Why is communication hard sometimes?
There is an underlying story in all relationships which is about having our emotional needs met. The importance of human emotional needs started to be appreciated early in the 20th century. Doctors caring for children with infectious diseases found that when they were isolated they died much more frequently. This led to the development of the current psychological theory about attachment which guides so much couples work today.
When we are born, we are completely dependent for a long time on someone to look after us. When we feel loved by our parents or caretakers it feels good and safe. But, however perfect they are, there are always times when we don’t feel certain of their love. So we feel a fear that is deep and connected with our survival instincts. The situations in which young children don’t feel love leave some deep emotional imprints that can be very painful to us.
Adults recognize that they need to look after themselves, and if things are painful emotionally, that’s just part of life. Until, that is, they fall in love! Because the dream we all hold inside us is to be perfectly loved, even in the ways that we weren’t as children. So part of falling in love is to open our hearts.
Unfortunately, there’s something deep inside which usually guides us to choose someone who also has the ability to trigger the emotional pain that we experienced in childhood. The same kind of scenarios get acted out in different ways. You can read more about this in our “About Imago” section and in the various articles we have online.
What this all means is that while a couple may appear to be having a fight about something in the present – like money concerns, or domestic chores – underneath lies a different conversation. That story is deeply rooted in the past, and is about the desire for love in ways that will help us feel complete and fulfilled in life.
Unless those underlying issues are addressed, the fights will just be repeated in different forms. The good news is that with Imago it is not that hard to have the conversations that can restore the connection.
How can Imago help communication?
In the last section I wrote about how there is a deep emotional story from the past underlying many of the frustrations that arise in the present day. That’s why seemingly straight-forward discussions can rapidly escalate into fights.
Imago approaches this by creating a structure for the conversation that is strong enough to handle the important issues being discussed. We’ve got some guiding principles. The first is that whatever someone says is true for them, so it is important for it to be heard and respected. The second is that usually in situations like this there isn’t ever just one story which is “reality.” Instead there are two perspectives, both valid. The objective of talking about it isn’t to find what is right and wrong, but how to build connection.
There’s also a guiding principle about how to say things, to try and eliminate every trace of shame, blame and criticism. That may be tough when you are frustrated with your partner! However, if you do blame or criticize them you may be triggering some of their pain from their earlier experiences. The result of that is that they won’t be in a very good mood to listen to you in the way you would like to be heard.
Sounds like a lot to remember? That’s why we have created a simple process called the “Imago Dialogue.” It has three steps:
1. Sending and mirroring
One person shares their story with their partner. They take care to avoid criticism by talking from the “I” place. In other words, rather than saying “You upset me ….” they might say “I experienced this as…”
Instead of immediately responding, their partner would then mirror back the words they heard. This has two objectives. The first is that if you are going to mirror, then you have to listen carefully. That in turn avoids the temptation to make up a response instead of listening. The second reason is because it is very important for people to feel that they have been heard, and mirroring back is a great way to demonstrate this.
Now comes the really good bit. The partner who is listening still doesn’t respond. Instead, they ask to hear more. And more. Until they understand it all. If you do this work with an Imago couples therapist they will usually guide you both with some gentle prompting, so that this peaceful and connecting conversation can gradually touch on the underlying emotional depths.
It’s nice to have someone hear what you say. But it’s even better when they tell you that they really “get it.” That they have understood you, and that you make sense. That’s the step we call “validating.” Your partner simply tells you why what you say makes sense to them. We do this because it’s a great way to build more connection.
And as if there isn’t enough connection already from the first two steps, we seal the whole deal with bringing feelings into the discussion. The partner who is listening begins to guess what is going on in their partner’s heart. “I imagine you might be feeling….”. And that’s a great way to take a conversation that might have started about something frustrating and trivial, to build a deep connection around the underlying issues.
Can I practice this at home?
Absolutely. Many couples have strengthened their relationships by reading “Getting The Love You Want” or using some of our online materials like “Imago Dialogue 101.” We’ve also got an introductory DVD program, complete with exercises for you to do together, called “Through Conflict to Connection.”
Do take it easy when you start though. Practice the dialogue at first using “appreciations,” where you tell your partner something you like about them or what they did recently. Once you have that worked out, you will be ready to move into talking about something that frustrates you.
What are the options to get expert help?
Having some help with this is a great idea. I have fixed up the plumbing under my sink following instructions on the internet, but it still leaks a bit. It is often so valuable to have professional help, and while it doesn’t worry me too much to have soggy dishes under the sink, having fights at home really does upset me deeply. And there’s no need when such effective help is so readily available.
One of the very best ways to start is to take a weekend workshop. There, you and your partner will have plenty of time to learn and practice the Imago dialogue together, and to discover the issues which lie underneath your biggest disagreements. All in one weekend! There’s some expert guidance around, and some live demonstrations. If you volunteer for a demonstration, you can even be guided through your first dialogue by an expert.
Wonderful as the weekend is, some of those gains you make quickly can also slip away quickly if you don’t consolidate them. If you are the type of person who is going to go away and review the material on your own and practice the dialogue with your partner, then the workshop may be all you need. But many people find it very helpful to have a few follow-up sessions with a certified Imago therapist. If you have some particularly tough issues to work out, some personal attention from an expert is a great idea.