A couples therapist of 34 years shares the key tool that seems to help couples more than anything else.
By Mary Kay Cocharo — Written on Jun 10, 2023
Photo: Andrii Nekrasov / Shutterstock
As a couples therapist for over 34 years, I respect the uniqueness of each couple who calls to set up an appointment. At the same time, I recognize the familiar patterns of disconnection that couples bring to my office. In those moments, it would seem that all of life is a long series of connections, ruptures, and repairs.
Too many couples are disconnected and don’t know how to return to the essential connection that they had at the beginning of their relationships. They are unable to relax with one another or experience the passion and joy they once had.
All their energy is being spent keeping themselves emotionally safe in a relationship fraught with differences, disagreements, disinterest, anger, or ennui.
I find that a shift in conversation styles using Imago Relationship Therapy often offers a path toward better communication.
What it looks like to reach the breaking point
John and Sally call me for couples therapy. They report that because I have great reviews online and a lot of experience, they’d like to come to consult with me. They tell me that they have problems communicating.
Their disagreements escalate into nasty fights where both say and do things that take days from which to recover. They’re tired of the conflict and want help learning some new and better tools. If they can’t learn to manage their fighting, they’ll likely seek divorce. They don’t want that because they think it would be bad for their kids.
Another couple, Bill and Anne, also reach out for couples therapy. They report that they love each other but they are emotionally disconnected. They function well as roommates and co-parents but the spark between them is gone. They feel bored and lonely in their marriage and want me to help them get back that loving feeling.
If it keeps going like it is, Anne says that she’ll likely stray into an emotional or physical affair with someone with whom she can communicate at a deeper level. Bill thinks they may be headed for divorce. Neither want this and they’re desperate to learn a better way to connect.
Both couples are in crisis. Their loving connection is disrupted and they don’t know how to repair it. While John and Sally are trying to fight their way back, Bill and Anne have withdrawn and are suffering silently. Neither couple is likely to be successful the way they’re going about it. Fortunately, both couples know that they could use some help and guidance navigating their way back to each other and are open to learning something new.
It’s not just about solving problems
Most couples, including John and Sally and Bill and Anne, expect couples therapy to be an exercise in problem-solving. Yes, of course, we need to solve their problems.
However, simply solving the immediate problems will not resolve their underlying relationship pain. Through mediation, people learn to compromise, change behavior, and make promises to let go of grievances.
I could certainly help these couples to manage their money, their in-laws, their children, or their dishes differently. But simple problem-solving will not help them when future problems appear. They will not have changed their ability to navigate new and different challenges that will surely arise.
They will not have deepened their connection, passion, or joy together. They won’t feel any safer together. Problem-solving is not enough for them. They need more.
The goals of couples therapy
I believe that good couples therapy teaches people the process of communication. Couples learn and practice skills inherent in knowing how to reveal vulnerabilities and listen deeply to one another. Good communication is the building block of intimacy between partners. Without it, there is a lack of safety and a ruptured connection. This is a heartbreaking situation when people love one another and are longing to be closer.
Dr. Harville Hendrix, the founder of Imago Relationship Therapy and best-selling author, states that “talking is one of the most dangerous things we people do!”
Indeed, when left to our own devices, we frequently pollute the relational space between us and our partners, creating conflict or deadness. As a Certified Imago Relationship Therapist, I am grateful for the Intentional Dialogue process that Dr. Hendrix and his wife, Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt teach couples.
It’s a seemingly simple, yet deeply profound, model for helping couples to communicate and move through their challenges in connection.
One of my favorite quotes from Dr. Hendrix is this: “We are born in relationship, we are wounded in relationship, and we can be healed in relationship.” This, then, is the essence of couples therapy — guiding couples toward greater healing in their primary, intimate relationship.
