"GETTING THE LOVE YOU WANT" by Harville Hendrix, Ph. D. 


Additional thought of Graham White in highlights.

Truth does not require genius to comprehend.  We teach grade school children science that was at the forefront of University at one time.  The challenge is to create the language that makes it accessible to everyone.  (Although the information in this book is excellent, this book hasn't quite accomplished that.)

Although it contains a lot of helpful information, this book is written more like a psychology text-book than a self-help book.  I have attempted to pull it together in a way that makes it easy to understand and apply to your life.

Much of the latter part of the book and all of the tools and exercises have not been included.  I recommend anyone who wants to improve their relationships to purchase the book and go over the exercises together.  You may also locate an "Imago" therapist trained in the process here: www.imagorelationships.org/directory 


The purpose of this synopsis is not to cover all the information in the book, it is to give you a sense of the material.  If the information contained in this synopsis resonates with you-

Buy This Book


In order to be effective, marriage therapy can't dwell on surface issues like money and roles and sexual incompatibility.  In order to be effective, marital therapy has to address fundamental conflicts.  The majority of couples quit therapy somewhere between the third and fifth appointments, which is about the time it takes for unconscious issues to begin to emerge and for people to begin experiencing some anxiety.  

Some couples claim that therapy is making matters worse and fire the therapist.  Others can't find time to keep their appointments.


We choose our partners for two basic reasons:  (1) they have both the positive and negative qualities of the people who raised us, and (2) they compensate for positive parts of our being that were cut off in childhood.  We enter the relationship with the unconscious assumption that our partner will become a surrogate parent and make up for all the deprivation of our childhood.  All we have to do to be healed is to form a close, lasting relationship.

After a time we realize that our strategy is not working.  We are "in love," but not whole.  We decide that the reason our plan is not working is that our partner is deliberately ignoring our needs.  They know exactly what we want, and when and how we want it, but for some reason they are deliberately withholding it from us.  This makes us angry, and for the first time we begin to see our partner's negative traits.  We then compound the problem by projecting our own denied negative traits onto them.  As conditions deteriorate, we decide that the best way to force our partner to satisfy our needs is to be unpleasant and irritable, just as we were in the cradle.  If we yell loud enough and long enough, we believe our partners will come rescue us.  And finally, what gives the power struggle its toxicity is the underlying unconscious belief that, if we cannot entice, coerce or seduce our partners into taking care of us, we will face the fear greater than all others - the fear of death (the death of our relationships).

Underneath it all, both are searching for a way to regain their wholeness and they are still holding on to the belief that their partners have the power to make them healthy and whole, but now the partner is perceived as withholding love so they begin to hurt each other.  Delight has turned into hatred, and goodwill has degenerated into a battle of the wills.  There is very little difference between romantic love and a power struggle.  

Given that we enter our love relationships bearing emotional scars from childhood and that we unwittingly choose mates who resemble our parents it seems that marriage is destined to repeat, not repair, our early misfortunes.

By analyzing a couple's chronic complaints of each other it is possible to draw a pretty accurate picture of what they didn't get in childhood.

"You never...!"  "You always...!"  "When are you ever going to...!"  At the heart of these accusations is a disguised plea for the very things they didn't get in childhood--for affection, for affirmation, for protection, for independence, for attachment.  

We are born in relationship, we are wounded in relationship, and we can be healed in relationship.  Indeed, we cannot be fully healed outside of a relationship. 

The two individuals in a relationship need to let go of the illusion that they are the center of the universe and learn to see each other as equal partners.  When two individuals surrender their centrality, something unexpected occurs - the relationship itself becomes the center.  

It is not the therapist that heals a relationship, but the couple.  The individual can begin understanding themselves, their wounds and their needs through the relationship.  

Transference occurs between couples in a love relationship.  During the romantic love stage, this is a positive transference.  You imagine that your partner has many of your own good qualities and also the positive traits of the people who influenced you most deeply in childhood.  Later on, as conflict emerges, you begin to project negative traits onto your partner.  This is typically when marriages fall apart.  "You've changed.  You're not the person I married," you say to each other.  In reality, what has changed is not your partner, but the nature of the information you're projecting onto your partner.

When you get to the level of validation and empathy, you go beyond mere contact to connection and then, ultimately, to communion.  You may say, "I've learned that my view of the world is no more true than my spouse's point of view.  In fact, when we combine our views, we create something more valid than either one of us can create alone.  We both give something up, only to gain a great deal more.

It appears that each one of us is compulsively searching for a mate with a very particular set of positive and negative personality traits.

We have two ways of relating to our experiences, one uses our "old brain" and one uses our "new brain".  The old brain is the part of your brain that reacts.  The only thing your old brain seems to care about is whether a particular person is someone to: (1) nurture, (2) be nurtured by, (3) have sex with, (4) run away from, (5) submit to, or (6) attack.

The new brain is the part of your brain that attempts to reason.

