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GETTING THE LOVE YOU WANT: A Fresh Look at Relationship Dynamics
The new method is Imago (ih-MAH-go) Relationship Therapy, a mode of relationship counseling popularized by the phenomenal success of Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples written by marriage counselor Harville Hendrix. "It's the only couple model I've seen that really works," says Carol. "It's brilliant, and it's so obvious I don't see why anybody didn't think of it before."
Until recently, marital counseling was primarily the last resort for couples on the downhill road to divorce. "The old-model couple therapy was about compromise and about giving up stuff so that he and she never got what they really needed," Carol states.
It was a discouraging situation for counselors who had the role of attempting to treat long-neglected relationships, relationships characterized by long-standing grievances, emotional injuries, and communication lines severed by the icy buildup from years of marital ice storms—alternating silence and howling criticism. It was rather like a physician specializing in terminal cancer. The survival rate was very, very, very low.
"We get a lot better results now," states Carol. One of the reasons for the improvement, he says, is that couples today are more willing to seek counseling in the early stages of conflict, and the other reason is the effectiveness of Imago therapy.
"We have found some ways to absolutely guarantee the safety of the partners," states Carol, "where the therapist winds up in the neutral position and keeps them talking in a non-wounding, non-shaming way and helps them to see each other's reality."
After a hundred years of marriages based on romantic attraction and nearly three decades characterized by the search for individual satisfaction accompanied by an escalating divorce rate, we begin to question the wisdom of our decades of self search. Has our direction been wrong? Or is it simply that it was a necessary step to get here from there? With our relatively short history for self-chosen marriage partners, it could be expected that a new era would be accompanied by experimentation, error, dead-end effort and, occasionally, the "Ah ha!" of ground-breaking revelation. As a result of his deep search into the rubbish pile of human relationships, Harville Hendrix finds himself exploring the wisdom of traditional views.
"Ironically," writes Hendrix, "the more I have become involved in a psychological study of love relationships, the more I find myself siding with the more conservative proponents of marriage. I have come to believe that couples should make every effort to honor their wedding vows to stay together 'till death do us part'—not for moral reasons, but for psychological ones: fidelity and commitment appear to be conditions dictated by the unconscious mind."
Hendrix seems to think that many of us have come to see divorce as the best opportunity for personal growth. "It's not within marriage that people grow and change, according to this increasingly popular view," writes Hendrix, "It's when the marriage falls apart . . . The feeling of growth and change between marriages is an illusion; it is merely the pain that comes from exchanging one set of habituated behaviors for another."
Harville Hendrix's search for a better way was born from the very personal pain of his own failed marriage. He was a motivated man. After eight years of intensive therapy and marriage counseling, he and his wife ended their marriage, leaving him with the feeling of being a failure both as a husband and as a marriage counselor. He began a period of intense research into the mysteries of love and marriage, resulting in his Imago Relationship Therapy, an eclectic approach integrating "depth psychology, the behavioral sciences, the Western spiritual tradition, and elements of Transactional Analysis, Gestalt psychology, systems theory, and cognitive therapy."
When Hendrix began to employ these new ideas in his practice, he reports that the divorce rate among his clients dropped dramatically and marital satisfaction levels soared. His practice, he says, became "immensely rewarding."
Hendrix claims that 90% of the couples who attend his nationwide workshops and complete three months of marital counseling remain together, a vast improvement over the nearly 50% divorce rate in the general population.
The goal of Imago Relationship Therapy is to guide couples to a state Hendrix labels "conscious marriage." The conscious marriage, as explained in literature published by Hendrix's Institute for Relationship Therapy, is less than a hundred years old. Its roots go back to the 19th century when the "romantic" marriage of western culture replaced the "arranged" marriage, which had been dominant for 3,000 years. The major feature of the arranged marriage was stability, and the romantic marriage was characterized by passionate attachment. The conscious marriage, which combines stability and passion, is said to produce a result never before connected to marriage: intimacy and personal transformation. "When the energies of romantic passion are contained and stabilized by commitment and discipline," says Hendrix, "marriage becomes an emotional bond and a transformative process equal to any other structure for personal growth yet devised by human beings—including psychotherapy and religion."
