Maximus and i had our first couples counseling session with Fern. We did our session over Skype, He and i together and Fern remotely. It was a good session, setting a foundation for Imago therapy. Maximus was a bit confused, however, trying to figure out how we were supposed to use Imago to stop a rage event, but after He and i discussed it further after our session, we both understand that Imago is used to guide communication to resolve conflict prior to rage, to prevent me from having a raging event. This provides a framework for me to feel heard and for Him to not feel attacked.
Imago, developed by Harville Hendrix, PhD and his wife, Helen Lakelly Hunt, PhD, is based on theory that most conflicts are 90% triggered by past wounds and only 10% about the present situation. Furthermore, it is based upon your partner being the most ideal person to help you resolve those past wounds. Imago uses the connection between the partners to dialogue about issues rather than discussing them, in a safe space, at a time when both partners are able to fully be present for each other. The process starts with one partner requesting an appointment to dialogue and then proceeding through a structure of Mirroring, Validation and Empathy.
Making an appointment is a crucial step in beginning this process. This requires the partner who has something to dialogue, be it an appreciation or a conflict, to request the presence of the other and to be able to articulate what the general topic would be. The other partner can either agree to discuss it right then, or request that they discuss it at a specific time later, when they are more able to commit to the process.
During mirroring, the sender articulates their thoughts, feelings, or requests using “I feel” or “I need” or “I love” statements, from their perspective, not shaming, blaming, or criticizing the receiver. The receiver listens mindfully, not interrupting, not stopping the sender. When the sender stops, the receiver starts by saying, “Let me see if I got what you’re saying…” and repeats back what the sender told them. This requires the receiver to really listen to what’s being said. The sender then can reply, “Yes, you got it,” or acknowledge things that were correct and recommunicate things that were not picked up. When the receiver has mirrored back the sender’s communication correctly, the receiver asks, “Is there more?” The sender should ponder and add more if necesssary, and the cycle repeats, or acknowledge that they have communicated everything about this issue. At this point, if the sender is done, the receiver will then summarize what they have heard the sender communicate by starting, “So in summary, what I heard you say is…Did I get it?” The sender needs to listen and acknowledge or reiterate anything that was missed.
In the next step, validation, the receiver starts. In this step, the receiver acknowledges the sender’s perspective, but does not judge whether they believe it to be right or wrong. They are merely showing the sender respect for their reality, accepting that both partners may have different viewpoints. During validation, the receiver often starts, “That makes sense to me because…” and describing how their behavior or communication might have been received by the sender different than their intention.
The final step is empathy. Here, the receiver starts by communicating how they think their partner might be feeling. “I imagine you might be feeling….about this. Is that how you are feeling?” The sender now has a responsibility to acknowledge whether they got it or not, and if not, share what emotion they are feeling about the situation.
Imago Phrase Cues
I would like to dialogue about . . .
Is now okay?
I feel . . .
I love . . .
I need . . .
What’s bothering me is . . .
Let me see if I’ve got you.
I heard you say . . . or You said . . .
Am I getting you? or Did I get that?
Is there more about that?
Let me see if I got it all . . .?
Am I getting you? Did I get all of that?
or Is that a good summary?
You make sense to me, and what makes sense is . . .
I can understand that . . .given that . . .
I can see how you would see it that way because sometimes I do . . .
I imagine you might be feeling . . .
Is that what you’re feeling?
Maximus and i practiced this with Fern using an appreciation rather than a conflict. This allowed us to practice the steps without having to focus on a new way of communicating AND an issue. We stumbled through it. This is really a new way of communicating for us and we are not yet used to the structure of it. But, we did see the value in it. A big concern for Maximus is the empathy step, as he feels he is not an empathetic person and has difficulty assigning feelings to situations. Fern understood this and will be sharing a list of feelings with him for him to refer to in these situations. i don’t think Maximus is un-empathetic, i feel that the generation he was raised in devalued emotional/sensing/feeling response in males, seeing those as feminine qualities. i have, many times, been able to relate situations Maximus has encountered that were similar to something we are talking about, so He could put Himself back in that situation and remember how He felt at that time and apply that to our current situation and how i am feeling. This works if i know of a situation to relate it to, which isn’t always the case! i know Maximus IS empathetic, it will be a matter of developing that skill that was not valued, and i think Fern can be helpful in this.
