Relationship science tells us that frustrations in your marriage that are recurring and that trigger an intense emotional reaction, come from your past, not your partner.
“Wait a minute! It’s not my past, it’s my partner who is frustrating me!”
Ok, I realize you get frustrated by what your partner does or doesn’t do. But if your reaction is intense and it happens three times or more, science says your partner is only the trigger of a deeper frustration from childhood.
And, let me guess…your partner sees your reaction as an “overreaction” that not justified.
Am I right?
Behind every recurring, emotionally charged frustration is a deep desire to get something you didn’t get in childhood.
Here’s how you can turn frustrations into requests and keep them from wrecking your marriage.
1. Engage in the Imago Couples Dialogue
The first step is to make your conversation safe.
Laurel was upset because she felt like her husband Ben left her alone at a party. When she brought it up, Ben reacted to her. As you read on, you’ll see how escalated it got!
The Imago Couples Dialogue helped Ben regulate his reaction so he could listen to Laurel. It also made Laurel feel safe enough to access information buried deep in her subconscious mind.
2. Identify the root issue
When a conversation is safe you can identify how your frustration is connected to childhood.
Laurel discovered that her “overreaction” was because her childhood wound of abandonment was triggered when she felt Ben was leaving her.
She had grown up as a single child. Her dad left when she was eight and her mom worked long hours. After school she was at daycare until she was old enough to be left alone at home.
3. Turn your frustration into a request
Buried deep within every frustration with your partner is a wish. A wish to finish what was left undone in childhood. If that frustration can be restructured into a request, your partner can give you the healing you’re unconsciously looking for.
Laurel’s frustration:“I feel like you left me at the party and when I passed by you, you didn’t speak to me. You didn’t even look at me!”
Ben’s escalated reaction to Laurel’s frustration:“What do you mean?! It was a networking party for crying out loud! I was there for business! I wanted you to come along, but I can’t even do my job without you complaining like a baby! When are you going to grow up?!
If they continue to talk like this, Laurel’s wound will continue to be reinjured and the frustration will never be resolved.
Here’s how the Couples Dialogue helped Laurel restructure her frustration into a request.
Laurel: “Last night when we were at the party and you were talking to potential clients, I felt really alone, just like when I was little and came home from school every day to an empty house. What I’m really afraid of is that you don’t realize what being alone does to me and that I’ll always have this feeling of being abandoned.”
Ben (Mirroring): “What I hear you saying is that when I was talking to potential clients you felt really alone. It reminded you of the feelings of abandonment you had when your mom was at work and you were alone in the afternoons. And that brings up a deeper fear that you’ll always feel abandoned. Did I get it? Is there more about that?…
Ben (Validating): “You make sense. Anyone would feel that way given your circumstances.”
Ben (Empathizing): “I can imagine it must feel really bad when you have those deep feelings of being abandoned or forgotten.”
Laurel (turning her frustration into a Request): “One thing that would help me the next time we’re at a party is if you will look for me every 30 minutes, touch my hand, look me in the eye and ask how I’m doing.”
Ben (responding): “I will be more than happy to do that.”
If Ben follows through, he will experience growth, and it WILL bring healing to Laurel!
That’s how you turn a frustration into a request and keep it from wrecking your marriage!
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If you are being nice in order to “keep the peace” in your marriage, that probably means you’re not talking about what you’re really feeling or what’s frustrating you.
If that’s the case, there are 7 reasons that show you’re not really being nice to your partner, to yourself, or your relationship.
This video provides a powerful tool that will help you to be honest in a way that will deepen your connection with each other and build a happier marriage. I invite you to watch it, and then use the questions below to discuss it together as a couple.
1. Have either of you been guilty of “being nice” as a way of avoiding sharing how you feel about something?
2. Thinking about the 7 bad things that can happen when you don’t share your feelings (see below), which one has affected your relationship?
Negative feelings I have don’t go away.
I internalize negative feelings and become bitter and depressed.
I internalize negative feelings and later explode over something insignificant.
My partner never gets to know me.
I don’t heal my childhood wounds.
My partner doesn’t get a chance to grow.
We won’t have the connection that gives us passion and full-aliveness.
