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Harville Hendrix

Getting the Love You Want
by Harville Hendrix, PhD & Helen LaKelly Hunt



I usually ask couples how they met when they come to me for marital therapy. Gayle and Paul were already separated and he had filed for divorce after fifteen years of marriage when they came for their first session. They had met in Germany shortly after Gayle had graduated from college. She had just arrived, eager to begin her first teaching job on the military base. Although he was very handsome, she wasn't particularly attracted to him when an acquaintance introduced them. He didn't seem to be her type: he was studious, quiet and reflective; she was outgoing, humorous, and sociable.

Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix

She was surprised when he telephoned to invite her to an American movie with German subtitles. She recalled that his German was almost fluent, and she was eager to practice her new skills with him. Following the movie they went to a pub for coffee, and spoke mostly in German. During the next few months they spent more and more time together to study their shared passion. No one seemed surprised when they announced wedding plans a year later.

In contrast, Mark and Rene met in a college history class. He noticed her the minute she walked in the class; she had a beauty and an air of confidence that turned heads. As she tells the story now, he was too shy to ask her out, so she asked him for their first date. Theirs was an immediate attraction and they began dating exclusively. Against the advice of their friends and families, they married four months later and are still happily married after twenty-six years and four children.

The Mystery of Romantic Attraction

During recent years, scientists from various disciplines have studied attraction and romantic love, and valuable insights have come from each research area. Some biologists claim there is a certain "bio-logic" to courtship behavior that ensures survival of the species. According to this theory, men are drawn to classically beautiful and healthy women who have physical indicators that they are in the peak of childbearing years.

On the other hand, women select mates for different biological reasons. Women instinctively choose mates with "alpha" qualities, the ability to dominate other males and bring home the lion's share of the kill. Thus, an aging corporate executive is as attractive to women as a young and handsome, but less successful, male.

Social psychologists explore the "exchange" theory of mate selection. The basic idea behind this theory is that we select mates who are more or less our equals. We seek potential partners on the basis of history, similar backgrounds, financial status, physical appeal, social rank and personality traits.

A third idea, the "persona" theory, maintains that the way a potential suitor enhances our self-esteem is an important factor in mate selection. Each of us has a mask, or persona, that is the face we show to other people. The persona theory suggests that we select a mate who will enhance our self-image. There seems to be some validity to this theory; we have all experienced some pride and perhaps some embarrassment because of the way we believe others perceive our mates.

Although these three theories help explain some aspects of romantic love, we are still left with our questions. What accounts for the intensity of romantic love? And why do so many couples have complementary traits?

The more deeply we look at the phenomenon of romantic attraction, the more incomplete these theories appear to be. For examples, what accounts for the emotional devastation that frequently accompanies the breakup of a relationship?

The theories of attraction we've looked at so far suggest that a more appropriate response to a failed romance would be to plunge immediately into another round of mate selection.

The Couples Companion by Harville Hendrix

There is another puzzling aspect of romantic attraction: we seem to have much more discriminating tastes than any of these theories would indicate. To test this idea, reflect on your own dating history. In your lifetime you have met thousands of people; as a conservative estimate, let's suppose that several hundred of them were physically attractive enough or successful enough to catch your eye. When we narrow this field by applying the social-exchange theory, we might come up with fifty or a hundred people out of this select group who would have a combined "point value" equal to or greater than yours. Yet most people have been deeply attracted to only a few individuals.

Furthermore, those few individuals that people are attracted to tend to resemble one another quite closely. Consider the personality traits of the people that you have seriously considered as mates. If you were to make a list of their predominant personality traits, you would discover a lot of similarities, including, surprisingly, their negative traits.

Our Unconscious Mind

We all have a high degree of selectivity, and for it to make sense, we need to understand the role of the unconscious mind in mate selection. We organize our thoughts, our days, our homes and our routines into orderly and logical systems. The conscious mind, however, is a thin veil over the unconscious, which is independent, active and functioning at all times.