The old brain has no sense of linear time.  Today, tomorrow, and yesterday do not exist; everything that was, still is.  Understanding this basic fact about the nature of your unconscious may help explain why you sometimes have feelings within your marriage that seem alarmingly out of proportion to the events that triggered them.

We are looking for someone who has the predominant character traits of the people who raised us.  The ultimate reason you fell in love with your mate is not that your mate was young and beautiful, had an impressive jog, had a "point value" equal to yours, or had a kind disposition.  You fell in love because your old brain believed that it had finally found the ideal candidate to make up for the psychological and emotional damage you experienced in childhood.

Even if you were fortunate enough to grow up in a safe, nurturing environment, you still bear invisible scars from childhood, because from the very moment you were bon you were a complex, dependent creature with a never-ending cycle of needs.  Freud correctly labeled us "insatiable beings."  And no parents, no matter how devoted, are able to respond perfectly to all of the changing needs.

A child's success at feeling both distinct from and connected to its mother has a profound impact on all later relationships.  If the child is fortunate, he will be able to make clear distinctions between himself and other people but still feel connected to them; he will have fluid boundaries that he can open or close at will.  A child who has painful experiences early in life will either feel cut off from those around him or will attempt to fuse with them, not knowing where he leaves off and others begin.  This lack of firm boundaries will be a recurring problem in marriage.

Tragically, we wound our children by unwillingly passing on our own childhood wounds, the emotional inheritance of generations.  We either overcompensate for what we didn't get from our parents or blindly re-create the same painful situations.

Infants cry - the cry for every need they have, but if the caretakers can't figure out what is wrong or if the withhold their attentions for fear of spoiling the babe, the child experiences a primitive anxiety: the world is not a save place.  Since it has no way of taking care of itself and no sense of delayed gratification, it believes that getting the outside world to respond instantly to its needs is truly a matter of life and death.

When our partner is hostile or merely silent, an alarm from infancy is triggered that fills us with the same fear.  It is this alarm that plays a key role in our marriage.

It is our responsibility as parents to train our children to learn the key to success in life - delayed gratification.

We all want to succeed.

We all want to avoid failure.

No one is stupid or lazy.

If all we're experiencing is failure we quit trying to succeed.

The goal of parenting is to gently, but firmly break the news that life is difficult - but that "You can do it!"

Children are convinced they will be and are who you tell them they are.  Why not tell them they'll conquer whatever they take on...because then they will.

We must separate ourselves from any negative image our parents created once we are adults and no longer require their protection.

As toddlers, children can have their independence thwarted by an insecure, overprotective mother or father.  For a reason deep rooted in the parent's own childhood, they need the child to remain dependent.  

As an adult, this child can overcompensate by becoming an "isolator", a person who unconsciously pushes others away.  They want the freedom to come and go as they please, never being "pinned down".  Underneath is the little girl who was not allowed to satisfy her natural need for independence.

On the opposite extreme are children who grew up with parents who pushed them away and were always too busy.  The parents were not equipped to deal with any needs but their own and their children grow up feeling emotionally abandoned.  They grow up to be "fusers," people who have an insatiable need for closeness.  Fusers want to do everything together all the time.  They crave physical affection and reassurance and they often need to stay in constant verbal contact.  Underneath all this clinging behavior is a child who needed more time on a parent's lap.

Ironically, fusers and isolators tend to grow up and marry each other, thus beginning an infuriating game of push and pull that leaves neither partner satisfied.

As you journeyed through childhood, you went through one developmental stage after another, and the way your caretakers responded to your changing needs greatly affected your emotional health.  More than likely, they coped with one stage of your growth better than another.  They may have taken excellent care of you when you were an infant, for example, but fallen apart at your first temper tantrum.  Or they may have been delighted by your inquisitive nature as a toddler but been threatened by your attraction to your opposite-sex parent when you were five or six.  You may have grown up with caretakers who met most of your needs, or only some of them, but, like all children, you grew up knowing the anguish of unmet needs and these needs followed you into your marriage.

Each society has a unique collection of practices, laws, beliefs, and values that children need to absorb.  This indoctrination process goes on in every family in every society.  There is a universal understanding that, unless limits are placed on the individual, the individual becomes a danger to the group.

Even though our parents had our best interests at heart, the overall message handed down to us was a chilling one.  There were certain thoughts and feelings we could not have, certain natural behaviors that we had to extinguish, and certain talents and aptitudes we had to deny.  In thousands of ways, both subtly and overtly, our parents gave us the message that they approved of only a part of us.  In essence, we were told that we could not be whole and exist in the culture.

When you were young, there were probably many times when you were angry at your caretakers.  More than likely, it was a sentiment that got little support.  Your angry feelings, your sexual feelings, and a host of other "antisocial" thoughts and feelings were pushed deep inside of you and were not allowed to see the light of day.

