With Helen LaKelly Hunt, Ph.D.
The world is not comprehensible, but it is embraceable: through the embracing of one of its beings.
I BEGAN AN intense exploration of love relationships in 1975 in response to a question from a student in a marriage and family therapy class that I then taught. I remember the day clearly. It was a Tuesday morning, and I was twenty minutes late. I had just come from the county courthouse where I had been granted a divorce. I was hoping the students would have wandered off by the time I arrived, but when I opened the door I saw that they were all there. I had no choice but to stand in front of them, a living testimony to all that I
know about marriage.
As it turned out, the students knew where I had been, and they greeted me with a surprising amount of compassion. I learned they had spent the last twenty minutes talking about their own relationships, something they had never done before in class. Three of them had already married and divorced, three had never had a serious love relationship, and the remaining six were in troubled relationships. At the end of the class, a recently divorced student asked me this question: “Dr. Hendrix, why do couples have such a hard time staying together?” I thought for a moment and then responded. “I don’t have the foggiest notion. That is a great question and I think I’ll spend the rest of my career trying to find out.”
Two years later I met Helen, and we began a conversation about this question that has lasted to this day. After thirty years of being immersed together in the study of relationship dynamics, we have learned a great deal. Many of our insights can be found in this Twentieth-Anniversary Edition of
Getting the Love You Want.
These pages summarize what we have gleaned from our collaboration, intensive reading, work with thousands of couples in private practice and workshops, and conversation with other psychologists and Imago therapists.
Although this edition brings some very significant additions to the book, which I will discuss later in this essay, much of the basic text is the same as the 2001 revised edition. On the whole, our ongoing research has supported rather than challenged the book’s main premises. We have also amassed plentiful evidence that the book “works” in the real world. To date, several millions of couples worldwide have read
Getting the Love You Want,
and thousands of them have taken the time to share their experiences with Helen and me. Recently, a couple told us that they had been edging toward divorce, but decided to give their marriage one last chance. They rented a remote beach cabin, took along enough food and supplies for seven days, and packed a copy of
Getting the Love You Want.
They vowed to read the entire book to each other and practice all the exercises. By the end of the week, they felt closer to each other than they had in ten years. Ultimately, they decided to stay together and create a conscious partnership. Five years later, they continue to enjoy a mutually satisfying relationship. They said, “Your book was exactly what we needed. It saved our marriage and turned our lives around.”
WHAT WE CHANGED
WHILE MUCH OF the 2001 text remains, we have made some important revisions. The first revision was to use more
inclusive language. Momentous changes in women’s rights and same-sex relationships have taken place in the last twenty years. Just as it now seems inappropriate to use the pronoun “he” to describe both men and women, it is outdated to describe all committed love relationships as “marriages” and the two individuals involved as “spouses” or “husbands and wives.” The last comprehensive census revealed that the United States has at least 5.5 million households headed by unmarried couples, a seventy-two percent increase from 1990.
An estimated one in eight of today’s unmarried couples is a same-sex partnership. To reflect these societal changes, we now use the generic terms “partners” and “couples.”
Second, we’ve made Helen’s seminal role in developing Imago Relationship Therapy more apparent. The original book reads like a one-man odyssey. In truth, Helen and I have been on a two-person mission to understand love relationships since our first date. In fact, we forged many of the key ideas in Imago Relationship Therapy in the crucible of our own marriage. Without Helen, there would be no book.
Third, the most substantive revision is replacing the original chapter 11 with an entirely new chapter. This chapter used to be titled “Containing Rage,” and it was designed to help couples express the anger and frustration they had carried over from childhood. The chapter described an exercise called the “Full Container” that guided each partner in venting his or her anger, while helping the other listen with more compassion. At the time, we believed that this catharsis would reduce the amount of tension in their day-to-day interactions. The opposite proved to be true. We discovered that the more couples practiced the exercise, the angrier they became with each other in their daily lives.
The entirely new chapter 11, now titled “Creating a Sacred Space,” presents our new and highly effective strategies for defusing childhood anger left over from childhood—anger than can undermine an otherwise successful relationship. But
the intent of this chapter goes far beyond helping couples reduce angry outbursts. It describes a process that helps couples eliminate
forms of negativity from their interactions—everything from physical abuse and loud yelling to snide remarks—and thereby cuts anger off at its roots. As I explain at length in the chapter, we now believe that eliminating negativity is the most powerful way to transform a love relationship. Indeed, it is the foundation for lasting love.
