In 1981, Paul and I created a program for couples, using the “positive approach to human relationships”. This was a program of enrichment and enhancement, based on the activities we had found enjoyable in our own relationship. We also wanted to emphasize the positive elements and strengths within relationships rather than digging up or searching out the pain and weaknesses.
Couples Night Out was not group therapy. We were simply interested in teaching deeper and more meaningful ways to enjoy each other. We had discovered over many years that emotions seem to be a choice; beliefs are a choice; and indeed, we came to believe that happiness is created through choices—not some magical something that descends because we have been lucky or smart. Our goal is to build on strengths that people already have going for themselves. So, we recommend that any relationship must have time dedicated to it. Therefore, we proposed that any couple would build positive relations by setting aside time for renewal. Couples Night Out was for the purpose of having at least four “dates” per year in which the couple focused on their relationship. It was like a dedicated time for honeymoon rebirth.
We invited couples to our home for an evening out, beginning with a gourmet dinner and ending with discussions on special topics. There are four cornerstones for any relationship: 1) communication, 2) chemistry, 3) caring, and 4) commitment. Communication means sharing; chemistry means sensuality and sexuality; caring is what we do to make life exciting and fulfilling for each other; and commitment is the promise between us that leads to a bond of love. It actually is all about learning how to love one another. What a concept!! As I told many couples, “It is easy to love them when they act right. No stretch there. The stretch comes when your partner doesn’t act the way you want him/her to act. That is when we begin to really learn how to love.”
We wanted to collect our ideas from all those evenings when couples came to our home to learn about loving one another. Paul usually began the evening by saying something like, “This is not therapy. I really don’t believe in therapy. Husbands are usually the reluctant, ‘dragons’ or ‘drag-ins’ brought by wives who have in mind some better ways for him to be. So, I promise this evening will be one of good food, good conversation, and learning what love is all about.”
We then had introductions of those present in the most positive way (we would ask each person to introduce him/herself in the manner in which they wished their partner would introduce them; another way was to have the couples introduce each other with only positive strengths and complimentary remarks.) We would then serve a good dinner and each couple would go to a table for two that we had arranged all over our home. Each table had candles and a printed interview in which they were to give the gift of listening over dinner. We usually ended with films and some form of ceremony honoring the subject for the evening.
Films on massage were shown on the night of Caring; sexually specific films (made for educational purposes) were shown on the night for Chemistry; a ritual of commitment was held on the night dedicated to Commitment; and the evening for Communication featured the skills people need to do reflective listening.
We told our couples that we hoped they took seriously the idea that four dates a year could make an exciting, joyful, and lasting relationship. Relationships are the key to growth and development for all human beings.
I am including our concepts on communication, which is the real key to any successful relationship.
Communicating is talking and listening with emphasis on listening. If love is the engine that holds a couple together, communication is the grease that makes the gears of their love machine move smoothly. Good communication s like reaching the source of ultimate satisfaction. We cannot NOT communicate. In our every act of behavior, we communicate our very being. Communication sends messages from the deepest part of us through the non-verbal, unspoken nuances, gestures, body movements, tone of voice and facial expression. Words are sometimes the most minor part of communication.
If there is incongruence between the verbal words spoken and the non-verbal expressions from anyone, we know at depth level that the non-verbal expression speaks the truth. Therefore, you can be sure that if you send conflicting messages between the verbal and non-verbal communication to your partner, you can expect the partner to believe the non-verbal. We designed these communication “laws” to help in any relationship, whether it be with your spouse, spice, parent, child, teacher, student, manager, or employee.
Read these statements to your partner and discuss the laws of communication that follow:
“I give the gift of communicating with you. Communication needs Empathy and Safety
“I listen to you without judgment, blame, criticism, defensiveness, condemnation, faultfinding, or putting you down.”
“I respond when you talk by proving to you that I hear the words you say; that I understand the meaning of those words; and that I accept the feelings you have with empathy, warmth, and genuineness.
The Body tells the truth.
When verbal communication does not match the non-verbal communication, the tendency will be to believe the non-verbal rather than the words.
For instance: Sally asks her husband, “Tell me you love me. I want to hear the words, ‘I love you’.” The husband replies, “Well, I LOVE YOU! You already know I love you.” His arms are crossed, his face is tense, he exhibits a frown, his voice is harsh, and his body has the stance she has come to recognize as meaning he is angry or disgusted. She bursts into tears and feels horrible. He is upset because he did what she asked and it didn’t work. They go away mad.
