“Understanding human relationships requires that we embrace complexity.” Anonymous
“Love me tender, love me true, all my dreams fulfill. Oh my darling I love you, and I always will.” Elvis Presley
I was in the middle of a conversation with a close friend of mine about the last two blogs I wrote; when he spoke the first sentence I quoted above. I laughed when he said it, because he has a paradoxical way of presenting me with something both obvious and enlightening. I anticipated a punch line that never arrived. “No,” he said, “I’m serious. Relationships are so challenging because they are so complex. We want solutions and we want them to be simple, but that is an impossible expectation to fulfill. So our attempts at solution to the problems that relationships present often culminate in feelings of desperation and inadequacy. We fail to see the amazing complexity of being human.”
As I was writing my way toward the conclusion of my last article, I felt that sense of inadequacy and desperation. I had high hopes for linking point of view, our egos, and our defenses in a way that would point toward some obvious solutions to the difficulties posed by intimate relationships. I even had some interesting conclusions in mind, but somehow I couldn’t get there. In fact, I ended up covering ground I had covered in earlier articles and left the connections between the ego and our defenses up in the air. I felt like Don Quixote, jousting with windmills instead of dragons. When I spoke with my Editor about my sense of ineptitude, she reminded me that what people respond to in my “Tools” series is my offering practical solutions that they can put into practice. I knew she was right about this, but I felt miles away from practical applications. So I decided to think about where I wanted to end up and forget about how I was going to get there.
In my ongoing reading about the science and art of psychotherapy with couples, two of the authors who have influenced and inspired me most are Harville Hendrix and Lori Gordon. Both authors are Psychologists who work with couples and have written extensively about healing relationships. Each of them sees the primary medicine for working with couples to be “the dialogue,” a particular approach to communication. Although there are some differences in the details of their understanding of healing dialogue, the similarities between them are profound. Each of them has developed a process that in its very nature has the capacity to heal wounded and dysfunctional relationships. They accomplish healing and renewal by structuring a way for couples to talk with each other about their conflicts and issues that is safe rather than dangerous, and inspires curiosity rather than criticism. In this installment of “Tools” I will explore some of the ideas behind what they have created and present a map of the process of healing dialogue that I hope will be of help to many of us. First, however, with the help of Eckhart Tolle, I will return to the complex matter of the ego, the defenses, and our individual points of view one more time, because I believe that our grasping how these uniquely human processes function will help us to understand why the work of Hendrix and Gordon is so important.
Perhaps it is enough to say that these three aspects of the self are interrelated and that they seem to interpenetrate one another. Though they can be understood as distinct psychological processes, they arrive on the scene like three inseparable friends, constantly chattering, pointing, and reacting to everything they see. This dynamic trio takes up a lot of space in us; in fact if you begin to track your thoughts, you will find that all three are in residence in your head. Eckhart Tolle writes, “Most people are so completely identified with the voice in the head- the incessant stream of involuntary and compulsive thinking and the emotions that accompany it- that we may describe them as being possessed by their mind. As long as you are completely unaware of this, you take the thinker to be who you are. This is the egoic mind. We call it egoic because there is a sense of self, of I (ego) in every thought, every memory, every interpretation, opinion, viewpoint, reaction, emotion.” (In “A New Earth” p. 59, 2006). So, says Tolle, if we want to find our ego, all we have to do is listen to the voice in our head. This voice, the content of our thinking, is conditioned by our past experience, our upbringing, the culture we grow up in the midst of, our family background, our education, by whatever we have identified with along the way. He goes on to say that, “The central core of all your mind activity consists of certain repetitive and persistent thoughts, emotions, and reactive patterns that you identify with most strongly. This entity is the ego itself.” (pgs. 59-60, op. cit.)
With this insight we can begin to see the connection between the ego and our defenses. If the ego is the basis for our identity, we will feel vulnerable. To paraphrase Tolle, our point of view is precarious because our mind-made self is constructed from these repetitive reactive patterns, thoughts, and emotions, which I identify as me. Since my thoughts, emotions, and identifications are temporal, ephemeral, and fleeting, my ego will always be engaged in a furious struggle for survival as it tries to protect and enlarge itself.
In summation, our ego makes up a large part of our point of view. It informs the frame of reference through which we see and construct our life. This construction is the work of the highly vulnerable egoic mind. We feel the need to defend it, expand it, assert it, and control it all at once. It is the source of much of our anxiety, our anger, and our reactivity. Ultimately, it can be seen as the cause of most of the distress that plagues humankind, our conflicts, our aggression, and our wars.
