that we will be absorbed by their mood or their way of being or even their way of seeing things. It is our lack of a boundary and our fear of absorption that motivates us to want to change or fix our partners rather than accept them and love them where they are and for whom they are. Growing healthy internal and external boundaries is an act of consciousness and can be a byproduct of regular dialog! Peace, rod
At the beginning of our second meeting Jane told her husband of 25 years that she had felt sad and depressed the previous week, had not shared that with him and wished to do so now using the couples dialogue. Before Harold could get himself ready to contain his reactivity so he could mirror, he urgently said, "I can listen to you but I just have to tell you it upsets me when you get sad and don't feel good. When you are sad, I am sad and I want to make you feel better." This opening led to an incredible dialogue about the effect of this sybiosis (although they didn't use the word) on their relationship. Jane replied that her pain causes Harold so much discomfort that she did not usually share it with him. Jane knew that Harold could not tolerate her feeling sad or bad and said, "So I withdraw from you and share that with someone who will accept that in me." Some partners may take a different defensive strategy and attack or argue, but the effect on the relationship is the same: Love is diminished because the partners cannot allow the other to be separate and different.
A very useful formulation of how Real Love differs from romantic love is made by Tom Malone and Pat Malone in their book, The Art of Intimacy. They conceptualize Real Love as having two components: Closeness and Intimacy. Closeness resembles romantic love yet is vastly different. In romantic love the symbiosis and fusion are glorified: we think alike, we feel alike, we want the same things. Separateness threatens the sybiosis of romantic love. The Closeness of Real Love includes the warm contact found in romantic love along with the conscious and <strong><u>unconscious</u></strong> awareness that the partner is a separate "other." The epitome of the closeness of Real Love is the experience of partners' lying next to each other after making love, ego boundaries somewhat fused by the orgasmic experience, yet intact and separate. Most of us, who are addicted to closeness, "closeness junkies" as I have called myself, are attracted to the symbiosis of romantic love. However, romantic love allows for no separate "other" that is experienced in the closeness of Real Love.
Closeness is seen by the Malones as an affirmation of the connection that allows for the separateness while Intimacy is conceptualized as an affirmation of the Separateness that allows connection. Intimacy is the experience of one's being wholly herself or himself while sharing the same life space with a partner who is being himself or herself also. Thus intimacy may be the experience of one partner, excited and filled with joy and expectation about a new project or idea, being in the presence of the other partner who is experiencing a profound sadness or loss. Harold could experience his excitement about life while he is fully present in the relationship with Jane as she is experiencing her sadness and depression.
My existential learning of this kind of being present occurred with my wife, Linda, a few years ago. Periodically she would return home from her corporate job feeling beat down and blue. I would be eagerly waiting for her return home so we could talk and share. When I would lie next to her or sit by her with the verbal or nonverbal intent to "cheer her up," things would seem to turn worse. I did not understand her saying in some of our arguments during this period in our relationship that I did not accept who she was. Now I can see how symbiotic I was being. There would be a much different result when I began to break my symbiosis with her. When Linda would come home feeling down or blue, I would sit or lie next to her just to be with her and not to change her. Often no words would be exchanged. Then I might get up and become involved in my own pursuits, feeling connected to Linda. Slowly I learned that being with Linda meant being with her as she is - not as I want her to be.
A couple who is struggling over their core scene as a couple may be very intimate and connected but not feel close. They may also experience an intense closeness during a time of struggle over issues that separate them.
The challenge to a couple who is breaking the symbiosis is to be both separate and connected. Our cultural models lead us to perceive real love as romantic love, even if we know better consciously. When romantic love ends we continue our search for this kind of illusory "real love." Understanding that Real Love includes both Closeness and Intimacy will challenge the partner who is more comfortable with distance as well as the partner who prefers more contact.
by Haraville Hendrix, Ph.D. & Robert Elliott, Ph.D.
COVID-19 has impacted and rearranged all of our lives. Out of necessity, we spend more time together, often living in close quarters. How we relate to each other, how we give and receive love, and the quality of that love, is particularly important for our health and well-being. If you are interested in living a conscious, loving relationship, the steps that follow are for you.
