Multi-millionaire Marie Forleo credits this habit for saving her relationship. Song-bird Alanis Morissette is also a fan. And I just started creating this habit with my new-ish man.
Speaking of which, this is my first public outing of the ‘Pirate’. We met in November 2017. I fell in love with his mind before I met the rest of him. He’s gorgeous with a giant mind and heart. He’s also the most courageous human I know. Oh, and he’s a sensational chef. Yes, I know. Hashtag LotteryWinner.
More violence than love
Also, like so many men I know, his life has been more characterized by psychological and physical violence than assertive, loving communication.
However, unlike so many men I know, he’s genuinely willing to work on his stuff. As I frequently point out, it’s not like I have this relationship stuff sorted. I’ve only learned to play nicely with my own species in the last five years.
So, unsurprisingly, some relationship niggles were arising in our new-ish relationship. I was desperate to address them. I know how corrosive to intimacy unaddressed issues can be. I tried discussing these issues with him to no avail, which compounded my frustrations. The inability to communicate effectively had me worried.
The Imago relationship technique
Enter the Imago technique. It’s a basic counseling technique placed into a two-way structured dialogue. It’s designed for couples, but any configuration of humans can use it to improve the effectiveness of their communication: friends, flatmates, anyone.
Basically, the magic of the Imago technique, or dialogue, is it helps you actually listen to your partner while they talk, rather than using the time to formulate a defensive attack – like we usually do.
The power of feeling heard
The technique also allows all parties to feel heard. Since feeling unheard and unappreciated is central to many relationships problems (indeed, that’s similar to what the sex therapist told me on the way to the Burlesque show), this dialogue can be the solution.
I asked the Pirate to try the Imago dialogue with me. He agreed and we did. I’ll report below on the results after I give you some resources on the technique.
Here’s a link to the video where Marie Forleo interviews the two married (& divorced!) therapists who co-created the Imago technique. The video is about an hour long, but the guts of the Imago technique are covered in the first 20 minutes.
Marie says now that she and her partner have learned the technique, they can be in the middle of a heated fight and one of them will call ‘dialogue’. They go through the Imago process, and in minutes the row is over and peace and intimacy restored.
Marie and her partner have formed a new relationship-saving communication habit.
The therapists make the important point that we have a cultural problem with communication and, to effectively address it, we need cultural change. They found that the couples were coming to therapy with the same problems. It wasn’t a couple problem, it was a cultural problem, and cultural conveyor belt, delivering the lucky few to therapy, needs to be halted. We need to learn how to communicate effectively – early!
Interestingly, Marie Forleo was so astounded at how effective and simple the technique was, she exclaims early in the video that it should be taught in schools!
The power of assertive communication
I say ‘interestingly’ because I said the same thing when, at the age of 35 and freshly separated, a counselor taught me the basics of assertiveness. I understood the concept of assertiveness, but not the finesse. The counselor opened a door in my mind I didn’t even know existed. The assertiveness techniques were demonstrably so powerful yet so simple, I pre-echoed Marie Forleo’s exclamation – that assertiveness should be taught in schools. The counselor agreed. They were, indeed, doing a pilot program with a local school.
An example of the Imago technique in action …
Here’s a link to a short article which provides a case study showing the Imago technique in action. There are some arguments that, if you win, you risk losing so much.
The Imago structure: 4 steps to healthy communication …
Here’s a link to another short article which gives an outline of the basic structure of the Imago dialogue – four steps to healthy communication.
Best Valentine’s gift ever?
And, finally, here’s a link to an Imago technique online workshop. I was emailed this link today. It’s nothing to do with me, I’m just passing it on in case you are interested. The workshop costs US$29.99 – a pretty good Valentine’s Day investment, I suspect.
Back to what happened when the Pirate and I tried the Imago dialogue. Well, when I expressed my frustration with our communication and suggested the Imago technique, the Pirate suggested we book a date to do it, which I really appreciated.
However, neither of us were looking forward to our ‘Imago-date’. For him there was uncertainty. He said he felt apprehensive. It was easier for me, being familiar with counseling processes. But both of us grew up in aggressive and passive-aggressive (‘bullying with a smile’) homes. It can leave a fear of open conflict.
In the event, it went well. Of course. Even though we strayed from the script. In particular, we can improve on the summarizing, reflecting and affirming. In other words (!) we can improve on everything to do with listening – and demonstrating listening.
We talked for about an hour before calling it quits. An hour is plenty of time for a ‘session’, and certainly for our first one. For me the time went fast. We touched on some big issues, ‘bookmarked’ others, and really, just started getting a feel for the process.