Tools of Repressions

In their attempts to repress certain thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, parents use various techniques.  Sometimes they issue clear-cut directives: "You don't really think that."  "Big boys don't cry."  "Don't touch yourself there!"  "I never want to hear you say that again!"  "We don't act that way in this family!"  Or, like the mother in the department store, they scold, threaten, or spank.  Much of the time, they mold their children through a subtler process of invalidation - they simply choose not to see or reward certain things.

For example, if their little boy comes into the room lugging a heavy toy, they might say, "What a strong little boy you are!"  But if their daughter comes in carrying the same toy, they might caution, "Be careful of your pretty dress."

The way that parents influence their children most deeply, however, is by example.  Children instinctively observe the choices their parents make, the freedoms and pleasures they allow themselves, the talents they develop, the abilities they ignore, and the rules they follow.  All of this had a profound effect on their children: "This is how we live.  This is how to get through life."  Whether children accept their parents' model or rebel against it, this early socialization plays a significant role in mate selection and, as we will soon see, is often a hidden source of tension in married life.

We are attracted to mates who have our parent's positive and negative traits, and typically the negative traits are more influential.  When I ask clients to compare the personality traits of their spouses with the personality traits of their parents, there is a close correlation between parents and partners and with few exceptions, the traits that match up most closely are the negative traits!

Why do we do this?  Our old brain is trying to re-establish a connection with the parts of our parents that we haven't resolved.  We have such an intense knowledge of who represents our parents that when we meet someone who has their same qualities, we are instantly attracted - feeling like we have known them all of our life.  This is part of the process of feeling like we're "falling-in-love".

We intuitively pick up much more about people than we are aware of.  When we meet strangers, we instantly register the way they move, the way they seek or avoid eye contact, the clothes they wear, their characteristic expressions, the way they fix their hair, the speed at which they talk, the amount of time it takes them to respond to a question - we record all of these characteristics and a hundred more in a matter of minutes.

Just by looking at people, we can absorb vast amounts of information.  A truck driver told me that he could tell whether or not he wanted to pick up a particular hitchhiker even though he was cruising at 65 mph.  "And I'm rarely wrong," he said.  If the primary reason we select our mates is that they resemble our caretakers, it is inevitable that they are going to reinjure some very sensitive wounds. 

If we marry what are essentially our parents, we have even less of a chance to grow beyond who they are than people who marry into a family radically different from their own.

"Opposites attract."  When choose someone who is our opposite, we are trying to reclaim a lost part of ourselves.

Fostering An Illusion

Most of us go to a lot of trouble in the early stages of a relationship to appear to be ideal mates.  At first the show is well intentioned, but we just can't keep up the charade.


To some degree, we all use denial as a coping tool.  Whenever life presents us with a difficult or painful situation, we have a tendency to want to ignore reality and create a more palatable fantasy.  

The Power Struggle

When does romantic love end and the power struggle begin?  For most couples there is a noticeable change in the relationship about the time they make a definite commitment to each other.  As soon as we start living together, we assume that our mates will conform to a very specific, but rarely expressed set of behaviors.  Since neither has shared expectations before getting married, these can develop into a source of tension.

Far more important than these conscious or semiconscious expectations are the unconscious ones people bring to marriage.  The are going to love them the way their parents never did.  Their partners are going to do it all - satisfy unmet childhood needs, complement lost self-parts, nurture them in a consistent and loving way, and be eternally available to them.  These are the same expectations that fueled the excitement of romantic love, but now there is less of a desire to reciprocate.  After all, we marry to have our needs met, not to take care of our partner's needs.  Once the relationship seems secure, a switch is triggered in the old brain that activates all of our unfulfilled wishes from when we were an infant.

Our old brain says, "I've been good long enough to ensure this person will be sticking around for a while.  Let's see the payoff."  Then we take a big step back and wait for the dividends of being together.

Why Have You Changed?

As the illusion of romantic love slowly erodes, husbands and wives begin to:

  1. Stir up each other's repressed behaviors and feelings.

  2. Reinjure each other's childhood wounds.

  3. Project their own negative traits onto each other.

All of these interaction are unconscious.  All we know is that we feel confused, angry, anxious, depressed, and unloved.  And it is only natural that we blame all this unhappiness on our partners.  We haven't changed - we're the same people we used to be!  It's our partners who have changed!

In despair, we begin to use negative tactics to force our partners to be more loving.  We withhold our affection and become emotionally distant.  We become irritable and critical.  We attack and blame: "Why don't you...?"  "Why do you always...?"  "How come you never...?"  

What makes us believe that hurting our partner will make them behave more pleasantly?  Why don't we simply tell each other in plain English that we want more affection or attention or lovemaking or freedom or whatever it is that we are craving?

When we were babies, we didn't smile sweetly at our mothers to get them to take care of us.  We didn't pinpoint our discomfort by putting  it into words.  We simply opened our mouths and screamed.  And it didn't take us long to learn that, the louder we screamed, the quicker they came.  We learned that when we are frustrated, we need to provoke the people around us by being as unpleasant as possible until someone comes to our rescue.

