A current focus in the work of Haville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt, the co-creators of Imago Relationship Therapy, is uprooting negativity from marital interaction.
Hendrix defines negativity as “any thought, word, or deed that tells a partner: ‘You’re not okay when you think what you think or act the way that you act.’” Hendrix observes that criticism not only takes the form of words but of non-verbal signals such as “a touch, a glare, an eye roll, or two hands thrown up in the air.”
Most couples I counsel balk at the idea of removing such negativity. “What about ‘constructive criticism?’” they ask. My answer is that it all depends on the setting and context. Input from our partner on how our words and behavior affect them and other members of the family is one of the most valuable—I would say indispensible—gifts of marriage. Eliminating negativity, as Hendrix explains, “doesn’t imply that partners shouldn’t be allowed to express concerns or desires for behavioral change in a relationship. It’s all about the way it’s presented. A hurtful comment out of nowhere or passive-aggressive put down is unacceptable. But one phrased carefully and delicately can lead to the desired effect.”
The object is not to stop telling our partner how they impact the world around them. Rather the object is to do so in a way they can hear and use and which doesn’t make us right and them wrong. Giving feedback in a way that the receiver can “hear and use” means that we don’t portray one of us as superior and the other inferior. Hendrix reminds us that for the person on the receiving end, harsh criticism invokes “a feeling that has its roots in the animal-like parts of our brain, sometimes referred to as our ‘lizard brain.’ Harsh words can induce a feeling of anxiety. Anxiety, at its roots, is the nervous system responding to a stimulus of danger—the fight or flight response. The response of the criticized person also takes one of these forms: They may slink away, play dead in a submissive posture, or take on the accuser by fighting back.” Hendrix and Hunt recommend a zero negativity approach to marriage communication: “for both parties to commit absolutely to refraining from put downs, negative comments and behaviors…not just temporarily, but always.”
The Imago Relationship Dialogue is a perfect tool for exchanging feedback. Creating a specific time and place to exchange information about what’s not working is part of a healthy partnership. The structured, even somewhat ritualistic way of managing the quality of feedback in Imago dialogue helps ensure that that our observations of our partner does not come from the place of judgment. Of course, as Hendrix notes, “Unconsciously, the critic believes that their opinion is the ‘only’ correct one.” But in removing the blame, shame, or criticism from our words, we not only deliver our “suggestions” in a way that our partner can hear, but helps us separate fact from story for ourselves, giving us a less blame-laden way of understanding what happened. Further, as Hendrix writes, “Knowing that you are going to express something critical takes away the element of surprise and defensiveness in the other person, and allows you to state your concern in a thought out, gentle way. It makes it much more likely that they will be willing to compromise and come closer to your side of the fence.”