In October, Harville Hendrix and his wife Helen LaKelly Hunt, the creators of Imago Relationship Therapy, were on our live Facebook show – Soiree Lifestyle Series 2020. They covered two broad areas: the first I wrote about in last month’s newsletter “What advice would you give couples just starting out?” The second area they explored was the concept of relationship competency, that “set of traits that allow people to interact with each other effectively”. With the advances in the neurosciences in the 1990’s and a better understanding of the plasticity of the brain, relational competency is a quality or capacity that can be taught. Partners need to behave in a different way toward each other – that is when change happens.
The goal of psychology up until fairly recently and even now, has been on the emotional well-being and self-understanding of the individual. It is about insight – the individual becoming more aware and more conscious. This is good and Harville and Helen are not belittling insight, but their point is that it is in relationships that life is lived. There needs to be a shift from insight to action. Alfred Adler, years ago, said, we all have two tongues. One in our mouth and one in our shoes. Pay attention to the one in the shoes. (What people do, not what they say!)
If you think about it, all we have in our head are memories and imagination. The memories come from the outside. We are not limited to our memories because we can generate new thoughts on the inside with our imagination; and we can turn imagination into action. If couples can focus on the qualities of the relationship and the patterns or interactions they create, then the internal world of the individual will change. If you have healthy interactions, you will create a healthy inner world because you will have great memories. If you have negative interactions, you will create a less healthy inner world. The outside does affect the inside.
In a marriage, the environment we live in is the source of our memories; how we look at the world. These memories become the source of our imagination. Now, imagination can build on those memories and can go beyond it; it can, but sometimes it doesn’t; oftentimes it just recreates the old memories. Partners need to behave in a different way, because that is when change happens. This is all emerging in the relational sciences which are fairly recent. If you want a relationship you have to focus on the relationship, not on you. Marriage is not about you; it is about marriage and the space between. If you take care of the marriage, the marriage will take care of you.
It is a choice. We are in charge of the memories our partner has of us. We all have a recorder running all the time – if I do a negative transaction it creates a negative memory. When I come back into that space, my partner’s brain is sitting with that memory and her brain will (or could) anticipate I’ll do another one – another negative transaction. At best it will certainly watch and see. But if I leave the room excited to have been with her, that is what her memory anticipates. We are in charge of the memories our partners have of us. The automatic response is running all the time. True, we can rise above the automatic response but that takes intentionality and for that, we need to learn to talk to our partner differently.
It was at this point that they shifted to the importance of the Safe Conversation process (which I explained in the November newsletter.) By intentionally using sentence stems: Let me see if I’ve got that … is there more etc., the sentence stems shift us from our lower, crocodile brain to our upper, wise owl brain which can generate new ideas, is innovative and curious. By being curious instead of judgmental we open up possibility. They see teaching the Safe Conversation process as brain training.
I would certainly welcome your comments and insights on how you understand this notion of relational competency.