3. How can you follow Tom and Jennifer’s example and begin using the Couple’s (safe) Dialogue to share how you feel and connect more deeply with your partner?
Mike’s anxiety and depression got so bad he finally hit a wall. Having almost lost his marriage, he can now barely even function at work.
How did he get so stuck? And what can his wife Jen do to help?
This article describes three ways Mike and Jen worked together to transform their marriage into a powerful agent of healing.
The symptoms of anxiety and depression
Mike’s symptoms were:
could not work
could not maintain relationships
was abusing alcohol
felt tired and slowed down
could not complete activities of daily living
things that used to interest him no longer had any appeal
If you or your partner are weighed down by anxiety and depression, keep reading to learn three ways Jen and Mike worked together to overcome it.
The fundamental cause of anxiety and depression: DISCONNECTION
Disconnection triggers anxiety. Anxiety triggers depression. And then depression triggers more anxiety until it becomes a vicious cycle.
I often refer to Dr. Edward Tronick’s Still Face Experiment to demonstrate how disconnection results in anxiety.
Feeling connected with a loved one who is attuned to us makes us feel alive and whole. Our brain triggers happy chemicals like dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin which makes us feel joyfully alive.
But when that connection is interrupted, the brain triggers the release of cortisol and the sensation of full aliveness is replaced with anxiety.
If anxiety is not relieved, it can increase and become an anxiety disorder which is the most common mental illness in the USA. Anxiety disorders include panic disorder, phobias, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In Mike’s case the anxiety and depression that began in childhood followed him into adulthood and his adult relationships.
And now feelings of disconnection in his relationship with Jen were triggering those old wounds resulting in increased anxiety.
Growing up, Mike’s parents valued intellectual development, but lacked in the emotional skills to help him feel connected. He grew up in a home where success was a high value. The stress at times was unbearable.
If he got an A on a test, the message was you should have gotten an A+. Acceptance was conditional upon his being a good boy and performing well.
Mike dealt with his anxiety by suppressing it and trying harder. Everyone applauded him as a high achiever. No one realized how little value he felt apart from what he did to please people.
Fast forward 20 years.
Mike was a successful medical doctor. But he was stuck in a career he hated; one that provided the image of success, but had nothing to do what he was passionate about. He felt powerless to change his situation.. “What do you do when you’ve invested 10 years in medical school and another 10 years building your practice? You can’t just walk out on that and start over.”
And yet, now things had taken a turn for the worse. Having taken a toll on his relationship with Jen, Mike could no longer function at work. He was finally forced to deal with it.
He also feared what this would do to their children. Plus, there was a looming fear of what would happen if he were diagnosed with a mental disorder. How would that affect his career as a physician? All of these stresses added to his anxiety.
In an attempt to deal with his depression Mike started drinking more alcohol. This led to increased feelings of isolation and disconnection, which in turn increased his anxiety.
The fundamental cure for anxiety and depression: RECONNECTION
If the fundamental cause of anxiety is the feeling of disconnection, can you guess what the fundamental cure is?
The fundamental cure for anxiety is found in reconnecting with your marriage partner in a healing relationship.
When Mike and Jen came to counseling, this was our goal through Imago Relationship Therapy.
But what if depression, self medication, and lack of motivation are all working to keep them from reconnecting? Shouldn’t Mike work on himself first, and then work on the relationship?
The commonly held view that you should work on yourself before you can work on your relationship is simply not true.
If the ultimate solution to anxiety and depression is found in connection with your intimate partner, then your therapeutic approach should be to help reconnect you, not separate you.
We decided that Mike and Jen would work together – to use every effort to deepen their connection with each other, rather than having Mike work on himself without Jen.
But you say, “What if Mike is too depressed to work on the relationship? What if his drinking is blocking their ability to reconnect?”
We still have them work on those issues together. We are born in relationship. We were wounded in relationship. And we heal in relationship.
At first this was not an easy sell. Jen was told by another counselor that Mike needed to deal with his “alcoholism” before they could have a healthy relationship. I cautioned Jen about labeling Mike an “alcoholic” because, if we do that prematurely, it can serve to reinforce negative brain pathways.