Finally, we made numerous smaller additions and deletions throughout the book. In places where we had not described a concept in enough depth, we added more information. When we discovered an idea that had become inconsistent with current IRT theory, we made the appropriate changes. We added four new exercises, making the book an even more useful tool for self-help. All in all, we believe that the readers of this Twentieth-Anniversary Edition will be highly successful at getting the love they want, and that even readers of the earlier editions will find much beneficial new material.
AS WE THOUGHT about writing this foreword, we realized that we want to do more than simply explain the changes we made to the book. We decided to use this opportunity to talk about some of our overall conclusions about love relationships, conclusions that underlie every word of the text. Helen and I have reached the stage in our lives and our work with couples when a summing up seems appropriate.
At the end of his career, Freud asked the now famous question: “What do women want?” We, too, have been struggling to answer a question: “What do men and women want from their love relationships?” We now believe that the answer to Freud’s question and our question—indeed all of humanity’s yearning—is one and the same. Above all else, we seek
parts of ourselves that we have repressed, with other people, and with the larger universe. We cannot experience life in its fullness unless we have an intimate relationship with another human being and, beyond that, a feeling of connection with the world around us. Using the language of Martin Buber, each person needs a “Thou” to become a fully realized “I.”
Looking back, we now see that our life’s work has been rooted in helping couples create the hyphen in Buber’s “I-Thou” relationship. In this celebrated notation, the hyphen serves as both a link and a space holder. It signifies that the most fulfilling love relationship is one in which two people are intimately connected with each other, yet keep a respectful distance apart by acknowledging each other’s “otherness.” The nature of this relationship cannot be described by the term “I
Thou,” or by the collapsed “Ithou.” It is an “I-Thou” relationship. The two individuals are separate
connected at the same time.
The operative term here is “connection.” To us, it is more than a psychological term that describes human experience. From our extensive reading in other disciplines, we have come to believe that the word “connection” describes the universe. Since we, as humans, are an integral part of the universe, it also describes us. As all things are interconnected, so are we; it is our nature to be connected. If we do not
connected, it is because something has happened to us to rupture our awareness of the connection. We may sometimes lose our awareness that we are a part of the whole, but that separateness is just an illusion. We cannot
THE ILLUSION OF separateness is what brings most couples into therapy. They don’t feel connected to each other, nor do they experience a seamless connection with the world around them or with the universe. They feel disjointed, isolated, and
lonely. Their relationship might be characterized as “Me versus You.” Our experience has taught us that the primary reason couples fail at creating an I-Thou relationship is that they did not experience it in childhood. Unfortunately, most people experience their first “relationship difficulty” in the first eighteen months of life. Experts in child development call this critical period the “Attachment Stage.” Having a close bond with one or more caregivers is important throughout childhood, but it is
in those earliest months.
In order to experience a strong and safe connection with a caregiver, children need what child psychologists call an “attuned” parent. This is a caregiver who is present in both meanings of the word: available to you physically and with warm emotions most of the time. Ideally, this caregiver respects your individuality and turns to you for clues as to what you need in the moment. You are held when you need comfort and physical connection. You are fed when you are hungry. You are soothed when you are irritable, afraid, or in pain. You are put to bed when you are tired. This attuned parent also encourages you to express your full range of emotions—joy and playfulness, frustration and anger. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Rather than deflecting your feelings, your caregiver accepts them and mirrors them: “Happy baby! You are such a happy baby!” “You look mad. Are you angry that you have to stop playing?” All of this is done in a spirit of acceptance, love, and generosity. When you have an attuned parent, you are not a burden to your parent, nor are you the solution to your parent’s own unmet needs. You are free to be you and to be emotionally and physically close to a caring person at the same time.
