VIDEO BLOG: How to turn marriage conflicts into healing and growth opportunities

Most of us see conflicts in our marriage as bad.

But did you know that conflicts can bring us to new levels of healing and growth we would never experience otherwise?

In the video below, the story of Mario and Rosa shows us how to turn marriage conflicts into healing and growth opportunities.

Take a few minutes to watch the video with your partner…

…and then use the discussion questions below to talk about how you can turn your conflicts into healing and growth opportunities.

https://youtu.be/CJhxjDfJMtA

Discussion with your partner:

  1. What evidence do each of you see that you married your “Imago” match? (To explore further, fill out the “Brief Relationship Workup“, then transfer the info to “My Unconscious Relationship Agenda“. )
  2. Share with each other what needs for healing you see.
  3. In what specific ways will you both need to grow in order to bring healing to each other?

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Is it marriage incompatibility…or do your differences have a deeper meaning?

Like many couples, you may be asking…

“How did I marry the most incompatible person on the planet?”

“Why could I not see who this person really was?!

“How did something so beautiful turn so ugly?!”

Before you lose hope, consider the fact that this experience is NORMAL to some degree with most couples.

Also, consider the possibility that your differences may have a deeper meaning and purpose.

We are so much ALIKE!

(The story of symbiosis and romantic love)

Most marriages begin with  pretty intense romantic feelings. This is a season where you actually feel like you and your partner are “one soul and two bodies”, sharing the same beliefs, values, tastes, and desires.

The term for this emotional state is “symbiosis”. During the romantic stage of the relationship symbiosis is pleasurable. You feel like you’re in heaven.

The problem is that, unconsciously, you are assuming that your partner is like you.

Symbiosis is the illusion that your partner shares your thoughts and feelings.

  • You believe that when you are in love you must think, feel, and act alike.
  • You’re certain that it’s not possible to function as an individual and still be in a relationship.
  • You assume you can’t operate with clear boundaries and still be connected.

I know this may sound absurd, but that’s what goes on unconsciously.

And it’s like heaven as long as this  romantic symbiosis lasts and you believe that you and your partner are the same!

But, after a while, some clues that your partner is actually different from you begin to surface.

We are so DIFFERENT!

(The story of symbiosis and the power struggle)

“What happened?! Why did you have to change?! Why can’t we go back to the way it was when we were ‘in love’?!”

When the symbiotic state of romantic love is disturbed by these indications of difference, marriage partners become anxious and reactive. Conflict occurs as they try desperately to retain the romantic illusion.

  • You get frustrated or irritated when your partner can’t read your thoughts.
  • You get disappointed because your partner doesn’t do things right.
  • You criticize your partner to get her or him to be more like you.
  • You become argumentative and dogmatic because “there’s only one way to think”.
  • You use guilt or shame in an attempt to get your partner to do things your way.
  • You say your partner is like you when he or she does something you like.

This negativity and coercion only make matters worse, and you soon feel like your romantic dream has morphed into your worst nightmare!

Symbiosis in the romantic stage is like heaven, but symbiosis in the power struggle is like hell.

The wish to maintain the romantic illusion is so powerful, and its rupture so terrifying that a couple will start to unconsciously annihilate each other through many forms of negation, negativity, as well as verbal and even physical abuse.

As things progress you realize you both have married someone who has the worst traits of your parents. We call this your Imago. You ask yourself, “Could I have possibly chosen someone more incompatible even if I had tried?!”

That’s when we start thinking about “separation on the basis of incompatibility”.

But are you really incompatible? Or do your differences have a deeper purpose?

Actually, we are a PERFECT match!

(The story of differentiation and connection)

At this point a new commitment is required.

A commitment to move from an unconscious to a conscious relationship. To move from symbiosis and self-absorption to differentiation and connection.

If symbiosis in the power struggle seems like hell, differentiation will dissolve it and make your relationship feel like heaven again.

But you must surrender your symbiotic wish, and engage in the process of differentiation.