Of course alcoholism can be a problem. But what if Mike’s increased alcohol use is simply an unconscious attempt to manage his anxiety? The solution would be short sighted if Mike were labeled an alcoholic and sent off by himself to fix that. Everyone could then blame Mike’s “alcoholism” for their problems. On the other hand, if Mike’s deeper anxiety issue can be solved through reconnecting and processing everything with Jen, that might help resolve not only the drinking problem, but their other problems as well.
So here are the three steps I asked Mike and Jen to take together using Imago Relationship Therapy.
1. Lower your stress level
“Mike, you gotta take a break.” We’re talking about lowering stress levels by taking time off.
At first Mike said, “But I can’t afford to do that.”
My question was, “How are you going to afford it when you have a complete breakdown?”
Why is taking a break important? To temporarily alleviate unnecessary external stress.
Stress comes from the outside: work deadlines, etc. Anxiety comes from the inside: the body’s reaction to stress.
Anxiety persists even after your stress has been reduced. But if you don’t reduce your stress, it will only create more anxiety which, in Mike’s case, was already overwhelming and debilitating.
So Mike took a medical leave of absence. Jen was committed to this with him. And together they got on a regular program of
We also encouraged Mike to avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. Jen was good with all of this except the caffeine part. We all have our limits. 🙂
2. Balance your brain chemistry
A 50-yr old theory says that chronic depression might result from an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the body. One of those neurotransmitters is called serotonin.
Low levels of serotonin are linked to chronic depression. Mike’s serotonin level had become so low that his body could no longer restore it on its own.
This explained why Mike could not come out of his depression on his own. He needed medication that would help restore his serotonin.
His low levels of serotonin also helped explain why he started drinking more. Mike learned that alcohol was not a good way to cope, because alcohol decreases the brain’s absorption of serotonin. By raising Mike’s serotonin level through prescribed medication, his need to self-medicate with alcohol diminished.
Examples include fluoxetine (Prozac), citalopram (Celexa), sertraline (Zoloft), Escitalopram (Lexapro), and Paroxetine (Paxil, Pexeva).
If you or your partner are in a similar place, check with your doctor about giving you a prescription, and always be aware of cautions and possible side effects.
There is no reason for embarrassment if you need to take medication.
It does not mean that you are weak. Sometimes anxiety and depression get bad enough to become a brain chemistry issue rather than a psychological issue. At that point we need to address the biological side of it.
These medications are essentially food for the brain. They restore serotonin and other chemicals you can’t produce for yourself.
The good news is that medication can help you return to a point of being able to deal with your issues on a psychological level because the pain isn’t making you dysfunctional.
That’s what medication is for!
Medication is not to solve your problem! It’s to get you to a place where YOU can solve your problem.
Someone said, “It is hard to be a philosopher and have a toothache at the same time.”
Sometimes you need to lower your pain level to a certain point in order to become functional again, so you can work on fixing the real problem.
So Mike, with Jen’s support, took steps to lower his stress levels and balance his brain chemistry.
3. Rewire your neural pathways
With anxiety and depression, the brain and the heart muscles have cells called neurons that can fire as a group. When this happens, they wire together and form a network, or “groove,” which can become deeper and deeper. Therefore, negative thoughts literally shape the brain structure to form negative neural patterns. These habituated “grooves” in our organs and regions of the body trigger us into feeling and acting in certain ways. These grooves produce habits. So, in part, anxiety and depression become habitual.
How do you change these negative neural pathways related to anxiety and depression?
Imago therapy provides positive habit-forming behaviors that help reprogram your brain, heart, and nervous system.
Most people underestimate the power of these simple marriage tools.
If you engage in these prescribed positive behaviors over and over again, you will “re-groove” the muscle memory or the nervous system patterns, so that instead of automatically triggering self-destructive behavior, these new patterns orient you toward joyful aliveness and feeling connected.
Analysts have done brain scans showing that these kinds of exercises done over time can shift your default condition back to joyful aliveness rather than negativity, anxiety, and depression.
Because we helped Mike and Jen deepen their connection with each other during the first two steps using Imago Dialogues, we were able to add these exercises that help rewire brain pathways.
