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What’s That You Say?
Communication Tools for Partners

by Chris O’Brien

At the root of almost every relationship battle, big or small, is a lack of communication. That’s where specific tools used in Imago therapy can help. “The core of the Imago process is based on techniques that help people really understand each other in an empathetic way,” says Ben Cohen, Ph.D., a certified Imago therapist in Boulder. Imago therapy tools are designed to clean up communication, allow personal healing and growth, and foster a romantically and emotionally satisfying relationship. Some examples follow.

Talk to me

Intentional dialogue describes the primary set of tools used to begin new communication techniques for couples. “Intentional dialogue is primarily a process of teaching listening skills to help people really be curious about, listen to and understand their partner,” says Mary Simon, Ph.D., a certified Imago therapist in Denver. “Using intentional dialogue, what we work toward is the sense by both persons that they are seen, heard and recognized as important individuals.” During each step in the intentional dialogue process, partners alternate as sender and receiver. The structure is a three-step process.

  • Step one: mirroring. This simple activity involves listening to your partner and paraphrasing, out loud, what you heard him or her say. “The mirroring step really lets you slow down and hear each other,” says Cohen. “Often, especially when we are arguing, we’re not really open. Instead, we’re trying to prove our point or prove that we are right. Mirroring asks us to let go of our own needs and reactions, and be open to hearing the other person.” This can be an intense activity, particularly for the couple who is accustomed to tennis-match types of conversation. But successful mirroring can generate a sense of comfort and security that will allow couples to move to the next step: validation.
  • Step two: validation. This process goes beyond mirroring — in validation, you hear what the other person is saying and add value to the content of what he or she is saying. For example, Jill might say to Jack, “I get really worried when you work late and don’t call me.” Jack’s immediate thought may be something like “That’s dumb. I’m just busy trying to finish up work and get home.” Using validation, he would pause for a second and then say, “Well, that makes sense. I can understand why you would feel that way.” This simple validation of Jill’s discomfort will create a sense of ease and comfort for her, and provide the opportunity for deeper communication for both partners.“The reason why validating is so important,” says Cohen, “is that we often don’t hear, and yet we need to hear, that what we are thinking and saying makes sense — that we are not crazy.” Once you and your partner are feeling confident that neither of you is crazy, that each of you has been heard and really understood, then you can move forward to the third step in intentional dialogue: empathy.
  • Step three: empathy. It’s important to understand the true nature of your partner’s feelings. The empathy step lets your partner know that, not only do you hear what he or she is saying, but also you understand what he or she is feeling about a situation. “Like validating, empathy involves taking the time and trouble to say to your partner, ‘Given how you are seeing this situation, you must be feeling (fill in the blank),’” says Simon. “This really helps couples get closer at a deeper level.”

I’m really frustrated

When we’re feeling emotionally unsafe, says Simon, we tend to slip into instinctive, defensive reactions that come from our old, or “reptilian,” brain. The survival imperative kicks in, and we begin subconsciously scanning any situation for perceived threats, then either retreating or attacking in a classic fight-or-flight reaction. When we’re in “old-brain” thinking, we communicate not with consciousness and intention, but rather from an automatic, defensive stance. These defense reactions create an effective barrier to intimacy.

Restructuring frustrations is the tool that deals specifically with undoing automatic defensive reactions. It asks you to accept that your defensiveness is rooted in more than just the words or behaviors of your partner, and that examination of those roots is the key to undoing the defensiveness. “Restructuring involves looking at a frustration you have about your partner to find out what the emotion, the fear or hurt is that is driving that frustration,” says Simon.

For example, Jack gets frustrated when Jill is late and falls into a pattern of blaming her for being inconsiderate and disorganized. Using restructuring, he takes the focus away from blaming her and begins to look below the surface at his own reactions. It may be that Jack’s frustration stems from early childhood experiences, not Jill’s current behavior. Using restructuring, Jack would say to Jill, “I get frustrated when you’re late because my mother was always late and sometimes completely forgot to pick me up from school. I recognize that I have a fear of being forgotten or abandoned, as I was by my mother.”

Restructuring takes the focus away from blaming your partner and helps you understand why your frustration is difficult for you based on your own history — not your partner’s behavior — and allows for deeper self-knowledge and connection with your partner. “With restructuring,” says Simon, “we attempt to use the frustration to develop closeness by removing the defensiveness and promoting understanding.”

Change, please

After mirroring, validating and empathizing with each other, and examining their own frustrations, partners can use a tool called the behavior change request. This structured technique lets your partner know in specific detail what you want from him or her, Cohen says. One example of behavior change is a tool called re-romanticizing, in which each partner lists specific behaviors that make him or her feel loved and cared about. The lists are exchanged, and both partners then perform behaviors from the list on a daily basis.

This exercise rekindles romance and creates a sense of trust and security. It can also be extremely challenging, since the behaviors our partners ask us to perform are often the most difficult for us, Cohen says. But by performing these behaviors with an attitude of generosity, two things happen. First, the receiving partner is satisfied and gains a sense of trust and security. Second, the giving partner experiences a huge opportunity for growth. The Imago theory says the behaviors that are hardest for us to perform indicate the areas we need to work on the most. And that’s why we pick our partners in the first place — to direct us to the areas we need to work on in ourselves.

For example, in a behavior change request, Jack may ask Jill to spend more time with him. Jill’s immediate defensive response might cause her to feel trapped or controlled. Her reaction might stem from her childhood where she was smothered by a parent or another sibling. And as an adult she may overvalue separation from her partner, mistaking it as freedom and independence. Because of her childhood experience and her subconscious reactions in this case, overcoming her need to distance in order to evolve intimately may be one of the most difficult things for her to do.

The success of all these and other Imago therapy tools hinges on the presumption that there is a co-commitment and willingness to work on and participate in the process, as well as an understanding that the process is never really “done.” “Relationships continuously evolve, and there is always something to learn,” Cohen says. “You can apply techniques like these for the rest of your life, to maintain a more conscious relationship based on choices instead of automatic reactions.”

Published in Nexus, September 2000