On my website, I list the following benefits for a couple in Imago Relationship Therapy:
Learning to create passion and safety in your relationshipCreating deeper intimacyCommunicating to be heard and to understandCreating a conscious relationshipResolving conflictApproaching your relationship with a loving and empathetic lens
The space where ‘we’ live
The first step for couples is to acknowledge that between them there is a space, and this space is where their relationship lives. It is each of their responsibility to nurture that space and to fill it with sacred practices.
When we are not aware of that space, we can fill it with words and behaviors that make it feel unsafe for our partner. As humans, we become emotionally reactive to protect ourselves when threatened.
Some of us have learned to expand our energy — we raise our voices, talk a lot, demand attention, or fight. Some of us have learned to constrict our energy—we get quiet, withdraw, retreat, avoid, or run away.
Whenever we are in these reactive behaviors, the space between us becomes dangerous, polluted, or toxic and we are definitely not feeling close or connected. We are wired for survival, so we’ll do almost anything to survive, even if it means slaying our partners or icing them out.
The steps of Imago Relationship Therapy that make it such a powerful bonding tool
Once we are aware of our desire to save our relationship from these dangers, we can consciously learn the tools which will help. I teach couples to sit across from one another, gazing softly into each other’s eyes to establish what neuroscientists call the “brain bridge.”
When we gaze at one another, our faces relax, our defenses settle, and we can connect with the part of our brain where our Wise Adult remembers our love and best intentions. We can hold hands, releasing the bonding hormone, oxytocin. We can breathe as our bodies calm and we connect biologically with one another. Then, and only then, do we begin to talk.
In Imago Relationship Therapy, the Dialogue consists of one person speaking and one person listening. The speaker, or Sender, is the person that invites the other into their world. They speak in short sentences so that the listener, or Receiver, can hear, take in, and repeat back what they’ve heard. In that way, the process is slow and fully attuned.
At this point, most couples cry as they realize how long it’s been since anyone really saw or heard them at this level. This first step is called Mirroring. Most of us were not adequately mirrored in childhood and so having our partner take us in in this way is a deeply touching experience.
Once the Receiver has heard and mirrored back everything their partner has to say, they move to Step Two.
It is important to note that Validation is not the same as Agreement. You may completely disagree with your partner’s point of view, but it’s important to let them know that you hear them and that they make sense to you.
In other words, in your world, the issue being discussed most likely looks completely different. Here, you are letting your partner know that you are now in their world and seeing it through their eyes—you make sense to me!
The third Step in the Imago Dialogue Process is Empathy. This is deeper than Step Two because it drops you down into your feeling state. Not only does your partner make sense, but you can also experience empathy for the emotions that they are experiencing. Of course, all along the way partners are checking in and making sure that the speaker feels that they are getting it right.
As we think about John and Sally, the couple who couldn’t quit arguing and fighting, we can imagine how this process helped them to resolve their conflict and deepen their understanding of the underlying meaning of their positions. With empathy, each began to see what the other was really fighting about and believe me, it had nothing to actually do with the dishes!
Most ongoing issues in relationships have deep roots and old stories attached. With Imago Relationship Therapy, we are able to go to the heart of the matter and heal old wounds that keep showing up in various ways.
The best possible outcome
For Bill and Anne, the Dialogue Process helped them to begin opening up about the issues that had been shutting them down. They felt closer and their intimate connection grew. Through mirroring, validating, and empathizing, they were able to explore their vulnerabilities and get to know each other on a deeper level. They began to do more of what all animals who feel safe do: play, nurture, and mate!
Imago Relationship Therapy is a very useful structure through which the couple’s relationship can be transformed from their worst nightmare to their wildest dream. The Dialogue Process serves to bring the couple back from disconnection, through repair, and back to their love and connection.
These three steps — Mirroring, Validating, and Empathizing — do indeed create the kind of conversational safety that bonds couples forever.
By learning to “come over the bridge” of the space between them, couples learn to visit their partner’s world and develop an understanding and empathy of what it means to be “the other.” This is a sacred process that leads individuals and couples alike to experience “communion” with all that is healthy and beautiful in their lives and their relationships.
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Mary Kay Cocharo is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in West Los Angeles, California.