My mind has been consumed by relationships lately. Why do some flourish while others fail? Why do some couples make relationships seem so easy while other couples struggle endlessly?
Is love supposed to be effortless?
Does a happy and healthy relationship boil down to the choice we make for a partner?
What causes us to be attracted to the people we fall for in the first place?
A few weeks ago I was listening to the Conversation with Alanis Morissette podcast. Episode 2 was a conversation with Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt. I have been a huge fan of Alanis since I first heard Jagged Little Pill on the radio in the mid-90s. Her lyrics and raw emotion in her songs struck a deep chord with me (and obviously millions of others).
I first heard of Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt when I picked up the book, Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples. Dr. Hendrix was the creator of Imago Relationship Therapy. The idea of the Imago was mind-blowing to me. Here’s an explanation:
“The unconscious brain is influential in whom we choose to marry. What happens is this: Each person stores in his brain a picture of all the traits, interactions, and experiences he has had with his parents (or caregivers). This inner picture is called the ‘imago.’ He is not aware of the existence of the imago, but it is there, and it is powerful. In infancy the imago functions to help the child distinguish his parents from other adults as a matter of survival, just as it does for the baby zebra. In adulthood, the imago functions unconsciously to connect the person with a partner who in many ways replicates the character structure of the parents, in this way offering the opportunity to heal earlier wounds, a more sophisticated manifestation of survival. The person you marry (or long term relationship) is an imago match.”
You may think choosing your partner has more to do with love, emotions, and the miracle of two lost souls finally finding one another. But no matter who you end up with, the honeymoon will inevitably end and you will be left wondering whether you chose wrong. Have you considered the possibility that you really had no choice in the matter? Subconsciously you were looking for a match who could heal childhood wounds and once you found that match your brain told you they were the one.
Dr. Hendrix explains this idea a little further: “Human beings have a very strong preference for the familiar. Unless we consciously think to do otherwise, we will do what comes naturally and repeat what we are used to, the way things have always been done. In order to do something different, we need to become self-conscious about our functioning and take definite steps to replace the familiar with something else.”
Basically, we are all creatures of habit. We assume we are making calculated, well-thought out decisions; but we’re really going solely on subconscious instinct.
There’s no greater activity in the world that begins with so much hope and anticipation—and yet ends with despair and heartache—as love and romance. Most of us are guilty of diving head-first into romantic love and then blaming the water for causing us to drown. Every single romantic relationship that starts with intense passion and a deep longing for one another eventually settles into a more realistic endeavor. It’s what happens after the romance fades that matters the most in a relationship.
Conflict is inevitable.
Disagreements are unavoidable.
People assume their relationship is doomed once it starts taking a little effort. The misconception in our culture is that relationships should always be easy and the romantic feelings should never fade.
Two people who are committed to self-awareness and a willingness to learn will create a conscious relationship where healing can take place for both of them. I have to stress something: This takes work! It’s not easy and requires going against everything that feels natural. We have to learn a new way to talk. We have to learn a new way to listen. We have to learn how to have intentional dialogue—mirroring, validating, and empathizing.
Learning a new behavior feels awkward and clumsy at first just like learning to ride a bike or ice skate for the first time. Why do we all assume we are great communicators when we were never taught these vital skills growing up? Frankly, when it comes to our relationships we are all just winging it and when it’s not working we are quick to blame our partner.
So back to the Alanis Morissette podcast I mentioned earlier. Dr. Hendrix said they discovered the average number of relationships most need to be in before you find a suitable imago match was nine.
This shocked me because we put so much pressure on ourselves and our kids to get it right with our first choice otherwise we have failed. If it takes us, on average, nine tries before we find our proper imago match where we can sustain a happy, healthy, and healing relationship; then why do we beat ourselves up so bad when 1-8 don’t work out?
For me personally there was a large amount of guilt I lugged around after I was divorced. Feeling like a complete and utter failure haunted me every day. Even when someone else liked me and thought I was the best thing since sliced bread, I couldn’t accept it because I didn’t believe I was worthy of another’s love. I was basically stuck until I learned “there is a correlation between self-hatred and the inability to receive love. As long as there is self-hatred, we not only cannot accept love from others but cannot love ourselves,” according to Dr. Hendrix.
Why don’t we teach this stuff in school? Healthy relationships are essential to our emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being. Yet, very few of us were taught any skills except for what we observed from our parents. And let’s face it, our parents were winging it the best they could just like we are.
So, if you’re having difficulty in the realm of relationships right now; please, give yourself a break. You probably had zero to very little training in this crazy little thing called love. And to add insult to injury, you probably had poor examples to learn from while growing up. You shouldn’t feel guilty for not possessing skills you were never taught or that were never modeled for you.
We all need to lose the shame of not doing relationships perfect. We were taught more in school about balancing a checkbook or the First World War than we were taught about healthy relationships. We were told how important it was to memorize and retain useless facts so we could answer correctly on a test; yet, relationship skills like mirroring, validating, and empathizing were never considered important enough to teach.
But all is not lost my friends. If we could willingly admit we have more to learn about life and relationships then we can all take steps in the right directions. If we could put aside our ignorance for just a short time, we could listen to a podcast, read a book, or talk to a therapist about improving our relationships (I would be happy to offer some podcast/book/therapist recommendations). Even one small step in the right direction can have a lasting effect on all your relationships.
Peace my Friends!