One of the hardest pieces for couples to deal with in Imago Relationship therapy is the frustrations with their partner. Frustrations tend to be at the point of the impasse – what your partner wants from you the most is what gets the most resistance from you. Remember, Imago theory states that a person will often be attracted to someone who has both the positive, but also the negative traits of their family of origin. How does this show up in a relationship? I can use myself as an example. My partner, because of her childhood experiences, felt she didn’t get her emotional needs met growing up. Whom does she marry? Someone who, as long as it remained unconscious, was unable to meet her very legitimate emotional needs because of my upbringing as a youngster. My dad died when I was 5 and I was sent to a military boarding school. I liked the boarding school. I had a lot of friends and I played a lot of sports, but I certainly didn’t learn how to deal with feelings very well.
While this remained unconscious, in the early years of our marriage, it led to disaster. As we learned the Imago system, I realized I had in fact, married my healer. As I stretched to meet her legitimate emotional needs, I also regained a part of me that had been shut down as a youngster. It was a win-win.
The reframe is to see conflict (the frustration) as growth trying to happen and then by turning the frustration into a request. Interestingly enough, generally your frustration doesn’t bother your partner, but it does bother you. Why? The answer to that question, often leads back to a need that wasn’t met growing up and here it is now, showing up again, in the relationship.
The exercise we use, the Behavior Change Request dialogue, asks the person who is frustrated to make 3 specific, positive and time limited behavior change requests of their partner that will either shut down the frustration completely or at least slow it down. If their partner can do one of those requests, that is 100%. In over 30 years of using this exercise with couples, always a request is stated that can be successfully completed for a limited time, say a week or a month.
It doesn’t fix everything, but it starts the process down a different road. A) Each partner gets insight into why something, often something quite innocuous, can be so frustrating and B) By meeting your partner’s request, you not only start healing their childhood hurt, but also you start to recapture a part of yourself that was stunted growing up. It really is a win-win.