Archive for May, 2011

Schwarzenegger, divorce, and an old joke about directions

May 23, 2011

This week we bring you another fantastic guest post by Imago Executive Director, Tim Atkinson that originally appeared on The Relationship blog.

The break-up between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver reached such epic proportions of tragedy last week, that I prefer to start this post with a joke.

I was visiting Washington, DC, and got horribly lost.  I asked a passer-by directions to the White House.  He looked me up and down and finally said “Well, I wouldn’t start from here.”

A colleague and I were just talking about a study that’s due to be published soon, which says that people who get divorced usually don’t get any happier as a result.  So imagine yourself in the situation of the ex-Governor of California and his delightful actress wife, with their 25 year-old marriage and four children.  I guess you heard the news, it turns out that there’s a fifth child, by another woman, born over 8 years ago.  Ms. Shriver only just heard about it.  You can read all about it in the NY Times and probably every other publication in the country.

It’s a pretty spectacular “infidelity” story.  But for most of us, lacking the amazing thick skin and tolerance of major celebrities, it only takes an affair, and perhaps a little lying to our partner, to put us right at the kind of relationship low-point that appears to be a “Terminator” (groan!) for this couple.

Now, if you believe the stats that divorce isn’t going to make you happier,  I would say that if you want to be happy in life, you probably don’t want to start off at the point where your partner is furious that you were unfaithful, and has lost complete confidence in you because you lied about it for a long time.  Or even a short time.  Although if you are in that position we did recently publish an article in YourTango that can show you the way forwards.

I am talking from first-hand experience, from my first marriage.  I did divorce my first wife after she was unfaithful, and although the story wasn’t as spectacular as California’s previous first family, it felt pretty awful to me.  And the divorce was followed by a ghastly period in my life, until my second wife rescued me from misery.  I’ve learned a great deal about couples therapy since then, which is probably why I’m enjoying my marriage more each day, after over a decade of wonderful experiences.

Flickr / orvalrochefort

I think there is a simple lesson from the news about Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Don’t ever let if get that bad.  I’ve been surveying couples for quite a while now, and it seems to me that many of us have quite a high tolerance for relationship problems.  We will unhappily slog on, putting up with coldness, distance, anger, fights and all the rest of it, believing somehow it will sort itself out somehow.  Meanwhile things get worse, and that’s when people get vulnerable to a kind word from an attractive, caring person, who provides the attention and admiration that they are missing from the marriage.

Who can blame a partner for seeking the love they need elsewhere, if they can’t get it from their spouse?  But if you want to be happy, and most of us do, it just doesn’t seem to be the best way to go about it.

Sadly for many couples, they don’t actually see much alternative.  I surveyed a couple of hundred visitors to our website, and asked them why they were a bit hesitant to try out couples therapy.  It turns out that most people I surveyed are worried that their relationship is beyond hope, because somehow they are with the wrong partner.  They see therapy as a process which will just stir up all sorts of hidden problems, and make things worse.

Gosh – there has to be some good news here somewhere.  And there is!

There are hundreds of thousands of couples, who through Imago, discovered that they really did get it right when they fell in love with their partner.  When people fall in love, we don’t get it wrong.  We’re attracted to our partner for very real and important reasons, often closely connected with our past, and our emotional needs.

Here’s another piece of good news.  Practically every couple goes through some kind of struggle together – we call it the power struggle.   The reason that’s good news, is because if you are in a struggle with your partner, it means that you are just like the rest of us.  If your struggle is harder or more challenging, then it might mean the forces that attract you are stronger too.  And if your energy has gone flat, and the relationship feels dead, it might simply mean that you are the kind of people who tend to protect yourselves against difficult emotions.

So let’s revisit the old joke about directions.  If you want to be happy, try to avoid having to start by picking up the pieces after infidelity.  If you want to be happy, a great place to start is where you first find you are having problems in your relationship.

Flickr / Dano

Your relationship problems are the direction arrows to deeper love and more connection.

Now when I read sentences like the one above, I often get a bit worried.  Maybe it sounds a bit too optimistic?  A little too hopeful?  Unrealistic?  Impractical?

Not in Imago.  Imago is all about going underneath the problems and frustrations in your relationship, and finding out what is really happening at a deeper level of emotional need.  It’s a non-judgmental process, no-one gets blamed, or comes out as the bad guy.  You come out feeling good, and finding ways to live your life in a richer way.  It’s an amazing experience, getting to know your partner on a deeper level.  But please, if you want to be really happy, try it out when the problems first come up.  Don’t let yourself get to a place where divorce seems unavoidable, because the chances are breaking-up won’t make you happier.

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Sick And Tired Of Being Sick AND Tired?