Scientists who study the brain, especially Paul McLean in his essay on "Man and His Animal Brains" have concluded that the brain stem, which is the most primitive layer, is the part of the brain that oversees reproduction, self-preservation, and vital functions such as circulation of blood, breathing and sleeping. Around the top of the brain stem is the portion of the brain called the limbic system, whose function seems to be the generation of vivid emotions. I use the term "old brain" to refer to the portion of the brain that includes both the brain stem and the limbic system.

We are unaware of most of the functions of the old brain. Always on alert, it constantly asks the question "Is it safe?" Utilizing the fight-flight defenses that come from our animal ancestry, psychologists see the old brain lumping people into six basic categories; its only concern is whether a particular person is someone to nurture, be nurtured by, have sex with, run away from, submit to, or attack. It is not capable of picking up on subtleties such as "a neighbor" or "my cousin." The old brain has no sense of linear time. Today, tomorrow and yesterday do not exist; everything that was, still is. Its memories, recent and very old, inform its decisions about people and situations. McLean refers to the cerebral cortex, a large, convoluted mass of brain tissue that surrounds the old brain, as the "new brain" because it appeared most recently in evolutionary history. The new brain is the part of you that makes decisions, thinks, observes, recognizes people, plans, anticipates, responds, organizes information, and creates ideas. It is inherently logical and tries to find a cause for every effect and an effect for every cause.

Keeping the Love You Find by Harville Hendrix

You may recall that you sometimes have feelings regarding your mate that seem alarmingly out of proportion to the events that triggered them. For example, let's suppose that you are a middle-aged man working for a large company. After a hard day at work, you drive home, eager to share your successes with your wife. When you walk in the door, you see a note saying she will be late coming home from work. You stop dead in your tracks; you had counted on her being there! Rather than sitting down to enjoy the evening paper, you head straight for the freezer and eat a bowl of vanilla ice cream, exactly what you would have done thirty-five years ago if you had come home to learn that your mother wasn't home yet. The past and the present live side by side within your mind.

The Search For "One and Only"

So how does this information add to our understanding of romantic attraction? We seem to be highly selective in our choice of mates. In fact, we appear to be searching for a "one and only" with a very specific set of positive and negative traits. I have discovered from years of theoretical research and clinical observation that we are each looking for someone who has the predominant character traits of the people who raised us. Our old brain is trapped in the eternal now and, having only a dim awareness of the outside world, is trying to re-create the environment of childhood. And the reason the old brain is trying to resurrect the past is not a matter of habit or blind compulsion, as Sigmund Freud thought. From my observations of thousands of couples have stated they want from their partners, I have concluded that it is a compelling need to heal old childhood wounds.

The ultimate reason you fell in love with your mate is not that he or she was young and attractive, had an impressive job, had a "point value" equal to yours, or had a kind disposition. You fell in love because your old brain had your partner confused with your parents! 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.

I am not suggesting that each of us had serious childhood traumas such as sexual or physical abuse or the suffering that comes from having parents who divorced or died or were alcoholics. Even if you were fortunate to grow up in a safe, nurturing environment, you still bear invisible scars from childhood, because from the very moment you were born you were a complex, dependent creature with a never-ending cycle of needs. And no parents, no matter how devoted, are able to respond perfectly to all of these changing needs. Tired, angry, depressed, busy, ill, distracted, afraid -- parents often fail to sustain our feelings of security and comfort.

Every unmet need causes fear and pain and, in our infantile ignorance, we have no idea how to stop it and restore our feelings of safety and wholeness. Desperate to survive, we adopt primitive coping mechanisms.

We cope as well as we can with the world and our relationships by using the feeble set of defenses born of the pain of childhood, a time when parts of our true nature were suppressed in the unconscious. We look grown up -- we have jobs and responsibilities -- but we are walking wounded, trying desperately to live life fully while unconsciously hoping to somehow restore the sense of joyful aliveness we began with.

