couples therapy
imago therapy

Marriage Encounter Weekend

from publication series REFLECTIONS ON RELATIONSHIPS  (Vol 1. No. 45, October 31 - November 6, 2003)

A couple of weeks ago, with some of my colleagues, I spent the weekend assisting at an Imago Relationship couples retreat. One hundred pretty advantaged and motivated, mostly married couples were there to learn the Imago theory about how they had picked each other in order to finish childhood business; how their partner somehow had the power to finally provide the kind of love that would heal some old wounds; how the qualities that drew the couples together would also be their undoing until they were understood and harnessed; and how, with lots of work, each partner actually could help heal the other and in the process, experience their own growth toward wholeness.

On Friday night, all day Saturday, and Sunday, the couples sat in a large hall and heard about this new perspective on married love. They watched other couples as they volunteered to demonstrate new exercises, and then tried the techniques themselves.

I saw powerful confirmation that people want their relationship to be a place of healing from the first pair who volunteered to learn and demonstrate a communication technique called the 'couples dialog'. The wife, a beautiful, young redhead tried to communicate to her husband the experience of losing her mother at age 5 and growing up with a father who soon remarried and tried to put the past behind him. She talked about how it felt, as a child, with no one to help her deal with her emotions and how now, in her marriage, she wanted, above all, a partner who would tune in to her feelings. Her husband, a handsome guy, foreign born, struggled mightily to reflect back this need, and why it was so important to her. Yet, whether for language, cultural, or personal barriers, it was striking to the observers how hard it was for him to grasp the essence of her meaning. How could this be? The very thing she wanted, and yet she chose a mate who, like her father, was having great difficulty giving it to her.

Later, I saw it again: the awareness that your partner has something that you need, and how hard it is to get it. The husband, a lawyer in his 40's, recalled parents who always seemed to be disappointed with him. (He still remembered bumping into his father in the hall and saying 'excuse me' to which his father responded 'Excuse you? I've been excusing you for 14 years'). He coped with this constant rejection by retreating into his head and shutting down his feelings. The wife also recalled a difficult childhood where there were two messages from her parents: 'keep quiet', or, 'you're wrong'. She coped the other way, becoming a highly feeling person, but with an awareness that her emotional reactions were usually overblown. When the couple met, he hoped subconsciously that she would free him up emotionally, she hoped subconsciously that he would help her be more rational. But, not unexpectedly, now that they're married, he wants her to stop being so emotional, and she wants him to stop being so tight-assed. They still see that each has something to give that the other needs, but they're stymied as to how to get it.

In all healthy, committed relationships, after the euphoria stage of new love passes, partners will want each other to help fill the deep needs for which they subconsciously sought each other out. In this next stage, when reality hits, both partners may be surprised by who needs what from whom. More surprisingly, I, as the partner being asked to give, may even see that if I work to meet these requests, I'd be attending to a core part of myself that had been stunted and, with nurturing, could grow. I could be helping my partner and making myself more whole in the process.

Overcoming character styles that probably once served as protection from childhood pain is a tremendously hard and risky task. The ultimate rewards, in the relationship and in one's own life, are profound. Looked at in this way, relationships really can be places of therapeutic healing.

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