So how is this working for Mike and Jen?
It’s slow, but they are making progress.
And since their focus through this whole process was to reconnect with each other, they will tell you everything is better.
Many things about their future are uncertain but one thing is for sure – they will face it together.
How about you?
Please share your thoughts with us in the comment section below.
Until next week…
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My goal is to provide free relationship tools and resources delivered to your inbox every week!
A “Caring Behavior” is something your partner has expressed to you that makes her or him feel loved.
In last week’s post, Katie made a “Behavior Change Request” of Frank. That request pointed to a “Caring Behavior” – something that, when done, makes Katie feel loved.
Her request was, “Next month, will you choose one weekend and plan something for us to do together?”
When Frank gave up his weekend golf to plan a suprise weekend with Katie, it was a positive experience for them both.
Katie felt loved, and her response made Frank feel like he could move closer to her.
It doesn’t help to just close your exits. You must redirect that energy into the relationship in a way that works for you both. That’s when reconnection can occur.
How about you in your relationship? Perhaps you can relate to Frank?
Is it scary for you to think about giving up something you love on a slim chance that you might be able to make your partner feel loved?
I can relate!
So begin with small steps.
There was wife who would go jogging every day at lunch, and then again after work. She learned that jogging was an exit – a way she was avoiding intimacy.
A small step for her was to continue jogging during her lunch break, but stop jogging in the evening in order to spend that time with her husband.
She didn’t give up jogging altogether. She just turned some of that energy back into the relationship. They spent time using some of the Dialogue tools they were learning in therapy. It was a step in the right direction.
So closing the exits is not about giving up something. It’s about getting the love you’ve always wanted!
Instead of leaving the relationship, identify your defenses, call your exits what they are, close them, and redirect all that good energy into your relationship.
You’ll be glad you did!
Need help? Reach out to me. I do coaching with couples all over the world through video conferencing.
If you haven’t already, please subscribe to my weekly post in the form below. My goal is to provide free relationship resources delivered to your email inbox every Saturday morning!
“My husband’s destructive anger is wrecking our family! I can’t deal with his abuse any longer!”
Tears filled Gina’s eyes as she explained what her husband Gary’s anger was doing to her.
This began a 7 step journey that transformed Gary’s destructive anger into passionate love.
Recently, in an argument over how to deal with one of their children, Gary blew up at Gina and put his fist through the wall.
Gary had not previously been physically violent toward Gina or their three children. But there were repeated times of yelling and name-calling.
And now Gary had literally hit the wall. Where was it going to end?
Gina was not only concerned for her own safety, but was really afraid of what this anger would do to their kids.
In our first session, we began a structured dialogue that helped Gary and Gina take seven steps toward dealing with abusive anger.
1. Set a boundary against uncontrolled anger.
It was very important for Gina to say to Gary that uncontrolled anger is not ok. Gina must realize she does not have to tolerate it, and must be empowered to leave the abusive situation in any way necessary. This may include getting a restraining order.
There are cases of emotional and physical abuse where the first step is for the victim to separate from the abusive partner and get professional help.
Gina communicated this boundary in a Dialogue where Gary mirrored and validated her concern.
It was very important that this boundary be communicated to Gary in a safe way. The Couples Dialogue helped him receive and accept it rather than feel judged by it.
In Gary’s case, he was ready to get help, and fully accepted Gina’s boundary.
For Gary and Gina, this act of violence was a wake up call to get help.
Both of them were eagerly seeking change.
They invited me to continue to facilitate this process of transforming anger into passionate love.
This is a pledge to stop all negative comments, criticisms, and uncontrolled expressions of anger.
It is something I ask all my clients to sign whether violent anger is an issue or not.
Because nothing can happen in a relationship unless it is safe.
And it will never be safe if the tiniest bit of negativity is allowed in the space between the couple.
Negativity in a relationship is like putting a drop of raw sewage into a glass of pure drinking water.
Would you drink it even if I assured you it contained only a drop of sewage? 🙂
Of course not! Because, even with a drop of bacteria infested sewage, it’s no longer safe to drink.