Recently I was at the eye doctor when a staff member discovered I was a marriage and family therapist. This piqued her interest, and she promptly inquired “What is the secret of a good relationship? Do you have any tips?” After 30 years in the business of helping couples heal and grow in their relationships, I responded, “Yes, I do.”
As I started to enumerate some of what I had learned personally and professionally over the years, the staff member said, “Wait, wait. I want to write all this down.” As she was carefully recording my comments, the wonderful doctor in charge glanced in through the door in search of his valuable employee. The staff member met the doctor’s gaze and realized that she was lingering a little too long. Given how busy the office was, our conversation had to remain unfinished.
The outcome of this unfinished conversation was the inspiration for this article. So, you could say, that both the staff member and the doctor are the reason this piece of writing exists. While there are numerous thoughts on the subject of relationship, I doubt that many of them were inspired by a trip to the eye doctor during a global pandemic. Based on years of professional and personal experience, here are 12 steps to use as guides. If two people are open to grow and willing to plant their feet and do their work, these steps will enable them to create the relationship of their dreams.
1) EMOTIONAL SAFETY
First and foremost, diligently focus on creating an emotionally safe environment for the relationship to grow. Emotional safety enables you to truly be yourself and to show up in a relationship. Otherwise you live, for the most part, in a survival mode, never free to be yourself. What I have observed is that when a partner feels emotionally safe, the best version of that person shows up. When the safety isn’t there, this caring, loving person can quickly turn into the “wicked witch of the west” or an “angry ogre.” Emotional safety impacts the behavior of both women and men, and the tips that follow all contribute to increasing emotional safety in a relationship.
2) SELF- LOVE
Developing a healthy self-love is critical for two reasons. First, it is well-known that our capacity to love others and for others to love us, is directly related to our capacity to love ourselves. Secondly, when we are filled with self-loathing, shame, feelings of anger, self-rejection, toxic self-criticism, feeling not good enough, these negative feelings get projected onto others, and then we blame others and make them responsible for the way we feel. When we blame others for the way we feel, we often criticize and attack others until we unconsciously get them to respond to us the way we are feeling about ourselves. Not infrequently, when these individuals are given love they are unable to receive it.. “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself you have built up against it.” - Rumi
3) DELETE NEGATIVITY
Notice how quickly transformation takes place when you adopt the message of Jon Kabat-Zen, “Write yourself a restraining order against self-criticism and criticism of others.” When you ask something of someone, make sure there is no negativity or implication of ‘wrongness’ in the request. For example, ‘wrongness’ is implied when you say, “You never think to take the garbage out.” Such a message communicates how wrong and deficient the person is. Positive words that would maintain the loving connection while getting the message across could look like this, “Something I really appreciate, is when you remember to take the garbage out. It makes my day!”
Research shows that gratitude is one of the fastest ways to transform a relationship and bring it to a new level. Express appreciation and gratitude every day to your loved ones and those who are significant in your life. Not only does it stimulate positive chemicals in the brain of the receiver but also in the brain of the giver. Gratitude, according Brother David Steindl-Rast, “…can change the world immensely. If you are grateful, you are not fearful, if you are not fearful, you are not violent, and you act out of a sense of enough…and are willing to share.”
5) CHOOSE YOUR WORDS AND TONE OF VOICE
The words you use and the tone of your voice are some of the most powerful connectors on the planet but they’re also powerful disconnectors. Your words, as well as your tone of voice, have the power to foster connection, inspire, encourage, uplift and validate. They can also extinguish a mountain of joy, destroy through toxic criticism, diminish hope, and leave others feeling shamed, blamed, and not good enough. Your words have the power to breathe life into someone or take someone’s light away.
6) COMMUNICATION SKILLS
Three simple skills that foster connection within a relationship are mirroring, validation and empathy. These skills make an enormous difference. As Paul Tillich tells us the first duty of love is to listen. For example: your partner says, “As soon as it is safe to travel, I want to take off for a long vacation.” Imagine if the response to your partner sounded like this, “Just forget it. We don’t have that kind of money.” This dampens the partner’s desires and they feel unheard and devalued. A better way to respond is with mirroring, validation and empathy. To MIRROR (reflecting back): you’d say, “So when we get beyond Covid-19, you would love to travel and take a long vacation.” To VALIDATE: (Validation doesn’t mean you agree, but that you understand why the person thinks that given their circumstance.), you’d say, “That makes sense, after being cooped up for so long.” To EMPATHIZE (acknowledging the feelings): You’d say “I imagine with a vacation like that you might feel really excited, very free and happy. Did I get that right?”.” For further information on communication skills, see: SafeConversations.com.
