VIDEO BLOG: Marriage communication that leads to connection

Couples often say they have “communication” problems.

In the video below, Rob and Janet show us how to communicate in a way that dissolves all the conflict and leads to a closer connection with each other.

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

…and then use the discussion questions below to talk about how these three steps can help your relationship.

Safe Conversation: A way of talking without criticizing, of listening without judging, and connecting beyond our differences.

Discussion with your partner:

  1. In what ways do you think you may have limited your ability to connect with each other by either criticizing or judging each other?
  2. What kinds of hidden fears or other emotions do you think are driving these unhealthy reactions to each other?
  3. How do you think these Safe Conversation skills can help you begin to talk without criticizing, listen without judging, and connect beyond your differences?

Click here to download the Couple’s Dialogue that can help you go further in developing your safe conversation skills.

Share with us your insights in the comment section below!

Also…if you haven’t already…

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How to have the kind of marriage communication that leads to closer connection

Experts cite communication problems as the number one reason marriages fail.

But good communication in marriage is not enough, unless that communication leads you to a closer connection with your partner.

That’s because…

Communication is not really the problem in marriage. Feeling disconnected is.

You can have good communication and not feel connected.

I’m not saying communication is not important, because you can’t connect without communicating. What I’m saying is you can communicate without connecting.

Sometimes you may communicate perfectly and still trigger each other’s defenses.

Whenever defenses are triggered, the space between you becomes negative. Negativity makes a conversation unsafe, and that’s what keeps you from connecting.


Whether it’s criticism in your communication, or a judgmental reaction to your partner’s words, this kind of communication will prevent connection and conflict will be the result.

Talking with criticism or listening with judgment can make any subject a contentious one. And that’s when we blame our relationship failure on “communication problems”.

On the other hand, when you talk in a way that leaves you feeling connected, then you can more easily deal with every problem in your relationship.

The Safe Conversation model (aka The Couple’s Dialogue) is a tool that will help you communicate in a way that leads to connection.

Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt have defined a Safe Conversation as…

A way of talking without criticizing, of listening without judging, and connecting beyond our differences.

Let’s consider how this can work for us.

1. Talking without criticizing

Janet said to her husband Rob, “You’re going to kill yourself if you keep eating like that! You know that white sugar is poison!”

Communication? There is no question about what Janet is communicating. It’s crystal clear. But what do you think Rob’s response would be to this kind of communication?

He’d probably see it as criticism, and react by judging Janet’s intent as being disrespectful or controlling. Right?

“Stop telling me what to do! You’re always trying to control me!”

And then this reaction would then trigger further frustration on Janet’s part.

“You never listen to me.”

This downward spiral began with a critical comment.

A safe conversation can eliminate that.

You can talk about almost anything if you’ll say it in a respectful way without criticism.

It’s not what you say but how you say it. Whatever it is you’re talking about is secondary.

As safe conversation is like a truck moving produce.  The truck will deliver whatever it’s carrying: wheat, corn, beans or potatoes, it doesn’t matter.

In the same way a safe conversation will deliver any kind of message you want to send: appreciation, frustration, things you want, or things you need from your partner, it doesn’t matter. Like the truck moving the cargo, a safe conversation will deliver the goods.

So what would a Safe Conversation look like in this case?

1) Use “I statements” rather than “you statements”

Instead of saying “you” and then criticizing Rob, Janet could start by using “I” statements to share two things: “what I saw or heard” and “what I felt”.

And then she add any other thoughts or feelings that come to mind.

“When I saw you eating donuts, I felt anxious. My mother had diabetes and died at an early age and I’m afraid of something happening to you.”

2) Watch the non-verbal messages you’re sending

Often, things like a sigh, a glare, or a rolling of the eyes communicate negativity.

It will be really helpful if Janet conveys a soft look in her eyes and speaks in a kind tone.

It’s the non-verbal gestures that actually do most of our communicating.

3) Regulate your own emotional reaction

When Janet speaks in this way, she is working to regulate her reaction and the fear that drives her criticism.

This gives Rob a chance to control his own reaction, and perhaps listen with curiosity.

So, when you’re talking, use I statements, watch your non-verbal messages, and regulate your reaction to what you’ve seen and heard.

These steps will help do a lot to make the conversation safe and thus easier for your partner to listen and connect with you.

The problem may not be that your partner is not listening well. The problem may be that you’re not communicating in a way that can be heard.

Talking without criticizing can help make it safe to talk about even the most difficult issues.


2. Listening without judgment

What’s Rob’s part in this?

Rob stirred the pot by reacting with, “Stop telling me what to do! You’re always trying to control me!”

What if he were to regulate his own reaction for the moment?

You know Janet is really a decent person. What if Rob were to become curious about what feelings are driving her insensitive comment.