Another thing we discussed with Fern, in context of Imago, was in regards to overcommunication. Maximus is still concerned about His overcommunication or oversharing and how i communicate better in writing and He communicates better orally. Fern shared that it is important to be able to contain ourselves when communicating, that we consider the impact of sharing every thought and thought-process rather than crafting the communication to share the thoughts more succinctly. Maximus uses His communication to think out loud and that can be confusing for me, especially since as a writer, i present my thoughts on paper completely analyzed and edited to say exactly what i want to communicate–i don’t share the non-edited version. i take His communication as if it is edited, not a work in progress.
And it was a good thing we learned this concept and practiced Imago dialogue with Fern, because we had two instances to use this technique later that evening.
The first instance was right before dinner, about two hours after our session with Fern. Maximus and i had been discussing the session and playing with the Imago technique, summarizing our thoughts with each other. We had to cut the conversation short, however, as The Englishman came home before we were completely finished. When The Englishman wasn’t paying attention, Maximus shared with me how much He felt we were on the right track and held His hand up, wiggling His right index finger, and said, “And this [the ring i gave Him] will be back soon because of it!” The air was immediately sucked out of the room for me and i felt like i’d been sucker punched. i’d had no idea that He was not wearing the ring intentionally because of my last raging episode and worse, i’d not even noticed. i immediately excused myself to the bathroom to sit down and respond to this in private. i was horrified, sad, upset that i’d not noticed, upset that Maximus shared that when The Englishman was present (not that he’d seen it, but that i felt like i couldn’t talk to Maximus about it now and i felt set up for failure). i returned to the kitchen and motioned for Maximus to follow me. We went upstairs to the master bathroom and i asked Him if we could have a dialogue about the ring, and He agreed. We stumbled through the process and it really helped me to be able to calmly explain my feelings about it, feel heard, and for Maximus to understand my feelings, perspectives, and how that felt hurtful to me. He shared that His fingers had swollen in Las Vegas, which i knew, but that He had decided to wait to put it back on after we were back to normal, even though His fingers were no longer swollen, and do that with me ceremonially to celebrate our renewed togetherness. He had not, however, realized that i had not noticed He was not wearing it, assumed i knew He wasn’t, and it had not occurred to Him that i would feel hurt by Him not wearing it. This dialogue helped me feel heard, helped Him understand my feelings and perspectives, and make changes that benefited us both–He is wearing the ring. And no raging occurred. Raging would have most definitely occurred in the recent past with something like this.
The second instance was after we went to bed. While Maximus was on His business trip, He mentioned to me that He was planning on heading to Nordstrom to go see what He could find to get for me as a surprise. i thought this was wonderfully sweet and i was looking forward to seeing what might be in my drawer when i got to His home at the end of the week, which has been a thing that Maximus has done in the past to surprise me. He did not get a chance to go to the mall on that trip, however, but the expectation had been set up that He was planning on getting me something. There was nothing in my drawer when i arrived, but Maximus mentioned that He wanted to take me to the mall, to Nordstrom the next day and was very vague about it, so much so that i thought that was the new plan, to go together for that something for me. Unfortunately, our day got very full and the session with Fern went long, and we did not have time to go. As well, i had not brought clothes to go to the mall in and when we started out to go, Maximus felt He was peacocking me, overdressed in comparison, and then canceled our trip. i later asked what this trip was about and He said it was to go get Him some new dress slacks, which to me, seemed odd for Him to have been so vague about the trip if that was what it was about. By the time we went to bed, i was feeling that i had somehow disappointed Him with the session with Fern or how i’d dressed, and it caused Him to change His mind about getting me a gift. i ended up getting triggered about it during some rougher sex and excused myself to the bathroom to compose myself–Maximus allowed me this time to cry and breathe and return to Him to dialogue. i started by asking Him if we could dialogue about Nordstrom and then as we dialogued, i realized that my feelings were really about His overcommunicating. He actually thanked me for talking about this issue and how it made me feel; He had no idea that He was doing this, setting up my expectations for something that was on His list to do at some point, picking up a gift for me from Nordstrom. He’d not realized that His thinking out loud set me up to believe that i had a gift coming and could see how there being no gift and a canceled trip to Nordstrom would make me feel the way i did. “You’ve helped Me become a better person with this,” He shared.
It’s not intuitive yet and it’s not easy either, but we do see the merit in this process. It did help me not rage. i believe that it helps by requiring me to request a dialogue, knowing i’ll have His full attention, and that i have to give a topic of conversation, a focused conversation. Additionally, it allows me to talk without interruption and hear back from Him what He’s hearing, allowing me to clarify when we’re not on the same page. i feel heard and that my feelings are validated.