Most effective communication has to do with the style of listening. To listen without judgment, blame, condemnation, faultfinding or without needing to find solutions is to give the greatest gift of all. In the world of counseling, this is the first skill to learn. It may also be the most difficult. To listen without criticism or attempt to “fix”, to really HEAR what is said and to respond in empathy with a strong message of acceptance of the person doing the talking is to be loving and a truly helpful person.
Reflection Is The Key to Growing Up.
We either are the light or we reflect the light. Reflecting the words and other expressions of any human being is to help them find their light. Grown-up people have had their identities mirrored through safe and caring communication with others. The most effective communication is between two people who listen more than they talk. (There may be creative wisdom in the ratio of two ears to one mouth.) When we were little, they tended to talk to us, not listen to us; therefore, we still have the unmet need of being allowed to pursue our own growth and development through self-expression.
Wise parents reflect the words and behavior of their children so that the children can become autonomous and claim their own identity as unique personalities. We bring these undeveloped or wounded parts of ourselves into our grown-up relationships. We still have the need for a reflective listener. As one committed partner gives to the other, reciprocity is set in motion whereby both people provide the caring safety in which each can grow toward maturity. It really means we continue the positive parenting each needed as the relationships grows.
The most incredible secret about good communication is that it feeds the soul. A good conversation is the joining of minds; the mingling of spirits; the lovemaking of our invisible selves that feeds the hungry heart. To be heard, really heard, and not judged, blamed, criticized, or “fixed” is the greatest of all grounds for growth.
To Listen Is To Do Something Helpful.
The important word is “do”, for many of us want to help by giving advice, providing new behavior, or directing the person’s growth. Yet to really listen is to do what is needed and to be very effective as a facilitator of growth and self-worth for the talker.
To listen is to do something, contrary to what seems the case. It would seem right if you had grown up seeing it modeled. Since most of us were not in that kind of atmosphere when we were little, it remains to be learned when we are in adult relationships. Learning how to do this kind of listening is sort of like learning a foreign language and requires much conscious thought and effort. Trust us, it is worth doing!
Giving the gift of accurate listening provides what is necessary for the talker to process what is deeply hidden inside. Effective counselors know this. Couples can learn how to do this process. Human growth and development thrives on this principle. Consider giving up all criticism, judgment, blame, and faultfinding or fixing, and begin to grow in the skills of loving communication. First step is cultivating the listening habit.
Minds Join, Bodies Follow Suit
Positive communication means two minds sharing, interacting, stimulating, and motivating each other. From this joining of minds comes all that follows in the world of sex, sensuality, commitment, and intimacy. Intimate partners communicate with their eyes, their skin, their whole being. The paradox is that this is the only way to becoming differentiated as two separate, whole individuals. Neurotic communication means trying to make your partner just like you—a sick cloning of another precious human being into your own image.
Minds joining provide the energy and permission for self-realization. It happens when each partner feels safe. We feel safe when we are not criticized. The good news about this is that if your partner feels safe and talks through their feelings without interference from you, the listener, then your partner can grow through the “stuck spot.” A change begins to happen, and it will be a change for the better. The nature of us as human beings is to grow in a positive direction. The best way to do this is in an atmosphere of loving safety.
There is no such thing as Constructive Criticism
All criticism hurts. It sends the message, “You are not enough. I can improve you.” To be constructive, you can give your partner information, and you can make requests for your own needs, but when you accuse your partner, blame your partner, or even gently tell your partner what they are doing wrong, you have intruded into the life of your partner as the ultimate judge.
Judgment and love do not co-exist. Whenever you are judging, you are not loving. AND, whenever you are criticizing, you are judging. If you want to build toward a better life, learn to send constructive messages another way. The very best way you help your partner is to set an atmosphere of acceptance, warm acceptance, in which the partner can become himself or herself to the maximum. It is then that they become fully functioning and self-responsible. This is best done with non-judgmental listening. It means you stop being attached to an outcome. You give yourself to the unfolding of the beauty and authenticity of this other human being. You are not their creator!
The most effective communication comes when the two people who are attempting to relate to each other engage in accurate, empathic, reflective listening. Listening (receiving) and talking (sending) cannot be done at the same time by the same person. Listening is done by one for a period of time (until the paragraph is finished); then reflection from the listener is next with sincere desire to hear the full message. Understanding is the goal, not dominance. After one has sent a paragraph, you can switch. Listener become talker, talker becomes listener. Just like we learned in early childhood, we take turns. This requires a lot of practice for it is normally not natural, which means we were not taught to do this. They didn’t model it as we grew up. We have old habits of interrupting, listening to get a cue as to what we will say next, etc.
They Either Communicate Love or A Cry For Help
I tell my clients to remember, “It is very easy to love your partner when they act right. The test of you as a loving being comes when your partner is having a bad time and not acting the way you want them to act.” This is when effective communication is vital. One of the best ways I can remember to communicate in a loving, listening way is to remember that my husband is himself in truth when he is at his very best. That is who is really is. All other behavior is simply his pain and woundedness showing up.