When we don't tell each other what we want and constantly criticize each other for missing the boat, it's no wonder that the spirit of love and cooperation disappears.

Stages of the Power Struggle

When you are immersed in a power struggle, life seems chaotic.  You have no reference points, no sense of when it all started or how it will end.  But from a distant perspective, the power struggle can be seen to follow a predictable course, one that happens to parallel the well-documented stages of grief.  What we are experiencing is the death of the illusion of romantic love.

First comes the shock, that horrifying moment of truth when a window opens and a wrenching thought invades your consciousness:  "This is not the person I thought I had married."  At that instant you assume that married life is going to be a continuation of the loneliness and pain of childhood; the long-anticipated healing is not to be.

After the shock comes denial.  The disappointment is so great that you don't allow yourself to see the truth.  You do your best to see your partner's negative traits in a positive light.  But eventually the denial can no longer be sustained and you feel betrayed.  Either your partner has changed drastically since the days when you were first in love, or you have been deceived all along about his or her true nature.  You are in pain, and the degree of your pain is the degree of the disparity between your earlier fantasy of your partner and your partner's emerging reality.

If you stick it out beyond the angry stage of the power struggle, some of the venom drains away, and you enter the fourth stage, bargaining.  This stage goes something like this:  "If you will give up your drinking, I will be more interested in sex."  Or "If you let me spend more days sailing, I will spend more time with the children."  Marriage therapists can unwittingly prolong this stage of the power struggle if they help couples negotiate behavioral contracts without getting to the root of the problem.

The last stage of the power struggle is despair.  When couples reach this final juncture, they no longer have any hopes offending happiness or love within the relationship; the pain has gone on too long.  At this point, approximately half the couples withdraw the last vestiges of hope and file for divorce.  Most of those who stay married create what is called a "parallel" marriage and try to find all their happiness outside the relationship. A very few, perhaps as few as 5% of all couples, find a way to resolve the power struggle and go on to create a deeply satisfying relationship.

We choose our partners for two basic reasons:  (1) they have both the positive and negative qualities of the people who raised us, and (2) they compensate for positive parts of our being that were cut off in childhood.  We enter the relationship with the unconscious assumption that our partner will become a surrogate parent and make up for all the deprivation of our childhood.  All we have to do to be healed is to form a close, lasting relationship.

After a time we realize that our strategy is not working.  We are "in love," but not whole.  We decide that the reason our plan is not working is that our partner is deliberately ignoring our needs.  They know exactly what we want, and when and how we want it, but for some reason they are deliberately withholding it from us.  This makes us angry, and for the first time we begin to see our partner's negative traits.  We then compound the problem by projecting our own denied negative traits onto them.  As conditions deteriorate, we decide that the best way to force our partner to satisfy our needs is to be unpleasant and irritable, just as we were in the cradle.  If we yell loud enough and long enough, we believe our partners will come rescue us.  And finally, what gives the power struggle its toxicity is the underlying unconscious belief that, if we cannot entice, coerce or seduce our partners into taking care of us, we will face the fear greater than all others - the fear of death (the death of our relationships).

Underneath it all, both individuals are searching for a way to regain their wholeness and they are still holding on to the belief that their partners have the power to make them healthy and whole, but now the partner is perceived as withholding love so they begin to hurt each other.  Delight has turned into hatred, and goodwill has degenerated into a battle of the wills.  There is very little difference between romantic love and a power struggle.  


We need to begin using our "new brain" in order to become skilled in nondefensive approach to criticism.  When we do, we will make an important discover: in most interactions with our spouse, we are actually safer when we lower our defenses than we keep them engaged, because our partner becomes an ally, not an enemy.

Ten Characteristics of a Conscious Marriage

  1. We realize that our love relationship has a hidden purpose - the healing of childhood wounds.

  2. We create a more accurate image of our partner.  We gradually let go of illusions and begin to see more of our partner's truth.  We see our partner not as our savior, but as another wounded human being, struggling to be healed.

  3. We take responsibility for communicating our needs and desires to our partner.  In an unconscious marriage, we cling to the childhood belief that our partner automatically intuits our needs.  In an conscious marriage we accept the fact that, in order to understand each other, we have to develop clear channels of communication.

  4. You begin to do things consciously, training yourself to behave in a more constructive manner.

  5. In an unconscious marriage, you assume that your partner's role in life is to take care of your needs magically.  In a conscious marriage, you let go of this narcissistic view and divert more and more of your energy to meeting your partner's needs.

  6. You acknowledge your negative traits.  You accept responsibility for the things that you need to work on and lessen your tendency to project them onto your partner.

  7. You find sources other than your partner to meet your needs.

  8. You search within yourself for your areas of need and begin to grow instead of relying on your partner to support you where you're weak.

  9. You work on connecting to the people around you.

  10. You accept the difficulty of creating a good marriage.  In an unconscious marriage, you believe that the way to have a good marriage is to pick the right partner.  In a conscious marriage you realize you have to be the right partner.  You realize that a good marriage requires commitment, discipline, and the courage to grow and change; marriage is hard work.

