The last time my partner and I got into a memorable fight, we were standing outside of a crowded ice cream shop in Brooklyn, and I was sternly shout-saying, "Oh my god, I get what you're saying! I hear you loud and clear! I just don't agree with you! I'm not going to agree with you!" What can I say, I love an audience.
The content of the fight is irrelevant, but after I passionately expressed that I could see his point, we were able to resolve the argument. But yelling something like, "Oh my god, I get what you're saying!" is not the kindest, most effective way to communicate that you understand someone — even though it might be your first instinct.
Luckily, there are some calmer, more rational ways to get to this point, and there's actually a form of relationship therapy that's designed to teach couples how to express, listen, and understand one another in these types of situations. It's called Imago therapy.
Like many forms of therapy, the point of Imago therapy is to develop a set of skills that will help you and your partner reconnect and restore empathy, says Rebecca Sears, LPC, an Imago relationship therapist. That sounds vague and theoretical, but Imago uses a specific dialogue, or script, to help you get there. While I've never tried Imago therapy, there are ways that you can use Imago skills in your everyday life. You just have to follow the three distinct steps: mirroring, validation, and empathy.
Confused? Here's what a typical Imago therapy session entails.
A couple will sit facing one another, with a therapist seated on the outside, like a mediator, says Lena Aburdene Derhally, MS, LPC, an Imago relationship therapist. "The therapist's role is almost symbolic, and they're supposed to be like Switzerland," Derhally says. The therapist is pretty much hands-off, since "once a therapist loses neutrality, it can be dangerous," she says. That can be refreshing for some people who think therapists are judgmental (FYI: they aren't).
To start, one person in a couple acts as the "sender" and the other one is the "receiver." The sender has the floor first, and can talk about their perspective on whatever the topic or issue is, Derhally says. For example, they might say, I got really upset the other day when I was trying to help you, and you raised your voice. Then, when they're done, the receiver has to summarize exactly what the sender said, without offering their own analysis or interpretation, Derhally says. They would say, So you're saying you were upset because you were trying to help, and I raised my voice. "The person listening has the hardest job, because they have to listen carefully and repeat it back to see if they got it," Sears says.
Sometimes, the listener doesn't get it. If the receiver misunderstands what their partner said, or gets defensive and critical, then the therapist would interject and help steer the conversation in the right direction, Derhally says. "You don't want someone to mirror that they were being a jerk," she says. It might sound stilted to have rigid roles like this, but that's kind of the point: By embodying these roles, you're hopefully able to get out of your own head and into a more neutral mental space where you can empathize with your partner and really communicate. "While it may look like a conversational way of talking, it's actually a learned skill," Sears says.
Imago is a great thing for people to be able to talk openly about their feelings and feel it's safe, because they're just being mirrored.
When you're having an emotional, free-for-all conversation with your partner, the slightest impetus could trigger you to get angry or upset. "That's how conflict gets out of control," Derhally says. But, when you mirror someone, the conversation always stays safe, structured, and controlled, she says. So, to make sure that couples really are hearing each other, at the end of the mirroring phase, the receiver will ask something like, Did I get that? or Is there more? If there is more, you'll go through another round of mirroring until you get to a point in which you're both on the same page.
From there, couples move into the deeper, more complicated step, which is validating, or expressing that you understand where your partner is coming from, regardless of whether or not you agree with them. So, the receiver would say something like, It makes sense that you were upset that I raised my voice, when you were just trying to help. Again, you aren't expected to agree with what your partner did, but you just have to validate their perspective, Derhally says.
The goal of all this chit chat is so that you can "cross a bridge into your partner's world," Derhally says. In other words, you go through this exercise during conflicts so that you can feel empathy. Oftentimes, after these discussions, couples feel open to expressing that there are other aspects of their life, like how they were raised, that might be contributing to how they feel and behave in the relationship, Sears says. "We want to move from a defensive power struggle, to a place where the brain can get calm enough to see where your partner is coming from," Sears says. "A lot of energy is freed up to move forward, not just fight." And after just one session, many couples feel like their connection is restored, simply because they see that their partner is willing to work on the relationship, she says.
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of Imago therapy is that it's logical, Sears says. Plus, it can work for all kinds of couples, and at any stage of a relationship. "Imago is a great thing for people to be able to talk openly about their feelings and feel it's safe, because they're just being mirrored," Derhally says. In fact, some people who have trouble finding a therapist who clicks with them might like Imago because it's so neutral.
Also, you don't have to be in the throes of a conflict-ridden, long-term relationship to try this. According to Derhally, Imago therapy can be especially valuable for people in the earlier stages of their relationship, too. "I love giving couples tools to use before conflict gets serious," she says. If going to therapy isn't your thing, you can still try these techniques at home with your partner. (Although, if you do want to find an Imago therapist, there's an online directory here.) And you can use Imago skills in literally any interaction; it doesn't have to be something you only do with your romantic partner. "I use it everywhere in my life," Sears says.
I'm not sure if I'll be patient enough to employ these techniques everywhere in my own life. But, at the very least, the next time I'm frustrated with my partner and shouting outside of an ice cream store (or wherever), I'm going to consider giving this Imago thing a try. It might be just the Jedi mind-trick my partner and I need to get on the same page.