Here’s what can happen with differentiation:

  • You move into a new paradigm in which your relationship has priority over your individual needs.
  • But paradoxically, when you serve the needs of your relationship, the relationship serves your needs.
  • You will discover that your differences do have a deeper purpose: healing and growth.
  • Your relationship problems become maps that identify the places you have been wounded and need healing.
  • You discover that it’s the partner you’re with right now, your “Imago match”, that offers you the greatest opportunity to heal your childhood wounds and grow the underdeveloped parts of yourself. To separate from this person means that you miss this opportunity, and end up taking all your problems with you into your next relationship.
  • When you move from negativity to curiosity, you discover the amazing world of your partner. Your partner is not who you thought they were. Turns out they are even more amazing than you imagined.
  • Both of you are enormously enriched when you accept the fact that you live in two different worlds, and that you look at everything through different lenses.
  • You are no longer imprisoned by a mono-centric view of life. And this transforms other areas of your life – your parenting, your life work, your community involvement.
  • In sharing your stories with each other, you co-create a new story in which you actually co-create each other. You become a much better person together than you would be by separating.
  • And, finally, meeting each other at this level restores the feeling of original connection. And that is what heals you and restores your feelings of joyful aliveness.

The Imago Dialogue process can help you and your partner discover that your problem is not really incompatibility. And you will see that your differences really do have a deeper meaning!

Let me encourage you to find an Imago therapist in your area to help if you need it. Or contact me and I’ll walk you through it.

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Want to live “happily ever after” in your marriage? Here’s something even better!

Peter and Kathy had an amazing marriage breakthrough! But after a few months they found themselves stuck again in the same vicious cycle of blaming and defensiveness that almost ruined their marriage before. Only now it seemed worse.

Here is a couple who was able to dissolve all the anxiety that was driving their Power Struggle and connect with each other in a deeper way than ever before!  Their marriage moved from the brink of failure to a picture of marital bliss! They were so happy! So was I as their coach!

But a few months later all those feelings were gone. They felt like all the ground they had gained in their relationship had been lost. Once again they were considering separation.

What happened?

It was something that I discovered only recently.

When a couple rekindles Romantic Love, it hurls them back into the Power Struggle!

What?!! That’s right!

Most marriages begin with Romantic Love. Then comes the Power Struggle.

Then, with a commitment and the right tools, a couple can move through the Power Struggle to Mature Love and to the World Impact Stage where the changes in their marriage begin to positively impact their children and their world.

Here is the graph I made to depict that journey.

The problem with this model is that it suggests that when you get to the World Impact Stage you’ve arrived!

Then your marriage is one of eternal bliss that continues “happily ever after” as you ride off into the sunset to go out and change the world!

Right!!

I wanted to believe that! I really, really did!

But that was not the case with Peter and Kathy. Actually it’s not the case with the other couples I help. And it’s certainly not the case with Sandy and me.

Why? Because…

Marriage is a journey of healing and growth that doesn’t end with the first breakthrough you have.

There is no place of arrival where you are both healed and where you no longer need to grow.

You and I will always long for new levels of healing. And we will always discover areas where we need to stretch and grow and discover lost and undeveloped parts of ourselves.

And that’s why, when we rekindle Romantic Love, it hurls us right back into another round of the Power Struggle!

So the Couple’s Journey actually looks more like this:

Couple's Journey

Instead of a linear path, the Couple’s Journey is a progressive cycle that repeats these four stages.

As you go through this cycle, there is connection, rupture, repair, and then reconnection that occurs over and over again.

Realizing that this is normal helped Peter and Kathy feel better, and regain hope that they could get back on their journey toward healing and wholeness.

As we worked through this “second power struggle”, Peter and Kathy discovered some childhood adaptations that were fueling this new Power Struggle. Some unconscious defenses they had never been conscious of before.

Peter realized he would withdraw from Kathy whenever she was “overreacting”. He did this without even knowing he was doing it.  Through the Couple’s Dialogue, we discovered that this defense was deeply connected to the way he felt smothered as a child by his mother.

Kathy would explode when she felt Peter “leaving her”. This defense was deeply connected to the times when Kathy felt like her mother was not emotionally available to her when she was a child.

Through the process Peter saw that his own unconscious reaction to Kathy was just as powerful as her outbursts. It’s just that his defense, which was to withdraw his emotional presence, was silent while Kathy’s was sometimes very loud.

Why did they not see this before? I don’t know.

But when they became conscious of these newer, deeper dynamics, two things happened.

Peter began to grow by staying present with Kathy rather than leaving when she was upset. This immediately had a healing effect on her wound of rejection.