Becoming a Lover

It's human nature to want a life without effort, but creating a lasting friendship takes time and energy.  A friendship evolves slowly over time and requires thoughtfulness, sensitivity, and patience.  When our mate starts to complain about some of our faults, we think of them as critical or bitchy.  It doesn't occur to us that maybe they're right!

We have a desire to live life as children.  This wishful thinking finds its ultimate expression in marriage.  We don't want to accept responsibility for getting our needs met; we want to "fall in love" with a superhuman mate and live happily ever after.

We expect life's rewards to come to us easily and without sacrifice.  We want the simple act of getting married to cure all our ills.  We want to live in a fairy tale where the beautiful princess meets the handsome prince and they live happily ever after.

It is only when we see marriage as a vehicle for change and self-growth that we can begin to satisfy our unconscious yearnings.

Couples live for two, ten, twenty - as many as forty years inside a restrictive, growth-inhibiting relationship.  With so many years inv3ested in habituated behaviors, it's only natural that we should experience a great reluctance to change.

At some point, we discover some aspect of our partner that we once thought was highly desirable is beginning to annoy us.  This is because the traits we don't have weren't developed in us because they were taboo.  After a while, those old feelings begin to surface and take over.

Most couples have a fight they have had so many times that they know their parts by heart.  When considering risking new behaviors in order to save or experience a better relationship, there is a part of us that would rather divorce, break up the family, and divide up all the possessions rather than acquire a new style of relating.



Rather than focusing on the problems in the relationship, accept that you're at where you're at and begin defining where you would like to move towards.  List a series of positive statements beginning with the word "we" that describe the kind of relationship you would like to have.  Once the vision is defined, read it together daily as a form of meditation.  Gradually, through the principle of repetition, the vision will become imbedded in the unconscious.

A husband and wife often react to the no-exit decision in opposite ways.  Typically, one partner feels relieved; the other feels threatened.  One reason your partner is so needy of your attention is that you're not emotionally available.  When you make a decision to stay together and work on you marriage, your partner will feel less obligated to chase after you.  If you can create a finite amount of time on the process you are doing (three months), most people find they can cope.

Why do so many couple creating exits from their marriage (any activity that takes you away from the marriage)?  In time, we realize that our partner is committed to their own salvation, not ours and we feel betrayed - and naturally, we get angry and distant.  We begin looking to satisfy our needs in activities separate from our partner, this includes activities we do at home that we don't do together.

The other reason couples avoid intimacy is fear, specifically the fear of pain.  On an unconscious level, we can react to our partner as they are our enemy.

Closing The Exits

No matter how valid the reasons are for the avoidance behavior, it is important in the initial stages of the healing process that we gradually draw our energy back into the relationship.  Until they close the exits, we will continue to seek pleasure in inappropriate places.  When our needs are diverted to our children or our jobs or to substitute addictions, it's not always apparent what is wrong with the marriage.  The basic problem areas need to be defined before they can be resolved.

It is harder to close the dozens of small exits in our relationship than it is for us to close catastrophic exits; in other words, it is harder for us to cut down on TV viewing for three months than to agree to give up the option of divorce.  Part of the reason is that closing the small exits deprives us of pleasure and as long as our partner is not giving us what we want, we are reluctant to let go of our other areas of gratification.  Another reason for resistance is that as we become more focused on each other, we often have to come face to face with our repressed disappointment, anger and fear.  We have minimized the degree of unhappiness by distracting ourselves with outside activities.  We didn't poke holes in our relationships casually or maliciously - we did it for the important needs of gratification and safety.

What is an exit and what is an essential activity or a valid form of recreation?  The way to find out is to ask yourself the following question: "Is one of the reasons I'm doing this activity to avoid spending time with my spouse?"  Most people know whether or not this is the case.

Rather than criticizing your partner, it is essential that you claim your own exits.  This requires soul searching, honesty and the courage to put into words the feelings that have been expressed in behavior.  Make a list of the activities that you do and rank them according to the difficulty from easiest to hardest of what would be easiest to give up.  

Childhood issues do not present themselves to be resolved in one tidy package.  They come to the surface slowly, usually the more superficial ones first.  Sometimes a problem has to present itself a number of times before it is even identified as a significant issue.  Sometimes a psychological need is so deeply buried that it is only triggered by a crisis or the demands of a particular stage of life.  Ultimately it takes a lifetime together for a couple to identify and heal the majority of their childhood wounds.


Once a couple has made a commitment to stay together and to take part in a program of marital therapy, the next logical step is to help them become allies, not enemies.  It's fruitless to take two people who are angry with each other and try to lead them along a path of spiritual and psychological growth - they spend to much time trying to knock each other off the road.  In order to make the surest and fastest progress toward your relationship vision, you need to become friends and helpmates.