Good boundaries are important for any relationship. Imagine two people standing in hula hoops where each one is an authority in their own space. Problems occur when someone acts like they have authority over someone else’s space. When intruding, people often use “You statements” like, “You always feel…,” “You think…;” “You never …” These are almost always boundary violations, so instead, try using “I” statements to express your concerns. In contrast to “You statements,” “I statements” keep you safely in your own space. “I felt disappointed when…”
8) OWNERSHIP OF FEELINGS
When two people are having problems communicating with each other, you will inevitably see what is known in our profession as the “Projection/Personalizing Dance.” In this dance, neither person is taking ownership for their feelings. If not transcended, it is a frequent destroyer of a potentially good relationship. The Projector often resorts to anger. When this happens, the feelings that come up in the projector’s “well” are not owned, rather they are “missiled” over to someone else. Projected remarks sound like, “You made me feel unimportant.” “You made me feel embarrassed.” In reality, all the partner can ever do is trigger, or bring up, the feelings already in the person’s “well.” The partner does not cause them. The feelings of unimportance, shame, guilt, inferiority, rejection, have to already be present in the Projector’s “well” otherwise these feelings would not come up, regardless of what the partner says. Think of a bullet without powder in it. No matter how often you pull the trigger, the bullet will not fire. Eleanor Roosevelt said it best, “No one can make you feel inferior, unless you consent to it.”
To break the habit of projection in relationship, it is very helpful to start conversations with, “I know these feelings are more about me than you, but it would really help me if I could process them with you.” Notice the different response you get from your partner when you take ownership for your feelings. The person you are conversing with will relax and listen because they know you are not going to dump what is not theirs onto them.
The Personalizers, on the other hand, often feels pain, hurt or rejection, frequently of their own making. This happens because Personalizers takes what the Projector says, or how they behave, and makes it say something about them. Because the personalizers lacks good boundaries, pain, hurt and rejection are frequent companions. In good relationships, it is understood that feelings always say more about the person feeling them. Personalizers are like a sponge, taking in everybody else’s feelings and behaviors, making these feelings and behaviors say something about them. They take in what is not theirs to own.
Personalizing is often present when a partner says. “If my spouse loved me, they wouldn’t say that.” or “If my spouse loved me, they wouldn’t do that.” But frequently, this is not the case. The unacceptable words or behaviors are more often due to conditioned patterns of communicating, lack of self- love or unconscious behavior. These patterns don’t necessarily connote a lack of love for the partner.
Remember, you do not need a perfect partner, only a partner open to growth. The task of a conscious relationship is to assist each other to grow beyond the unfinished business we each bring into the relationship. We do this by listening with compassion and by engaging in loving respectful feedback when requesting what we need. The exchange goes much better when we begin the dialogue with the sentence referenced above, “I know these feelings are more about me than you…” Then, let your partner know what words or behavior you would appreciate that would help you feel more emotionally safe.
Some years ago, I encountered a young teacher who was feeling hurt and in deep pain because she discovered that her husband, who owned his own business, had been acting out his sexual addiction for years. Subsequently, she spent a few weeks at a well-known treatment center to help her cope. When I met her again, some months later, she looked very different, happy and feeling good about herself. When I inquired about the transformation, her response was that she had developed a new awareness, namely, that his behaviors were not about her, and they did not reflect who she was as a person. Once she stopped personalizing his “stuff,” she became her beautiful self once again.
Good relationships are joyous and fun-filled and lightened by laughter. Laughter relaxes your whole body, boosts your immune system, triggers the release of endorphins, protects your heart, diffuses conflict and attracts others to you and much more. In your relationship, try to consciously engage in behaviors that increase humor and laughter. Play a game of Scattergories, share some jokes from online, tap into a laughing yoga class, watch a funny movie, or just stand and face each other and have a good belly laugh. This will ensure some lightness in the relationship.