In the same way, when a drop of criticism or unbridled anger is deposited into the space between a couple, it’s no longer safe to for either partner to open up to each other.
Going forward Gary and Gina weren’t perfect, but this commitment to zero negativity was a good start down the right path.
3. Avoid assigning labels to each other.
“My partner is abusive!”
“My husband is a narcissist!”
“My wife has Borderline Personality Disorder!”
Labeling like this produces enough negative energy to keep a person permanently bound in the role assigned to them.
People live up to what we say about them.
It’s important to drop the labels.
And here’s another reason why.
Gary and Gina are just two partners doing the best they can to manage their anxiety.
What do you mean?
When couples feel disconnected, the result is always anxiety.
The human mind cannot handle anxiety for more than a few seconds. To cope we turn it into either anger or depression.
So most people are not what we tend to label them. They’re just trying to manage their anxiety the best they can. Obviously some better than others.
Of course there are true narcissists and there are violent aggressors that are unsafe people period.
But in many cases where a someone claims their partner is a narcissist, it is a label unfairly assigned.
During the Dialogue process, we often find that the “so-called narcissist” is perfectly capable of empathizing with his or her partner. It’s just that the relationship had never been safe enough for that to happen.
It’s the growth challenge of marriage that changes us from self-absorbed individuals into differentiated individuals capable of intimate connection.
In many cases people are self-absorbed because they’ve never stepped up to the “growth challenge” that every marriage presents.
Therefore it’s important not to label.
The Couples Dialogue process helps you reimage your partner as someone who is simply trying to manage their own anxiety the best they can.
Some do it by exploding anger outwardly. Others by internalizing anger and becoming depressed.
4. Listen to anger’s “cry for help”.
As Gina mirrored Gary’s angry feelings, she learned that his anger was a cover for deeper emotions he was experiencing.
Usually anger is not about what you say it’s about. It’s a way to protect yourself from your more vulnerable feelings.
Like the tip of an iceberg, anger can be used to cover deeper emotions that we my not be conscious of.
Gina and Gary’s big blow up was not really about differences over child discipline. It was about Gary not feeling important in the process.
And at the very core was Gary’s hidden fear of losing his connection with Gina.
As a child, Gary experienced feelings of abandonment from his early caretakers. Unknowingly, he had brought these wounds into his marriage.
When he felt Gina withdrawing from him, his deep fear of abandonment was triggered.
In an unconscious reaction he would then use anger to mask these feelings of abandonment.
This in turn caused Gina to move even further from Gary.
But Chuck, that doesn’t make sense. If Gary wanted to be connected with Gina, why would he yell and punch the wall?
Why do kids throw temper tantrums?
To get the attention of the parent they fear won’t be available to them when they need it most.
Gary was doing an “adult version” of this kind of behavior.
So how does Gina “listen to anger’s cry for help” and begin to understand Gary’s real emotion behind anger?
It was through the structured Couples Dialogue that Gina felt safe enough to listen and validate Gary.
And in the context of that safety, Gary got in touch with the fear of abandonment that was driving his explosive anger.
And then, as we’ll see later, things went even deeper…
5. Stay present rather than retreating.
As Gina stayed present and listened to Gary, this had a powerful calming effect on him.
It was Gina’s withdrawal that triggered the fear and anger in Gary.
Most every day we walk our dog, Brie, in the neighborhood. There is a cat about a block away that Brie loves to chase. It goes like this.
The cat sees Brie and takes off. When Brie sees the cat take off, she begins pursuit until she reaches the end of her leash. And then it’s all we can do to hold her back. We should have gone to dog training school.
One day the cat saw Brie, and instead of running, he sat down in the driveway and began licking his paw.
Brie was really troubled. And stood perfectly still. Why?
We discovered that Brie will only chase if the cat retreats. If the cat doesn’t run, Brie waits.
In the same way, Gina’s running away was one of the triggers for Gary to pursue her in anger.
A dramatic change occurred when she remained present for Gary. His anger was diffused and he was able to express his fear in a safe dialogue.
Gina was able to empathize with Gary’s feeling of abandonment, and that was when everything changed.
