“My husband and I have been married many years. We have two children. We both work full time jobs, and we both feel exhausted and stressed out most of the time. We rarely have time alone together, but when we do, we usually end up arguing, and recently our arguments have gotten worse—to the point where one of us threatens divorce. I don’t think either of us really wants to divorce, but we get so frustrated, we don’t know what else to do. We started out in our marriage saying we would always love each other and always be happy together, and now we can’t talk to each other, we don’t agree on most things, we never make time for each other—we just don’t seem to be able to communicate any more. Can you help us?”
The American writer, Erica Jong, once said, “I know some good marriages—marriages where both people are just trying to get through their days by helping each other, being good to each other.” Isn’t this what most of us want in our marriages—a partner who is kind, supportive, and loving? And a partner who is receptive to our kindness, support, and love towards them? How do we go so wrong in our marriages? As you say, you and your husband did not start out that way. You began by falling in love, and when you decided to marry, you certainly didn’t have a goal of divorcing some years later. Perhaps you believed you had found “The One” who would make you happy, meet all your needs, and heal your childhood wounds. We are not always conscious of such thoughts, but we can be unconsciously motivated to choose a partner whom we believe will help us heal our psychological wounds from childhood. At least, this is what Harville Hendrix, a popular couple’s psychologist, says in his theory of relationships called Imago Relationship Therapy.
In his best-selling book, Getting the Love You Want, Dr. Hendrix defines the Imago as “a composite picture of the people who influenced you most strongly at an early age.” Usually this is your parents, but it could also include grandparents, older siblings, other relatives, or caretakers. e all have this internal picture of our ideal partner, and when we meet someone who matches our Imago, we are attracted to them. If we are a match for their Imago, then they too are attracted to us and romance blossoms and sometimes leads to marriage.
Of course, marriage is a major life transition, and after romance often comes a power struggle. We are adjusting psychologically to planning our future with another person, and we are adjusting physically to such mundane things as the right way to squeeze the toothpaste. The power struggle is meant to happen, but it doesn’t have to last for the rest of your marriage. In the best marriages it leads to a deeper connection as well as to intimacy and mature dependence— two people growing as individuals and as partners together; and yes, it also leads to healing some of those childhood wounds.
So how does this deeper connection happen? One way is for both partners to read the book, and then do the exercise at the end of the book. Another way is to work with a couples counselor, especially one trained in Imago Relationship Therapy, and to learn and practice a new way of talking to each other with empathy and without judgment. It means learning or re-learning basic communication skills in order to have a relationship based on respect, safety, and as Erica Jong says, “being good to each other.” We live in a culture that is very stressful, and one of the most powerful antidotes to reducing stress is having a supportive relationship. If you can, try an experiment with your partner—at the beginning or end of each day, tell each other one thing that you appreciate about the other person. Do this for one week, and you are already on your way to a better relationship.
Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News on November 16, 2011.