10) BE INTENTIONAL
The brilliant cell biologist, Dr. Bruce Lipton, teaches us how powerful thoughts are either for improving the immune system or diminishing it. This renowned researcher encourages us to be much more conscious of what we put into our bodies and the impact this has on our health and relationships. When you worry, you are energizing what you don’t want in your life, calling it towards you. Consciously energizing and being intentional about what you do want in your life and in your relationship make a profound difference in the outcome. For a deeper understanding of the power of intentions, thoughts and beliefs, listen to his life-changing talk on YouTube, “What You Think You Become.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GiBDm7Za-2U Create your own story. Choose love over fear.
Forgiveness is never about condoning the words, actions or behaviors of the oppressor, abuser or offender. Forgiveness is about activating your internal power. It is about taking back the power another has tried to take from you and nurturing a healthy self-love. Love is your essence. If you awaken this aspect of yourself, no one can take it from you. Forgiveness is about making a firm determination not to carry the “stuff” of the oppressor, abuser or offender in your body. You rid your cells of any shame, guilt, self-rejection or displaced anger that may have been projected onto you. It doesn’t belong to you. Your desire is to be your authentic self, releasing from your body all negative debris that could damage your health. When Nelson Mandela was asked if he hated those who made him a prisoner for 26 of the best years of his life, his response was, “…if you hate them…you will still be their prisoner. I wanted to be free, so I let go.” Forgiveness sets me free.
One of the best ways to create more peace, joy and serenity in a relationship is to engage in the practice of meditation. Meditation puts the body in a state of deep relaxation where the nervous system becomes calm, releasing damaging stress. Meditation takes a couple’s relationship to a more conscious level where harmony, emotional balance, and a deepening of the relationship occur. To help those in a significant relationship achieve this, my husband, Dr. David McKeon and I, have produced a set of meditations. These meditations may be downloaded for free from any of the music outlets like Spotify, Pandora, Apple music. To access these meditations type in Thriving in Relationship: 21-Day Meditations for Couples.
In closing, a good relationship will certainly sprout, grow and flourish if we choose to communicate with kindness, take responsibility for our emotions, and live out the powerful words of the beloved Congressman John R. Lewis , “… walk with the wind … and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”
By Dr. Margie McKeon. Dr. McKeon is a long- time resident of Rockwall. Along with her husband, Dr. David McKeon, she earned her doctoral degree in Counseling with an emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy from Texas A & M, Commerce, TX. The McKeons have been serving the Rockwall community and surrounding areas as licensed Marriage and Family therapists for over 30 years. Together they produced 21-Day Mediations for Couples. Dr. Margie McKeon has also published “Love Is All There Is,” a compilation of inspiring quotes to encourage readers to develop healthy self-love essential for a good relationship. www.daveandmargie.com.
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!
By Philip Chanin, Ed.D., ABPP, CGP
Board Certified Clinical Psychologist
Assistant Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry
Vanderbilt University Medical Center
“Any occasion when a more mature part of oneself cuts into an habitual, dysfunctional reaction is an instance of recovery. It is an example of what (my wife) Belinda calls relational heroism,
those moments when every muscle and nerve in your body is pulling you toward your old set of responses, and yet a new force lifts you up off the accustomed track toward deliberate, constructive action—toward repair. Just an intimacy’s degenerative course is comprised of thousands of small moments of disconnection, relational recovery is comprised of such moments of grace. They are the atoms of regeneration.” (Real, Terrence. How Can I Get Through To You?: Reconnecting Men and Women, pp. 243-244)
Since reading this book almost 20 years ago, I have found many of Terry Real’s concepts, such as relational heroism, to be particularly compelling and vitally important in my psychotherapy work with individual and couples. In this article, I would like to outline twelve of the most useful strategies and principles that I utilize with couples on a daily basis in my practice. These are concepts which come mostly from the work of Terrence Real, John Gottman, David Celani, and Pema Chodron.
1. Develop and practice an Internal Boundary in order to not take things personally:
In How Can I Get Through to You?, Terry Real explains an extremely effective strategy for not taking what my partner says or does personally. This strategy involves developing an “internal boundary,” which Real describes as a kind of “internal technology.” (See my article “The Internal Boundary: An Effective Strategy for Not Taking What My Partner Says Personaly”). Real states, “Over the years, I have found that this one skill of defining boundaries, all on its own, particularly when practiced by both partners, can radically transform a relationship.”
