“A person hasn’t any idea what their soul looks like until they gaze into the eyes of the person that they’re married to. And then, if they’re any kind of decent human being, they spend the next couple of days throwing up. Because no honest person can stand that image.” — Danny DeVito in The Big Kahuna*
OK – Maybe it’s a bit of an overstatement, but DeVito’s character was on to something. Outside of a long-term, intimate relationship, we can describe ourselves to ourselves in whatever way we want. “Generous? Of course I’m generous. I just haven’t found any good causes lately.” “Hard working? Definitely! Whenever I need to be.” Even if we try to be honest with ourselves, it is impossible to see our own blind spots, and what motivation do we have to see them, anyway?
On top of that, we have plenty of motivation to avoid our blind spots and to paint ourselves in a more positive light. Ignoring our weaknesses can boost our ego, confidence and productivity, and convince most people (especially ourselves) that we don’t have those weaknesses. If someone disagrees, they can easily be ignored, argued with, or cut off… unless, of course, that someone is too important. This is why our relationships can be excruciatingly hard, but also our key to long-term growth, healing, and true intimacy.
We usually go into relationships with hopes of happily ever after. After the honeymoon period ends, though, our partners may seem especially matched to press our most sensitive buttons, trigger our biggest fears, and reopen our deepest wounds. They may be. According to experts such as Harville Hendricks, author of the landmark relationship book, Getting the Love You Want, the partners we are most attracted to frequently have the best and worst characteristics of our childhood caregivers. Something about them, and unique to them, unconsciously promises to uncover and heal our childhood wounds. As Hendricks would say, we recognize this “imago match” as if we knew them before. In a way, we did.
But why would we be drawn to someone who also had the worst characteristics of our caregivers? One possible answer is that we do not want someone to easily give us what we did not have. We want to convert someone who denies us what we were missing into someone who gives it to us. We are unconsciously wanting to re-fight the battle we lost in the past, but we want to win this time.
We are happy to provide what we sense our partner needs in the first few years of a committed relationship, even if it is not who we truly are. This mask inevitably comes off after a while, though, and we begin to see a different side of our partner. We realize with horror that, not only are they not going to take care of all of our needs, but they can wound us in exactly the same way as our caregivers. At this “power struggle” stage, experts tell us that most couples give up – either through painfully ending their partnership or looking elsewhere to meet their needs.
It is exactly at this stage, though, that real intimacy and growth can start. Now that the masks are off, we can see ourselves in the mirror of our partner. As DeVito jokes, this mirror can be hard to look at, but it can also be an amazing chance to face those parts of you that you have denied or cut off. This mirror shows more than just personal characteristics – it also shows us where we were wounded in the past. The pain you are feeling so acutely did not come from nowhere. It too is part of you.
No doubt, these will show up again in future relationships, so why not look at them now? It is also likely that those denied parts of you match up with your partner’s old wounds, and Hendricks suggests that honestly addressing those can also be immensely healing for you and your partner.
So, how does the healing happen? According to Hendricks, it is through healing your partner’s wounds that your own childhood wounds can heal. Being there for your partner by listening to them express painful feelings and underlying needs, empathizing with them, and trying to address those needs in small ways, can be tremendously healing. The best part is that a healing, safe partner is also more likely to be there, listen, empathize, and address your needs in the same way.
One tool Hendricks suggests for communicating in this way is called the “Imago Dialogue”. Try this short exercise with your partner, and see where it takes you:
Designate one person to be the speaker and one person to be the listener.
The speaker mentions something that upset them, in a way similar to the following:
SPEAKER: When you said/did ______________ , I felt _______________ …. If possible, try to stick to “I” statements and avoid “always/never” generalizations and criticism. (See my post on “2 Simple Sentences” for more tips)
Once the speaker is done with a short statement, the listener restates (“mirrors”) what the speaker said in their own words. For example:
LISTENER: “You felt hurt and alone when I walked out of the room. Is that right?”
If the listener was not right or missed something, the speaker clarifies, and the listener restates again until the speaker says:
SPEAKER: “Yes, that’s right.”
Then, the listener validates the speaker’s point. This does not mean that the listener agrees with the speaker – only that there is a logic in what the talker has said, that it makes sense. For example:
LISTENER: “I can see how that must have hurt to see me leave when you were trying to talk with me.”
Then, the listener says:
LISTENER: “Is there anything else?”
The process continues with mirroring and validating until the speaker says that there is nothing more.
Then, the listener tries to empathize with all of what the speaker has said. This can be difficult (especially if some of the comments activated your defenses), so take your time. Try to see the situation from the speaker’s perspective and really imagine what they were feeling. When you think you get it, let the speaker know what you imagine it might be like and how you imagine they might be feeling. For example:
LISTENER: “I imagine you might have felt like I didn’t want to listen to you or didn’t care about your feelings when I left, like I was abandoning you. I’m so sorry. That wasn’t what I was trying to do, but I know it felt that way. I don’t want you to feel like I would abandon you when you need me. I want to be there for you.”
It will seem very stiff and regimented at first, but practice will make it flow more freely and quickly. Be careful not to argue about the format. If your partner is messing up on their part, just do your best to translate and keep up your end. You will probably mess up at some point, too, and wish your partner would do the same.
It will also be surprisingly hard to get outside of your own head and reactions during these dialogues. This exposes how rarely we really do listen to our partners when what they are saying triggers us. We are thinking of our rebuttal, how their perceptions are wrong, or how hurt we are by what they are saying. This is why this exercise can be so powerful. The speaker may never have felt truly heard on the topic because it has always been so sensitive to the listener. To not only feel heard, but validated and empathized with by your imago match can be a truly powerful moment of healing… one of many on the way to a lifelong, intimate partnership.
Rose Rigole is a couples counselor/therapist in private practice in Irvine, California, and is currently accepting new clients. She can be reached by telephone at (424) 571-2273, by email at email@example.com, or via her website at https://couplescalifornia.com.
Ms. Rigole is registered with the California Board of Behavioral Sciences as a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern #64370 and is employed and supervised by Dr. Renee Miller, LMFT #43207 at Journey Coaching and Counseling Services at 18023 Sky Park Cir., Suite G, Irvine, CA.
* Quote edited from the original script to be gender-neutral