- Imago Therapy
- Non-Violent Communication
- Relationship Issues
- Terrence Real’s Feedback Wheel
- The “Internal Boundary”: An Effective Strategy for not Taking what my Partner Says Personally
- Projective Identification: Appreciating My Role in Relational Conflict
- Reducing Destructive Conflict: How to Take a Time-Out
- Rapidly Interrupting Destructive Relationship Cycles: Setting up “Dead Stop Contracts”
Couples Therapy Informed by the Work of Harville Hendrix, Terrence Real, John Gottman, Ellyn Bader, David Schnarch, and Esther Perel
My work in couples therapy utilizes the theory and practices of Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT), developed by Harville Hendrix. I also draw extensively on the approaches of nationally known couples therapists with whom I have trained, including John Gottman, Ellyn Bader, David Schnarch, Terrence Real, and Esther Perel. Imago theory helps to explain how the choices we make, in whom we fall in love with, almost guarantee that we will eventually find ourselves in difficult and painful power struggles with our partners. As Terrence Real has written, “We marry our unfinished business.”
Many couples have come for therapy while raising children, realizing that in part their focus on the children has subsumed their own emotional and sexual connection. Still other couples have come to me seriously questioning whether they should stay married, and for my help in either re-energizing their relationship or assisting them in separating and then rebuilding their lives.
Successful couples therapy, in my experience, is partly the result of learning new communication skills which interrupt the universal tendency toward defensiveness, enabling each partner to become a better listener as well as feel more heard by one’s partner. Couples in conflict often keep trying to get the other person to change. We say and believe, “If only you wouldn’t be so…., we would get along better.” The coin of the realm in couples work is recognizing, “I’ve got to change my own reactions and reactivity, for things to get better.” In the following paragraphs I outline some of the ideas which I draw upon in my therapy with couples:
Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT), developed by Harville Hendrix, explains how our experience in infancy and childhood with parental figures leaves all of us with residues of “unfinished business”, frustrations, hurts, and unmet longings, residues that we unconsciously carry into our life with our present partners. What we bring to our romantic encounters is not only our present needs for companionship and love, but also our unconscious hope that this partner will meet, touch, and heal the hurts and unmet longings we bring from the past. This very process, of who we fall in love with, virtually guarantees that we will find ourselves in difficult and painful power struggles with our partners. As a result, I may then believe that “I must be with the wrong partner.” Often, however, it is not that I am with the wrong partner, but that I lack the relational tools to successfully negotiate these power struggles. I teach all the couples with whom I work an Imago strategy for communication that requires careful listening to my partners thoughts and feelings, rather than jumping in with my point of view, before my partner has been able to fully speak his or her experience.
Terrence Real is a Boston psychotherapist who has worked extensively with men and with couples. In his first book, I Don’t Want to Talk About It: The Hidden Legacy of Male Depression, he describes how most of us as men have been wounded, in childhood or adolescence, by peers or by parents, with a profound impact on our self-esteem and then often in adulthood a tendency to use addictive behaviors to try to cope. Another result of this childhood experience is what he calls “covert depression,” which in men tends to be “mild, elusive, and chronic.” He is an extraordinary writer, with powerful vignettes of the exchanges that take place in his office.
In his second book, How Can I Get Through To You, Real, who has worked with Carol Gilligan at Harvard in the area of sex role socialization, discusses how little boys, by the time we are 6 years old, have had a lot of our ability to connect and communicate and empathize knocked out of us by the societal demands and expectations for the male role. Thus, as men, we come to marriage poorly prepared for what our wives are hoping for, from their husbands. Real says that he often sees couples after 10, 15, or 20 years of marriage, in which the wives have become bitter and resentful, because they have not pushed hard enough for what they need. And they have not pushed harder out of fear of triggering their husbands’ anger or shame.
I teach almost all of the individuals and couples with whom I work about Terrence Real’s concept of “internal boundary.” We have all heard about “not taking what somebody else says personally.” However, few of us have been taught an actual strategy for accomplishing this. The internal boundary is that strategy, and it involves what Real calls “an internal technology,” whereby we psychically develop, through daily practice, an invisible shield for protection. As Real states, “If there is no membrane between you and whatever an external stimulus throws 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.
Most of us did not learn good communication and conflict management skills from our parents. Instead, as Real writes in his most recent book, The New Rules of Marriage, we often tend to practice what he calls the “Five Losing Strategies of marriage: “needing to be right, unbridled self-expression, trying to control my partner, retaliation, and withdrawal.” In this book he also develops the idea of Core Negative Image (CNI), which is my view of my partner which is my worst nightmare, how s/he “becomes to you in those most difficult, irrational, least loving moments.” Real discusses how to utilize my CNI of my partner in a productive way. He also outlines the importance of being able to take a “Time-out” whenever a conflict is beginning to become hurtful. He writes, “Once the (time-out) 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.”