Original Wholeness

We know little about the dark mysteries of life before birth, but we do know something about the physical life of the fetus. We know that its biological needs are taken care of instantly and automatically; we know that a fetus has no need to eat, breathe, or protect itself from danger, and that it is constantly soothed by the rhythmical beat of its mother's heart. It has little awareness of boundaries, a vague sense of itself, and is intrinsically connected to the rest of the world.

As adults, we seem to have a fleeting memory of this state of original wholeness, a sensation that is as hard to recapture as a dream. We seem to recall a distant time when we were more unified and connected to the world. This feeling is described over and over again in the myths of all cultures. It is the story of the Garden of Eden, and it strikes us with compelling force.

But what does this have to do with marriage? For a reason out of our awareness, we enter marriage with the expectation that our partners will magically restore this old-brain memory of wholeness. It is as if they hold the key to a long-ago kingdom, and all we have to do is persuade them to unlock the door. Their failure to do so is one of the main reasons for our eventual unhappiness.

Falling in Love

When we fall in love, we believe we've found utopia. Suddenly, we see life in technicolor. Our limitations and rigidities melt away. We're sexier, smarter, funnier, more giving. We believe that we can't live without our beloved, for now we feel whole, we feel like ourselves. For a while we are able to relax; it looks like everything is going to turn out all right, after all.

But inevitably, things start to go wrong. In some cases, all hell breaks loose. The veil of illusion falls away, and it seems that our partners are different than we thought they were. We begin to see qualities that we can't bear; even qualities we once admired grate on us. Old hurts are reactivated as we realize that our partners cannot or will not love and care for us as they promised. Our dream shatters.

The Personal Companion by Harville Hendrix

Disillusionment turns to anger, fueled by fear that we won't survive without the love and safety that was within our grasp. Since our partners are no longer willingly giving us what we need, we change tactics, trying to maneuver them into caring -- through anger, crying, withdrawal, shame, intimidation, and criticism -- whatever works. We will make them love us. Now we negotiate -- for time, love, chores, gifts -- measuring our success against an economic yardstick of profit and loss. The Power Struggle, the natural second stage of marriage, has begun, and may go on for many years, until we split, until we settle into an uneasy truce, or until we seek help, desperate to feel alive and whole again, to have our dream back.

Your Imago

Many people have a hard time accepting the idea that they have searched for partners who resembled their caretakers. On a conscious level, they were looking for people with only positive traits -- people who were, among other things, kind, loving, good-looking, intelligent, and creative. But no matter what their conscious intentions, most people are attracted to mates who have their caretakers' positive and negative traits, and, typically, the negative traits are more influential. When we fall in love, the lover is always similar to the parent with whom we had the most difficulty, thus will frustrate us like that parent.

Why do negative traits have such appeal? If we chose mates on a logical basis, we would look for partners who compensated for our parents' inadequacies, rather than duplicated them. The part of your brain that directed your search for a mate, however, was not your logical, orderly new brain; it was the time-locked, myopic old brain. And what the old brain was trying to do was re-create the conditions of our upbringing, in order to correct them. It can achieve this only with a person similar to the person with whom the wounds occurred. It is trying to repair the damage done in childhood as a result of unmet needs, and the way it does that is to find a partner similar to the parents from whom it attempts to get what our caretakers failed to provide. Although this looks a formula for failure, it contains the seeds of our healing.

To find this person, the old brain carries around an image of the perfect partner, a complex synthesis of qualities formed in reaction to the way our caretakers responded to our needs. This image of "the person who can make me whole again" I call the imago (ih-MAH-go). Though we consciously seek only the positive traits, the negative traits of our caretakers are more indelibly imprinted in our imago picture, because those are the traits that caused the wounds we now seek to heal. In other words, we look for someone with the same deficits of care and attention that hurt us in the first place. Why? Because this is the type of person from whom the old brain wants to get what it did not get in childhood. For the mating to work, the partner who resembles the frustrating parent, will have to develop the nurturing qualities of the parents we wished we had. And we will have to undergo the same transformation to be a healing resource for our mate.