The internal boundary is an invisible shield that I psychically construct that protects me from anything that my partner says or does that may invoke my anger or defensive reactions. With an internal boundary in place, Real proposes, “the nastiest comment, the most raw feeling—an emotional atom bomb could go off and you would remain unfazed. Inside your circle you can afford to be open, spacious, curious, relaxed.”
Real elaborates: “The important thing to remember about practicing an internal boundary is precisely that it is a practice, similar to getting physically fit…Although it takes months, even years, of slow, steady effort before an internal boundary becomes consistent, most people experience an exhilarating glimpse of its effects within a few weeks.”
“The lack of an internal boundary inevitably leads to control or withdrawal. If there is no membrane between you and whatever external stimulus gets thrown at you, then you attempt to regulate your own level of comfort or discomfort by managing the stimulus. (‘I could be happy, if only you were less angry.’). When control fails, the only other option is withdrawal.” (pp. 239-241)
2. Recognize the destructive and long lasting impact of your anger and rage: In her recorded 3 CD set on anger entitled Don’t Bite the Hook, the renowned Tibetan Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chodron gives a Dharma talk based on a lecture by the 8th century Indian monk Shanti Deva, who states, “Good works gathered in a thousand ages, such as deeds of generosity or offerings to the blissful ones—a single flash of anger shatters them.” (See my article: “Anger Management From Both Buddhist and Western Psychological Perspectives: ‘Don’t Bite the Hook.’”)
In her commentary, Pema Chodron says, “It causes so much damage to us. Your temper erupts violently and you are either verbally or physically abusive. It shocks our system so deeply---it shatters a lot of good will—it can take a long time to get back to where you were. A single blast of anger shatters the good you have done.” It’s not going too far to say that a single episode of anger may destroy a lifetime of good will and permanently damage a marital relationship.
3. Utilize Time-Outs to stem the escalation of anger: I work with many couples who have repeatedly allowed their conflicts to escalate to a destructive degree, with massive hurt feelings and often long periods of icy coldness and stonewalling as a result. I teach all of the couples with whom I work about the importance of taking time-outs. In his most recent book, The New Rules of Marriage, Terry Real states, “The best defense against verbal abuse is a formal time-out.” He writes:
“While you have probably heard of this technique and possibly used it with your children, time-outs work equally well with ‘unruly’ adults. When either partner calls a time-out—by saying the word ‘time-out,’ by using the ‘T’ hand signal, or by using any agreed-upon sign—the interaction comes to an immediate stop. The spoken or gestured signal is understood by both partners to be an abbreviation of the following words:
‘Dear partner, for whatever reason, right or wrong, I am about to lose it. If I stay here and keep this up with you I am liable to do or say something stupid that I know I’m going to regret. Therefore, I am taking a break to get a grip on myself and calm down. I will check back in with you responsibly.’
Real continues: “Notice that the time-out is always taken from an ‘I’ position, never from a ‘you’ position. It’s a singularly bad idea to tell your partner that he is being a brat and he needs to take a time-out. You take it…Telling your partner that he needs a break…virtually guarantees an argument…Once the contract has been agreed to in advance, either partner has the right to leave the interaction whenever he or she chooses, and should not be stopped…When reconnecting after a time-out, you must take a 24-hour moratorium on the subject that triggered the initial fight. After the time-out is over, whether it’s 20 minutes or an entire day, when you move back into contact with each other, do not discuss the topic that started you off. If you do, you run a great risk of just getting wound up again.” (pp. 106-108)
4. Don’t take personally what my partner says when they are in their “Wounded Self”:
The author David Celani, in his books The Illusion of Love and Leaving Home, develops the concept of the “wounded self.” In all of us, our wounded self is the repository of all the negative and painful and hurtful experiences of our lives. Thus, what lives in the wounded self are the feelings of anger, hurt, shame, humiliation, and resentment. When a couple begins fighting, the wounded self of one or both partners in very quickly triggered. At this point, one is in an altered state, not in the rational cerebral cortex part of one’s brain. In this altered state, a partner says such things as “I hate you, screw you, I want a divorce!” Too often partners take personally what their partner is saying in this altered state. This is the time when it’s absolutely critical to utilize one’s “internal boundary” so as not to take to heart what one’s partner is saying and then ruminate about it for hours or days
5. Resist the urge to “offend from the victim position”: It is extremely common is an argument for either partner to feel that what the other partner has just said is unfair, unkind, and untrue. Often the experience is one of feeling victimized by one’s partner. Terrence Real suggests that often the result is an outburst of “offending from the victim position.” By this he means that when I feel victimized by what my partner has said or done, I then feel entitled to “go on the offensive”, destructively attacking my partner back with more hurtful and angry words.