Continuing to be curious in the Dialogue, Gina found out Gary’s hidden fear.
Recently she had became more involved in her work as a school teacher. This meant more social engagement with her coworkers as well.
As Gary saw her having fun with people that had more in common with her than he did, Gary feared that one day she wouldn’t need him and would leave him for good.
So the anger wasn’t about the differences they had in parenting. It was about Gary’s deep fear of being left alone.
Very often the problem you’re arguing about is not the problem. It goes much deeper.
Both Gina and Gary got in touch with the real issue which was Gary’s hidden fear.
This happened because Gina stayed present and curious in the process.
6. Use your anger as a signal to stop and dialogue.
The Couples Dialogue slows things down, enabling you to talk about your anger rather than exploding it.
Anger does not have to be unhealthy. It doesn’t have to turn into destructive aggression.
Anger can be an incredibly useful emotion.
Anger serves as a stoplight – a signal that something is not right and you need to STOP.
Gary learned to recognize when he was angry by noticing the sensations in his body.
Sensations like a tensed body, clenched teeth, restlessness, or increased intensity of speech were the cues that helped him realize he was angry.
If we can recognize anger before it’s expressed, it can be a signal to stop and use our safe conversation skills to talk about it.
If we heed anger’s warning, it’s possible to return to love and connection. If we ignore its warning, our relationship will suffer.
It’s a choice we have to make.
7. Channel anger’s energy into passionate love.
Anger and passionate love are opposite expressions of the same energy.
When anger’s negative energy gets redirected in a safe conversation it transforms into passionate love.
Gary took steps to moderate his anger, by talking it out rather than acting it out.
Gina stretched in order to be present with Gary rather than withdrawing and triggering his feelings of abandonment.
What happened as a result?
Anger was transformed into passionate love.
I saw evidence of this in the parking lot of my office after our last session as Gary and Gina stood by their car for what seemed like forever in a passionate hug and prolonged kiss.
As people watched them, I thought, “They have no idea what’s behind this. If they only knew…”
Gary and Gina not only learned to deal with destructive anger, but all of their feelings of love and passion returned.
That’s because anger’s negative energy can be channeled in the opposite direction. And passionate love can be reborn.
2. Avoiding conflict keeps you from getting the love you want.
Why did I avoid conflict?
Because I feared intimacy.
This strategy of avoidance helped me survive a childhood, where I often felt smothered and controlled.
As a child, connection and attachment was not a pleasurable experience.
So, in my adult relationship, I feared intimacy because it was tantamount to intrusion and absorption and control.
And yet what I craved more than anything was that very intimacy I was missing by avoiding conflict.
Wow! Talking about a dilemma!
I craved connection with Sandy. And yet I avoided the conflict that could lead us to that connection.
If conflict is handled well, it can lead you to a deeper connection and to getting the love you want.
We get married because we have found someone who will help us finish our childhood, by healing and recovering parts of ourselves lost along the way.
We know intuitively that this person is the key to feeling fully alive and whole again.
So marriage makes a lot of sense.
The problem is that conflict is what catalyzes the healing and growth that results in wholeness and full-aliveness.
So, if I’m avoiding conflict, I’m missing out on the whole deal.
I realized that Sandy and I did not feel connected. And by continuing to avoid conflict I was settling for less, willing to live in that disconnected state.
And it doesn’t end there. If you don’t address this it will get worse.
The partner who is avoiding intimacy will look for substitutes for that intimacy in things outside the marriage.
Things that bring a temporary feeling of being alive but it doesn’t last.
In my case, I was first driven to pursue my career with passion.
Nothing wrong with that in itself, but when it’s a replacement for the real intimacy missing in your marriage, it always turns out to be an empty illusion.
The more I would seek my full-aliveness in work…you guessed it.
The more Sandy would feel abandoned.
And although she was careful not to criticize, her negative feelings came through.
I just wasn’t measuring up!
And it was true.
What a wife needs most is to feel connected with her husband. And that feeling of connection was not there.
When the glory my career accomplishments faded, I turned to my lifelong love affair with music and my guitar became the new “mistress”.
Then it was my infatuation with road biking…
…all good things, but all empty in the end.