The three-part Safe Conversation model is designed to help you do that.

Here’s what it might look like:


What if Rob simply mirrored back to Janet what she said?

Mirroring says to your partner, “You matter. What you have to say matters.”

Here’s what that might look like:

“Let me see if I got what you’re saying. You’re saying that when I ate that second donut, you felt anxious. Your mother had diabetes and died at an early age, and you’re afraid of something happening to me.”

Did I get it? (checking for accuracy)

Is there more about that? (curiosity)

Checking to get 100%, and then becoming curious about your partner has a powerful effect, making your partner feel like she or he matters.

The second step is…


Validation is when you say to your partner, “Although I may see things differently, you make sense.” And then you tell your partner what makes sense about what she or he just said.

“Janet, you make sense. It makes sense that because you experienced such a loss when your mother died, you’d naturally be anxious when you see me not being careful about my sugar intake. That makes sense.

“Does that give you the validation you need?” (always check to see)


And finally, empathy is when you feel what your partner is feeling about the issue.

“And I can imagine that you’re feeling really scared. I’ve felt afraid when I thought of losing someone. And that feels really bad.”

Empathy enables you to be present with your partner in the midst of their fears. This enables you to connect emotionally, on a deeper, heart level. This will also bring a measure of healing to the wound that is driving your partner’s fear.


3. Connecting beyond our differences

As Rob and Janet connect, their differences over diet may not change. But empathy will enable them to connect beyond their differences.

You say, well, what if I can’t accept the difference? What if it’s not just an addiction to sweets, but an addiction to say, alcohol.

Then it may be necessary to ask for a change in behavior. But in my experience Rob would be much more open to Janet’s request if they feel connected.

On the other hand, if they continued being defensive and feeling disconnected, the fight would go on and on and on. Right?

What about you?

You too can learn to communicate in a way that leads to closer connection with your partner.


By talking without criticizing, listening without judging, and connecting beyond your differences.

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Build your dream marriage part 7: Learn to be honest rather than “nice”

Is it possible to be “too nice” in a relationship?

Jennifer said, “I always feel like I’m walking on eggshells with my husband, Tom. Often when I tell him what I really feel, he overreacts and we get into a big fight. So there are some things I just don’t talk about.”

Jennifer is choosing to be “nice” rather than honest.

But, Chuck, can’t I be nice AND honest?

Sure. But we’re talking about “being nice” as a way of avoiding the honesty necessary to build your dream marriage. That’s not really being nice…to yourself, to your partner, or to your relationship.

If your partner is reactive, it’s very easy to try and “keep the peace” by being nice, and not talking about what you’re really feeling or what’s frustrating you. But this is the “kiss of death” to your relationship.

What happens if I choose to be “nice” rather than honest?

• The negative feelings I have don’t go away.

Negative feelings don’t go away unless they are communicated and processed in a safe conversation. By using safe conversation skills, you can learn to be honest in a way that will bring you closer to your dream marriage.

• I internalize negative feelings and become bitter and depressed.

If being “nice” helps you stuff what you’re really feeling, the bitter feelings of anxiety result in depression.


• I internalize negative feelings and later explode over something insignificant.

Because I’m carrying this simmering frustration and anger inside, it doesn’t take much to cause an uncontrollable eruption that happens over the “stupidest things”.

• My partner never gets to know me.

Hiding the parts of me that are hurting actually robs my partner of the chance to really get to know me – the real me not just romantic projections and fantasies.

Also the pain of “not being seen” continues to grow as I continue to hide. As this pain grows I can be assured of either deeper depression or another eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, or both.

• I don’t heal my childhood wounds.

Instead of healing my childhood wounds, I continue to carry them which has the effect of limiting my growth and progress in every area of life, including my parenting and my career.

• My partner doesn’t get a chance to grow.

Being “nice” robs my partner of the opportunity to see up close where he or she needs to grow. Calling someone to emotional and spiritual growth is threatening. Growing is hard and we will resist some areas of growth to the death.

Unconsciously we know that, so it’s no wonder we’d rather be “nice” than to be the “sand in the oyster” – the one who brings to our partner the irritation necessary to produce a beautiful pearl.

• We won’t have the connection that gives us passion and full aliveness.

A dream marriage, a relationship of safety, connection, passion, and full-aliveness, only comes to couples who can be completely vulnerable with each other.

Being nice at the expense of vulnerability will keep you from a deep connection and from your dream marriage.

So what can I do?

1. Face your fear.

Ask yourself, “Why am I afraid of conflict? Is it the fear of rejection? The fear of abandonment? The fear of intimacy (fear, that if I do connect intimately, I’ll be hurt)?

Fear that causes you to walk on eggshells and not talk about what’s frustrating you will rob you of your dream marriage. So face your fear.