Restart The Courting Process That Attracted You In The First Place

Love and excitement in a relationship are created through an unpredictable schedule of rewards - courting.  When couples have exuberant fun together they identify each other as a source of pleasure and safety, which intensifies their emotional bond, but when a husband and wife have been treating each other like enemies for five years, it's going to feel strange to start romancing each other again.

One place to begin is to just agree to do something fun and not talk about or bring up anything else that's going on.  Treat it like you did when you were dating and don't let your current baggage come up.  The challenge may come from a partner who experienced a great deal of repression growing up.  They will find it harder to think up anything fun to simply go out and do.

Isolators don't seem to have any needs or desires.  What they are really doing is hiding behind the psychic shield they erected as children to protect themselves from over-bearing parents.  They discovered early in life that one way to maintain a feeling of autonomy around their intrusive parents was to keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves.  When they deprived their parents of this valuable information, their parents were less able to invade their space.  After a while, many isolators do the ultimate disappearing act and hide their feelings from themselves.

It is not enough for a man and woman to understand the unconscious motivations of marriage; insight alone does not heal childhood wounds.  Nor is it sufficient to introduce behavioral changes into relationships; without understanding the reasons behind the behaviors, couples experience only limited growth.  The most effective form of therapy is one that combines both.  As you learn more about your unconscious motivations and transform these insights into supportive behaviors, you can create a more conscious and ultimately more rewarding relationship.

Increasing Your Knowledge Of Yourself And Your Partner

We like to believe that the way we see the world is the way the world is.  When our partner disagrees with us, it is tempting to think that they are ill-informed or have a distorted point of view.  How else could they be so wrong?

Instead of seeing your partner's differing views as a source of conflict, view them as a source of knowledge: "What are you seeing that I am not seeing?" "What have you learned that I have yet to learn?"  With this perspective, even if it turns out you're right and they're wrong, they will be much more inclined to listen to what you have to say.  (And we're most prone to criticize things we ourselves have issues with and are sensitive to).  Acquiring this information depends to a large degree on your willingness to value and learn from each other's perceptions.  Unfortunately, most people deliver information in an accusatory manner, immediately arousing our partner's defenses.

Principle 1:  Most of your partner's criticisms of you have some basis in reality.

Principle 2: Many of your repetitious, emotional criticisms of your partner are disguised statements of your own unmet needs.

Ask yourself the question: "In what way is my criticism of my partner also true of me?"  "I am disorganized in this specific way; my partner is disorganized in that specific way."

Principle 3: Repetitive, emotional criticisms of your partner may be because of a repressed part of yourself.

This is where you criticize someone for being something you secretly wish you could be.


Even though you and your partner speak English, everyone speaks a different "language".  If you've ever tried to get someone explain something technical to you you'll understand this.  They're certain they told you exactly what the problem or process was and you're not certain a single word they spoke was English.

Besides the problem of language, there are other roadblocks to communication.  Perhaps the most common mechanism is denial: you simply refuse to believe what your partner has to say.  When our partner behaves in a ways that conflicts with our own interest, we deny that they actually feel the way they do.  We condemn them, or try to explain how they really feel something different.  Unfortunately, this is exactly what happen to our partners in childhood.  In dozens of ways, our parents told us: "Only some of your feelings and behaviors are permitted."  Instead of helping our partners repair this emotional damage, we are adding further injury.

Most of us rarely listen to what other people are saying.  When we should be listening, we are responding to the impact of what we are hearing.  In other words, we are listening to ourselves react.  If you want to help your partner listen to you, fulfill their need to be listened to.  If you haven't done this for years, you have a lot of listening to do!

Mirroring, Validation & Empathy

An example, "I don't enjoy cooking dinner for you when you don't seem to appreciate all the effort involved."  Your partner restates the sentence in his or her own words and then asks if the message was received correctly: "Let me see if I got it.  You find it hard to put the effort into cooking dinner every night when I don't show my appreciation for all that you've done.  Did I get it?"  You repeat this process until you partner clearly understands what you mean to say.

Then your partner deepens the communication by asking if you have anything more to add to the topic, typically by using the words "Is there more?"  You then add another piece of the message, which your partner paraphrases and confirms.  "It takes me at least an hour to cook dinner, and I do my best to make it attractive and delicious.  I feel deflated when you eat without comment."  You continue with this process until you feel satisfied that you've conveyed your full message and that your partner has received it accurately.  In my work with couples, I have found that this "tell me more" part of the mirroring exercise is one of the keys to its success.  When you are encouraged to convey the entirety of a thought or feeling to your partner, your partner is given enough information to begin to comprehend your point of view.  Sharing just one sentence or two rarely provides enough data.  There is a tremendous satisfaction in simply being heard, in knowing that your message has been received exactly as you sent it.

Practice sending and receiving simple statements.  It is a novel, exhilarating experience.  It is such an unexpected luxury to have your partner's full attention.  We want more than to be heard - we want to be validated.  We don't want people to agree with us as much as we want our point of view validated.