Kathy began to grow by regulating her emotions, making it safe for Peter to stay present. This had a healing effect on Peter as he overcame his fear of intimacy and his childhood feelings of being smothered by his mother.

This process of working through the second Power Struggle helped Peter and Kathy reconnect once again and get back on the path toward healing and wholeness. They were able to use the same skills they learned before to go even deeper this time.

It feels like a game of Chutes and Ladders.

Sandy once said that our progress felt like a game of Chutes and Ladders. Sometimes we land on a chute and slide all the down to where we were before.

It sometimes feels like you’re starting over. But that’s not true. You’re actually going deeper.

It’s something even better than “happily ever after”.

Even though romantic love fades away, romance never has to end.

Staying on the journey where you experience more and more healing and growth, and where you experience a greater and greater sense of safety, connection, and full-aliveness is even better than our fairytale concept of “happily ever after”.

Why?

Because in the fairy tale ideal of “happy ever after”, there’s no program for healing and growth.

Without conflicts brought about by the power struggle, our relationship would eventually die anyway. It’s a principle of nature that, if something is not growing, it’s dying.

Also, relationship science tells us that, ironically, you and I would never really be happy with someone who doesn’t push our buttons and help us finish the work left undone in childhood.

As Peter and Kathy made the choice to recommit and work through this second power struggle, they were encouraged by what happened.

And they discovered it does actually get easier.

They learned that each time around the cycle the rupture feels less catastrophic, the repair process happens faster, and the connection feels even deeper than before.

Also as they continue around the cycle, the emotions connected with the Power Struggle become less toxic to the relationship as understanding, curiosity, and compassion grow.

So this is WAY better than merely “happily ever after”!

What about you? Have you had real progress in your marriage only to be set back?

It happens. But like Kathy and Peter, you can stay on the journey no matter what.

Even though it will recycle through the Power Struggle, and you may feel like you’re in a game of Chutes and Ladders, eventually you will get there!

And you will have a marriage filled with safety, connection, passion and full-aliveness!

Which is better than “happily ever after”!

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Build your dream marriage part 4: Be willing to grow into more of who you really are

Marriage is the best place for you to grow in ways you never would otherwise. It’s where you can, not only discover, but to also recover those lost parts of yourself that were never developed growing up.

And building your dream marriage depends on this kind of growth.

“Chuck, I know I need to grow and change, but it feels like my partner wants me be someone that I’m not.”

Actually…

Your partner’s deep desire is not really for you to become someone you’re not. It’s for you to become more of who you are!

And, as you grow to into more of your authentic self, it will bring increasing measures of healing to your partner in a way that nothing else can.

Building your dream marriage requires growing and recovering parts of yourself that are lost and buried in your unconscious.

How did parts of me get lost?

As you grew up, certain things may have been taboo, or not talked about, or not allowed. Maybe comparisons were made between you and your siblings or peers. Or perhaps society may have suppressed your potential because of the color of your skin or your gender.

These are the kinds of things that can work to repress our thinking, feelings, senses, or actions. When that happens our growth can be cut off.

Maybe you grew up in a home that frowned upon expressing anger. From the time you were an infant, the message was instilled, “If I’m angry, mom won’t be happy and she’ll leave me.”

Or perhaps you grew up with the unspoken message that sex is bad or shameful. You were scolded for touching yourself in certain places, and sex was never talked about. When you grew up and began to have sexual impulses, it was scary and you felt shame.

For some reason my grandmother grew up believing that she couldn’t do stuff. So she never learned to swim or drive. I often wonder what messages she received growing up that repressed her desire to gain those and other skills.

Our growth is cut off when we’re not allowed to express our full aliveness in “forbidden areas”, or in areas where we’re told we are not capable or good enough.

Whenever a child is given the choice between expressing full aliveness, and connecting with a parent, the child will sacrifice the growth that comes through expressing that aliveness. This happens when a child fears losing connection with the parent.

This is what results in adaptations that block development in those areas of thinking, feeling, sensing and doing.

“Well, if part of me is ‘lost’, as you say, or buried in my unconscious, how do I find it?”

To find out where you need to grow, simply look for what your partner needs most that you’re least able to give.

What?!! That’s right!

What your partner needs most points to where you need to grow most.

This is one of the wonders of the marriage relationship.