2. Share your fear.

Jennifer started to tell me how her husband Tom is such a nice guy with everyone else. He’s willing to help anyone in the neighborhood, but when she asked him to do something he told her to stop nagging him…

I stopped Jennifer there, and asked her to share that with Tom, using safe conversation skills.

(It does little good for Jennifer to be honest with me. It will do a lot of good for her to be honest with Tom in a safe conversation.)

Jennifer: “You are always willing to help anyone in the neighborhood, but last week when I asked you if you would clean the gutters before the rainy season, you told me to stop nagging you.”

Tom reacted immediately, denying that he’d even said that.

So I coached Tom to regulate his reaction by simply mirroring Jennifer – repeating back to her exactly what she said as close as he could.

Then to check for accuracy.

Then to ask “Is there more about that?” (activating curiosity)

After a few tries, it went like this…

Tom: “Let me see if I’m getting what you’re saying. You’re saying that I’m always willing to help others, but last week when you asked me to clean the gutters, I told you to stop nagging me.

“Did I get it? (yes)

“Is there more about that?”

Jennifer: “Yes, when I’m accused of nagging, it makes me afraid to be honest with you about how I feel.”

Tom: (mirrors, checks for accuracy, asks if there’s more)

Jennifer, feeling safer, goes deeper into her affect, enabling them both to see the fear that is triggering her silence.

Jennifer: “Yes, what I’m really afraid of is that you’ll leave me if I share how I honestly feel. So I just keep it to myself hoping that it will go away. But the frustration doesn’t go away, and I’m afraid that it’s killing my love for you.”

Wow! Talking about honesty! She’s there. But what will Tom do? How will he react to this scary revelation?

3. Dissolve your fear.

For the first time Tom was able to see what was behind the “nagging” that he felt coming from Jennifer.

He went on to discover that their house was an “extension of Jennifer’s identity” so that when their house wasn’t prepared for the storm season, she felt vulnerable and exposed herself.

As Tom continued to mirror and  validate Jennifer’s perspective and empathize with her feelings, two things happened:

First, Tom connected with Jennifer’s fear, and a desire to protect her arose in him. This consciousness of her fear had the effect of dissolving his defenses. Rather than seeing Jennifer as “nagging”, he saw her as afraid of rejection. Her vulnerability caused him to want to love and protect her, rather than complain about her “nagging”.

Can you see how it’s better to be honest than “nice”?

Second, Jennifer was able to process the feelings she couldn’t share before. As a result, she learned that she COULD share her feelings with Tom. Through a safe dialogue, she could be honest in a positive and productive way.

As Jennifer’s fear dissolved, she learned it was possible to be both nice and honest.

What about you? Are you walking on eggshells? Choosing to be nice rather than honest?

The Couples Dialogue is a free tool you can use to have your own safe conversation as a couple. Click on it and use it to follow Jennifer and Tom’s example and be both honest and nice!

Here’s to building your dream marriage!

For further help, read about another powerful tool called “The Left-Hand Column

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Don’t settle for an “OK” marriage”! Ask for what you need!

So many couples are staying together in an unhappy marriage. When you ask how they’re doing, they’ll say, “OK”.

That’s code for “I’ve settled”.

In more open and honest moments, they’ll admit, “We say we’re happily married, but actually most of our needs are being met outside our relationship.”


“Everyone thinks we’re doing fine, but we don’t really feel connected. He does his thing and I do mine. We’re like ships passing in the night.”

Can you relate? Would that describe your marriage?

Well join the crowd!

Experts tell us that up to 90% of couples who stay married report their relationship as “less than satisfactory”.


Some of these couples make it to the end of their lives, surviving in this prison. Life sure didn’t turn out like they expected, but they felt hopeless to change it.

But other couples don’t survive. Their relationship eventually blows up and ends.

And it doesn’t have to be a big problem that blows it up. You’ll hear them blame it on things like, “We couldn’t agree on whether to squeeze the toothpaste from the top or the bottom of the tube.”

But here’s what actually happened:

Years of living with someone without feeling connected resulted in pain that became unbearable.

And they put off getting help until it was too late.

Dr. John Gottman said that the average time it takes for a person with a pain in their heart to call for help is four hours.

But the average time it takes for a person with a pain in their marriage to call for help is seven years!

So don’t wait!

You can break out of that place where you’re stuck by learning to ask for what you need!

Change happens when we make it safe enough for each other to turn our frustrations into desires expressed.

Then when my partner gives me what I ask for, it brings healing to me and closeness in our relationship.

But for my partner, it usually means they must be willing to grow into parts of themselves they never developed.

And that’s hard.

“Wait a minute Chuck! You said to ask for what I need? I’ve done that a thousand times and it didn’t work!”