6. Let go of “needing to be right”: In his book The New Rules of Marriage, Terry Real describes “needing to be right” as the foremost “losing strategy” in marriage. Describing the conflict between one couple, Real writes, “They each feel the need to be right, marshalling their evidence and arguing their case, two lawyers before the court…Like many couples, they try to resolve their differences by eradicating them. Faced with contrasting views…the way to end the argument, they think, is to determine which version is the more accurate. They are in an objectivity battle…Instead of being a battle for the relationship, it is a constant war about who is right and who is wrong.” (pp. 38-39)
In what may sound like a radical proposition, Real goes on to write, “Objective reality has no place in close personal relationships…From a relationship-savvy point of view, the only sensible answer to the question ‘Who’s right and who’s wrong is ‘Who cares?’…You can be right or you can be married. What’s more important to you?” (p. 40).
John Gottman, in his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, takes the same stand. Gottman writes, “Another important lesson I have learned is that in all arguments, both solvable and perpetual, no one is ever right. There is no absolute reality in marital conflict, only two subjective realities.” (p. 150). In The Sayings of Sengstan, The 3rd Zen Patriarch, is the phrase “…only cease to cherish opinions.” Notice that he doesn’t say to not have opinions, but instead to not cherish them!
7. Implicit in letting go of the “need to be right” is the necessity of accepting my partner’s distortions. Many arguments persist because one or both partners keep trying to correct the others “incorrect version” of a conversation or conflict. Much better to accept the fact that frequently two partners have very different memories about an event or argument that took place in the past, and that it is fruitless and often destructive to keep trying to correct my partner’s reality.
8. Metabolize resentments. Much heartache in marriage results from one or both partners brooding endlessly over resentments from the past, and as a result chronically feeling hurt or used or taken advantage of. These resentments create emotional distance and and an ongoing vulnerability to being triggered into anger or antagonism. John Gottman writes that happily married couples “communicate their fundamental fondness and respect. Whatever issue they are discussing, they give each other the message that they love and respect each other, ‘warts and all.’”
Gottman continues: “When couples are not able to do this, sometimes the problem is that they are unable to forgive each other for past differences. It’s all too easy to hold a grudge. For a marriage to go forward happily, you need to pardon each other and give up on past resentments.” (pp. 154-155)
9. Humbly acknowledge “projective identification”: In his provocative book, Should You Leave?, psychiatrist Peter Kramer writes cogently about this powerful dynamic that is at play in much of marital conflict. Projective identification is the process whereby I unconsciously provoke my partner into acting like my difficult parent. Kramer writes, “Some of what you complain about in your partner is of your own making.” (p. 220)
Recognizing that projective identification operates is most all relationships helps us to develop more humility and compassion toward our partners. It is not simply that my partner has a personality that is difficult for me to handle, although that may also be true. In fact, I share responsibility for my partner’s traits and behaviors. I am unconsciously provoking my partner to act in ways that may drive me crazy!
Knowing that this is the case helps me to continue to work on my tendencies toward blaming or defensiveness, as well as on my self-differentiation, which has been defined as “resistance to the interpersonal contagion of anxiety (or anger).” Kramer writes, “Differentiation of self is very largely the capacity to resist, and to resist employing, projective identification.” (p. 216)
10. Develop and utilize “Dead-Stop Contracts”: In The New Rules of Marriage, Terry Real describes a powerful strategy for interrupting marital conflicts. He writes, “If I feel, rightly or wrongly, that you are behaving in ways that reinforce my Core Negative Image of you—if I feel, for instance, that old, horrible feeling of being bossed around by you—I will signal a dead-stop. And you agree in advance that whenever you hear that signal, understanding that your behavior is Core Negative Image triggering, you will come to a dead-stop—whether you agree with my perception or not.”