Because each of us arrives in adulthood equipped with a developing ego, we can expect that it will play a large role in our relationships. The problem is that we are, for the most part, unaware of the ego as ego. I believe that my ego is me. I am fully identified with it, and so when someone criticizes what I think, or say, or do, I will feel threatened and want to defend myself. In order to feed my ego, I will feel the need to make a good impression, garner approval and appreciation, and accomplish impressive things. If I fail to do so, I may begin to feel like a failure and lose my sense of self-worth. If I succeed the feeling of success will only be temporary, and so I will likely feel driven to add to my resume of impressive and wondrous acts. So, if I locate my intimate relationship as the place where I hope to feel most nourished, appreciated, and ultimately loved, I can easily imagine my distress if my primary relationship becomes conflict ridden, combative, or stale.
These complexities are what we need to understand and embrace, if we are to find and create intimacy in our primary relationship and in our friendships as well. We need to be aware of and accept the vulnerability and insecurity that we feel in relation to the people who are of primary importance to us. If we fail to grasp these fundamental experiences of our insecurity, when someone we love begins to defend their self we are likely to interpret what they are doing as aggressive and critical. This perception causes us to defend ourselves (our egos) against their attack, and the battle for rectitude and supremacy begins. We have all had this kind of experience enough times to know that once a tit for tat battle ensues, we are headed toward frustration and alienation rather than closeness and tenderness. How can we avert these unsatisfactory experiences and find a way to communicate that brings us to understanding and resolving our conflicts and difficulties? This is the question that Harville Hendrix and Lori Gordon have found an answer to, the “Couples Dialogue.”
Both Dr. Hendrix and Dr. Gordon agree that it is absolutely essential for couples to change the way they communicate with one another. To accomplish this change, they have each mapped out rules and a carefully constructed blueprint that will facilitate healthy and successful communication for any couple that is willing to follow it. Dr. Hendrix insists that the way couples communicate will determine the nature and the quality of their relationship. For this reason he strongly suggests that we must talk without putting each other down, and that our communication needs to be devoid of anger. If we can accomplish what he calls “charge neutral” communication that is free of put downs, aggression, name calling, and personal attacks, we can begin to create a relationship that will feel safe rather than dangerous. He recommends that couples approach each other with curiosity rather than criticism. He wants us to get interested and inquisitive about what makes our partner tick, about what they have had to contend with in their upbringing, and what their sensitivities and preferences are. He and Dr. Gordon both challenge us to understand and accept our partner’s point of view, and to begin to develop empathy and compassion for them as they articulate what hurts them, troubles them, or causes them to feel distress, insecurity, disappointment, or resentment. How can we accomplish this?
The structure of the Couples Dialogue involves taking turns communicating with each other. One person talks about whatever is important to them; what hurts, frustrates, or disappoints them. Something specific that they take issue with might be the starting point. Whoever speaks first gets to complete their communication, proceeding carefully and slowly to make sure they are saying what they really feel and mean, while giving their partner a chance to make sure that they understand what is being said. The job of the listener is a difficult one, because they must reflect to the speaker what their understanding is of what is being said, until they have correctly understood the communication. Every couple of sentences the speaker pauses so that the listener can say what they are hearing. Here’s an example of how this might go:
P1: I’ve been very upset lately, because it seems to me that you no longer love me. In fact, I suspect that you don’t really even like me anymore.
P2: So let me see if I’ve got this right. You’re very upset because you don’t feel loved or liked by me now.
P1: Yes, that’s right. You don’t seem to have much time for me. The only times we are together is when we are with a group of people. You have so many commitments to your family members that almost all of your free time is taken up.
P2: So our lack of time together has become a problem for you. Being with my various family members takes time away from you and I having alone time.
P1: Yes, you understand what I am saying to you.
P2: You’re making sense. I understand where you are coming from so far.
This example has the couple using the method very well. The first partner is communicating clearly and the second partner is able to reflect what P1 means and wants her to understand. P2 is reflecting meaning clearly and is validating that P1 is making sense. The next step in the process is for P2 to empathize with P1 by saying something like, “So my sense is that you are probably feeling sad at the loss of quality time for us, and perhaps you are concluding that I am avoiding one on one time by spending so much time with my family members.”