Did you make it safe enough to ask for what you need? Or did you just ask?

Asking someone who is in a defensive mode always comes across as nagging. And you’re right! That never works!

But in a safe conversation, asking for what you want gives your partner a great opportunity to stand tall and be your hero!

And that’s when everything changes.

Just ask Mark and Sunny.

One day Mark made a request of Sunny.

It was something he really needed from her.

He was tired of them both being ships passing in the night. After years of marriage, he wanted to know this woman he lived with in a more personal way.

Turns out that request was not easy for Sunny. It required of her something she had never done. It required that she stretch and grow a part of herself that was lost growing up and never developed.

Watch their story then discuss it together with the questions below.

(This is a powerful video by one of my mentors, Nedra Fetterman. Watch it as she tells the story of her own parents, Mark and Sunny.)

Because of privacy settings, you’ll have to watch it on Vimeo. Click on the blue tab to watch, and then come back and discuss what you saw using the questions below.

Discuss with your partner…

1. In what ways is your relationship like Mark and Sunny’s before Mark made his request?

Here are some steps that have to be followed in order to make a request that deepens the connection in your relationship.

– Create Safety
– Connect
– Make a Request (small, specific, doable and positive)
– Be Courageous

2. Why is safety important?

3. Why should the goal of a request be “to connect” rather than to just make a change?

4. Why do you think this takes courage?

5. What would you like to ask from your partner right now? If the conversation feels safe, do it and then talk about it.

When you’ve finished, please take a moment to share your thoughts with everyone in the reply section below.

And…if you haven’t already…

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How being a good listener can radically improve your marriage

Talking is only one part of the communication process in marriage. Real communication happens when we listen too.

Duh? Really? I kind of knew that.

But did you know that in an average conversation one partner hears only 13% of what the other partner is saying?

We may be good at talking, but evidently we’re lousy at listening.

Here’s how being a good listener can radically improve your marriage.

Every time Lloyd would share his frustration with Fran, her reaction would shut down her ability to listen.

No doubt part of the problem was how Lloyd talked to her.

It’s not what you say but how you say it that matters.

Lloyd: “When I came home I felt like you practically threw the baby and me, and start barking orders. I know you’ve had a hard day, but you act as if I’ve done nothing all day. I work hard and I don’t deserve this when I get home.”

OK Lloyd, let’s back up and start over! No wonder your wife is not listening! You’ll never get anywhere saying it like that! Can you stop using accusatory “you” statements and talk about what “I” am experiencing in a way your partner can hear you?!

The first rule of “safe” communication is guess what?  SAFE! It has to be SAFE!

LLOYD (second try): “When I came home it seemed you were frustrated, and you told me to take the baby and the dog for a walk. When I heard that, I felt like I didn’t get a chance to take a breath from the stressful day I had.”

Even with Lloyd working at being a better SENDER of info, this usually turns into an argument with Fran.

FRAN: “You think YOU’VE had a stressful day! Come on! I’ve seen you at work. Making some calls, then having a leisurely lunch with your co-workers. Try being here with the kids all day! I wish I had an office to escape to!”

Come on Fran, these are fighting words and you know it. Use your skills now. Make it SAFE.

In order to have a safe and productive conversation, you have to have SENDER and RECEIVER responsibility.

But today is about listening…so what can a RECEIVER do to become a better listener?

Try these three steps.


1. Mirror your partner’s words.

Repeat back what you heard as close as possible to how it was said.

“OK Chuck, you keep talking about “mirroring”. That’s a counseling tool. This is real life where the pace of life makes your head spin. I can’t stop in the middle of everything to use this rigid therapeutic structure you’re talking about.”

I get that.

You don’t want to come off like you’re using some counseling technique in a normal conversation. But there’s good news.

You can still tap into the power of mirroring as a listening tool.

So, as your partner is talking, listen with the purpose of mirroring.

How do I do that?

After a few sentences, stop your partner and say something like…

If I get what you’re saying, you said…” and simply repeat what you heard.

Or, “What I hear you saying is…”

This will help you regulate your emotions AND give your partner a good feeling.

A feeling of being heard. A feeling of being valued. A feeling that his or her words matter.

Think about it. If the average partner hears only 13%, what will be the impact when you hear 100% of what you’re partner is saying

Mirroring can help you do that.

Your partner will feel safe and be able to access more of what they are really feeling and thinking.

FRAN: “Lloyd, what I hear you saying is that I seemed frustrated and told you to take the baby and dog for a walk. I heard you say, you’ve had a stressful day, and didn’t feel like you had a chance to catch your breath.”

That’s good Fran! Now go to step 2.


2. Check your accuracy.

After you’ve mirrored your partner’s words, check for accuracy by saying something like, “Did I get it?” And then keep listening for any corrections or clarifications.