So when we fall in love, when bells ring and the world seems altogether a better place, our old brain is telling us that we've found someone with whom we can complete our unfinished childhood business. Unfortunately, since we don't understand what's going on, we're shocked when the awful truth of our beloved surfaces, and our first impulse is to run screaming in the opposite direction.

But there's more bad news. Another powerful component of our imago is that we also seek the qualities missing in ourselves -- both good and bad -- that got lost in the shuffle of socialization. If we are shy, we seek someone outgoing; if we're disorganized, we're attracted to someone cool and rational. The anger we repressed because it was punished in our home, and which we unconsciously hate ourselves for feeling, we "annex" in our partner. But eventually, when our own repressed feelings are stirred, we are uncomfortable, and criticize our partners for being too bold, too coldly rational, too temperamental.

The Power Struggle

When does romantic love end and the power struggle begin? It's impossible to define precisely when these stages occur. But for most couples there is a noticeable change in the relationship about the time they make a definite commitment to each other. Once they say," letís get married," or "let's get engaged," the pleasing, inviting dance of courtship draws to a close, and lovers begin to want not only the expectation of need fulfillment but the reality as well. Suddenly it isn't enough that their partners be affectionate, clever, attractive, and fun-loving. They now have to satisfy a whole hierarchy of expectations, some conscious, but most hidden from their awareness.

As soon as they start living together, most people assume their mates will conform to a very specific but rarely expressed set of behaviors. For example, a man may expect his new bride to do the housework, cook the meals, shop for groceries, wash the clothes, arrange the social events, and take on the role of family nurse. On the other hand, her expectation may be that he will help with the kitchen duties, share the shopping, pay the bills, mow the lawn and sort the laundry.

It's almost as if husbands and wives make a commitment to each other, then take a big step back and wait for the dividends of togetherness to start rolling in. All of this sounds like a recipe for disaster. But what we need to understand and accept is that conflict is supposed to happen. It is what nature intended; everything in nature is in conflict. The hard truth is that the foundation for a happy and fulfilling marriage is incompatibility. Conflict needs to be understood as a given, a sign that the psyche is trying to survive, to get its needs met and become whole.

We also need to understand that divorce does not solve the problems of relationship. We may get rid of our partners, but we keep our problems, carrying them into the next relationship. Indeed, divorce is incompatible with the intentions of nature.

Romantic love is supposed to end. It serves as the glue that initially bonds two incompatible people together so that they will do what needs to be done to heal themselves. The good news is that although many couples become hopelessly locked in the power struggle, it too, is supposed to end. Real love does not give birth to marriage; marriage is born in the glow of romantic love, fueled by the anticipation of our needs finally being satisfied. Real love is born in the heat of the power struggle. It is there when illusions fade, that we discover the real person we married. Now bonded by natureís trick, we are challenged to respond the real needs of our partner, to grow beyond our self-interest, and give the love they need. Real love, if it exists at all, is born in marriage.

Choosing a Conscious Marriage

To make this transition from conflict to healing requires a dramatic transition from an unconscious marriage to a conscious marriage. To achieve this new state of mind we must understand the goals of the unconscious in marriage and make them the conscious agenda in our relationship. That will challenge our old defenses and habituated way of relating, for it is these very defenses that wound our partner and catalyzes their childhood situation with their parents. To break the cycle of wounding will call forth resources we did not know we had. For our partner needs nothing other than that we become like the parents they needed and give the nurturing they did not get. To surrender our defenses feels like the loss of the self, a descent into the valley of the shadow of death. But that descent gives birth to new aspect of ourselves, for what our partner needs calls us to develop traits in our personality that atrophied in our childhood. As we love, because our old brain cannot distinguish between itself and our partner, it interprets the love we direct to our partner as directed to itself. We are transformed by the love we give. The goal of a conscious marriage is a relationship that will activate our deepest wounds, arouse our strongest defenses, and catalyze our maximum growth.

