Written by Harville Hendriks First Published in the O Magazine - January 2001 Issue
When a relationship is going well, it feels magical. After 40 years as a marital therapist, though, I know that good marriages depend on more than magic. They are built on habits that capture the feelings you have for each other and make them durable. I’ve seen couples use these skills to transform a poor marriage into one that is wonderful. My wife and I have experienced this ourselves.
In our case, Helen was the first to see that although we were developing a new type of marriage therapy professionally, our communication had deteriorated. After months of trying to analyze our way into a better marriage, Helen decided unilaterally to change the way she communicated with me. She flooded me with praise. It was as if she put on new glasses that magnified the good in our relationship and obscured the problems.
I began to believe her propaganda and found myself acting in a more caring manner. Ironically, we had taught this process, called positive flooding, to thousands of couples but had not used it consistently ourselves. After a month she told me what she’d been doing, and I agreed to do the same. Now a year later, we’ve noticed that many problems have receded. We see the areas that still need work as challenges to be tackled as partners rather than as adversaries.
We were guided by two principles that can help you transform your relationship. First principle: Energy follows attention. Every time you “invest” in the negative, you are honing your ability to detect faults. Your energy amplifies the annoying and the fragile, and you create the conditions that allow your problems to grow like weeds in an unkempt field.
Second principle: Problems cannot be solved at the same level of consciousness at which they were created. We form our ideas about relationships in our connection to our parents, and when our needs aren’t met, we cry, sulk, or even rebel. If we still don’t get what we want, we experience what could be called a wound, and we create a defense against being wounded again, such as withdrawing emotionally or escalating our demands.
When we are ready for adult commitment, more often than not, our unconscious mind selects someone who has positive and negative traits similar to those of our parents in order to have another chance to heal ourselves. All too often, though, we end up reliving the patterns that hurt us in the first place. And as we did when we were children, we let our frustrations be known—only this time, we express the pain with criticism. We use negative transactions to try to effect positive outcomes. It never works.
Although it’s not possible to be everything for your partner, knowing the role your backgrounds play in the relationship helps you move from “What’s your problem?” to “How can I help?”
Following three steps: Mirroring, validating, and empathizing.
Giving this way requires learning a skill that we call intentional dialogue. It includes three steps: mirroring, validating, and empathizing. While it’s best if both partners participate, one person’s change in attitude can make a difference—just as Helen’s solo efforts helped our relationship.
Look for opportunities to communicate this way, say, when you and your partner are discussing how to spend a free Saturday. Maybe your partner wants to watch a football game on TV but you don’t. When the disagreement becomes obvious, you might feel a familiar rush of anger. You think, “Football—this is your idea of being together?!”
But you know what will likely happen if you say this, so instead you mirror what your partner has just said—no reacting negatively. “Let me see if I understand,” you say. “This game is a way for you to relax. It will be over at four, and then you’d like to do something together. Is that right? Is there more?” The latter question is very important. There is always more, and we usually don’t wait for it.
You then validate his right to do what he wants, saying something like, “I know the game is a way to relax. I’m sad, but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand.” Notice that you don’t have to agree with him—or think he’s right and you’re wrong—in order to validate him.
Next you empathize with him, reaffirming that you stand with him instead of against him, by saying: “I want you to feel that you have time on the weekends to do what you want.”
At first glance, it may look like you’re swallowing your feelings in order to cater to your partner’s. But you are simply letting him know you have heard him, while still holding on to your own wishes. He might reciprocate, asking you what you are thinking.
If he doesn’t notice your efforts, keep at it. Changing communication habits can take a long time. But letting your partner know that you hear him, respect his feelings, and can enter into his experience even when you see things differently, will make him feel loved and will demonstrate how he can do the same for you. Your partner may not participate at first, but if you hold your course, he will likely join you. A relationship cannot remain the same when one of you has changed. With some work, you both might even find yourselves back marveling at the magic of your happiness.
Harville Hendrix is the author of Getting the Love You Want.