Then, mirror those additions back to your partner as well.

Continue to check your accuracy until your partner tells you, “You got it.”



3. Turn on your curiosity.

Ask, “Is there more about that?”

That question will continue to make it safe for your partner to access more of what they are really feeling and thinking.

And for you, as a listener, it will turn on your curiosity like a switch turns on a light.

Curiosity is vital to being a good listener. Why? Because it empowers me to regulate my emotional reaction.

Listening breaks down when I start feeling reactive to something that is said. Something I think is not true. Something that is different from my reality. Something that is not according to the way I see things.

When that happens my auto-response is to stop listening and start “reloading” what I want to say in reaction. At that point I’m not listening to my partner. I’m listening to myself.

As human beings we have a fundamental, unconscious objection to difference. This objection to difference happens when we don’t feel connected. And it’s a paradox, because you can’t get to connection when you object to difference.

When I object  to difference, it produces polarization. And that shuts down my ability to listen.

Curiosity is what disrupts that objection to difference, allowing me to listen to everything my partner is saying.

Asking, “Is there more about that?”, does a number on my brain. I cannot be curious and object to difference at the same time. The brain pathways cannot run those two directions at once.

So now I’m in control, not my emotions!

Curiosity helps me hold my reality and my partner’s reality at the same time – to be able to see that we are different, and that it’s OK.

Let’s pick up where we left off with Fran…

FRAN: “Lloyd, what I hear you saying is that I seemed frustrated and told you to take the baby and dog for a walk. You said you’ve had a stressful day, and didn’t feel like you had a chance to catch your breath.”

“Is there more about that?”

LLOYD: “Yes, I guess I’m feeling like what I do doesn’t matter. That reminds me of how hard I worked to make straight A’s growing up, and even when I succeeded, it felt like it didn’t matter.”

Whoa! What’s happening here?

Lloyd realized that his upset was not just about Fran’s comment. It was related to the baggage of the past he was carrying.

Because Fran made it safe and really listened to Lloyd, he got in touch with his deeper issue.

They both realized that the conflict was about the deeper pain that Lloyd felt – that what he did didn’t matter.

This part of Lloyd’s world instantly became integrated into their relationship. And Fran grew in a new capacity and sensitivity to Lloyd.

The result? Transformation.

All because one partner decided to listen!

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How can I stop being so reactive in my marriage relationship?

Is your marriage relationship being sabotaged by outbursts of anger and overreaction?  Does your own reaction drive you to pull away from your partner, causing her or him to feel abandoned?

No marriage relationship can stay connected if one person is highly reactive.

Whenever emotions are out of control, the conversation will never be safe. And feeling connected will not be possible.

Here are three powerful insights that can help us regulate our emotions and help us stay present and connected with our partner.


1. Our feelings drive our behavior.

Who me? No, never. Not me. I believe you should do what’s right regardless of feelings!


I used to be so naive.

But after a few decades of marriage, I discovered this was almost never the case.

Why? Because…

The feelings that drive our actions are almost always unconscious.


Seems like negativity would always spew out of my mouth whenever my unconscious fear or anger was triggered. And the results were never good.

And this all happened without my even knowing it.

Before I could process anything in the thinking part of my brain (cortex), the critical retort was already out of my mouth and I was in trouble.

Can you relate?

Problem is the neurons triggered from our lower, reactive brain travel 10 time faster than those from the top down. That’s why it so difficult to not be reactive to your partner.

The moment that reaction occurs, the conversation is no longer safe. And the kind of dialogue that leads to connection is not possible.

Here’s how it usually goes down. I learned this from the book, Crucial Conversations.


The example in the graph is a wife I previously shared about.

She grew up in a home where her father and brothers were engineers, and her mom and sister were nurses. She was the “artistic” one.

Although she was very talented, she always felt “dumb” growing up with all those math and science whizzes.

So now in her marriage,  just a “5-watt” eye-roll from her husband triggers a “1000 watt” reaction.

Ok. I get it. That makes sense. But how do I get control of my emotions and all this overreaction?

The key to controlling our emotions is learning where they come from.

There is something that happens lightening fast between the time we see or hear something and the feelings we create in response.


We often say, “He made me mad.”  Or, “She upset me.”

The truth is no one can make you mad.

“What? What do you mean no one can make me mad? It happens all the time!”

No, actually, you make yourself mad.

Something happens between what you see and hear and the feeling you create.

“OK. I give up. What is that?”

2. Our “stories” drive our feelings.

The story we tell ourselves, or the meaning we attach to an event is what creates our feelings.

I see or hear something.
Then…I attach meaning to it. I tell a story about it. I interpret it. I judge what motives are behind it. I tell myself whether it’s good or bad, safe or dangerous.

