“What if I’m not happy in my current relationship? What’s wrong with choosing to love someone else, especially when the one I’m with now is so difficult to love? Do we practice and learn to develop love merely for its own sake? Can’t I be happy, too?”
Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., author of the bestselling book Getting the Love You Want offers this sober observation in an article about what he sees as a universally common complaint in today’s marriages:
“At some point in their relationship, couples often find themselves struggling with anger and shock, despair and sadness. Some are newlyweds, and can’t understand how they have plummeted from the heights of love and glory into a swamp of hopelessness and conflict. Others have been married for many years, and though they have been slogging along – in calm or storm – their days of wine and roses are a dim memory. Even if life at home is relatively peaceful, couples lament that they have “nothing in common anymore.” And so they lead a disappointed or angry co-existence, each with their own friends and interests, in a marriage of convenience, or an arrangement they endure “for the sake of the children.”
Most of us feel pressured to keep the marriage alive, from church, and/or well-meaning relatives and friends. And they are right: unless there is physical or psycholgical abuse, or the presence of alcohol or drug abuse, we should work to keep our marriages alive–but the reasons for doing so might not be so obvious.
Most of us think we ought to continue to stay married because of our commitment or the sacredness of the institution of marriage. Those are certainly valid considerations. But for the purposes of this article, there is an equally important reason to stay in our troubled marriages: they are our only viable path to happiness and a sense of completeness.
“Shattered dreams, whatever form they take, are painful. But there is hope. In fact, the pain and conflict of committed relationships arise not out of lack of love for our partners, but from a misunderstanding of what love relationships are about. Your conflict can be the very fuel for the fulfillment you seek.”
The Real Reason We Marry–The Imago
Hendrix bases his beliefs about love relationships on years of experience working with hundreds of couples seeking a solution to their relationship ills. His observations led him to co-develop, along with his partner Helen LaKelly Hunt, Ph.D., a program they call Imago Relationship Therapy, or IRT. IRT was based on their deep knowledge of psychology, clinical experience, and the lessons of their own relationship, and is comprised of these core tenets (from Wikipedia):
- We were born whole and complete.
- We became wounded during the early nurturing and socialization stages of development by our primary caretakers (usually inadvertently).
- We have a composite image of all the positive and negative traits of our primary caretakers deep in our unconscious mind. This is called the Imago. It is like a blueprint of the one we need to marry someday.
- We marry someone who is an Imago match, that is, someone who matches up with the composite image of our primary caretakers. This is important because we marry for the purpose of healing and finishing the unfinished business of childhood. Since our parents are the ones who wounded us, it is only they who can heal us. Not them literally, but a primary love partner who matches their traits.
- Romantic Love is the door to marriage and is nature’s selection process that connects us with just the right partner for our eventual healing and growth.
- We move into the Power Struggle as soon as we make a commitment to this person. The Power Struggle is necessary, for imbedded in a couple’s frustrations lie the information for healing and growth.
But I Didn’t Have A Wounded Childhood!
I’ve run into people who insist they weren’t wounded as children. They had loving parents and extended family. The friends they made as children remained their friends for life. The mailman, the grocer, and their schoolteachers were all wonderful people.
While all of their circumstances might have been exactly so, I contend that it is impossible not to have been wounded as a child, even by loving parents.
My wife Jeanie gives me a great example to share. Jeanie grew up in what I consider the most loving family on the face of the planet. She tells me stories about her mother and father that make me green with envy. Her mother cooked wonderful meals and sewed all of Jeanie’s clothes. Her father worked hard, smoked a delicious-smelling pipe and took the family camping and fishing regularly. I’ve seen home movies of Jeanie as a child, and the affection her parents felt for her is undeniable. She can’t recollect a single instance of ever feeling her parents didn’t adore her.
Jeanie eventually married a workaholic, an architect who was rarely in the house, and when he was at home, he was holed up in the home-office working on his projects. Jeanie felt abandoned.
Jeanie and I talked about it when I first brought up the subject of Harville Hendrix and Getting The Love You Want, and what it meant. If Jeanie was initially attracted to this man in order to heal childhood wounds, then why would she have chosen (unconsciously) a man who was never available to her?
Jeanie thought back to her childhood–and realized that, as much as her father loved her, he was rarely at home. He worked long hard days as owner of a service station. And when he was home, he was too tired to do much more than sit in front of the TV until he fell asleep.
