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Dawn J. Lipthrott, LCSW
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By Dawn J. Lipthrott, LCSW

While there are numerous marital enrichment programs and courses currently available, most are psycho-educational and approach relationship difficulties on a primarily cognitive level. Imago Relationship Therapy, even in the two-day workshop for couples, works on an affective level and creates a therapeutic climate that allows work with previously unconscious material.

Access and Use of Unconscious Material

Some of the existing programs acknowledge that childhood wounding impacts our relationships and that the brain reacts to perceived threats in its environment related to that wounding. However, using a cognitive approach to attempt to explore past incidents in life that were hurtful, disappointing, or fearful is limited. Such approaches can yield information about incidents of which we are conscious and noting behavior patterns can lead to important insights. However, those areas of wounding which are most defended, that are outside our consciousness, are important to access if healing is to occur. A linear, intellectual effort will not gain access to those unconscious areas. The unconscious information is vital both for one's self in being able to ask for target-specific behaviors from the partner which will help heal those wounds and for the partner in learning how to integrate healing behavior into their relationship with their partner.

In Harville Hendrix's model, there is a section of work that is called "re-imaging the partner" that emerges out of several of the skills which promote access to those unconscious areas. In addition to gaining the ability to give target-specific behavior, it allows the partners to actually see the wounded child in their partner. This re-imaging is an important step in moving requests for behavior change out of the arena of the power struggle into an ongoing commitment to healing. In addition, the early experiences of wounding are protected by the survival patterns of the more primitive parts of brain functioning. Insight with the greater element of target-specific corrective experience with the partner is what creates safety and healing in those most vulnerable areas.

Dialogue Skill: Mirroring, Validation, and Empathy

Dialogue skills in most programs involve the use of "I-messages" and of active listening, which consists primarily of the paraphrasing of one person's statements. Some include questioning to understand more clearly, thinking of what must be underlying the person's feelings and communicating an encouraging response. These methods, while they may be an improvement in a couple's communication program do not lead to healing. They do not create the safety necessary for the person to move beyond a conscious level.

Hendrix's model, in addition to providing a mirroring response, teaches couples to communicate genuine validation which expresses cognitive empathy, and then, to make an attempt to communicate an affective empathic response. This two-fold communication of empathy creates considerable safety, allows the partner to move deeper into the process, and promotes greater intimacy in the relationship. In addition, in most of the processes that Hendrix has formulated, there is an added element of referencing back to childhood from an affective base which gains ready access to the unconscious childhood issues. The lack of questioning and interpretation on the part of the receiving partner adds to the safety, and respects, as well as validates, the unique perceptions and feelings of the partner expressing a frustration or concern. Both people are given the time and space to show up in the relationship as differentiated, yet connected partners.

Using Rage as an Opportunity for Healing

Rage expression, when encouraged in marital programs, tends to follow a similar process of surface content. Hendrix uses the affect to access the childhood wound. This creates a more effective and healing request for behavior change in the partner and increased motivation on the part of the partner to stretch into that behavior. Without that access to the unconscious, dialogues promoted by other programs frequently become civilized expressions of the power struggle. In short time, defenses are up, safety is gone, and no one wants to change anything in their own behavior for the partner. Also in the area of the expression of rage and other processes, Hendrix includes steps to provide emotional safety for the partner who is on the receiving end. Recognizing that the rage and everyday frustration is related to childhood events also adds to the open, receptive, and validating stance in the receiver.

Contracts and Negotiation: A More Civilized Power Struggle

Asking a partner to change behavior is not usually successful, even when the person readily agrees. The unconscious patterns will undermine the best intentions if healing on that level does not take place. Usually marital programs rely on the use of negotiation or contracts Contracts and negotiation remain in the realm of the power struggle. They reinforce power differences in the relationship. The holding of power in the relationship is often the result of gender socialization and adaptation patterns to childhood wounding. From this view, such an approach merely reinforces the dysfunction.

In Hendrix's approach, however, the sender of the behavior change request states specific requests related to their frustration only after going through the process where the receiver mirrors and communicates cognitive and affective empathy, and facilitates accessing of the childhood wound. The requests come directly from the wound that needs to be healed and the receiving partner must agree to at least one of the requests with no modification or negotiation. The requests are made from the place of wounding where the person knows exactly what they need from the other (and needed from the caretakers) to satisfy it. Modifying or negotiating those requests most often serves only to re-wound the person. In addition, Hendrix recognizes the complementarity in the adaptation patterns and recognizes that the things requested by one partner are not only what he or she needs to heal themselves, but are those things that the other partner needs to stretch into, parts of the lost or denied self which have been repressed and fragmented from the self. As a result, the person who is being asked to change usually resists the change and makes modifications which are not healing to either partner. In this model, both re-imaging, and choice of positive, measureable, and specific requests framed in the context of the wound and the Missing Self, serve to create successful and progressive steps toward wholeness for both partners.

Growth, Healing, and the Reclaiming of the Self

Hendrix realizes that teaching couples only communication and negotiating skills is not enough. His model gives couples skills to create a truly mutually therapeutic relationship which steps outside the power struggle, gains access to the unconscious childhood wound and empowers couples to do the work of healing their wounds. The energy used by the unconscious to hold in place the repressed wounds and split off parts of the self, and to maintain defensive patterns is now freed and brought back into the relationship and to the life of the individual. New passion, spontaneity, intimacy and aliveness result and move both partners toward reclaiming their whole selves.

DISCLAIMER  Disclaimer: Information, observations, and opinions are offered for general reference only and should not be misconstrued as counseling advice, diagnosis or psychotherapy. Base your treatment or decisions solely upon the recommendations of your your own psychotherapist, counselor or physician or your own choices. By using this site, you signify full acceptance of our Terms of Use.   


I welcome your constructive comments and suggestions about the material on this website and how we can all be most effective in co-creating the kind of relationships and world that is honoring and respectful for all people.
© Dawn Lipthrott, The Relationship Learning Center, 1994 Renewed 2013

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