One way that Imago Relationship Therapy differs from other couples counseling methods is that Imago therapists are required to work on their own relationships as part of their training. This can be a bitter pill to swallow for the couples therapist who might have expected to eventually be “done” with study and therefore, a “relationship expert.”
Celebrated Imago therapist and trainer Hedy Schleifer recently put that fallacy to rest at a June 20 presentation to an audience of Imago therapists. In an intimate and personal conversation about her 42-year marriage, Schleifer admitted that from time to time, even she falls victim to the “old brain” survival instincts that get in the way of true connection. Schleifer explained that rites of passage in a couple’s relationship can create conflicts similar to power struggles found in early couplehood. “The old brain wakes up and says, ‘Danger!'” she said. With untamed feelings of fear and sadness lurking below the surface, we load more convenient feelings of blame or shame onto our partners. “We go into survival mode…and we revert to old, familiar dances,” she noted, adding that those familiar dances involve involuntary responses that drive us farther apart.
To illustrate her point, Schleifer offered the story of her struggle when her husband, Yumi, had experienced serious heart problems and his doctor advised him not to travel. But Yumi insisted on following through on a trip to South Africa that he and Schleifer had planned. In a panic, Schleifer asked their two sons to help prevent Yumi from going. “He said, ‘I want to go.’ I said, ‘You can’t go.’ Before you know it, the space between us between us got unbelievably polluted with a very familiar feeling of tension and power struggle and a kind of disrespect. It was a space we both know very well but hadn’t lived in for quite a while,” she recalled.
But soon, Schleifer’s extensive work with couples reminded her that she and her husband were in a conflict driven by their own survival instincts. “We both laughed and said it was time that we actually walked the talk,” she said. Working to set aside their defenses, they faced one another in two chairs, looked deeply at one another “with soft eyes,” and silently gave thanks for their shared journey. Then Schleifer asked Yumi to “cross the bridge” to her side, where she allowed herself to release the untamed feelings of fear that she might lose him. Inviting Yumi to mirror her statements, she took as much time as she needed to truly release those feelings.
At this point she said she was ready to cross the bridge back over to him, to hear his side. What he told her, about wanting to continue to live a full life and be more than just his diagnosis, touched Schleifer in a way that she had not been ready for before. “Once I fully understood how, out of my own fear of losing him, I was going to belittle his life [and] I was going to keep him from living…I could see that my job as his ally and friend was to join him on what was really his most important step,” she recalled. Compromising about the length and content of the trip, they went to South Africa and celebrated his 72nd birthday in grand style.
As rites of passage continue throughout the lifespan, so does the potential for power struggle when we feel out of control to stop the changes. “I thought we were done! We were done. We had survived, we were just in an exalted place and never ever again forget there was a bridge, and never ever again fight, we were so mature! And here we were, again! We recognized it,” Schleifer laughed. Those in relationship – whether therapists or clients – always are at risk of reverting to old defensiveness. Remembering the empathic bridges that connect us all is one way to avoid the hazards of our defensiveness.