by guest blogger Harville Hendrix, PhD, clinical pastoral counselor, educator, public lecturer, author, and couples’ therapist
It’s hard to sustain love through the day-to-day grind of full-time jobs and the needs of children, pets, or aging parents. At times, tending to your closest relationship can seem like just another duty in a long list of weekly chores. Without trust that your partner will reciprocate your efforts, it can also seem like a risk to be the one to make the first attempt. From years of leading workshops with thousands of couples with my wife of more than 25 years, Helen, with whom I created the Imago therapy movement, I can say with certainty that a little investment (from your heart, not your wallet)—small changes in the way you treat your spouse—will not only lead to his or her happiness, but also to warmly returned, mutual support that will cushion you from your own life’s daily blows and demands. Here’s my three-step plan for saving relationships:
- Be curious! Instead of lavishing money and attention on your spouse a few times a year, lavish curiosity on them. Adopt an approach of open, engaged interest. When you’re curious, you learn new things about your mate—his or her desires, fears, and struggles. You’ll hear secrets, wishes, regrets. You’ll learn practical things, such as what they really would like to do for their birthday. Even if you’ve known each other for years, you’d be surprised how much there still is to know about each other. In the hundreds of workshops Helen and I have presented over the years, we continue to be amazed at how frequently we hear, “I never knew that about him!” or “I just heard this amazing story!” from spouses who have been married for 1, 10, or 50 years.
- Listen. I mean really listen. One of the best strategies I know to achieve a ‘state of curiosity’ is to spend a small amount of time each day simply listening to your mate. That is, really listening. What do I mean by this? Think truthfully about what “listening” typically looks like for you. Are you watching TV on the couch half attentive while your wife unloads about her pressures at work? Are you busy making dinner while your husband tells you excitedly about an interesting conversation he had that day? We all do this. But this kind of passive, distracted listening offers little benefit, and can damage your relationship in the long run.
- Respect each other’s need for attention. Sometimes, with our partners, we behave towards each other the way young children do with their parents. Just as a child tugs on her mother’s skirt to get her attention and tell her about the fascinating things she saw in school that day, we are constantly seeking affirmation from our significant others. We want to know that they notice us. We want to see that they are interested in us. At the core, we want to feel that we exist by having the person we care about witness our own lives. Many of us can remember viscerally moments when we felt tuned out, shut down, or criticized by our parents. Subtle things that we do in relationships can mimic these moments and inadvertently dredge up childhood pain. When a spouse appears repeatedly distracted, harried, or dismissive as you attempt to tell them things that feel important to you, memories of childhood pain, administered again and again by the person you love, add up to a level of fear, resentment, and anxiety around him or her.
Change can only come through replacing frequent inattentive communication with less frequent, but more thoughtful, conscious, curious communication. When you do connect, really take the time to listen before responding. Reflect on what your partner says and relay your understanding back to him or her. Don’t jump immediately to dispensing advice or bringing up your own related ideas. Demonstrate with your body language, your attentive gaze, and the questions you ask that you have really heard what’s been said.
Ultimately, I’ve found that this whole process is kind of, well, sexy for couples. Something about reexperiencing that your partner is really present and there with you reignites the feelings you had when you were new to each other. So don’t be surprised when this technique leads to new techniques between the sheets.
Harville Hendrix, Ph. D. co-created with his wife Helen LaKelly Hunt, Ph.D. Imago Relationship Therapy, a therapy for couples now practiced by over 2000 certified therapists in over 30 countries. He and Helen have authored nine books on intimate relationships and parenting, including Harville’s New York Times bestseller, Getting the Love You Want, which has sold over two million copies. Referred to by Oprah Winfrey as the “Marriage Whisperer,” Harville has more than 40 years of experience as a therapist, educator, clinical trainer, and public speaker and is known internationally for his work with couples. Learn more at harvillehendrix.com