We have been brainwashed about relationships: they are hard work – real love is romantic love – relationships don’t really work anyway, etc. and the statistics seem to support these conclusions. In Canada, something like 40% of marriages end in divorce and of the other 60%, many are in hot relationships where there is a lot of fighting or in cold relationships where the passion is gone. But could it be that the statistics don’t prove relationships are hard work, as much as they prove that what we are doing isn’t working!
I would be the first to admit that to do anything well we need to put in effort. Think of a job, school, athletics, raising children – we need to put in effort if we want to be good at any of those activities. The right tools just make the job a lot easier. Whether you are a plumber, carpenter, chef, teacher or a machine operator – good tools make the job less difficult.
My contention is that the tools are available in today’s world to have the kind of relationship that we all want. On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the best and 1 not so good, I believe we can consistently live at 9 or 10.
But if you look at the history of relationships down through the centuries, what we are attempting to create in the 21st century is very recent on the evolutionary calendar. From hunter/gatherers to farming and even into the beginning of romanticism in the 18th century, it was pretty well a male-dominated universe with women often being seen and treated as property. It wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that the women’s movement gained momentum with their demand they be treated as equals. And it was then that the divorce rate skyrocketed. Generally speaking, there just wasn’t a good model for what a true partnership relationship might look like.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s Harville Hendrix and his wife Helen LaKelly Hunt cobbled together what is now known as Imago Relationship Therapy which provided a working model and good tools for couples to create a partnership relationship– one that was safe, connected and fully alive. The key to a great relationship is safety. Why? Because of our brain stem, that oldest part of our brain which we share with all mammals, fish, birds and reptiles. If I don’t feel safe I will defend – that goes back 500 million years and we won’t change it. So what tools do we need to remain safe? I believe there are four key skills or tools, which if couples can learn and implement, they will have a much better chance to create the relationship they truly want.
Firstly, couples MUST learn to communicate safely – no put-downs, no attacks, no hiding out. As Imago therapists, we all use the intentional dialogue process, which includes mirroring, validation and empathy, to ensure that the communication is safe. Secondly, we suggest, making an appointment for anything that might be negative. Think about that from your old brain point of view. If I don’t know when an attack is coming, for sure I will have my armour on. As I tell clients, it is hard to be intimate when they are both clanking around the same house with their armour on. Thirdly, remove all negativity from the space between – that sacred space between and around couples. In other words, there can be no blame, shame or criticism between partners, because again, from an old brain point of view, if I feel threatened I will defend, either by exploding outwards or constricting inwards. Lastly, couples need to learn to amplify the positives – to appreciate, to thank, and to affirm one another and to say those appreciations out loud. If I am constantly hearing positives, my old brain can relax. This is not the enemy over there, it is my ally, my partner, my friend.
As we said at the start, any job is easier with the right tools. These four key skills or tools, make any relationship much less difficult.