Interview with Best Selling Author and Couple’s Therapist, Harville Hendrix
Some people may find it odd that I, a woman in my 30’s, who has never been married choices a couple’s therapist as one of my greatest idols. His name is Harville Hendrix, PhD. He is the author of the bestselling book, “Getting the Love You Want” and co- founder of Imago Therapy that was developed with his wife (equally dynamic and inspiring) Helen LaKelly Hunt, PhD. He has been featured on the Oprah Show several times and made Oprah’s list of TOP 20 Unforgettable Shows. Harville’s passion for his work comes from personal experiences, appreciation for loving energy, and an understanding of the importance of connectivity. Last month I had the great pleasure of interviewing Harville. As I listened to his kind, warm voice, (The kind of voice you imagine for the narrative of an endearing children’s story!) I was inspired to share his words and mission with everyone. He understands the importance of “focused connectiveness,” not just for intimate couples but as a means to heal and help relationships and communities of the world come together for the better good.
When and how did your passion for helping couples start?
I started my practice primarily working with individuals. In 1975 after 16 years of probing and trying to make my marriage work, my first wife and I decided to split. On the day the divorce papers were final I was scheduled to teach a course on marriage at SMU. As I took questions from the audience, I realized all the questions had something in common; people wanted to know the secrets of successful marriages. I thought to myself, “What do I know about how to keep people together?” I wanted to know for myself and I wanted to find answers people needed. I committed to years of research with couples that lead to the creation of Imago Therapy and publishing “Getting the Love You Want” in 1988.
What is Imago Therapy based on?
1. The trauma of childhood becomes the drama of marriage, meaning all of the regular complaints in marriage have roots in childhood and the troubles you had with your parents. The past is somehow transported into the present yet most couples don’t realize it is happening. When they react to their partner they are reacting to a painful memory that is being triggered. These memories are implicit memories, meaning it may be hard for you to account for them as something that happened in the past because your brain has recorded them as emotional trigger to avoid not as full memory that you can recall. Understanding these traumas are real is the first part of Imago Therapy.
2. The second part is practicing structured dialogs. In order to heal from something rooted in childhood, couples need to change the way they talk to each other. This happens through a three- step process of dialoging:
- Mirroring – repeating back what the other says and developing a principle of curiosity by asking, “Is there more about that?” “Am I getting everything?” etc.
- Validation – communicating understanding
- Empathy (discussing feelings pertaining to the dialog’s topic).
Can all couple really benefit from practicing dialoging?
Yes they can. I have seen thousands of couples over of the course of my practice and I found their problems are not that unique. The problem stems from the inability to communicate with each other in a way that helps them connect. Once a couple is using structured dialog to work through their issues I noticed a pattern; the issue always has roots to childhood traumas and development. It is the sharing of this information that deepens the understanding for each other and strengthens the bond making it much easier to deal with issues when they come up. Couples become bonded just by going through the process. It may take some couples longer to develop the process yet all are capable of doing it. Some couples may decide not to do it yet those who continue to hold each other in a dialogical conversation will experience a deeper connection.
So if I were to mirror what you saying, I would say that structured dialog allows for people to connect on a level that is outside of what is going on between two people personally, allowing for more of a human understanding to be created?
Yes. Exactly!! A bond is formed through the understanding. Once this bond is in place there is less negotiation involved in conflict and more co-creating. People in a relationship become scared of their partner when issues come up because the issues are triggering times when they were hurt and they want to protect themselves from being hurt again. I see people in relationships wearing suits of armor to protect them from each other. In order to be intimate again they have to remove those suits. To remove them they have to remove anxiety that caused them to put them on. In order to do that they have to commit to being an attuned presence that involves attuned listening. Dialoging about painful memories will actual drain the memory of the negative emotional charge it is carrying.
Why is it so easy for couples to lose their ability to connect?
Most couples relate to each other through their defenses. Without connecting these defenses to childhood it is easy to build up resentment if you don’t understand the nature of the defense. You have to practice connecting to stay connected.
Before there is an issue in a relationship, what kinds of things can you do to keep and develop connection?
Practice structured dialog. Try to have one each day that lasts for 15-30 minutes. It does not have to be over big topics either. In my practice, I do not allow couples to bring their negative conversations into my office. They don’t need help with that, they need to be inspired to stop doing it. I once told a couple that was having a hard time talking to each other to use the structured dialog process to talk about “boring things.” I watched this couple go from not being able to talk to each other to having a deeply connected loving relationship. When I met them they could barely stand each other, after 6 weeks they were holding hands and making love again.
What should you know before getting into a relationship?
First understand who you are. Know that your childhood has influenced you and understand your chronic complaint about it will be your biggest vulnerability when you move towards someone. Understand what it is that you do when you do feel that vulnerability. Do you withdraw or attack it? That will be what you have to deal with when you get into a relationship. Also, understand, romantic love will end. Nature set it up that way to get you emotional bonded. After a while you will discover you were blind to some things about the person you are in a relationship with. That is supposed to happen too. You will realize there are traits that you are surprised about and in order to deal with them you have to grow. This is supposed to happen too. When you fall in love your unconscious is putting you together with someone with whom you have the maximum opportunity for health and growth. When the joy goes away it is time for growth and work. After the work is done you have an opportunity to experience “passionate aliveness,” a loving and transforming wholeness.
Can structured dialogs help you in general social interacting?
I think so. The willingness to be curious is what inspires positive social interaction. Invite people to tell their story and once they do, accept the story with removal of judgment and thank them for it. People use a lot of putdowns when they speak to each other. The more accepting and affirming you are the better your ability for connecting with others. Learn who you are and how to have a conversation and come to turns with negativity, get rid of it. Learn and practice dialoging enough that you can be spontaneous with it.
When you hear news about well-known couples having issues in their relationship like what is going on with Tiger Woods, how does it make you feel?
Well my wife Helen wants to send him my book. I would love to help both of them yet they need to seek and want help first. One thing to think about, it takes two to lose a connection, Tiger may have chosen to break the connection by physical means yet she might of broke the connection in other ways.
What is next for your work?
I came to the conclusion long ago that the process of diagnosing a couple was actually quite abusive. I have also come to terms with negativity and don’t have much time or space for it. Through Imago and my work with Helen we have discovered a process that helps remove negativity and inspire love on many levels. We continue to work with couples in our practice and our retreats and look for ways to expose people to our work so they can work to remove negativity from their lives even if they are not part of a couple. “Keeping the Love you Find” is a book I wrote for single people. I hope to expand Imago in the future through relationship education courses, going beyond couple’s therapy. Helen and I believe transforming couplehood is essential for social transformation. We believe that if we can change these primary relationships, we can end violence on the planet in all its forms. But we cannot get it done through therapy alone. Our education courses are designed for couples who don’t need therapy but can increase the healthy of their relationship by learning to have dialogical conversations that deepen their connection thus increasing safety and passion. We believe that when the children of such relationships take their place in society they will transform all our institutions in the service of equality and peace. Then we will have a new world where love is no longer an ideal but a reality for everyone.
Awesome!! I agree and look forward to seeing it happen and hearing more. Thank you.
Side Note and Challenge: Harville mentioned he often sees positive growth after someone commits to three weeks of having one 15-30 minute structured dialog a day. Sounds like a perfect challenge to start the New Year: Commit to having one dialog a day using the three steps above for three weeks. As I reflect back on our conversation, I am thinking one of the benefits of dialoging is decreasing negativity. I am all for that! If you take the challenge please share your story in the comment section.