And this all happens in a flash.

That’s what creates my feelings.

So I do create my own feelings after all…hmm.


The path to action we take begins with what we see and hear.
Then we tell a story about what we saw or heard.
That story then creates feelings.
And finally those feelings drive our behavior.

When we are in a reactive mode, that behavior takes one of two directions: clamming up or blowing up.

Both of these options destroy any chance of a healthy dialogue, and leave us feeling disconnected from each other.

Sandy says, “Do you have to take your phone whenever we go for a walk?”

What story do I tell? “She’s trying to control me.”

That story creates feelings of anger or fear.

Then like a hailstorm I react. Or like a turtle, I withdraw into the safety of my shell. Yes, I can be a hailstorm or a turtle.

Clamming up or blowing up never gets me what I really want. Only safe dialogue can keep us close and connected.

That’s because my reaction is only the beginning.  

My reaction triggers Sandy’s pain and defenses. If she responds in kind, the conflict is on.

How do I know so much? I’ve lived this scene over and over again. “Second verse, same as the first, a little bit louder and a little bit worse”.

But I’m learning that if I can catch my story, and hold it tentatively, I can change the feelings I create before there is a reaction and things go south.

Even if my story is true, even if Sandy IS trying to control me, I can confront the issue in a safe dialogue which brings us closer rather than blowing us apart.

Make sense?

In scientific terms, I have to give time for the neurons that move top down from my thinking brain to my reactive brain.

When I stay in my thinking brain, I can master my story and then tell it in a way that doesn’t trigger hurt and reaction.

So what’s the conclusion of all this?


3. If I change my story, I change my emotions, and thus my behavior.

So what does this look like?

Crucial Conversations gives some great sentence stems that help you turn your brain back on, and keep you curious and present rather than critical and reactive.

Here’s the one I used.

I looked at Sandy and asked myself, “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person like Sandy say that?”

And, as I used this stem to keep my brain turned on, and to become curious about what Sandy was feeling, the answer came.

“Oh yeah, she just wants to spend some uninterrupted time with me. That makes sense. That’s why always being on my phone is a frustration to her. I get it.”

Change my story – change my feelings – bingo! Changed my behavior!

Even with the negative vibes I felt from Sandy’s frustration, this tool kept me from reacting and helped us stay in dialogue.

This is how we can turn a negative feeling into a positive interaction that leads us to deeper connection.

This is how to avoid  spiraling downward into a negative interaction.

And this is how we had a great walk, a great conversation, and ended up feeling closer to each other rather than hurt and angry.

If you change your story, you change your feelings.

Then you can respond in a way that gets you what you want. For yourself, for your partner, and for your relationship.

Try it and let me know how it goes in the reply section below!

My goal is to provide free relationship resources delivered to your email inbox every Saturday morning! To receive my weekly blogpost just subscribe below.


What to do when childhood defenses sabotage your relationship

Couples fight for one fundamental reason: they bring their childhood defenses into their relationship.

The way you learned to adapt and survive in childhood can negatively impact your adult relationships…even if you had really good parents.

To one degree or another we all bring our childhood into our relationship…

…and it happens UNCONSCIOUSLY. 

And it usually happens in one of two ways.

Either you’re a “HAILSTORM” or a “TURTLE”.

Recently one of my clients said, “When we argue I blow up! And then he does a disappearing act! It always leaves me mad, and then feeling guilty like I’m the one who screwed everything up!”

This woman is in a relationship with what we call a "MINIMIZER”, represented by the TURTLE, who withdraws into his shell when conflict occurs.
She is what is known as a “MAXIMIZER”, depicted by the HAILSTORM, insistent and intrusive. Often these two marry each other (though not always).

In the Romantic Stage of the relationship, those wonderful pleasure chemicals that cause us to fall madly in love with each other, also blind us to many sobering realities about each other.

And in this intoxicated state, the Hailstorm is drawn to the Turtle and vice versa.

And then after some time together (2 months to 2 years),  the drugs wear off, the Power Struggle Stage begins, and these same two people begin to drive each other crazy!

Can you relate?

(Keep in mind that these roles are not gender stereotypes. Maybe you see yourself in this, but the roles are reversed. In my example, he was a Turtle and she was a Hailstorm. So for that reason I’m using “he” when referring to the Turtle, and “she” when referring to the Hailstorm.)

The Turtle and Hailstorm represent two common childhood defense strategies. 

Growing up, these two may have experienced similar kinds of wounding, frustrations, or unmet needs, but each learned a different way of coping. 

Each developed a strategy that helped them survive childhood.

Problem is, that same strategy is now sabotaging their adult relationship.

Are you seeing yourself in this?