Real continues: “Let’s say, for example, that my Core Negative Image of you is that you’re a big bully. Whether I am nuts for feeling bullied by you in this particular instance or not, you agree, upon hearing my signal, to stop whatever it is that you are saying or doing on a dime. Instead of continuing, you agree to turn to me and say your version of ‘I’m so sorry. I don’t mean to bully you. Forgive me. Is there anything I can say or do right now that might help you feel better?’ On my side, I promise not to use this as a moment to give you a hard time but rather to appreciate your effort and move on as quickly as possible.”
Real concludes with the following admonition: “When you agree to use a dead-stop contract, nothing short of physical safety takes precedence over your goal of stopping your repetitive pattern. No matter what you think your partner may be doing, you pledge to honor your side of the contact.” (p. 90)
11. Recognize that we can only work on ourselves: Brentwood psychologist Dr. Rick Taran has written, “Relationships are God’s clever 12 step program for self-improvement.” Dr. Lee Blackwell, in his paper “Understanding Personality Dynamics in Relationships” (2002), writes, “We can only work on ourselves. When we try to work on others, they resist being controlled, even if it is for their own good. There seems to be something in human nature that says, ‘I have to feel free to choose.’…Thus it is a waste of time and totally counterproductive for partners to try to change each other. A better approach is for each to hear criticism as something the other is experiencing, not as something that they are objective about. When we feel free to decide what to work on in ourselves, we will be much more diligent and sincere in our efforts.”
John Gottman has expressed very similar ideas. Gottman writes, “The basis for coping effectively with (problems) is the same: communicating basic acceptance of your partner’s personality. Human nature dictates that it is virtually impossible to accept advice from someone unless you feel that that person understands you…It’s just a fact that people can change only if they feel that they are basically liked and accepted as they are. When people feel criticized, disliked, and underappreciated, they are unable to change. Instead, they feel under siege and dig in to protect themselves.” (p. 149)
12. Recognize that the majority (69%, according to John Gottman) of marital conflicts are perpetual and not resolvable. Gottman writes that “Despite their difference, (happy) couples remain very satisfied with their marriages because they have hit upon a way to deal with their unbudgeable problem so it doesn’t overwhelm them. They’ve learned to keep it in its place and to have a sense of humor about it.”
“In other words, they are constantly working it out, for the most part good-naturedly. At times it gets better, other times it gets worse. But because they keep acknowledging the problem and talking about it, their love for each other isn’t overwhelmed by their difference. These couples intuitively understand that problems are inevitably part of the relationship, much the way chronic physical ailments are inevitable as you get older.”
“Psychologist Dan Wile said it best in his book After the Honeymoon: ‘When choosing a long-term partner…you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems that you’ll be grappling with for the next ten, twenty, or fifty years.’” Gottman adds, “Marriages are successful to the degree that the problems you choose are ones you can cope with…”
Gottman concludes: “In unstable marriages, perpetual problems…eventually kill the relationship. Instead of coping with the problem effectively, the couple gets gridlocked over it. They have the same conversation about it over and over again. They just spin their wheels, resolving nothing. Because they make no headway, they feel increasingly hurt, frustrated, and rejected by each other…They are on the course toward parallel lives and inevitable loneliness—the death knell of any marriage.” (pp. 130-132)
I began this article by introducing the concept of “relational heroism,” and the sentence, “Any occasion when a more mature part of oneself cuts into an habitual, dysfunctional reaction is an instance of recovery.” The relational work involved in building a successful marriage involves developing new neural pathways in our brains, in which we are able to resist the powerful urge to repeat dysfunctional and destructive communication patterns.
This relational work is not completed in a day or a week or a month. As Terry Real states in describing the construction of an “internal boundary,” “…it takes months, even years, of slow, steady effort before an internal boundary becomes consistent.” Ultimately, as Pema Chodron writes in her book Comfortable with Uncertainty, “Interrupting our destructive habits and awakening our heart is the work of a lifetime.” (p. 153)
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
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.
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!
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.