The drive to grow these lost parts of yourself is one of the unconscious reasons you chose the partner you did!

We tend to choose a partner who “has what I don’t”.

If you’re sexually repressed you may be drawn to someone who is free in that area.

But after you’re married you discover that it’s actually not being with a partner who is sexually free that makes you whole. What’s really happening is that your partner’s freedom is calling you to reclaim that freedom that you never developed.

Make sense?

Growing into more of who you really are happens in one or more of these areas:

THINKING

…unlocking all those suppressed intellectual powers that you actually have, but never developed, because of messages you received growing up that you were slow or dumb.

Yolanda gives her husband Chris the “still face” every time he comes home sharing an intellectual breakthrough he had in his work as a design engineer.  Can you guess what Chris needs most from her?

He needs her to celebrate with him and experience with him the joy of his accomplishments…something his dad never did.

Yet, this is the thing Yolanda is least able to do, because Chris’ accomplishments make her feel dumb, just like she felt growing up with three siblings who were “brainiacs”.

Building a dream marriage requires that Yolanda grow and unleash her own intellectual powers that are there but never developed. Then, instead of being threatened by Chris’s intellectual accomplishments, she can celebrate them.

When Yolanda grows in this way, it brings healing to Chris.

FEELING

…learning to be in touch with your feelings and share them freely with your partner.

Gary has trouble sharing his feelings with his wife, Laura. Can you guess what Laura needs most from him?

More than anything Laura needs Gary to be present emotionally for her when she’s angry – one thing Gary is least able to do.

Building a dream marriage requires that Gary stretch and grow in his ability to be aware of what he feels, and to be brave enough to share his feelings in a way he never did growing up.

It’s a scary thing, but when Gary grows in this way, it brings healing to Laura.

It’s amazing how your partner’s need for healing becomes a blueprint for your own growth!

It also works the other way around.

Laura has trouble regulating her anger. Can you guess what Gary needs most from her?

More than anything Gary needs Laura to control her emotions when she’s angry so he can feel safe to be present with her – the one thing she’s least able to do.

Building a dream marriage requires that Laura grow in her ability to regulate her emotions and not overreact in anger toward Gary.

When Laura grows in this way, it brings healing to Gary.

SENSING

…being in touch with the sensations in your body.

Jim has trouble responding sexually to his partner, Martha. Can you guess what Martha needs most from him?

More than anything Martha needs Jim to express his love physically – the one thing Jim can’t do.

Building a dream marriage requires that Jim overcome his inhibitions and develop a mutually satisfying sex life with Martha.

When Jim grows in this way, it brings healing to Martha.

ACTING

…courageously stepping out of your comfort zone, and doing what you’ve never done.

Wesley longed for his wife, Kathy to mountain bike with him. Growing up, Kathy was never allowed to do anything remotely dangerous, so for her, this was completely out of the question.

If Kathy took some courageous steps to overcome her fear of adventure by developing new skills, this could be a great step toward building her dream marriage with Wesley.

Being willing to grow into more of who you really are is a win-win proposition.

Not only does your partner find the love that heals, you will feel more fully alive because of new skills you are integrating into your life!

Here’s to growing into more of who we really are…for our partner, and for ourselves!

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Build your dream marriage part 2: Turn conflicts into healing and growth opportunities

We’ve been programmed to believe that conflicts in marriage are bad! That’s NOT true!! Conflicts in marriage can bring us to new levels of healing and growth we would never experience otherwise.

A dream marriage is a true partnership where you find the healing and wholeness you’re looking for. Conflicts are what provide opportunity for that!

There are four reasons conflicts provide our best opportunities to heal and grow.

1. We marry our “IMAGO”.

We marry our what?!

Imago is Latin for “image”. Dr. Harville Hendrix coined the term to refer an image we carry around in our unconscious minds.

In order for us to fall in love with someone, that person must match that image, or we simply won’t fall.

The Imago consists of…

(1) the positive and negative TRAITS OF OUR EARLY OUR CARETAKERS, and

(2) the LOST PARTS OF OURSELVES; i.e. skills in our thinking, feeling, sensing, and doing that we never developed growing up.

All the child development theories tell us that children create representations in their minds, pictures of their caretakers. This picture recedes into our unconscious and becomes what we now know, according to modern science, a neural network in our lower brain (brainstem and limbic system).

