“A person hasn’t any idea what their soul looks like until they gaze into the eyes of the person that they’re married to. And then, if they’re any kind of decent human being, they spend the next couple of days throwing up. Because no honest person can stand that image.” — Danny DeVito in The Big Kahuna*
OK – It’s a bit overstated, but DeVito was on to something. Outside of a long-term, intimate relationship, we can characterize ourselves to ourselves in whatever way we want. “Generous? Of course I’m generous. I just haven’t found any good causes lately.” “Hard working? Definitely! Whenever I need to be.” Even if we try to be honest with ourselves, it is impossible to see our own blind spots, and what motivation do we have to see them, anyway?
On the flipside, we have plenty of motivation to avoid our blind spots and to paint ourselves in a more positive light. Ignoring our weaknesses can bump up our ego, boost our confidence and productivity, and convince most people (especially ourselves) that we don’t have those weaknesses. If someone disagrees, they can easily be argued with, ignored, or cut off… unless, of course, that someone is too important. This is why our relationships can be excruciatingly hard, but also our key to long-term growth, healing, and true intimacy.
We all go into relationships with hopes of happily ever after. After the honeymoon period ends, though, our partners may seem especially matched to press our most sensitive buttons, trigger our biggest fears, and reopen our deepest wounds. They may be. According to experts such as Harville Hendricks, author of the landmark relationship book, Getting the Love You Want, the partners we are most attracted to frequently have the best and worst characteristics of our childhood caregivers. Something about them, and unique to them, unconsciously promises to uncover and heal our childhood wounds. As Hendricks would say, we recognize this “imago match” as if we knew them before. In a way, we did.
Why, then, would we be drawn to someone who also had the worst characteristics of our caregivers? One possible answer is that we do not want someone to easily give us what we did not have. We want to convert someone who denies us what we were missing into someone who gives it to us. We are unconsciously wanting to re-fight the battle we lost with our caregiver, but we want to win this time.
In the first few years of a committed relationship, we are happy to provide what we sense our partner needs, even if it is not who we truly are. After a while, though, this mask inevitably comes off, and we begin to see a different side of our partner. We realize with horror that, not only are they not going to take care of all of our needs, but they can wound us in exactly the same way as our caregivers. At this “power struggle” stage, experts tell us that most couples give up – either through painfully ending their partnership or looking elsewhere to meet their needs.
It is exactly at this stage, though, that real intimacy and growth can start. Now that the masks have come down, we can see ourselves in the mirror of our partner. As DeVito jokes, this mirror can be hard to look at, but it can also be an amazing chance to face those parts of you that you have denied or cut off. This mirror shows more than just personal characteristics – it also shows us where we were wounded in the past. The pain you are feeling so acutely did not come from nowhere. It too is part of you.
No doubt, these will show up again in future relationships, so why not look at them now? It is also likely that those denied parts of you match up with your partner’s old wounds, and honestly addressing those can also be immensely healing for you and your partner.
So, how does the healing happen? Surprisingly, it is through healing your partner’s wounds that your own childhood wounds can heal. Being there for your partner by listening to them express painful feelings and underlying needs, empathizing with them, and trying to address those needs in small ways, can be tremendously healing. The best part is that a healing, safe partner is also more likely to be there, listen, empathize, and address your needs in the same way.
One tool Hendricks suggests for communicating in this way is called the “Imago Dialogue”. Try this short exercise with your partner, and see where it takes you:
Designate one person to be the talker and one person to be the listener.
The talker mentions something that upset them, in a way similar to the following:
When you said/did ______________ , I felt _______________ …. If possible, try to stick to “I” statements and avoid “always/never” generalizations and criticism.
Once the talker is done with a short statement, the listener restates (“mirrors”) what the talker said in their own words.
Then, the listener asks, “Is that right?”
If the listener was not right or missed something, the talker clarifies, and the listener restates again until the talker says “Yes, that’s right.”
Then, the listener validates the talker’s point. This does not mean that the listener agrees with the talker – only that there is a logic in what the talker has said, that it makes sense.
Then, the listener says, “Is there anything else?”
The process continues with mirroring and validating until the talker says that there is nothing more.
Then, the listener tries to empathize with all of what the talker has said. This can be difficult (especially if some of the comments activated your defenses), so take your time. Try to see the situation from the talker’s perspective and really imagine what they were feeling. When you think you get it, let the talker know what you imagine it might be like and how you imagine they might be feeling.
It will seem very stiff and regimented at first, but practice will make it flow more freely and quickly.
It will also be surprisingly hard to get outside of your own head and reactions during these dialogues. This exposes how rarely we really do listen to our partners when what they are saying pushes our buttons. We are thinking of our rebuttal, how their perceptions are wrong, or how hurt we are by what they are saying. This is why this exercise can be so powerful. The talker may never have felt truly heard on the topic because it has always been so sensitive to the listener. To not only feel heard, but validated and empathized with by your imago match can be a truly powerful moment of healing… one of many on the way to a lifelong, intimate partnership.
Rose Rigole is a psychotherapist in private practice in Costa Mesa and Los Angeles, California, and is currently accepting new clients. She can be reached by telephone at (424) 571-2273, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via her website at https://counselingsocal.com.
* Quote edited from the original script to be gender-neutral