Safety First

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about couples or family therapy? If you are a therapist, you might dread what may be your most difficult clients. If you are a layperson, you might imagine bickering, fighting, he said/she said. Who is right? Will I convince the therapist to join my side? Therapy traditionally focuses on solving problems and, in a conflict, there is likely to be a winner and a loser. There are couples who sigh at the thought of counseling as they doubt there is any hope for resolving their differences. While some may choose to terminate the relationship, we would much prefer a couple to stay together. With a whopping national divorce rate, new methods of approaching marital conflict are necessary.

Imago Relationship Therapy is on the cutting edge of couples therapy. Its increasing popularity is due to its effectiveness in healing the ruptures in relationships and making room for passion. One of the best things about Imago is its emphasis on safety. Therapy is no longer to confirm what you already know is wrong about your spouse or to convince the therapist to align with you, but a realization that whatever is going on in the relationship is equally due to both of you. It is sometimes hard to believe that the same person who was your friend when you got married has become your enemy. The only way to redevelop trust and rekindle connection is to feel safe. If you do not feel safe you cannot fully show up with your entire being in a relationship.

It is no wonder why couples who do not feel safe with each other are apprehensive about entering counseling. What husband wants to pay money to hear himself get blamed and shamed by his wife in front of a stranger? What wife wants to pay to be told it is her problem, that she is wrong, and that these are the changes she must make? This model only contributes to further discord. Creating an atmosphere of safety makes seeking assistance much more inviting. I have successfully been able to encourage otherwise unwilling parties to engage in a counseling session solely because I assured them that they would not be ridiculed or ganged up against. Safety must be primary in any counseling experience, as without it one cannot rekindle connection.

Safety is achieved by a very structured therapy session where couples are taught to dialogue with each other. The therapist acts as facilitator, making sure couples follow the process and remain in connection. They face each other, looking towards each other, not the therapist, to heal the rupture in their relationship. More important than solving a particular problem is the maintenance of connection, for once one problem is solved, another will arise. The best gift we can give to couples is tools which assist them in developing the sacred space of their relationship, so that they are able to tackle any issue that confronts them and emerge intact. As couples become dialogical, their whole way of being is safe and invites relationship.

The structure of Imago is what allows the passion to reemerge in our interpersonal relationships. The discipline of dialogue brings about centering and connection. When both parties feel safe, the walls between them that did such a great job of protecting them are no longer necessary. A wall is only needed when there is perceived danger. In addition, there is no longer a need to pry or to force insight, for when we feel safe, insight will come out. Couples are now able to share, to listen, and to heal, making the journey from conflict to compassion. When we place safety first, we contain the fire of volatility that too often plagues marriages and rekindle the flame of passion.

Rabbi Slatkin is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor and a Certified IMAGO Relationship Therapist in practice with The Imago Center of  Washington DC, serving clients in the Baltimore metropolitan area. He works with couples and families and is available for lectures and seminars on the secrets of interpersonal relationships.