It usually takes a few sessions of guidance from a therapist for a couple to use the method this well, and be able to validate each other and empathize with each other’s experience. Once a couple has gotten to this point, however, problem solving becomes possible on a number of different levels. Dr. Hendrix believes that we are strongly attracted to people who feel familiar to us. He also suggests that we are unconsciously attracted to people who are incompatible with us. This happens, he believes, because we are trying to set up a scene from our childhood where we did not get something very important that we needed. In order to set up this situation we need someone who we feel very strongly about, someone we can seek this important need from. What we are not aware of is that we have chosen someone who will have trouble giving us what we need, because the part of them that could give it to us is somehow shut down. This reality creates real trouble for couples sooner or later. Both Dr. Hendrix and Dr. Gordon believe that if we can identify what P1 is looking for, and if we can also identify what part of P2 is currently shut down and unable to fulfill P1’s request, the potential exists to discover the scene that P1 is setting up, and also to free up the part of P2 that could give P1 what he needs. The possibility for real problem solving is greatly enhanced by the Dialogue method because the therapist is making sure that no one is getting put down or criticized, and that each partner is going to get a chance to communicate important thoughts and feelings without their partner being defensive or withdrawing. Because anger and aggression are not allowed, a climate of safety develops in which both partners can be authentic and revealing of themselves, and in which each can become curious about the others difficulties and issues, and even develop feelings of tenderness and empathy for their partner.
Dr. Gordon has developed a further enhancement to this process by her creation of the Dialogue Wheel, which prompts the partner who is speaking with sentences that direct the conversation in productive ways. Her dialogue guide helps couples fine-tune their thoughts and feelings about an issue or conflict, and present them in a non-threatening way. By offering “starter sentences” that are arranged in an order that helps them sort out their perceptions, thoughts, feelings and requests, the couple is able to be very specific about situations that feel vague, and discover nuances in their feelings and reactions that they were previously unaware of. Starter sentences include: I notice; I assume this means; I wonder; I suspect (about you); I believe (for me); I resent; I am hurt by; I am puzzled by; I regret; I am afraid of; I am frustrated by; I am happier when; I want; I expect; I appreciate; I realize; and I hope. Gordon has her couples face each other, touch each other by holding hands, and look into each other’s eyes. They then complete the starter sentences for a particular issue they are working with. She believes it is much harder to misunderstand each other when couples are making contact in this way.
Hendrix and Gordon have created a series of structures and exercises that have proved invaluable to literally thousands of couples. I had the good fortune in my training to work with a therapist that combined the best of their techniques. The depth of understanding that emerged from doing this work awakened me to new insights into, and understandings of, both my partner and myself. One of the greatest gifts that come with working in this way is that problems are solved with the least possible amount of stress and conflict. Dr. Hendrix believes that learning the process and successfully using it contributes to the healing of both partners in the relationship in ways that go beyond the specific problems that are being addressed.
I highly recommend that if you are struggling in your intimate relationship or important friendships, that you look into finding a therapist trained in one or both of these methods. While it is possible to learn some of these techniques on your own, your progress will be greatly enhanced by receiving the teaching and guidance of an experienced couples therapist who knows the methods. I am so enthusiastic about working on our relationships in these ways because I believe that these two methods effectively address our complexity and vulnerability, in ways that foster healing our most important relationships and our selves.
Bibliography: “Getting the Love you Want” 2nd edition, 2010 by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. “Passage to Intimacy,” 1993, by Lori H. Gordon, Ph.D. “A New Earth,” 2005, by Eckhart Tolle.
Great Thanks to Toby Landesman for her beautiful photographs! www.tobylandesmanphotographics.com
Article written by Thomas Goforth
Newtopia staff writer THOMAS GOFORTH is a psychotherapist and pastoral counselor working in Chicago, IL. He was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in 1967 and served as Chaplain to the Cook County Jail and the Chicago House of Correction while working for St. Leonard’s House, one of the first halfway houses in the country.. He did draft counseling and community organizing during the Viet Nam War, and was one of the founding members of the Lincoln Park Therapy Collective, an all volunteer organization which provided free group therapy for people living on the North Side of Chicago from 1968 until the mid 80′s.He helped organize the first crisis phone line in Chicago, and later helped train the staff counselors for Kool Aide Youth Emergency Services and Metro Help. He was an actor in the Free Theater Company and Rapid Transit Guerrilla Communications, two groundbreaking political theater companies performing in Chicago during the late 60′s and early 70′s. In the 80′s he helped found the Milton H. Erickson Institute of Chicago and became its third president and a member of its teaching faculty. At the invitation of Charles Shaw, he became the acting “Pit Boss” of the New Poetry Collective, the poetry arm of Newtopia Magazine in its first incarnation. Follow him at Twitter @thomas_goforth.