Author: Colleen Kowal
Over the last 50 years, scientists have been documenting what has come to be called the “marriage advantage.” Did you know married people, on average, live longer, enjoy higher incomes, and raise healthier families? They are less likely to have surgery, develop cancer or have a heart attack? Married people have more sex—and better quality sex—than single, divorced or co-habiting individuals. Married households have, on average, about double the income and four times the net worth of the divorced or never married. Children whose parents are married tend to be more academically successful, emotionally stable, are less susceptible to drugs and commit fewer crimes. Creating a healthy marriage leads to a healthy family.
As a child of divorce I knew how important a healthy marriage was. I was the girl committed to being committed. Even with a lot of knowledge and valiant effort, I could not make my first marriage work. Watching my child have to choose where she would have Christmas dinner and crying for her dad at bedtime intensified my desire to really understand why we fall in love and how it can fall apart. How do people stay in love?
In my research, I discovered Imago, a theory and counseling practice that makes sense. It was the first time I read anything that explained how we fall in love and how to manage and resolve the inevitable conflicts that couples experience. Imago provides exercises and tools designed to help couples and families get and stay connected. Since then, I have remarried and have had the opportunity to see this work in action in my own marriage and in my private practice.
Romantic love is not meant to last
As humans we yearn for that one special person with whom we can share our lives. And then it happens. We fall in love. At first it feels like we have found our way home. Romantic love lasts just long enough for us to establish a deep connection. We do crazy things in the name of love. We move to another city without a job. We live in a home we would never choose. We become vegans and take golf lessons. It all feels so magical until we begin to see our differences.
Romantic love is meant to fade in order for a mature, deep love to develop. But the disappointment of that loss can feel like the beginning of the end. We wonder if we are really with the right person. The arguments begin and our incompatibility enters. An Imago truth is that total compatibility leads to boredom. The old adage that opposites attract is not a myth. It is in conflict that you know you are with the right person!
Conflict leads to personal growth
Behind conflict is a buried treasure. By stretching to meet the needs of your partner, you are developing into the person you were meant to become. My husband is an incredible risk taker; however, I am much more comfortable with a set plan and playing it safe. This “conflict” became a constant battle in our marriage, but through Imago, we have come to realize this “conflict” has made our relationship even stronger. He has learned that making dinner reservations at Frankie Bones is never a bad idea, and he has taught me that an impromptu weekend away might be just what we need. It truly is a win-win.
Common communication blunders
There are many ways we destroy intimacy. It is important to emphasize the importance of non-verbal communication. Only 10 percent of how we communicate is through our words. That leaves 90 percent to our facial and physical expressions. We are generally unaware of our non-verbal messages. Learning from our partner or child what we do non-verbally can provide a great deal of insight into what we are not “saying.” This feedback alone can open up important communication.
When we have an issue with our partner, we usually try to get what we want through shame or blame. When we are the recipients of these behaviors, it is clear that they are ineffective. This is where we really get into the kitty litter, and a simple question about the laundry can turn into a three day cold war and two sleepless nights.
Dr. John Gottman, a renowned researcher, describes four behaviors that are proven divorce predictors. They are:
1. Criticism: Example: “You always talk about yourself. You are so selfish.” 2. Contempt: Example: “You’re an idiot.” 3. Defensiveness: Example: “It’s not my fault that we’re always late; it’s your fault.” 4. Stonewalling or Silent Treatment: Example: “What’s wrong, honey?” Response: “Nothing.”
What makes Imago therapy different?
Imago therapy helps us get past the little things we typically argue about and get to the core issues that lie beneath the problem. More often than not, when we are frustrated by our partner’s words or actions, it has more to do with our own issues than it does with theirs. It is totally natural; we are hard wired to be reactive. Imago helps us examine why we react so strongly when our partner is late so that we might respond like an adult rather than an angry child. It also helps our partner understand our reactivity and learn how to support our needs in a new way.
Imago Therapy is a relational coaching model. A Dialogical Process is taught to interrupt the four destructive behavioral patterns and learn to communicate in a safe way. By learning the Imago dialogue and practicing it with your partner, couples can communicate safely and effectively about everyday conflicts such as whose turn it is to get the snacks for soccer practice, as well as the more serious issues.
Is imago therapy for me?
If you are in a relationship and long for more, Imago Therapy is for you. Most couples who come to therapy have waited too long. While it is never too late to seek help, getting curious about one another and building intimacy while you are not in crisis is highly recommended. The Dialogue works with children, friends and employers. It is about relationship and connection. It has been effective across cultures and socio-economic groups. The Imago process is powerful and healing.
How can I learn more?
I am passionate about this work and its potential for improving good relationships and helping couples in crisis renew their commitment to one another or come to a respectful resolution. Every relationship has hope. We invest in gym memberships, personal trainers and countless other endeavors. Your primary relationship can and should be a source of joy, safety and true partnership.
If you would like to know more about Imago therapy, please visit the Imago website, imagorelationships.org, or call me at (843) 683-2655. I offer couples sessions in my office locally. There will be an Imago Workshop in Charleston August 14-16. Pre-marital/newlywed workshops and Imago parenting opportunities will also be offered on Hilton Head Island this fall.
Colleen Kowal, M. Ed., LPC-I has been a Hilton Head Island resident since 1985 and is currently in private practice. She has over 30 years of experience working with families.