At LoveRelations, we ask couples who come to us: “What do you argue about most?” The answers we receive are almost universal: children, money, too much time spent at work/with friends. There are, sadly, a handful of flashpoints such as these in most relationships. However, strip these issues down and most couples will admit that their arguments or conflicts have one or two repeating themes: “I don’t feel loved enough” or “I feel criticised” are two of the most common core wounds which get activated in our intimate relationships.
The renowned relationship psychotherapist, Dr Harville Hendrix, developed a form of relationship therapy, known as Imago. Imago relationship therapy suggests that we pick a romantic partner who is very much like the opposite sex parent or care-giver. An “imago” is an image which is built into our subconscious. It contains all the positive and negative qualities of our caregiver(s) who raised us. This becomes a template for our romantic partner.
The term Imago is Latin for “image,”and refers to the “unconscious image of familiar love.” Simply put, there is often a connection between the frustrations experienced in adult relationships and early childhood experiences. For example: If you frequently felt criticized as a child, you will likely be sensitive to any criticism from, and feel criticized often by your partner. Likewise, if you felt abandoned, smothered, neglected, etc., these feelings will come up in your marriage/committed relationships.
Most people face only a few of these “core issues,” but they typically arise again and again within partnerships. This can overshadow all that is good in the relationship, leaving people to wonder if they have chosen the right mate. Often a couple will come to LoveRelations and say that the force of their arguments is so strong, it overshadows all the good in the relationship. “I’ve picked the wrong person”, said one client, recently. “I often fantasise about leaving,” says another.
Clients are sometimes shocked when we say: “if you leave this relationship, you’ll only have to deal with it in your next one.” This is not a deliberately cruel intervention. We are helping couples to learn to recognise how their early relationship experiences affect how we communicate, behave and respond in adult, romantic relationships.
Most of the conflict which has a painful “charge” are only 10% about the present situation and 90% about some past wound that is causing pain now. So here is the good news: When you can understand each other’s feelings and “childhood wounds” more empathically, you can begin to heal yourself and your relationship, and move toward a more conscious relationship.
One of the tools we use at LoveRelations to resolve conflict and restore connection, is the Imago Dialogue. Dialogue is different from discussion. Discussion between partners already in conflict can often keep the conflict going round in a loop. When we are listening to our partners, we are often simply planning how to respond. We maybe figuring out how to show them that they are wrong, or how to defend ourselves from things they say that we don’t want to hear.
What we have just described is not really a relationship between you and your partner. It is what the philosopher Martin Buber called an “I-it” relationship. We are not really dealing with our partner’s reality, we are merely focussing on making the best or most defended expression of ourselves.
Dialoguing helps couples to cut through their natural defences to create a more genuine connection, which Buber called the “I-You” state. When both partners are honestly and openly involved in exploring issues, we can discover the real source of pain. Listening and talking about this in a loving, safe space can open up within ourselves the amazing potential for an improved relationship.
Imago dialogue is a powerful and effective way to feel seen, heard and validated by your partner. It removes some of the emotional heat of communication when couples get stuck on issues. Like many techniques, it requires practice and feels strange at first. However , the structured style of imago dialogue offers partners the safety they need to begin communicating.
In couples’ therapy at LoveRelations, we encourage couples to look at some of the unhealthy ways in which they communicate. We ask couples to notice whether they talk to their partner with shame, blame or criticism. We encourage them to notice toxic patterns such as shouting, stonewalling or using passive aggressive phrases or behaviour. These are all unhealthy and destructive ways of communicating that many couples get stuck into.
Dialoguing is a way of communicating without the emotional heat and without the toxicity of blame and shame. It requires couples to truly listen to what their partner is saying, without rushing into defended blame or retaliation. This is why, at LoveRelations, we help couples create the so-called safe space to begin to practice this way of communicating.
In healthy dialogue, partners are then able to take responsibility for their feelings. Without the “toxic mist” of blame and shame it is easier to see what is really going on. For example, when one partner is better able to articulate their reality, there is room for an empathic response.
One couple at LoveRelations began their dialogue like this: The female partner said: “When you spend both days of the weekend with your friends, I feel worthless and unloveable.” Here, she avoids the blame, shame and name calling, and takes responsibility for her own feelings. The invitation then is for her partner to listen without interruption and respond with empathy. Couples then find that there is room for behaviour to change. They are no longer stuck in a loop of toxic communication.
Healthy dialoguing takes time to learn. It can feel awkward or artificial at first. We often find that we regress into unhealthy ways communicating once again. At LoveRelations, we simply encourage couples to notice this, and to press pause, to walk away from that interaction that has a toxic heat and wait until high emotions have subsided. We can begin a healthier way of communicating again at any time.