A conscious marriage is not for the cowardly or timid. We must stretch to become the person our partner needs us to be. We must put aside defensive behaviors such as criticizing, crying, anger, or withdrawal and learn more effective mechanisms. In Imago Relationship Therapy, we change to give our partners what they need, no matter how difficult it is and no matter how much it goes against the gain of our personality and temperament.

In order to achieve the valid and important objectives of the old brain, we need to enlist the aid of the new brain -- the part of us that makes choices, exerts will, and knows that our partners are not our parents. We need to take the rational skills that we use in other parts of our lives and bring them to bear on our love relationships.

Suppose your spouse suddenly criticizes you for being late for dinner. Your old brain instantly prompts you to fight or flee. You might typically return your partner's critical remark with something like "if I could depend on you to have dinner ready at a decent hour, then I'd be here on time!" Or you might flee from the encounter entirely by going outside to work in the garden. Depending on your approach, your partner will feel either attacked or abandoned and will most likely lash out again.

This is the kind of situation in which the new brain could come up with a less irritating response. What I teach the couples with whom I work is a process called the "couples dialogue." It is a communication process that has three phases: mirroring, validation and empathy. Using the dialogue process, you essentially paraphrase your partner's statement in a neutral tone of voice, acknowledging the anger but not rushing to your own defense. For example, you might say something like "If I get it right, you're upset that I'm late for dinner, is there more about that?" Your partner might respond by saying something like: "Yes, I am and there is more! I'm tired of keeping dinner warm until you get home". Then, still relying on the new-brain tact, you could respond once again in the same nondefensive manner, but this time validating your partnerís experience. "Your anger makes sense, for I have been late several times lately." Then you respond more deeply with empathy, reflecting as deeply as possible your partnerís feelings. "I can see that you are angry about that and I can imagine that you might also feel hurt and betrayed. Is that your feeling also?" With these non-defensive responses, your partner by now will probably be feeling less angry. If there answer is "yes," I am feeling hurt and betrayed," you then can respond with "what can I do that will help you know I care?" It is important to wait for your partner to state what they need, what I call a behavior change request. If you offer, "From now on, whenever I'm running late, I'll call you or leave a message," it may not be what your partner needs. Now that your partner is disarmed by your empathic tone of voice, she will probably be even calmer able to think of an alternative solution. It should be as specific as possible and time limited. An example might be: "when you are going to be late, call me thirty minutes before you planned to come home, and when you come bring me a single yellow rose." Give her this as a gift. In all likelihood she will want to restore contact and say something like "thanks for not getting upset. I had a bad day at work and I'm still a little edgy". Because you were willing to risk a creative response to anger, you have suddenly become a trusted confidant rather than a sparring partner.

Once you become skilled in the couples dialogue, you will make an important discovery: in most interactions with your spouse, you are actually safer when you lower your defenses than when you keep them engaged, because your partner becomes an ally, not an enemy. Through the integration of old-brain instincts and new-brain savvy, as well as lots of hard work and effort, it is possible to gradually leave the frustrations of the power struggle behind and grow toward a conscious partnership that is safe and passionate.

© Copyright by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. Used with permission only.

Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., and Helen LaKelly Hunt
are partners in life and work. Imago Relationship Therapy is a product of their relationship. They are founders of the Institute for Imago Relationship Therapy that has trained over1800 Imago therapists internationally, and they have co-authored several books. For information on Imago therapists, couples and singles Imago workshops, and books and tapes about Imago, please contact Institute for Imago Relationship Therapy, 335 North Knowles Avenue, Winter Park, Florida U.S.A. 32789. Telephone (800) 729 1121 or check the website www.imagotherapy.com





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