It’s our suspicion that Jeanie has abandonment issues, which she developed because her father wasn’t around as often as Jeanie needed him, and when he was physically present, he was often too tired to pay Jeanie the attention she needed from him (I might also point out that Jeanie’s previous husband was, as she saw it, notoriously unavailable emotionally).
As for myself, my own mother was a product of the Depression, with parents born and raised in the stoic Midwest. She rarely experienced anything like love from her own parents. Consequently, she learned at an early age to be generally distant emotionally. I believe she passed that lesson on to me, by being emotionally unavailable to me when I needed her love the most. As a result, I have consistently attracted into my life women who didn’t have the capacity for intimacy, believing that I could somehow change them if only I loved them enough. Sadly, it never worked–because neither they nor I fully understood the underlying basis for our initial attraction, and hence didn’t have the tools to redefine the relationship–tools which I eventually learned reading Harville Hendrix’s Getting The Love You Want.
How Imago Relationship Therapy Works–Merging The “Old Brain” With The “New Brain”
Most of us, as it turns out, are using what Hendrix calls our “old brain” to call the shots in our relationships.
Hendrix describes the relationship between the “old” and “new” brains. From his book:
“…I use the term “old brain” to refer to the portion of the brain that includes both the brain stem and the limbic system. Think of the old brain as being hard-wired and determining most of your automatic reactions….[while the “new brain”] is the cerebral cortex, a large, convoluted mass of brain tissue that surrounds [the brain stem and limbic system]. This portion of the brain…is the site of most of our cognitive functions….I refer to the cerebral cortex as the “new brain” because it appeared most recently in our evolutionary history. Your new brain is the part of you… that makes decisions, thinks, observes, plans, andticipates, responds, organizes information, and creates ideas….To a degree, it can moderate some of the instinctual reactions of your old brain.”
It is the “old brain,” Hendrix contends, which is ultimately behind the strong attraction we feel for a potential love partner–trying to recreate our wounded childhood and sensing the traits in that person which confuse it into believing we are literally in the presence of our parents. Hence, we are attracted to this person, not because they are particularly young or beautiful or rich, etc., but out of a compelling need to heal old childhood wounds.
Unfortunately, this person 1) isn’t our parents, and 2) is still quite likely to behave exactly as our parents did (having those same traits). All of which is to say, unless something intervenes to give us a different understanding of our relationship–and ourselves–we are doomed to be wounded again by our new partner in exactly the same way we were as children.
That something is Imago Relationship Therapy.
It is the purpose of Imago Relationship Therapy to help the relationship partners understand and acknowledge when they are letting their “old brains” run their relationship, as well as teach them to bring in their “new brains” to view their relationship from a more mature and rational point of view. Above all, it teaches partners new ways of interacting based on their new understanding of why they are in the relationship in the first place.
The result is the gradual development of what Hendrix calls a conscious marriage.
What is a “Conscious Marriage?”
TEN CHARACTERISTICS OF A CONSCIOUS MARRIAGE (From the book):
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 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 a 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.
Of all of these characteristics, it is number ten, the need to accept the difficulty involved in creating a good marriage, that is key in importance, because none of the other nine ideas will come to fruition unless you first cultivate your willingness to grow and change.
If You Want To Have A Conscious Marriage…
The benefits of having a conscious marriage are self-evident. And attending therapy sessions with a certified IRT therapist (there are thousands across the world who subscribe to the Hendrix program) is certainly a great way to begin working toward the goal of a conscious marriage. But if you can’t afford the program, at least read the book, Getting The Love You Want. I can tell you from personal experience, the program works–even if it is self-administered. It’s been in print for twenty years, so there are likely plenty of used copies available if you don’t want to pay full price.
A couple of caveats: first, the program is not a magic-bullet (none, as far as I know, exist) which will instantly and effortlessly heal your damaged marriage. But, at the risk of being repetitive: it does work. Go to the web site and take a look around. You’ll find plenty of testimonials. Better yet, study the book and try it out for yourself.
Which brings me to caveat number two: both people need to be on the same page, and this is for the simple fact that your relationship is symbiotic. By that I mean you each have what the other person needs in order to heal him/herself. But if one partner doesn’t understand the underlying bases of your relatationship, it’s likely she’ll interpret the pain and frustration of your relationship as a sign that she’s chosen the wrong person to love.
If she’s ready to bolt, hand her a copy of Getting The Love You Want as she’s heading out the door and ask her if she’ll at least give it a look-see.
And notice how differently she looks at you when she finally comes back, as if she’s seeing you for the very first time.