If you find yourself living with a Turtle or a Hailstorm, you can overcome barriers to intimacy by taking time to identify the unconscious childhood wounds driving your reactions, and by consciously choosing to respond differently.

The best way I’ve found to do that is through the Imago Dialogue process. If you’ve read my posts, you are probably familiar with the process.

But if you’re not familiar with Imago Dialogue, I’ve embedded a video below with a great explanation by the founder of Imago Therapy himself, Harville Hendrix.

But before you watch it, please read on…

If you are a “Turtle”, you are driven by an unconscious fear of conflict that causes you to disconnect emotionally.

Even though you crave connection with your partner, at the same time you resist that very connection, because deep down you fear the pain of losing that connection.

What??! What are you saying, Chuck?

I’m guessing you learned to avoid intimacy very early on, rather than facing your fear of losing it through rejection or abandonment.

Does that describe you?  There are very good and logical reasons for that, and I don’t have time to go into detail about it. But here are some general insights.

If you grew up in a home where anger was not allowed, or you had to shut down when people got angry, you probably still tend to check out when there is conflict. 

That’s how you survived in the past. 

And no one should feel judged for that!

Problem is…and I’ll say it again…

…that strategy will not work in your relationship today!

Did I say that already?

Withdrawing from conflict is like using a gun with a silencer – killing the relationship without detection.

You say, “Hey, I’m just trying to be nice and avoid a conflict.”

I get it. 

But your withdrawal not only frustrates your partner, it triggers her deeper childhood pain

That is why you are probably seeing an even greater “Hailstorm” effect when you pull away.

Am I close?

Alright, hold that thought about the Turtle. 

What about the Hailstorm?

If you are a “Hailstorm”, your unconscious fear drives you to explode outwardly in an attempt to get what you need.

You may have grown up in a household where you had to “get louder” in order to get others’ attention, and you probably learned to face conflict and push and shove, so to speak, until you got what you needed.

Is that you? Generally speaking?

Again, this helped you survive then. So no one should judge you.

But, in case I haven’t said this before:-) it doesn’t work today!

It doesn’t make your Turtle partner feel loved and safe.

Trying to force your partner to be present with you will only cause him to withdraw further into his shell.

Ok, so what we’re doing doesn’t work. I get that. 

How do we deal with these defenses and reconnect with each other?

I’m glad you asked that question!

Here are FOUR STEPS that will help you get beyond your defenses and reconnect with your partner in a close relationship of mutual healing and growth.

To keep this post from becoming a book in itself, I’ll take you through the Dialogue process with the Hailstorm mirroring the Turtle. 

But in real life there should be ANOTHER ROUND OF DIALOGUE where the Turtle then mirrors the Hailstorm.

Got it? Ok? Is that fair?

My hope is that you’ll get the idea and can go further on your own with both you and your partner talking and mirroring through each step with each other.

1. Mirror the frustration.

As a Turtle, when you check out emotionally, it triggers her feelings of rejection or abandonment. That withdrawal on your part energizes her as a hailstorm.

As a Hailstorm, when you crowd your partner, it triggers his feelings of being smothered. That aggression on your part energizes his retreat into the shell.

Mirroring can help you disrupt this pattern.

As a Turtle, you will have to regulate your emotions in order stretch forward and be present with your partner.

As a Hailstorm, you will have to regulate your emotions in order to dial it back and make it safe for your partner to stay present.

Together agree to an “appointment” where you both will take turns, one talking the other mirroring

Mirroring is simply repeating back in your own words what you heard your partner say.
Mirroring helps you stay out of your "reactive brain" by turning on your "curious brain".
Mirroring says to your partner, "You matter, and what you think and feel matters to me."

Here’s an example of what the whole dialogue process might look like with the Turtle talking and the Hailstorm mirroring. 

TURTLE: “When I was asked three times about fixing the front gate, I got really frustrated.”

(Notice how he didn’t use “you” language. As in, “You’re always nagging me.” or “You’re so demanding.” He used non-accusatory “I” statements.)

HAILSTORM: “What I heard you say is that when I asked you three times about fixing the front gate you got really frustrated.”

“Did I get that?” (check to be sure. If not, keep mirroring.)

Then ask,

“It there more about that?”

TURTLE:Yes. I felt like I was being controlled, and I felt like nothing I do is ever good enough, so I just avoided you and did something else for the rest of the day.

HAILSTORM: “What I hear you saying is you felt controlled and like nothing you ever do is good enough. So you didn’t work on the gate, but avoided me and did something else.

“Did I get it?

“Is there more about that?”

Staying curious and making it safe for your partner like this allows him to begin to access what’s going on in his unconscious mind. 

Seriously, things you have never seen, and things that even he has not been in touch with, begin to surface when dialogue makes the conversation safe.

