We seem to always choose a partner who isn’t very good at meeting some of our needs in life, even though there was something about them that caused us to fall head-over-heals in love with them. Wouldn’t it help if our partner really understood what was going on in our world? Maybe then they would work a little harder at meeting those needs. Maybe they would spend a little more time with us, or leave us alone a little more – or whatever it is that is important to our happiness.
Some of the most important issues may seem minor, but are actually loaded with intense emotions. They emerge time and time again at the heart of all the big arguments we have. How can we talk about them in a way that doesn’t trigger yet another big argument?
Mirroring, validating, and empathy – a dialogue process
The first step towards a better relationship is to have a calm and effective way to talk about these big issues. The ‘Imago dialogue’ is a way to have a deep conversation that helps you and your partner really understand the issues that seem to recur in the heat of conflict. This is a simple, respectful and effective way to talk with your partner about the things that really matter. Harville Hendrix, PhD, defines dialogue as “a communication process that creates contact with another person, deepens it to connection and a level of empathic attunement. ‘Dialogue’ is a way to speak to each other from a place of equality and acceptance. And the procedure is to mirror what you’re hearing, validate the logic of what you’re hearing, and reflect the feelings in what you’re hearing and do that without judgment.”
We are attracted to people like our parents
A person’s ‘imago’ refers to a buried internal image created in childhood of one’s caretakers. This image serves two purposes: it helps the infant recognise and distinguish the parents from other adults so that nurturing can take place; and in adulthood, this unconscious image of the parents helps you to unconsciously select a person to fall in love with – a person who is similar to your parents. This image includes the positive and negative traits of both parents, and also includes their limitations in nurturing or supporting you.
We are attracted to people like our parents in order to finish the business we didn’t finish with them. Unconsciously, we feel like we’re in a survival mode, and so when we meet someone who is similar to our parents – i.e. ‘a surrogate parent model’, we go into a kind of rapture because deep down we believe we’re going to receive now what we didn’t in childhood. It is this that triggers the impulse most commonly called ‘romantic love’. After two years in a relationship, if there has been a considerable amount of time spent together, there will have been some ruptures in the romantic illusion. Something one of you will do will really irritate the other, and the gravity of response to that irritation will often be very intense.
Bonding ends after about three years
In the romantic phase, we don’t tend to analyse the problem, we just try to repair the rupture when it occurs, saying, ‘Oh well, we all have bad days’, or ‘Our love will get us through’. People in love work hard to sustain this illusion. The romantic impulse is built into us; so it’s a natural response. Research indicates that the bonding seems to end in most people after about three years. When the bonding is secure, there’s a growing perceptual shift towards irritability, disappointment, frustration, increasing conflict, i.e., ‘You’re not the person that I thought you were’.
Neurochemists say that there’s a drug-like high when you fall in love, an intense rush of endorphins, which settles into an overall sense of well-being. And when the bonding is there, the endorphins begin to be replaced by adrenaline. When this happens, you are moving into the ‘power struggle’ phase, which is where many couples stay fixed for most of their relationships. They either function in a ‘hot marriage/relationship’, i.e., fighting, or a ‘parallel marriage/relationship’., i.e., living together but not interacting much. Or they get a divorce and end it all. Or they will become conscious in their relationship, heal each other, and go on to live out their dreams.
Diana Anderson is an experienced relationship counsellor utilising Imago Therapy techniques. She offers counselling on relationship and sexual issues to individuals, couples and families at her practice, Imago Relationships Australia.
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