People always ask me, “what is the #1 reason couples seek out your help?” Without a doubt, the answer is problems with communication. We’ve all heard that the key to a healthy relationship is good, honest communication, right? That sounds simple enough…until you actually try it. The truth is that when two people come together to form a bond, they aren’t just bringing themselves to the table. They are also bringing all of their past hurts, traumas, and negative experiences as well. And it’s these latent explosives that can wreak havoc on an otherwise easy conversation.
That’s why one of the first things I work on with all couples in session is communication. More specifically, I use a communication technique called the Imago Dialogue from Dr. Harville Hendrix’s best-selling book “Getting The Love You Want.” This is my all time favorite book for couples and one that I recommend for everyone! Much of my work with couples is based on techniques from Dr. Hendrix’s therapeutic framework called Imago Therapy. Imago therapy really helps us to get to the core of the issue right away so that couples can start making real progress in healing their relationship issues. By now, you’re probably saying, “Imago…what the heck is that?”
The term “Imago,” refers to an internalized, yet, unconscious image of your ideal mate. Your “Imago” is a conglomeration of traits (good and bad) from individuals that played important roles in your childhood (i.e. parents, siblings, grandparents, babysitters, etc.) The idea behind Imago Therapy is that we have all been deeply affected by our upbringing, and that most of us have internalized this “perfect” vision of who we want for our partner without even realizing it. You go through life unconsciously searching for your Imago…the person that feels like home.
When you meet that special someone, you are ecstatic. Your conscious and unconscious minds are singing with joy at having found someone that truly makes you feel safe and complete. But after a while, you start to project your own unconscious wishes and past hurts from childhood onto your lover and that’s where your communication troubles begin. So, to prevent your unconscious needs from ruining your relationship, you have to practice talking to your partner on a conscious level, where you can keep your intentions clear and differentiate between your past and present needs.
Sound complicated? This is deep work so that’s why it’s great to have a skilled couples therapist guide you through this process and help you really tease out what unconscious hurts and needs are affecting your relationship. That being said, a great place to start at home is with a specific three-step communication technique called the “Imago Dialogue Process.”
The Imago Dialogue:Before you start, decide who will be the sender and who will be the receiver. After completing all three steps, you will switch roles and take the opposite stance. It’s best to choose an issue that is not very emotional to practice with at first so you can focus more on learning the process than what you are talking about. It’s easy to get off track fast if you begin with a heated debate. The steps proceed as follows:
Step One: Mirroring
The sender tells the receiver how she feels about something using “I statements,” which focus on how she feels, without shaming or blaming anyone. Try to keep your communication short – 30 second to a minute at the most. The receiver then paraphrases the sender’s statements by saying something like, “Let me see if I understand what you are saying. You said that you feel hurt when I interrupt your sentences. Is that right?” The sender can then correct the receiver if necessary, and the receiver can ask, “Is there more to that?” until the entire message is understood. Do not move onto step 2 until the receiver has correctly paraphrased and understood everything the sender said.
Step Two: Validation
In this part of the process, the receiver lets the sender know that she is making sense to him. He can use phrases like, “What you said makes sense,” or “I can understand what you are saying, given that you were interrupted so often as a child.” In this way, the receiver is conveying his comprehension of the sender’s message and validating that what she says makes sense and is valid. Note: It’s not necessary for the receiver to agree with the sender here! All that is required is a sense of understanding and validation. You can agree that a point makes sense without sharing the same point of view.Step Three: Empathy
This is where the receiver gets the opportunity to show the sender that he gets what she is feeling. He might say something like, “I imagine that you must be feeling hurt. Is that right?” And the sender can agree or correct the feeling offered.
While these exercises might feel a little formal, especially for people who have likely seen each other pee, they are incredibly helpful. In the beginning it’s helpful to have the script and a structure to follow because these skills are not in most couples normal repertoire. The goal, through practice, is to make validation and empathy a natural part of your everyday dialogue to the point where you don’t need the script anymore.
Remember, when talking to your partner, you are dealing with a host of unseen forces that can affect your behavior. Putting structure and direction around sticky topics can be just the buffer you and your loved one need in order to hear each other more effectively. And then you can focus on the really important things, like who gets to use the bathroom first!
If you would like more information on how to improve you and your partner’s communication skills, contact me or check out Couples Learn – an innovative new online community for couples seeking more trust, intimacy and communication in their relationships. Either way, I am here to help!