The premise of Imago theory is that couples are "brought together by their unconscious minds to help each other finish childhood by healing each other's childhood wounds"—a not too appealing idea to those of us who are repelled by the idea of being a lifetime human bandage. We often forget that while we are earning blisters walking in someone else's ill-fitting moccasins, we are walking on a two-way path.
The most startling claim of Imago theory is that the most important source of our attraction to another human being is a combination of the negative traits of our childhood caretakers, usually our parents. Now for the good news: Our partner will also have a combination of the positive traits of our parents.
The other criteria in this unconscious agenda is that our prospective partners must enhance the way we want to be perceived by others, possess certain sexual characteristics, and be perceived by us as having similar desires, values and life goals, If someone meets these criteria, states the theory, "a pleasurable, often ecstatic experience occurs which dumps certain biochemicals in your blood stream, and your body and mind participate in an ageless experience called 'falling in love.'"
Even if the potential object of your affection has all these characteristics, if there is no match of parental negative traits, Imago theory holds that you may have a new friend, but there will be no bells and whistles, no fireworks, and you will not choose that person as a love partner. Thus, in the world according to Imago, the secret ingredient in the chemistry of love is the unconscious recognition of an opportunity to get what you didn't get in childhood from exactly the type of person who didn't give it to you in the first place.
"What seems illogical on the surface," states Imago theory, "makes perfect sense in the unconscious part of our minds." According to the theory, you may be consciously selecting a slim, attractive brunette because your character-disordered mother was obese and bleached her hair, or a college professor because your hypercritical father belittled educated people and ridiculed your intense interest in books. And while you are scanning the universe for candidates with just the right characteristics to suit your conscious vision, your unconscious is busy selecting from among them to serve its own purpose—and that is to connect you romantically with someone with whom you can recreate the frustrations of your childhood, a sort of childhood karma that we are meant to work out in this lifetime as adults.
Imago theory says that meeting a person with the correct mix of parental negatives and positives triggers a sense of recognition and "an anticipation that long denied needs will be met." Thus, the euphoria of new love may indeed be the harbinger of a marriage made in heaven, though not quite what we had in mind. The thin brunette with none of your mother's slovenly housekeeping habits will amazingly own your mother's disinterest in sewing on your buttons or showing proper sympathy for your bout with the flu. Your college-professor husband will sound amazingly like your father when he belittles your blue-collar background and ridicules your intense interest in feeding the homeless.
In the glow of romantic love, Hendrix states, individuals believe "their partners are going to do it all—satisfy unmet childhood needs, complement lost self-parts, nurture them in a consistent and loving way, and be eternally available to them." But, he continues, "People don't get married to take care of their partners' needs—they get married to further their own psychological and emotional growth."
Our unconscious, then, is in charge until we choose to bring its agenda to light. The "unconscious marriage," according to the theory, is a marriage that "includes all the hidden desires and automatic behaviors that are left over from childhood and that lead couples into conflict." In a conscious marriage, you and your partner satisfy each other's unmet childhood needs in positive ways.
Hendrix writes that it is necessary to "see your partner not as your savior but as another wounded human being, struggling to be healed." Psychotherapist Tony Carol uses the example of silent partners, the men and women who respond to their partners' communication attempts with silence. He explains that, while one may perceive the silence as a hateful act intended to hurt and punish, it is frequently the case that the silence is a way of trying to "save some of the agony," to avoid hurtful conflict. "We try to help people start to see what their partner is doing is a valiant attempt to make things better," explains Carol.
Why is it so difficult for us to see our partners' viewpoints? Why do we consistently see it as an uncomplicated case of right and wrong? Carol's answer to these questions is remarkable in its lack of complexity: "Because we completely accept our own reality," he states simply.
Hendrix's second book, Keeping the Love You Find: A Guide for Singles, proposes insights and exercises designed to prepare us for healthier relationships. Although most of us will laughingly admit that a perfect union is one in which the holes in his head match the rocks in hers (and vice versa), it is comforting to know that there is something to be done prior to marriage that will reduce the number of rocks and holes so that a good fit will be a more comfortable and rewarding union—and most certainly reduce the post marital lumps and bumps caused by hurling our rocks at our partners' holes.