We are prepared to aggressively defend our reality.  It is because it is connected to our fear of loss of self.  If I have to see it your way, I will have to surrender my way.  If I feel your experience, I will have to invalidate mine.  If what you say is true, then what I say must be false.  But if we can muster the courage to suspend our own view for a moment, something miraculous happens.  First, a feeling of safety comes over the person we're talking to.  Because the way they see the world is no longer being challenged, they begin to lower their defenses.  At the same time, they become more willing to acknowledge a portion of their reality.  Because you have been willing to abandon your position, they are more willing to let go of theirs.  To your mutual surprise, a drawbridge begins to descend on its rusty hinges and you have your first experience with connection.


The third step in the dialogue is empathy.  It is only natural that empathy would follow on the heels of validation.  If you listen carefully to your partner, understand the totality of what he or she is saying, and then succeed in stretching out of your own worldview to affirm the logic behind your partner's words, you are poised to go one step farther and become empathetic.  "Given the fact that you see things the way that you do, it makes sense to me that you would feel hurt."  For some people, validation of their thought processes is more important to them than validation of their feelings.  But for others, empathy is the key to their healing.  Once someone affirms their raw emotions, they begin to feel loved and whole.

Women tend to value empathy more than men.  At least at first.  If you stop and think about it, this makes sense.  Women are allowed to be freer with their emotions than men.  Although this is beginning to change, many men still believe it is unmanly to disclose their emotions, especially their tender feelings or feelings of fear and weakness.  So if men feel uncomfortable showing their feelings to others in the first place, you can hardly expect them to empathize with their partners without worrying that one of their own feelings may slip out.

Problems come up when we react differently to similar events.  If, for example, your partner is afraid of flying and you try to tell them their fear is irrational.  What's worse is when one partner is the cause of strong negative emotions and the other doesn't understand or feel the same way.  Get ready for a fight!  The instinctual response is to defend yourself and then counterattack.  The more stressful the situation, the harder it is to work together, but the more profound the reward if you manage to block your reactionary response and succeed in mirroring, validating, and empathizing in the heat of battle.  

Isn't Dialoguing With Your Partner Tedious?

As helpful as the Couple's Dialoged may be, people have an almost universal reaction to it: "Do we really have to go through all those steps in order to communicate something meaningful?"   Not if all you're seeking is effective communication, then mirroring alone may be sufficient.  But if you want to move beyond communication to communion, then you need to include all three steps.  That said, I don't want to diminish how time-consuming and artificial the Couple's Dialogue can seem.  

There are times in our lives when we have to unlearn the things that have worked for us for so long.  There is no doubt that this is difficult.  You may need to abandon some deeply ingrained habits and adopt a formulaic way of relating.  Much of the time, it will actually feel forced.  But as you begin to experience some of its benefits, you will become less resistant.  Eventually - and it may take years - you will have transformed your relationship to the point that you will be able to abandon the exercise all together.  When that day arrives, you will be communing, not just conversing.

A Word Of Caution

You will find yourself going through the emotions of dating all over again - which means there is a let-down coming because your partner isn't actually becoming the "perfect partner" you're envisioning.  They will go from "having it all" to letting you down and you will want to respond with anger and withdrawal because they've ruined the image you've created of them.  

Healing Love Has To Come From Outside Oneself

The love we are seeking has to come not just from another person within the context of a safe, intimate relationship, but from someone so similar to our parents that our unconscious mind has them fused.  This appears to be the only way to erase the pains of childhood.  We may enjoy the attention of other people, but we are looking for the love we felt we wanted and never received from our original caregivers.

We either work it out with our parents or we work it out with a partner who is like our parent.  Either way, they have to change from what hurts us to what supports us - a tall order for anyone.  This is why we feel so betrayed - "You knew what I was like when you married me, now you expect me to be someone completely different!"  "Um....yeah, so...do you mind?"

We don't even realize we're doing it, and we all do it.  Sometimes we even have a plan for how we're going to change our partner after we marry them, changing them into the perfect partner-parent we always dreamed of having.


Turning Theory Into Practice

The unanswered question is how can you overcome your limitations so that you can meet your partner's needs?  Write down a list of specific behaviors that would help you feel more cared for.

"You never...!"  "You always...!"  "When are you ever going to...!"  At the heart of these accusations is a disguised plea for the very things they didn't get in childhood--for affection, for affirmation, for protection, for independence, for attachment.  To come up with a list of requests, you simply need to isolate the desire hidden in your chronic frustration.  Then you can convert these general desires into specific behaviors that will help satisfy those desires.  This list of positive, specific requests will become the ongoing curriculum of your relationship.

  • Identify a chronic criticism, convert it into a desire, and then describe a positive, specific behavior that would satisfy that desire.  

  • One partner comes up with a list of requests, which the other partner is free to honor or not.  Requests are to be potentially difficult changes in behavior around points of contention.