May 9, 2011

Over the next few weeks we’ll be sharing a series of articles written by Imago Executive Director, Tim Atkinson for the Your Tango Expert Blog. Tim interviews some of Imago’s senior faculty about  topics ranging from improving your sex life to infidelity to breakups. We’re sending them out to you because these posts illustrate how Imago can strengthen relationships, help couples to overcome common challenges and ensure each partner receives the love they want. You will see that the core Imago dialogue process is used each time plus some suggestions for helpful new perspectives on your relationship.

O what a heaven is love! O what a hell!” said the 17th century poet, Thomas Dekker.

Does love ever feel like that to you? Given that 50% of marriages end in divorce, and all sorts of other grim statistics, I guess there’s a good chance that your answer is “Yes.”

But do you know why? Why should love have its dark side – other than to create a large market for romantic movies, paper handkerchiefs and voodoo dolls?

I decided to ask some experts. I’m in a good position to do that since I work with 1,200 couples therapists from around the world. They are no stranger to loving relationships that have turned nasty and taken the unfortunate turn to the dark side. I asked some of these amazing experts to help me write about what goes wrong in love. And more importantly, how to put it back together again when it falls apart.

This article introduces a series which features stories of real couples who have climbed back up the loving ladder to bliss. First let’s look at some of the most common issues couples bring to therapists, and some of the common elements that help couples restore their connection.

To begin, I asked Imago couples therapists about the situations they most often encounter. Their top list included the following issues:

Rebuilding trust after an affair was near the top.

Followed by couples whose new child had introduced tensions, especially when the parents fought over parenting styles.

Finally, were couples whose sex life had become unsatisfying, or who had simply become bored with each other.

Then I had a conversation that changed everything.

“I don’t like looking at it that way” said Imago Couples Therapist, Pam Wood, “I don’t work with situations, I work with connection”. Pam told me that using Imago therapy, her primary goal is to help the couple to improve the quality of connection to their partner. Once the connection is rebuilt, couples have the ability to work through pretty much any situation.

Imago Therapy was developed by Dr. Harville Hendrix and his partner Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt. It’s a favorite of Oprah’s, as well as thousands of therapists worldwide. Harville is fond of saying “Conflict is growth trying to happen” because Imago views the current situation a couple is experiencing as a symptom of something deeper. Underneath there’s another story going on that’s all about the couple’s emotional needs. That’s the conversation that will make a real difference.

When I looked at my survey notes again, I noticed that therapists most often found couples were saying “we need help with communication”. It sounds like couples themselves sense that there are things which need to be discussed, but they can’t seem to find a way to get them out into the open. Sometimes sharing things of the heart makes them feel too vulnerable, or creates too much of an angry reaction from their partner. For example, it turns out that it’s relatively common for a therapist to encounter couples who give each other an “F” in sex. That’s not so easy to talk about, without getting your partner quite hurt and defensive.

I talked to 6 different therapists about 6 completely different situations, asking them to map out a five-step process which the couple could use to resolve their problems. The common theme that emerged was that these five steps followed a structure for a meaningful conversation. Often the first step was about recognizing the problem; the next steps were about becoming curious, and looking underneath the surface.

To do this, Imago therapists use a central tool, called the Imago Dialogue. It’s a way to guide a conversation about our feelings that can feel safe enough, so that each partner can share openly. It is also carefully designed to build connection at each step.

Whether it’s understanding what to do if you want a baby and your partner doesn’t, or why your step-kids are destroying your marriage, the key solving both, and countless others, is to understand what is going on for your partner. To truly step into their shoes and see the experience and feelings through their eyes and heart. That’s why the Imago dialogue is central to the work of Imago therapists.

That doesn’t mean that all the therapist needs to do is to run through a standard approach in every situation. Each couple is unique, and over the series we will show you how different situations require a different therapeutic approach. For example, when you have just found out your partner is cheating you may not be ready to hear what the emotional circumstances that in their mind led to the affair. But eventually, this is one of the goals. Each article in the series includes an interview with a therapist who will help outline the steps needed to resolve a particular conflict.

I’ll leave you with one question to ponder: If conflict leads to growth, what’ so good about growth anyway? It starts with one core belief: as people we’re simply able to grow more complete through our deepest relationships with others, especially our partners. The more complete we are, the more we can get out of life, and the more we are available to love deeply and in a rewarding way. But, often, the road to true connection has major obstructions – often those “elephants in the room” that we’ve always known were there, but never talked about.

Clearing those obstructions, together, can be one of the most intimate experiences you will ever have, leaving the way clear to a wonderful, full relationship.

Just remember this, when you walk in to see an Imago Couples Therapist, and start telling them that there are problems with the in-laws, or you can’t agree about money, the therapist may not be thinking about your problem. Instead they may be saying to themselves “Here’s an opportunity to bring the two of you closer than you have ever been before, and make your relationship more rewarding than you might believe to be possible.”

Tim Atkinson is Executive Director of Imago Relationships InternationalImago provides couples therapy and couples workshops around the world.