Prevent minor issues becoming major ones
And the Pirate said he felt pretty happy with the result. He could see the benefits of having a structured approach to effective communication – that it would prevent minor issues becoming major ones.
It was a terrific start and I’m beyond grateful the Pirate was willing to try this process with me – a glimpse of how amazing he is. I want to do this regularly as I want effective communication to become a habit. So we have our next Imago-date penciled in for a few weeks. However, of course, either of us can request a ‘dialogue’ before then.
I can also report that, afterwards, we were both like spring lambs. I feel a huge weight was lifted off both of us and we proceeded to have a Very Fun Night.
“I want what they have!” – an aspirational relationship
At the back of my mind, in the lead up to this, was the image of the only admirable and aspirational relationship I know. I used to share a PhD office with Dr Anna Friis, Australasia’s leading expert on mindful self-compassion, but I met her husband, Wayne, for the first time on a recent self-compassion retreat.
After the retreat, Anna and I were chatting about relationships. Anna said she was still very much in love with her husband of 30 years, and attributed this to a year of relationship therapy early on. She said it gave her husband words for his emotions.
A blood-covered Viking …
Then her husband turned up. A strapping Viking of a man, covered in blood. Not completely covered, just both forearms covered with bloody scratches and gashes. And he couldn’t have been happier. He was just back from thrashing the trail-bike of his dreams around the hills of Waihi. And Anna couldn’t have been happier that he couldn’t have been happier.
He greeted Anna with “Hi Gorgeous!” and a huge bear hug. Then they sat together, holding hands, as we continued chatting into the evening. Honestly, it was lovely watching them interact. I thought, wow – I want what they have! I want my new-ish relationship to still be like that in 30 years. Less blood would be nice, but that’s not likely with the Pirate. I’ll take it.
Dr Anna’s perspective …
I ran my perspective on Anna’s marriage past Anna. She pointed out her husband had actually done lots of his own personal development work prior to them doing relationship therapy. We discussed how it’s critical for a healthy, truly loving relationship, to learn to like, accept and even – dirty word! – love yourself.
‘Self-love’ and ‘other-love’ are verbs. Love is a practice. Self-love is pursuing your passion for trail-biking. Other-love is supporting the other in pursuing their passions. It’s a tragedy that ‘self-love’ has come to mean ‘selfish.’
In our punitive, shame-based culture, pursuing both personal and relationship development – admitting we don’t have all the answers and might benefit from some support – typically takes lots of courage.
More info coming on relationship habits
I’ll soon (not straightaway, but soon) be stepping up my newsletter frequency from ‘infrequent-erratic’ to weekly. There are some reasons for this change that I think are interesting, but I’ll reveal those next time. To celebrate, this is the first of a short series on relationship habits. The series covers relationship topics I frequently help others with, and wish I’d known 25 years ago. Next in the series will be:
1. The 3 (main) relationship styles.
There’s one adaptive relationship style, and two maladaptive ones. I’ll cover what they are, how to spot someone’s relationship style (and your own!), where our relationship styles comes from (Hint: it’s largely learned, not genetic – which, good news!, means they can be ‘unlearned’) and what to do if you or your partner have an unhealthy relationship style.
2. No second dates!!!!
The red flags to look for if you want to avoid getting involved with someone has issues with anger, narcissism, controlling behaviors, boundaries, jealousy or is emotionally unavailable. You may see the signs on the first date, or in the first month. Either way, they are almost certainly the tip of the iceberg.
3. Why do they stay?!
The psychology of abuse is largely unknown, which is why I’ve heard so many people wonder out loud why people stay in abusive relationships. I’ll cover the practical and psychological reasons people stay in abusive relationships – including how you can be in an abusive relationship and not even know it. I’ll also touch on how to help yourself, or others, escape.
As an ex-police officer with a psychology PhD, who volunteered for eight years as a Lifeline counselor, and spent 14 years in two abusive relationships, I have a few insights on this topic.
The book update
- my book – on rapid habit change – is coming soon! REAL soon.
Take good care of you – you are the only one of you we have.
Til’ next time 🙂
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‘During a recent radio interview about the rash of celebrity infidelities, the host
asked me, “Can you love someone and cheat on them or treat them poorly?” I thought about it for a long time, then gave the best answer I could based on my work: “I don’t know if you can love someone and betray them or be cruel to them, but I do know that when you betray someone or behave in an unkind way toward them, you are not practicing love … ” – Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection, p. 28.