Because this part of our brain only sees images, this “Imago” is kind of like a Monet painting, a fuzzy image that is a composite of our parents’ positive and negative traits.

As you seek a life partner, this image filters out of consideration everyone whose traits are not similar to your early caretakers.

And it draws you to a person who not only matches your parents’ traits, but one who also exhibits those disowned, denied and lost parts of yourself.

Are you kidding me? Can this be real?

Sure! Let’s say you meet a person who is beautiful, or handsome, or smart. They seem compatible, and share common interests with you.

Think of how many people you’ve met like that. Hundreds perhaps!

But, have you noticed, no matter how great they are, if they don’t have, for example, your father’s anger, or your mother’s depression, or the withholding nature of a grandmother who helped parent you, they are absolutely, totally uninteresting?!

Sure this is a theory, but I’m finding it to be true more and more as I continue to practice Imago Couples Therapy based on this concept.

When a person comes along who matches these traits, especially the negative traits, your lower brain signals the release of the chemicals that cause you to fall blindly in love.

Take Mario and Rosa for example.

MARIO’S IMAGO

Mario’s mother’s had many positive traits including LOYALTY, and some negative traits including DEPRESSION and DETACHMENT.

As the third born of four children, Mario grew up feeling left out and invisible. Lost in the chaos surrounding a single mom struggling to meet the needs of four children, he often felt abandoned. His way of surviving that wound was to always be in control, and to be aggressive enough to get the attention he needed.

So who does he marry?

Rosa, who had traits similar to his mom. Mario was drawn to Rosa’s loyalty, and he later discovered her depression and “distant nature” triggered his old wounds of abandonment.

Rosa’s Imago

Rosa’s father’s had many positive traits, including WORKING HARD, and some negative traits including ANGER and the need to be in CONTROL.

She learned early on to stay out of the way, to detach emotionally, and avoid the conflict that seemed to always surround her dad.

And who does she marry?

Mario, who had traits similar to her dad. Rosa was drawn to Mario’s hard working nature, and she later discovered that his angry outbursts and controlling nature triggered her old wounds and fear of closeness.

OK, wait! Why would I be drawn to someone who triggers my pain and brings out the worst in me?!

Keep reading. This will all make sense. Trust me.

The Romantic Stage

When you meet your Imago, you become intensely attracted and fall in love, because your lower brain signals the “ok” to release dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin into your system. That’s when you realize there’s “chemistry” between you.

When Rosa and Mario fell in love, they felt fully alive and saw life in vivid color! They felt they had finally arrived! They felt they had found someone who “not only understands me, but is willing to meet all my needs”!

In this “drugged up state” they were totally unaware of how their negative traits would eventually affect each other.

Can you relate?

This is called ROMANTIC FANTASY and it doesn’t last! The drugs wear off and the rose-colored glasses are soon ripped from your face.

The Power Struggle Stage

About nine months after Mario and Rosa said “I do”, their romance began to fade and the Power Struggle began.

When Rosa felt the slightest inkling of Mario’s anger and control, she would detach emotionally in order to feel safe. This is what she learned to do growing up with a father who could explode at any provocation.

Rosa’s withdrawal would then trigger more of Mario’s anger and controlling behavior. It activated the lonely feelings he felt when his mother couldn’t be there for him. He learned to be aggressive to get what he needed growing up.

And, you can probably guess how it went down from there…

Mario’s angry reaction triggered more withdrawal in Rosa causing him to become even more angry and controlling…

And it was “game on”! The Power Struggle.

A destructive cycle of cat and mouse!

It was Mario, overly aggressive in his pursuit of connection, and Rosa, withdrawing in her fear of connection.

Rosa and Mario fell in love not just because Rosa was beautiful and Mario was handsome, or any of those normal reasons we imagine, but mainly because they were an Imago match!

Becoming aware of their Imago match was the first step toward seeing conflict as the key to healing and growth.

The second step was to realize…

2. Our unconscious relationship agenda is to HEAL the past.

This matching of Imagos is driven by an agenda to heal past wounds.

It’s actually two lower brains colluding to fulfill nature’s drive to heal wounded emotions.

What?!

Rosa’s lower brain perceived Mario as one who, because he was similar to her dad, could activate the old wounds she experienced from her dad’s anger.

OK Chuck, now you ARE talking crazy! How could this be a good thing?!!

