couples therapy
imago therapy

Looking Back

Recently I completed a post-graduate training program in Imago Marriage Counseling, a technique following the teachings of Harville Hendrix. In that training group were two other therapists I really liked, and we declared our intention to stay in touch, professionally and personally. We're all about the same age and experience, and it just so happens, have decided to go natural with our gray hair without giving up our vanity.

During a meeting with my new friend/colleague Paula, we started chatting about how we, as therapists, could be most helpful to couples in early marriages going through the child rearing and family establishment years. We both felt intensely empathetic to young marrieds, because, as we shared with each other, we sure didn't know what we were doing during those years, and we both wound up divorcing. It was only in second marriages, hers earlier, mine much later, that we began to understand what it takes to give marriage a chance for success.

Looking back, one of the problems I remember as a young married, was a total lack of clear communication about the problems my husband and I were facing. I remember anger, I remember turning inward in looking for solutions, but I don't ever remember a calm, collaborative effort at getting agreement about what the issues were, any kind of empathy toward each other about the difficulties each was having, or any acknowledgment that each of our experience was just as legitimate as the other's. Instead, we began to shut down the part of us that had such high hopes, that needed the other, that was vulnerable to each other's disappointments. I remember thinking that I had so much support, I was so understood, but none of it was within the marriage. What's more, I had no idea that such communication could take place in a marriage. I had never seen it, heard of it, and certainly never experienced it.

If I had to pick one skill to teach young couples, it would be just that kind of communication: a communication without recriminations and rancor, where each partner's viewpoint and experience could be expressed, listened to, understood, and even validated. It would be a deeper kind of expression, after which each partner would know the other a little better. I picture it like a safe island, onto which each partner could climb out of the storm and spend a while in the calm, collaborating over weather conditions and charts, and figuring out what the hell is going on, before getting back in the boat and heading onward in the journey. (A description of this kind of communication is described in Hendrix's book, Getting the Love You Want, where it's called the Couples Dialogue).

Would my first marriage have been saved? I have no idea. But I do carry the regret that we never even got to the starting line in trying to understand our problems, a skill that every married couple needs. Perhaps if we were able to drop our defenses and understand the other's needs, fears, worries, the feelings that drew us together would have resurfaced, and we would have worked together to get past the problems which, now I see, are the normal stuff of young married life.

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