We seem to have an innate ability to find boyfriends, girlfriends, partners or spouses that ultimately drives us crazy! Why do those traits that seemed quirky and cute in the early days turn out to be the things that irritate us the most in later years? Harville Hendrix, co-creator of a form of relationship and couples therapy called imago therapy, tries to answer such questions in his book ‘Getting The Love You Want’.
Hendrix’s theory is that people are unconsciously drawn to partners who possess positive and negative aspects of their own parents or primary caretakers. Initially, they only see the positive qualities in their partner, but as the relationship progresses, they start to see the negative qualities too.
Instead of ending the relationship when a partner’s negative qualities become more obvious, people can become hooked on the idea of changing their partner in ways that they could never change their parents when they were young. It is very easy to believe that, with enough love and patience, the person will change for the better.
However, many people start to believe that their partner is ‘not good enough’ and that they ‘do not try hard enough’. They eventually stop noticing the areas in which their partners are actually making an effort.
This becomes a vicious cycle, as partners whose romantic gestures are unappreciated are unlikely to make the effort again. Many people argue that their childhood was great, and that difficulties with their partner have nothing to do with that time of their life. However, Hendrix asserts that as wonderful as lots of parents are, it is impossible for a child’s every need and desire to be met. Disappointments with parents are common, normal experiences. All children wish for more from their caretakers at one time or another, and these unmet needs can shape our future ideal partner, our ‘imago’.
According to Hendrix, the partner you choose is ideally suited to help you heal the wounds of childhood. ‘The unconscious selection process has brought together two people who can either hurt each other or heal each other, depending on their willingness to grow and change’.
If you work at it, your partner can help you to find those unconscious places within you that need healing. Looking back at your history can help you change current relationship patterns for the better. There is always strong resistance to change but equally there is huge benefits from doing so.
According to Hendrix, if you’re in a good relationship, you take responsibility for communicating your needs and desires to your partner instead of wanting your partner to automatically know those needs. You recognise your own negative traits and what you need to work on. And you accept that it is difficult to create a good marriage.
Many believe that good relationships are a result of picking the right partner, and that bad relationships mean a bad match – but Hendrix disagrees. He says you already have the right partner to learn what you need to learn about yourself and about healthy relationships. Rather than focusing on the problems in the relationship, he says, accept where you’re at and begin defining where you would like to move towards.
In his book, Hendrix has included a ten-week programme for couples to work through. The first exercise involves each partner listing a series of positive statements, in the present tense, beginning with the word ‘we’. Each statement should describe the kind of relationship you would like to have. For example ‘We have fun together’ or ‘We trust each other’. Then bring your lists together and compile one joint, list ranking items in order of importance.
Once your relationship vision is defined, read it together at the start of every subsequent exercise. It is thought that, through repetition, the vision will become rooted in each partner’s unconscious.
Another exercise, called the stretching exercise, involves turning a criticism you have of your partner into a request. Each partner comes up with a list of requests that if fulfilled would make them feel more cared for. These requests need to be specific, doable activities so the other partner knows exactly what they must do. For example, ‘You never spend time with me’, could become ‘I would like you to set aside one evening a week where we spend time together’.
Your partner is free to honour the requests or not. Completing a request must not depend on the other partner completing one in return. Look at each other’s list, and rank each item according to how hard it would be for you to do. Choose a request that is easy for you to do and do it within a couple of days. Ideally each partner would regularly do something from the other’s list over a few months, building up to the more difficult requests.
For anyone whose relationship is a source of anxiety or sadness, ‘Getting The Love You Want’ shows how it can be turned around and become a source of happiness. By reading the book, following the exercises and applying the theories to your marriage, you both will hopefully discover your needs and how best to get them met within the relationship.
Please note that anyone in an abusive relationship needs to get professional help.
Printed in The Mayo News on 19 January 2016