Because experts tell us our emotional wounds heal best when they are activated by someone similar to the one who caused the wound.

If this person triggers that old pain, and then responds in a healing way rather than a hurtful way, there is nothing on the planet that can facilitate your healing better than this!

This is why marriage is the best place to find healing. Better than any therapist alone can facilitate.

Rosa’s need for healing

Rosa’s unconscious relationship agenda was that Mario, when triggered, would not explode in anger, but respond in a different way. She needed Mario to be present with her making it safe for her to stay connected with him.

Her hope (and her real reason for falling in love) was that Mario would heal the wound that her father’s anger inflicted.

This is the love that Rosa always secretly longed for. And she discovered that the best person to give her that love and help her heal her past was Mario, the one who happened to have the greatest potential to bring her more pain!

Mario’s need for healing

Mario’s unconscious relationship agenda was that Rosa, when triggered, would not withdraw like his mom did, but respond differently and stay present with him.

His hope (and his real reason for falling in love) was that Rosa’s presence would heal the wound that his mother’s emotional distance inflicted.

This is the love Mario always secretly longed for. And he discovered that Rosa, while being the least capable person to give that love, was the best person on the planet to help heal his past!

The Couple’s Dialogue

The Couple’s Dialogue provided a process for them both to validate each other, and to empathize with each other in a way that began to turn their conflicts into this kind of healing connection.

And here’s a wonderful reality that brings lots of hope!

Our lower brain doesn’t register time. It exists in a constant present tense. Therefore, when you finally get the love you’ve always longed for, it doesn’t complain, “Well you’re about 15 years too late! That’s what I needed as a child!”

No, it says, “Finally, I’m getting what I always needed!” And the healing begins!

So conflict becomes an opportunity for healing when we discover our unconscious agenda to heal the past.

There’s a final reason to embrace conflict…

3. Our unconscious relationship agenda is to GROW toward wholeness.

Mario’s need for growth

Rosa’s need for healing was a call for Mario to grow in the skills needed to regulate his anger, and patiently wait for Rosa to respond to his need for connection. It was Mario’s growth in this respect that would bring healing to Rosa.

This required Mario to stretch grow and discover a part of himself that was there all along, but was lost or never developed growing up.

As Rosa learned to voice her frustrations in the form of positive requests, Mario grew in his ability to regulate his anger, and to let go of his need to be in control. This made it safe for Rosa to stay present with him.

Rosa’s need for growth

On the other hand, Mario’s need for healing was a call for Rosa to grow in her ability to stay present with him and to overcome her fear of closeness. It was Rosa’s growth in this way that would bring healing to Mario.

As Mario voiced his frustration in the form of positive requests, Rosa grew in her ability to lower her walls of protection and become vulnerable and emotionally present with Mario.  She learned the skills needed to share her feelings in a way that helped her gradually overcome her fear of intimacy.

From Rosa’s and Mario’s example, we can see that…

Your marriage partner’s need for healing provides a blueprint for your own growth, and vice versa.

Conflict is a sign that growth is needing to happen. It’s a sign that something new is wanting to emerge in your life and relationship. It’s your partner’s need that points to the specific area you most need to grow.

When you give your partner the very things you feel you just CAN’T give (because you never developed that ability), you end up getting a piece of yourself you never had before.

Partners who grow by stretching into these new “caring behaviors” often report feeling more fully alive than they ever have before. It seems they benefit even more than the partner who receives healing!

What about you?

Is your relationship in conflict?

Has your romantic love faded, turning your dream marriage into a nightmare?

Does it seem like falling in love was simply nature’s way of getting you to hook up permanently with the most incompatible person on the planet?  

Are you asking “Why would nature drive me into the arms of someone who ends up frustrating me to no end?”

Well, now you know!

It was your inner drive to heal past hurts, and to discover and grow lost parts of yourself that caused you to fall in love.

And there’s no better person to heal and grow with than the one you’re with right now!

Click here to download a Brief Relationship Workup that will help you learn about your own Imago.

Click here to use the Workup to discover your own Unconscious Relationship Agenda.

Ping me if you’d like help and I’ll walk you through it!

Subscribe below to receive my weekly post that will come to your email inbox every Saturday morning! 

My goal is to provide free relationship tools and resources delivered to your inbox every week!