In Soul Centred Relationship Counselling, I use a structured communication technique and a series of exercises which bring each partner a true understanding of the other and the emotional wounds they carry. Soul Centred Relationship Counselling teaches a way of communicating with your partner about what really matters:
- understanding what you need to feel loved, cared for, connected, and safe
- asking for what you need from the other
- giving what is needed to the other
- bringing you into compassionate and empathic connection
This approach is based on the work of Harville Hendricks in his development of Imago Relationship Therapy. The fundamental technique of Imago therapy is a structured dialogue. I will take you and your partner through a process of speaking and listening that creates what psychologists call “contingent communication”.
Contingent communication happens when revealing vulnerability is met with expressed empathy. The Imago dialogue allows and encourages this to happen, and teaches you how to do this for yourselves, so that eventually it becomes habitual, and deep intimacy is possible between you and your partner.
Why do we fall in love with the people we do?
According to Imago theory, you seek to recreate the conditions of your childhood so that you can use your adult competence to complete your developmental tasks and grow up — in other words, to finish your childhood. This is a simple way of describing an incredibly complex phenomenon.
Three things make you fall in love:
- You are driven to recreate the relational conditions of your childhood by bonding with someone who is sufficiently similar to your childhood carers — an “Imago match”. You will tend to fall in love with someone who matches an unconscious profile made up of positive and negative characteristics of your childhood carers. This profile is the “imago” (Latin for image, in the sense of likeness or resemblance).
- You tend to fall in love with someone who has the same wound but a different defence — the fundamental need is the same, but one will openly acknowledge it while the other will deny it. Imago therapists often find couples who are in some significant way complementary — introversion and extroversion, blame and guilt, anger and sadness, control and submission, anxiety and stoicism, or logic and intuition.
- You tend to be attracted to partners who exhibit aspects of your lost selves, the innate aspects of your personality of which you are not conscious. If you have a partner who carries the lost parts of your self, you are effectively reclaiming your lost parts by proxy.
“We are born in relationship, we are wounded in relationship, and we can be healed in relationship.” Harville Hendricks
How does it all go wrong?
PHASE 1: Romantic Love
In the first phase of a relationship, the Romantic phase, your partner often seems to know exactly what you need, and you can feel a euphoric feeling of completeness when your partner seems to supply the lost parts of your self. They may be confident where you are self doubting, they may be loving when you are unhappy, they may be calm and adaptable when you are indecisive.
PHASE 2: The Power Struggle
In the second phase of a relationship, the Power Struggle, all the qualities which you previously enjoyed in that person become irritating. Their confidence seems like arrogance, the love they give you feels smothering, and you now view their calmness as passivity. It’s important to understand that this second stage of is a necessary part of the evolution of your relationship.
Your powerful expectations of your needs being fulfilled are inevitably not met. The shift from romance to power struggle tends to begin when you make a firm commitment to the relationship. Your unconscious expectation is — “now my partner will magically meet all of my needs and love me like my parents never did!”. When this doesn’t happen, it seems as if your partner is deliberately withholding gratification, so you may have a natural impulse to retaliate.
A typical power struggle cycle might go like this —
- She is quiet; he experiences this as withdrawal.
- He tries to get a response; she experiences this as being insensitive and smothering.
- She walks away; he experiences this as abandonment.
- He explodes in rage; she experiences this as an attack.
- She fights back… and it all ends in tears and resentment.
The problem is not only the damaging nature of the conflict but also the failure to reconnect. The unmediated, destructive things which are said and done during conflict are a threat to the relationship, but the threat also lies in the inability to repair the rupture and get back to intimate connection.
In the early 20th century, psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut described a cycle of relating which occurs between parent and baby, called the attunement cycle. In this cycle, the parent attunes to the baby using the skills of empathy and positive regard. In an attuned state the parent will pick up on the cues the baby is offering and respond to the needs of the infant in a way which is good enough. However, it is inevitable that the parents sometimes misreads the signals, or has something else demanding their attention and therefore misattunes to the baby’s needs. This creates distress for the baby and there is a rupture in the relationship. Ideally, the parent, seeing this rupture, will make efforts to come back into a state of reattunement with the baby. Thus, attunement is reestablished. This cycle continues throughout childhood.
Unfortunately, many people weren’t exposed to parents who had an ability to engage with this cycle in a healthy way. For many people, misattunement came in a traumatic form, with shouting, shaming or emotional abandonment. And for many people, deliberate, empathic reattunement didn’t happen. When this important cycle wasn’t experienced correctly by either or both partners in childhood, the adult relationship can suffer greatly. Imago Dialogue Therapy helps enormously in teaching this concept and skill.
The alternative to a power struggle is to:
- compassionately ask for what you need
- and to empathically give what your partner needs
… in other words, to consciously work with your unconscious purpose to overcome your childhood adaptations. Imago therapy teaches you how to do this, in safety, and with respect.
This can then bring you to the third stage of an intimate relationship. The first stage (romantic love), is when you want the other person. The second (the power struggle), is when you want the other person to satisfy you. The third, (real love), is when you want what is best for the other person and can accept what they offer to you.
PHASE 3: Real Love
This third phase of relationship is characterised by a deep understanding that we are each responsible for meeting our own emotional needs, an awareness of the places of old wounding within each other, a commitment to avoid injuring each other in those places, and a healthy, mediated dialogue when issues arise.
Weaving in the alchemical understanding of circulatio and the archetypal feminine understanding of the cyclical nature of all things (including love relationships) we can understand that this process towards “real love” isn’t linear. It is expected that a couple will journey around these phases many times as they gradually learn to take back the expectations and illusions they’ve projected onto their partner, and take to responsibility for their own inner states.
Find out more about Imago Relationship Therapy here.