John Gottman is a Seattle-based research psychologist who has been studying couples in his marriage laboratory for over 25 years. He takes physiological measurements, with heart monitors and blood pressure monitors, and measures what happens when couples talk and when they get into conflicts. He teaches couples to know their resting heart rate, because once a marital conflict begins, very quickly heart rate and blood pressure rise, and our body becomes “flooded,” in Gottman’s words. At this point, rarely does anything get solved, and often the exchange leads to anger and painful hurt feelings. Like Terrence Real, Gottman writes about the importance of couples taking a “Time-out” for a minimum of 20 minutes, as it takes that long for one’s physiology to calm back down.
Marriages may disintegrate as a result of repeated criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, which Gottman has called the “Four Horseman of the Acocalypse” in marriage. However, Gottman also says that some of these behaviors happen in most marriages, and that what is critical is the presence of “repair attempts,” in which one partner apologizes, and especially whether the other partner accepts the repair attempt and moves toward reconciliation, instead of just continuing the hurtful exchange. In his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Gottman suggests approaches for many of the most common marital issues. He writes about the critical importance of “accepting influence,” often more difficult for men, in which partners share power and decision making. He also says that every marriage has a certain set of “perpetual or unresolvable issues.” The difference between happy and unhappy couples, he writes, is that unhappy couples keep hammering away at these conflicts, whereas happy couples develop a dialogue about the perpetual or unresolvable issues, and even have the ability to laugh about them.
Ellyn Bader, along with her husband Peter Pearson, has developed an approach to working with couples in their book, In Quest of the Mythical Mate. In their work, they have often found that the impasses and struggles of a particular couple can often be traced to deep basic assumptions about the nature of marriage. For example, one partner has an internal working model that believes in a lot of “togetherness,” while the partner’s internal model is a belief in the right to a lot of separateness, including separate friends and activities. Like Harville Hendrix, Bader and Pearson emphasize the importance of a communication model that encourages each partner to elaborate about their thoughts and feelings about a particular issue, with the partner able to listen well enough that they can summarize what they are hearing.
Bader and Pearson emphasize the idea of developing more “differentiation” as an individual in order to be a more effective marital partner. Their definition of differentiation involves “resistance to the interpersonal contagion of one’s partner’s anxiety (or anger).” Without this ability, one easily becomes reactive or defensive in response to a partner’s heightened emotional state. Bader and Pearson say that “What your partner does is a problem, but it’s not ‘The Problem.’ The Problem is your own restricted Response-Ability under stress.” They suggest that the typical defensive responses are blame, withdrawal, confusion, whining (“poor me”), and resentful compliance. They suggest that a goal of good marital therapy is “to get underneath your trigger points and to develops the skills of not getting hooked into your partner’s projections.”
In his book, Passionate Marriage, David Schnarch’s thinking is in line with that of Bader and Pearson in emphasizing the importance of differentiation to a successful marriage as well as a passionate one. He writes that differentiation involves “Calming yourself down, not letting your anxiety run away with you, and not getting overreactive. Not caving in to pressure to conform from a ‘partner’ who has tremendous emotional significance in your life…Hot sex and deep intimacy…doesn’t involve…giving into your partner—it involves ‘holding onto yourself.’”
Thus Schnarch goes against much of the usual focus on “togetherness” in marriage, as he believes this too often leads to enmeshment and emotional dependence. Instead, he says that becoming an authentic adult and a successful partner and lover involves “soothing your own bad feelings, pursuing your own goals, and standing on your own two feet, because marriage can’t succeed unless we claim our sense of self in the presence of another.”
Esther Perel is a Belgium-born psychotherapist who is fluent in nine languages and conducts couples therapy in New York City in five different languages! She is a wonderful writer and an extraordinary speaker, and her landmark book, Mating in Captivity, has now been translated into 24 languages. She writes that 20 years ago when a couple sought out a therapist for sexual problems, it was usually related to an issue of sexual performance or pain. These days, she says, the sexual problem is much more often a loss of desire, even with couples only in their 20’s. We marry, she asserts, for security and companionship, but too often these work against sexual desire. In her words, “We expect our committed relationships to be romantic as well as emotionally and sexually fulfilling. Is it any wonder that so many relationships crumble under the weight of it all? It’s hard to generate excitement, anticipation, and lust with the same person you look to for comfort and stability, but it’s not impossible. I invite you to think about ways you might introduce risk to safety, mystery to the familiar, and novelty to the enduring.”
In her newest book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, Perel tackles this provocative issue. She wants to open our eyes to rethinking this problematic occurrence, which is combustible for most marriages. In a recent New York Times interview, Perel states, “Not every infidelity is a symptom of a problem in a relationship. Sometimes it has to do with other longings that are much more existential. Sometimes you go elsewhere not because you are not liking the one you are with; you are not liking the person you have become.” Perel’s ideas and perspective are so novel and compelling that her books are difficult to put down. She states, “Anything I can do that will embrace ambiguity in the complicated lives we lead, I will feel that I have done some good in the world.