Imago therapy offers many effective tools to improve your relationship, whether married, long-term, or just starting to get serious (before then, you’ll want to focus on building trust!).
But it’s much easier to put Imago to use if you can actually maintain a conversation. That brings us to the first skill to cultivate in your relationship: listening.
Often, couples seek counseling when a breakdown starts to happen in their communication. Tension, negative emotion, and a general feeling of being “blocked” can arise, sometimes seemingly out of nowhere.
You may not know where to start with your partner. You might feel confused and discouraged that your rosy love has succumbed to acrimony and disconnectedness.
For many couples, the love is still there. You just need a little help finding it again.
And you need to admit this first: you’re bad at listening!
But the blame doesn’t fall only on you or your partner. The truth is that most of us aren’t raised to be effective listeners.
Do We Have a Listening Culture?
You already know the answer: no, absolutely not.
The long answer: our culture is competitive — often ultra-competitive. Especially in America, we are taught “Talk, talk, talk,” “Get your ideas out there,” “Assert yourself.”
None of these sound like “Take a backseat for a second and just listen,” do they?
But relationships really require a relational culture to flourish.
In heterosexual relationships and marriages, there’s another factor to consider: gender norms. Male/female power differences have been instilled in most of us from a young age.
Even the married founders of Imago therapy, Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt, discovered they were enacting male-dominant gender norms in how they originally credited the writing of their book Getting the Love You Want. Hendrix initially assigned himself as the sole author — until he realized that Hunt deserved equal recognition for helping him develop the ideas.
The Key to Getting Unstuck and Listening Better: Take Turns
How do you change your stuck conversations into true dialogues that lead somewhere?
Think about why you’re stuck: two people fighting for the mic. The solution is actually pretty obvious: take turns!
Use your generosity of spirit (and a timer) to alternate being the speaker and the listener.
Sometimes we regress to our worst behavior simply because we don’t have a system in place. You’ll be amazed at how much of a difference this structure makes. Knowing your roles can help you and your partner regulate your emotions and understand each other better.
However — as you probably guessed — the process of true Imago listening goes deeper than tapping your foot until it’s your turn to speak.
Listening, Validating, Empathizing
In an Imago dialogue, you actively listen to make the conversation productive. To achieve that, you and your partner will focus on three key goals:
Listening – This means making an effort to clear your mind and focus on what your partner says in the moment. We all know it’s easier described than done, but practice helps.
Validating – Not to be confused with agreement, validating takes a stretch. Find the words or gestures to tell your partner: “I respect what you think/how you feel/your point of view — because it’s yours.”
Empathizing – For a moment, put your pre-judgments, opinions, and perspective on the shelf. Can you see the point your partner is trying to make? Even if it doesn’t make sense from where you’re standing?
You’ll be amazed at how an intractable position can dissolve when somebody feels like they’ve been heard.
All of these steps take maturity, energy, and patience to accomplish. So don’t take your dialogue efforts for granted! Voice your appreciation for each other’s willingness to participate. You might even plan a treat for yourselves after a listening exercise.
And don’t go it alone, especially if you’ve reached the power struggle stage with your partner. Reach out for help from a professional. It’s worth it. The hard work of listening can and will pay off in so many areas of your life.