Children raised by attuned parents are more likely to create satisfying love relationships in adulthood. Because they had safe, nurturing bonds with their caregivers, they do not have an exaggerated fear of abandonment or engulfment. They are not likely to choose a partner out of sheer neediness because most
of their primary needs were satisfied in childhood. They are not attracted to people who neglect, criticize, or abuse them. Being mistreated feels totally foreign, out of place, and intrinsically wrong. Further, they tend to attract the appropriate mate with relative ease. A person who is emotionally expressive, has a positive self-image, feels relatively secure, and who welcomes intimacy is highly attractive to others.
DESPERATELY SEEKING CONNECTION
REGRETTABLY, MANY OF us had
attuned parents, and we bring the resulting unmet needs into our adult relationships. Not only did we experience disconnection from our parents; we began to feel disconnected from parts of ourselves. This inner and outer rupture resulted in a feeling of isolation—both from others and, in the larger context, the universe itself. The rupture was brought about by two fundamental kinds of psychological wounding: neglect or intrusion. In the broadest sense, our parents either neglected us by failing to attend to our needs, or they intruded upon us by trying to meet their own needs through us. Most children suffer both types of wounds because, in many families, one caregiver tends to be intrusive and the other neglectful. This confusing behavior says to the child: “Now I need you. Now I don’t.”
Helen and I see this ruptured connection in childhood as the source of all human problems, and we believe that restoring the awareness of our connection is the source of all healing. We have one diagnosis of unhappy couples—ruptured connection, and we have one goal in therapy: helping them restore awareness of connection with each other. When two people learn how to connect on a very deep level, the pain they experienced in childhood loses its sting. As we discuss in chapter 1, the unconscious mind has great difficulty distinguishing between past and present. When couples repair the ruptured connection
in their present day relationship, they simultaneously heal the trauma they felt as young children. Their relationship to each other and the universe is restored. This connection can have the power and quality associated with a spiritual experience. The relationship becomes a sacred space. Heal in the present; heal the past; heal the relation to the whole.
It has also become very clear to us that safety is the number one precondition for connection. Two people cannot connect if they are defending themselves against a barrage of negativity or if they live in fear of being abandoned or overwhelmed by their partners.
For this reason, all of the exercises in Imago are designed to remove negativity and to promote safety and mutual respect.
, is the first example. Reromanticizing encourages couples to act as if they were newly in love with each other, giving each other the same tender attention, gifts, and words of endearment that came effortlessly during romantic love. This playacting is to go on for weeks. Even though many couples begin this exercise with gritted teeth, repetition rewires their neural connections, allowing them to see each other as lovers and friends once again, not enemy combatants. A feeling of safety begins to grow.
The Behavior Change Request
instills safety by helping couples satisfy their unmet childhood needs, which is the underlying source of much of their anger. In the first step of this exercise, couples examine the chronic frustrations they have with each other and then identify the childhood wish that is embedded in each frustration. “I’m frustrated that you don’t do a thorough job of cleaning the kitchen. My unmet wish is to have the people who care about me to be more responsible. As a child, I felt there was no one to help me.” In the second step, the person asks his or her partner for a specific, doable change in behavior that will help satisfy that underlying wish. Because the two individuals unconsciously perceive each other as surrogate parents, the change in behavior is
experienced as if it took place in the past, and it heals the original injury. Because childhood pain was the
for the frustration between them, soothing the pain defuses the anger so that it no longer intrudes into the relationship. Removing anger draws couples even closer together.
Safety is further enhanced by the
. At the height of the power struggle, it seems to us that our partners are intentionally withholding love or inflicting pain. We have to strike back or close ourselves off to protect ourselves. But in less than thirty minutes, the Holding exercise helps people see beyond their partners’ defenses to the underlying pain that caused them. This evocative exercise instructs couples to cradle each other in their arms as they listen to each other’s childhood stories. By the end of the exercise, they can begin to see one another as being “full of hurt” instead of “hurtful” or “bad.”
As it promotes safety, the Holding exercise also makes a major contribution to the healing process. The beauty of this exercise is that it deliberately blurs the boundaries between your partner and your parents. Your partner is holding you tenderly as you talk about not getting enough physical affection as a child. Your partner is listening to you with full attention as you talk about being ignored by your caregivers. Your partner is rocking you and making supportive sounds as you recall being a young child alone in your grief. As you bring to mind the pain from the past, your partner’s attentiveness and compassion applies the universal balm. You begin to feel more intimately connected with your partner and less anguished about the past.