Suddenly he’s conscious of something…

TURTLE: “Yes there is more. This reminds me of when I was little and my mother would force me to play the piano for her guests. And even though I would do it, I never felt it was good enough.”

Now you’re both in touch with something not seen before.  You’re seeing the SOURCE of your partner’s reaction.

And as the one mirroring, you naturally begin to “re-image” your partner, to see him, not as someone intentionaly trying to hurt you and abandon you…

… but rather, you see him as someone who, is himself, hurting and scared of being shamed and controlled.

You mean a strong, grown up man like him can feel scared of being shamed and controlled by the woman in his life?

Before the dialogue brought them to this place, I’m confident if you had asked him about his fear, he would have reacted and said something like,

“Who me? I’m not afraid of anything.”

So many people say that at first, but when you use the dialogue process to “check under the hood” you’ll find that his whole life is being driven by fear.

Fear he’s not conscious of.

The dialogue helps uncover this so that you both understand each other at a deeper level.

This process of seeing your partner’s reality transforms the relationship.

Remember you can't be curious and critical at the same time. Stay curious and your emotions will stay regulated.

It’s haarrrrrd! but you can do it!

Now go to the next step with the Turtle continuing to talk and the Hailstorm now VALIDATING.

2. Validate the feelings behind the frustration.

After summarizing what you partner said, validate him by saying something like this.

“You make sense. And what make sense about what you said is…”

Finish that sentence so that your partner will feel heard and validated.

It might look like this.

HAILSTORM: “You make sense. And what makes sense is that when you experience that feeling of being controlled, and when you feel like what you do is not good enough, you pull away from me. That makes sense.

“Especially because when you tell me how your mother demanded from you and you never felt good enough, it’s easy to see how you would feel the same thing when I become anxious and demanding.”

Then ask,

“Does that validate your perspective?”

Wait for an affirmative answer.

Validation says to your partner, "Although I may see it differently, you make sense."

This will help your partner feel safe…

…while, at the same time establish that the two of you are different. 

Different needs, different experiences, different ways of dealing with conflict.

This differentiation is an essential process if you two are going to connect.

Now the third step.

3. Empathize with your partner's fear, anger, pain or joy.

After validating your partner, EMPATHIZE with him by looking past what he did, and focusing on what he felt

In our example it would go something like this.

HAILSTORM: “I can imagine how you would be angry when you feel controlled and unappreciated, like nothing you do is good enough. That must really hurt and feel bad.”

Then ask,

HAILSTORM: “Is that what you felt?”

Wait for the affirmation and amplification he gives.

Empathizing says to your partner, “I know what it’s like to experience your pain or fear or joy. I’m present with you in that feeling.”

When you have validated your partner, then and only then will you be ready for the final step. It won’t work without the transformation that occurs with empathy.


4. Grant your partner's deep desire buried underneath the frustration.

Now we ask the Turtle to make a “change request”.  

Buried underneath every frustration is a desire not expressed.

By MIRRORING, VALIDATING, and EMPATHIZING, your goal is to make it safe enough for your partner to get in touch with the unconscious desire that lies buried beneath the frustration.

And then to form it into a request.

A request that, when granted, will bring HEALING to him, and GROWTH to you.

Healing, because it represents for him what he’s always longed for but never received.

And growth because, in granting it, it will stretch you, and cause you to grow and discover a part of yourself you lost along the way.

Make change requests specific and measurable. 

Don’t ask for your partner to do something from now until eternity. 

Just ask regarding the “next time” you encounter another potentially frustration experience.

So when the Turtle is invited to make a request, it might look like this:

TURTLE: “The next time you ask me to do something, would you first tell me two or three things I’m already doing that you appreciate?”

Embedded in this kind of change request is a powerful formula for healing (for the Turtle) and growth (for the Hailstorm).

And it sets the whole trajectory of their relationship toward wholeness.

But remember it won’t work unless you effectively process steps 1-3 first.

Does this make sense?

I hope so. If not, put your questions in the reply section below.

Wait a minute!


Doesn’t she get to talk and have her Turtle mirror, etc.?

Well yes of course!


Why don’t you sit down right now with your partner and try this out.

And begin with the HAILSTORM talking and the TURTLE listening!

Then let us know below how it goes in the reply section below.

And of course if you get into trouble contact me and I’ll help you. Check out my coaching program here.

No matter where you are in the world I can help you through a powerful video conferencing platform.

But for now it’s ok to “try this at home”. 

Go for it! Begin this powerful dialogue asap!

Don’t let childhood defenses sabotage your relationship!

You can do this!

Until next week,

Here is the video of Harville Hendrix’ brief explanation of Imago Dialogue. Watch it and learn more about its power to transform a relationship.

Comments please! Let me know your thoughts. Post them below!


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