When we’re in a marriage that doesn’t feel connected, we look for exits that we think can fill the emptiness and loneliness.
But they don’t really work. And the pattern continues.
Experts tell us that only 10% of married couples report having a truly satisfying relationship.
We were one of that 90% – staying married, but not happy campers.
The 90% settles for either a “silent divorce” where they remain together in agony and in separate lives…
…or they settle for a “parallel marriage” where they are relatively happy together, but most of their needs are being met outside the relationship through things like work, hobbies, social causes, sports, gaming, etc.
This is where we were.
But thanks to Sandy we didn’t settle there!
What did Sandy do? She talked about it.
And I’m glad she did, rather than settling for less.
I so admire her for that. She was able to identify what was missing in our marriage, and that is the reason we are where we are today.
So speak up. But do it in the context of a Safe Conversation so transformation of your relationship can occur.
Our marriage was transformed the day I realized that full-aliveness doesn’t come through all the things I was seeking outside our relationship.
Full-aliveness comes with safety, connection and passion in my relationship with Sandy.
Like Dorothy of the Wizard of Oz, I realized that everything I needed was right here with me all along.
But how did this change happen?
3. The “Commitment Dialogue” helps the “avoider” stay present and heal the one who feels abandoned.
Nothing happens in a relationship unless it’s safe.
One drop of negativity renders a conversation unsafe and therefore nothing transformational can happen.
Whenever someone withdraws from a conversation, the conversation is unsafe.
Whenever someone criticizes someone (even so called “constructive criticism”), the conversation is unsafe.
And did I say that nothing happens in a relationship unless it’s safe?
Ok, so how did you get to a Safe Conversation that brought about this change in you and Sandy?
The most powerful tool we found is called the Commitment Dialogue from Imago Couples Therapy.
Here’s how it went for Sandy and me.
After I integrated the first two insights I’ve shared above, i.e.,
1. My avoidance was hurting Sandy at the deepest level, not because I was evil, but because neither of us were conscious of the childhood wound of abandonment that was so painful.
2. My avoidance was ripping me off from the experience of full-aliveness in my relationship with Sandy.
I was ready to do…
3. The Commitment Dialogue.
Here is a summary of what happened:
Chuck made an appointment to dialogue with Sandy.
Chuck began with the sentence stem, “One activity I use to avoid connecting with you is…” And I talked about how I withdraw when I feel criticized.
Sandy mirrored using the stem, “What I hear you saying is..” She checked for accuracy by asking, “Did I get it?” And then she remained curious by asking, “Is there more about that?”
Chuck continued with more details that went deeper into his childhood.
BTW: Curiosity helped Sandy regulate her reactive emotions, and made it safe for Chuck to access his feelings.
(As a result, several new insights dropped out of my unconscious mind, helping Sandy to better see and know the real me. And it helped me to see me too :-).
Can you see how it would have shut things down if Sandy had allowed feelings of abandonment to cause her to react rather than remain curious?
Did I say nothing can happen in a relationship that’s not safe?)
Sandy summarized what Chuck said and then VALIDATED it, using the stem “Chuck, what you’re saying makes sense, and what makes sense about it is…
Then she EMPATHIZED with Chuck saying, “I can imagine that it feels…”
Chuck finished the dialogue by saying, “I’m committing today to keep talking about this with words, rather than acting it out and withdrawing from conflict.”
At this point the new paradigm was integrated, a shift occurred, and Chuck transformed fundamentally into an “engager” rather than an “avoider”.
It’s not perfect, but it is truly a fundamental shift that has changed everything.
Now when I feel criticized or controlled, I’m working toward facing it and talking about it rather than avoiding it.
That new area of growth for me is hard. But it enables me to be present with Sandy when she needs it most.
When I do that, it brings healing for her.
The area of growth for her is learning to communicate her feelings in a safe way with zero negativity.
And of course that means healing for me.
And that makes it much easier to stay present with her and deepen our connection.
The old cycle of criticism and withdrawal is being replaced with one of safety and connection.
This new partnership of healing and growth is a “win-win” to say the least.
Share you insights and questions below…and, if you haven’t already, be sure to…
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