How to Get the Love You Want
I am sitting here in my home in New Jersey looking out at the winter landscape. My wife of 39 years, Barbara, is reading on the couch across from me with our two havanese dogs, Mo and Lou, cuddled up around her. This is my 70th year and I often have to pinch myself about my good fortune that over the past three decades, Barbara and I have crafted the most amazing relationship filled with kindness, tenderness, gratitude, appreciations, and forgiveness. I am not sure we would have made it this long if it weren’t for a discovery I made in 1989 that has also become my life’s path: “Get the Love You Want” authors Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt’s Imago Relationship Therapy.
So what is this “Imago Relationship Theory?” It is a practice that invites us to look at all our relationships in a different way. It invites us to see our relationships as opportunities to grow up so that we can contribute to the world that needs us so badly. This is much more than a way to “Get the Love You Want.” The title is actually a trick. Drs. Hendrix and Hunt wanted to name their book “Giving the Love You Want,” but the publishers said that it wouldn’t sell in America because we are always looking to “get.” We think when we fall in love that our partner will meet our needs. But actually, their job is to shine a beacon on the places where we are not yet ourselves.
As a therapist and relationship life coach, I was intrigued the first time I saw Dr. Hendrix speak because of his belief that we could heal the planet one couple at a time. I knew then that this was something I was to integrate into my practice. The practice states that when couples learn to cherish each other and have empathy, they will raise children who can do the same and those children will grow up aware of their impact and care about others and the earth. The children of these “conscious” couples will break the intergenerational patterns that have crippled our relationships for generations and will themselves raise children who can keep their hearts open.
One of the most unique aspects of Imago is that it has a process that is portable. The Intentional Dialogue, the main skill, teaches couples and individuals to talk in a way that someone will listen and listen in a way that someone will talk. Through all these years of sitting with couples in my office and in workshops what I hear most is, “we don’t know how to talk to each other,” “we don’t understand each other.” Because most of our caretakers didn’t know how to listen or how to talk in a way that created understanding and connection, we are stuck in patterns that keep us disconnected even though our intention is to connect. Remember, as human beings our survival depends on being connected and having a sense of belonging. Human beings are equipped with language, so they can find connection, but so often the way we use language creates the opposite.
The words intentional and dialogue are important to understand. Intentional means I have an intention to connect with you, and I ask myself, “how do I need to behave to make that happen?”
We can only be intentional once we have a developed frontal lobe and use it. Children cannot be intentional in the way we mean. Children have very little impulse control. When they feel something they express it, they act on it. If we want to have relationships that are loving and growth-producing, we can no longer say whatever we are feeling. We have to become conscious of our impact and intentional about how we speak. This takes discipline, a frontal lobe, and a structure that keeps us out of trouble.
I don’t know about you, but I have a whole bucket full of conversational bad habits, like interrupting, finishing someone’s sentences, fighting to be right, talking too much, to name just a few. I am not a terrible person because of those habits. I was the youngest of three children and to be heard I needed those habits. The problem is today they get in the way of me connecting to Barbara. I need a structure that helps me do something that will be connecting.
The word dialogue means there are two people in a conversation. Often in a conversation, we act as if you and I are one and I am the one or you are the one. We need a structure that opens up the possibility that both of us can exist and no one dies. It helps us learn that there is no “right or wrong,” just two different ways of experiencing the world. The dialogue helps us experience the space between us as something to explore rather than be frightened of. When we are truly able to let each other have a point of view, we realize the power of combining how two people see the world, rather than having to live in a world where it is necessary to cancel one person out so we can feel safe.
Because we often grew up in families where there was one way of thinking and feeling, and if you thought or felt differently you were wrong, and “wrong” meant you didn’t belong. That is terrifying because it is a threat to our existence. We need to learn that a different point of view doesn’t erase us but rather, enhances us. When we are open to hear another’s experience, we are able to see the world through two pairs of eyes, not just one.
The first part of the Imago structure is called Mirroring. Many think of this as just reflective listening, but it is so much more. Remember, we are mirrored into existence by our parents (and our environment). When they see us and reflect back to us what they see in an attuned fashion, we begin to know ourselves. We cannot become ourselves when no one mirroring us. Often our parents were not able to do that, so we grew up with many unintegrated parts inside of us. The act of mirroring your partner is a healing act. It helps them discover who they really are underneath their defenses. It helps them to grow up.
I believe that the 21st century with all its challenges is inviting us to understand and live in true partnership regardless of our differences. Just imagine what the world would be like if we could live in curiosity about difference rather than reactivity. Yes, this is a theory for individuals and couples, but it is so much more. It is a way to begin to live with difference in a new and loving way with curiosity and wonder. This attitude could put an end to so much suffering and pain in the world. Just think about it!
This essay was featured in the March 8th edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.