Carol sees the current media binge on the subject of gender difference (i.e., Women Are From Venus, Men Are From Mars, among the most popular of the genre) as a disservice to the more important problem areas in couple dynamics. This opinion is partly based on his recent work with gay and lesbian couples. It is his experience that gay and lesbian couples generally don't play out sex roles, yet the dynamics are identical to heterosexual relationships. "It is more about relationship roles than sex roles," states Carol. "Couples all look alike. It just doesn't seem to matter [whether they are straight or gay]."
All relationships have certain dynamics in common, according to Carol. These same dynamics exist in friendships, as well as in marital relationships, he states.
"This model [Imago therapy] works beautifully for anybody," says Carol. Classic object relations theory, upon which Imago is based, has been around a long time, he explains. "Because it's based in such classic theory, I think we're going to see it around from now on."
Hendrix describes Imago as "the theory and practice of becoming passionate friends," and he believes that couples who go through this process "will reap the rewards of the pleasure of an exciting, passionate and stable relationship, improved physical and emotional health, a strengthened immune system, a lengthening of life and a sense of belonging to a larger reality."
"What Harville really believes," states Carol, "is that we have a whole wounded society that has to be healed, and starting with couples is just one way."
1. You realize that your love relationship has a hidden purpose—the healing of childhood wounds. Instead of focusing entirely on surface needs and desires, you learn to recognize the unresolved childhood issues that underlie them. When you look at marriage with this X-ray vision, your daily interactions take on more meaning. Puzzling aspects of your relationship begin to make sense to you, and you have a greater sense of control.
2. You create a more accurate image of your partner. At the very moment of attraction, you began fusing your lover with your primary caretakers. Later you projected your negative traits onto your partner, further obscuring your partner's essential reality. As you move toward a conscious marriage, you gradually let go of these illusions and begin to see more of your partner's truth. You see your partner not as your savior but as another wounded human being, struggling to be healed.
3. You take responsibility for communicating your needs and desires to your partner. In an unconscious marriage, you cling to the childhood belief that your partner automatically intuits your needs. In a conscious marriage, you accept the fact that, in order to understand each other, you have to develop clear channels of communication.
4. You become more intentional in your interactions. In an unconscious marriage, you tend to react without thinking. You allow the primitive response of your old brain to control your behavior. In a conscious marriage, you train yourself to behave in a more constructive manner.
5. You learn to value your partner's needs and wishes as highly as you value your own. In an unconscious marriage, you assume that your partner's role in life is to take care of your needs magically. In a conscious marriage, you let go of this narcissistic view and divert more and more of your energy to meeting your partner's needs.
6. You embrace the dark side of your personality. In a conscious marriage, you openly acknowledge the fact that you, like everyone else, have negative traits. As you accept responsibility for this dark side of your nature, you lessen your tendency to project your negative traits onto your mate, which creates a less hostile environment.
7. You learn new techniques to satisfy your basic needs and desires. During the power struggle, you cajole, harangue, and blame in an attempt to coerce your partner to meet your needs. When you move beyond this stage, you realize that your partner can indeed be a resource for you—once you abandon your self-defeating tactics.
8. You search within yourself for the strengths and abilities you are lacking. One reason you were attracted to your partner is that your partner had strengths and abilities that you lacked. Therefore, being with your partner gave you an illusory sense of wholeness. In a conscious marriage, you learn that the only way you can truly recapture a sense of oneness is to develop the hidden traits within yourself.
9. You become more aware of your drive to be loving and whole and united with the universe. As part of your God-given nature, you have the ability to love unconditionally and to experience unity with the world around you. Social conditioning and imperfect parenting made you lose touch with these qualities. In a conscious marriage, you begin to rediscover your original nature.
10. You accept the difficulty of creating a good marriage. In an unconscious marriage, you believe that the way to have a good marriage is to pick the right partner. In a conscious marriage you realize you have to be the right partner. As you gain a more realistic view of love relationships, you realize that a good marriage requires commitment, discipline, and the courage to grow and change; marriage is hard work.