  • These requests must be converted into specific, measurable, doable activities so the partner knows specifically what they must do.  

  • Taking action on the request must not rely on the other partner promising to do something in return.

  • Now look at each other's list and rank each item according to how hard it would be to do.

  • Choose a request you feel you can do with relative ease.  (It may come as a surprise what your partner wants, or what they find easy to do).

Sharing the information does not obligate you to meet each other's needs.  The purpose of the exercise is to educate your partner so that if your partner wants to stretch into new behaviors, they will have some specific guidelines.  Any suggestions of obligation will likely reduce the exercise into a bargaining process - so don't do it.

Heads Up:  What women want is not rational, it is emotional -so their requests may seem a little "crazy" to the rational man.  What men want is rational, not emotional - so they seem "stupid" to a woman who intuitively understands what is important in a relationship.

When you faithfully perform this exercise for several months, you will discover another hidden benefit of the exercise:  The love that you are sending out to each other will touch and heal your wounds - wounds you didn't even know you had.

Be patient with yourself and your partner.  Change is difficult, it is certainly a stretching exercise.  Reward yourself and your partner for every small bit of ground gained. As time passes and you appreciate how hard the work is for your mate, or you are being appreciated by your mate your relationship will automatically begin to grow.  

Over time you will come to find something remarkable: you will discover that you have identical needs, but what is openly acknowledged in one is denied in the other.  When you are able to overcome your resistance and satisfy your partner's overt need, your unconscious need for the same thing is also rewarded.  "Love of the self is achieved through the love of the other."


This type of change always involves some resistance.  Underneath every wish is a fear of having that wish come true.  When your partner starts treating you the way you long to be treated, you experience a strange combination of pleasure and fear.  You like what your partner is doing, but a part of you feels that you don't deserve it.  In fact, a part of you believes that in accepting the positive behavior you are violating a powerful taboo.

Resistance to the satisfaction of a deeply held need is so strong that clients who quit this therapy do so because they can't cope with the anxiety that the positive changes create, not because they are unable to make the changes.  Take it slow and support each other.

For those worried about changing so much that they lose themselves, understand that you are NOT your behaviors, your values or your beliefs.  But, if you change some of your more limiting behaviors and beliefs, you will become more fully the person that you are.  You will be able to develop a side of your personality that has been pushed aside, become more balanced and contribute to your partner and family.

Containing Rage

Anger is destructive to a relationship, no matter what its form.  When expressed, the person on the receiving end feels brutalized, whether or not there has been any physical violence; the old brain does not distinguish between choice of weapons.  The person who unleashes the anger also feels assaulted because the old-brain perceives all action as inner directed.  Just as the goodwill that we extend to our partner is somewhat intended for us, the animosity that we deliver is returned to us as well.

Whereas overt forms of rage create instantaneous damage, repressed anger often creates an empty marriage.  Depression and lack of energy can force the other partner to look outside the relationship for satisfaction of desires.  Rage can be difficult to detect when it masquerades as depression.  In order to repress rage, one will often repress their energy, appetite for sexuality, and other interests in general.  There can be no intimacy because there is no safety.   this anger and take the consequences, or to force it deep inside of us.

Getting in touch with our pain and anger goes against some powerful directives.  As children, all too often we have been spanked, made fun of or yelled at for expressing our "negative" emotions.  As adolescents, we are often severely reprimanded for expressing our displeasure, some families even forbid angry looks.  Our options were either to flaunt this anger and brave the consequences, or to force it deep inside, but if we chose to dampen our anger, we also dampened our capacity to love, because love and anger are two sides of the same coin.  That is why loving relationships can change into ones filled with the most bitterness and hatred.

If we repress our anger, we become sick or depressed or condemned to a pale, muted existence.  But if we unleash our rage, we inflict physical or emotional damage on others.  How can we release our anger and not hurt the people we lover?  "Containment."


Containment is a process that you must be trained in so that you can acknowledge the existence of your partners anger rather than arguing about it.  "Yes, I understand that you are upset about this."  When your partner listens carefully, paraphrases your remarks, and then acknowledges the existence of your intense emotions, your need for attention is satisfied, the environment becomes safe and affirming, and your anger gradually dissipates.  The process is not designed to eliminate the source of the anger, but simply to affirm the reality of your emotions.

Getting in touch with your rage and connecting it to it's childhood source requires the supervision of a trained therapist.  The supporting partner has an important role to play, which is to encourage the active partner to get deeper and deeper into the pain and anger.  Instead of succumbing to the urge to fight back or run away, you encourage strong feelings from your spouse.

When your partner has successfully broken through the rage into feelings of pain, you are there to hold and comfort your partner, the way you would comfort a hurting child (because that's what they're reliving).  By helping to bring up the source of anger, contain it, and then relieve the pain that underlies the anger, you contribute to your spouse's psychological healing.

Harville Hendrix, Ph. D. 

The latter part of this book and the exercises are not contained in this synopsis.  If you would like to learn more:

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