How often do I hear: “we just need to learn how to fight fair?” The most self-reported reason I hear for coming into couples counseling is “the problem is we have different styles of communicating.” The subtext for this belief is:
- we always fight
- you don’t listen to me
- you never share how you feel
- as soon as it is hard, you shut down
- I hate confrontation
- when you’re angry you resort to name calling
- you argue for the sake of arguing
- you raise your voice whenever we disagree
In my experience of fighting with my partner, the story I told myself was that arguing is a win/lose situation. I am competitive, I want to win, I need to be right, and I forget what the real stakes were, while simultaneously feeling tongue-tied, defensive, and powerless. The moment I first learned the Imago dialogue structure, I knew that I finally have a way actually sticking around for the hard conversations. The part of me that was silently screaming finally calmed and all of my reactive avoidant behaviors stilled.
I recently read a wonderful article by Ken Reid, a blogger I discovered on Medium. The article, Six Rules to Fight Me Like You Love Me seemed to channel Imago Relationship Therapy tenets. Reid’s rules are very good.
- Be friends
- Remember you are on the same team
- Put yourself in his/her shoes
- Watch your words and make a list
- Find a referee
These basic rules could make “fighting” fair. When I look at them through the lens of Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT), I love them even more. IRT is the best way I know of creating safety in a consciously connected relationship. Using our brain chemistry, Imago tools slow down the usual dance and invite both partners to try new steps. Using Imago dialogue, couples learn to communicate in the safest connected way. The goal is not winning or losing, the goal is understanding. Let’s look at Reid’s Rules through an Imago filter.
Being friends with my partner assumes that I choose this person and that there are aspects of my partner that I simply like. These very aspects may be the traits that I first fell in love with and they also may have become the things that drive me wild. John Gottman, the couples researcher, urges couples to turn towards each other as a way of creating stability in a relationship. Turning towards each other is little more than being curious, asking questions, sharing details of my day, laughing together, thanking each other, and appreciating things you say and do.
In Imago we teach our couples an appreciation dialogue in which each person recalls something you said or did. These remembrances can be as simple as making the bed, folding the laundry, or taking out the trash. They can be bigger acts such as showing support after a hard day, listening to me when I am vulnerable, or planning an adventure for us to share. That’s how friends treat each other. Befriend your beloved. After the appreciations, you will be ready to have any of the conversations you need to have.
We are on the same team
Soulmates, life partners, besties…whatever we call it, we are us! Knowing you have my back is both comforting and the ultimate expression of my trust in you. Years ago, I worked for a married couple who owned a mom and pop business. They spent every day together and then went home together. From what I could see, they had an incredible relationship. When I asked her what their secret was, she said: “We both want what is best for the other person.” And I saw them do that day in and day out.
When I support your best interests, hopes, and desires and you mine, we are each other’s, ideal advocate. I am unstoppable when you believe in me. I see you achieving your dreams when I have your back. In Imago, we recognize that our partner’s behavior is influenced by how we see them. If I see you as successful, loving, and kind then your actions reflect you as I see you. This is called the observer effect. If I see you as irritable, discontent, and useless, your actions reflect you as I see you. This is what we mean when we say: “What you put into your relationship comes back to you in an unending flow.”
Crossing the Bridge into Your World
Imago dialogue invites two people to do exactly that, cross the bridge from my world to your world. When I do this in a spirit of curiosity and wonder there is the possibility that I will understand and perhaps validate what you say or think. Being heard and “gotten” is our deepest longing. When I think that you get me, I no longer need you to agree with me. You experience my views and opinions as independent and valuable. The drive to have my way be the “right” way is replaced by the satisfaction of knowing that my way is seen by you as reasonable.
Seeing you as the whole grown adult you are, combined with the collection of memories and experiences that shaped you as a child is another way we cross the bridge into our beloved’s world. Imago invites me to see all of the ways that you are the sum of your life, including your formative childhood experiences. When I walk in your world, I remember that you may show up as your childhood self when stressed or vulnerable. In those moments, I may be able to offer you the comfort and support you longed for as a child.
Justice for you, mercy for me. It is easy to demand justice when I have been wronged and to desire mercy when I have wronged you. Apologies are often hard to offer. Apologizing is one of the most important tools we bring to our connected relationship. An apology says:
- I am sorry.
- I was wrong. I regret what I did (said.)
- Next time I will try to do…
No explanations, no justifications, no buts. This is the only apologetic path to healing and forgiveness. Forgiving you when you have hurt me lets you know that I value you and hold you in my esteem, despite the hurt. The behavior is the problem, not the person.
Using Imago dialogue gives us the opportunity to work through the most contentious disputes. Empathizing with you, understanding what happened when the offense occurred is illuminating. We often discover in the dialogue process that something I said or did was a trigger to an old feeling or experience that unconsciously surfaced for you. My empathy always paves the way to my forgiveness.
Put what you want into your relationship
If I want kindness, joy, and fun then I have to bring kindness, joy, and fun. If I bring unkind words, accusations, criticism, shame, and blame then I guarantee I will get that back from you. What we put into the space between us flourishes or festers depending on the quality of our contributions.
One of the exercises we use in the Getting the Love You Want workshop is a vision writing activity in which couples compose the aspirational vision of how you each show up in the relationship. We draft the vision of how we resolve differences, how we make difficult decisions, how we communicate on hard topics, and much more. By visioning the way we want to behave we give birth to that intentional behavior.
Find an Imago Therapist
Reid’s final rule says “find a referee.” Find a therapist. Choose a therapist that is right for you both. Find someone who can hold you both in a safe space. Find someone who invites you to be vulnerable, honest, and curious. The work you do in couples therapy is the best investment you make in your relationship. Therapy flows downstream through the generations.
Having a consciously connected relationship means it is okay to disagree, it is possible to fight fairly, and our differences are welcomed. When we put the best interests of a safe relationship first each of us gets to be authentically ourselves and remain consciously connected. And, we have the means to repair when there is a rupture in our connection. Fighting fair means loving you and liking you, even when we disagree.
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