You can believe that other human beings come from two needs: the need to show you love or the need to ask for help. This means that if they criticize you, blame you, or judge you, you are not now to resort to counter blame or louder criticism—you are being invited to help another human being find peace of mind. So find your common ground by moving to higher ground. Give the help that is needed. Be empathic, even if they are accusing you of destroying their peace of mind. The path to healing is always the same. It means you are moving toward your own lovingness rather than degenerating into the dark abyss of a fear based relationship.
Words DO Make a Difference
All this talk about listening, about non-verbal behavior is only the beginning. Words are very important. To choose the words that send the message we wish to communicate is vital. “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God”….implies that the words we speak hold grave and important power.
In choosing words, these don’ts are important: Don’t analyze, don’t judge, don’t blame, and don’t impugn the motive of the one who is listening.
Remember, any person who listens to you is giving you a gift. If they are listeners from the high ground of being, they are suspending their own reality for a time in which they can reflect your reality.
Sometimes we just “boil over”, and the steam valve doesn’t function in our mind-brain system. But, when we can remember our new habits, our training in advanced civility, maybe we can send our messages in a more humane manner. For now, the new habit pattern is to make your statements as clear as possible and with as much ownership of your own feeling flow as you can. Tom Gordon (Parent Effectiveness Training) taught about “I Messages”. This may be an old method but it still serves well in our path of growth. So, memorize and practice this whenever someone’s behavior is causing you a problem. (One note here: If the problem has to do with the other person’s feelings, you will do best to use reflective listening. You are the “counselor”) If the problem is causing your feelings to react, this is a good time to apply Gordon’s “I Messages”.
“I Messages” contain three parts:
1. Statement of your feelings
2. Non-blameful description of the behavior of the other person, and
3. Your assessment of the tangible consequences to you.
For example: “I am (a) really frustrated when you (b) put your stuff on my desk because (c) I don’t have a place to do my work.
If, in response, the person moves their stuff, use carefully selected words to express appreciation with sincerity. For instance, you can express your thanks in another positive “I MESSAGE”: “When you cleared your stuff off my desk, I really felt happy, because now I can get my work done.”
Feelings Belong to the Feeler
The old “make-feel” theory is for victims. There was a time when we believed that others made us feel what we felt. Children were taught not to trust their own feelings.
A little boy says, “I don’t want to wear my coat. It’s not cold.” Mother says, “It is cold, so wear your coat.” He tells his friends outside, “I’m wearing this coat because my mother is cold.” He learns not to trust his own feelings or his own choices. Mother says to daughter, “You’re giving me a headache,” Father says, “You made your mother cry.” Or, worse yet, “You’ll be the death of me!” …. and children grow up with the “make-feel” belief. The girl becomes the woman and the myth is continued.
Communication between grown-ups can repair these old childhood messages. This means new behavior and new beliefs. It means that we help each other to take responsibility for our own feelings, and we model doing that by, first, knowing what we feel and second, by assuming ownership of that feeling. We always have a choice of what we believe, what we think, what we feel, and what we do.
You Grow When You Invest In the Growth Of Another.
The Final concept in effective communication is that if you want person A to grow, help them get interested in Person B’s growth. This is not co-dependence in the neurotic sense but is the positive approach to human development. Love is the curriculum for learning. Love is behavior more than feelings. Love means communicating in a caring way. Love means the warm acceptance of the other just as they are. Love shows up in our words, actions, thoughts, and beliefs.
THE COUPLES DIALOGUE
In 1988 I read the book, “Getting The Love You Want” by Harville Hendrix. The book inspired me to train with the Imago Institute and became a clinical member of the Imago organization. I held many couples weekend workshops in Corpus Christi, TX. Imago Therapy was the very best I found for my work with couples in my 30 plus years as a marriage and family therapist. The most important part of Imago work was in a process created by Hendrix. He called it the Couples Dialogue. It consists of three parts:
Mirroring has to do what the word suggests. When one person talks, the other listens and mirrors (reflects) back the words and even the body posture, facial expression, and tone of voice.
To mirror might begin like this, “If I heard you correctly, you said……” or “What I hear you saying is…..” Mirroring simply says that what you said is important to me, and I have heard the content of your words, without judging you, blaming you, or finding solutions for you.
Mirroring is the essential skill for couples to learn. Many issues are solved with mirroring alone. Mirroring encourages the talker to continue since the listener is hearing accurately the words that are spoken. When the listener also mirrors the tone of voice and posture of the talker, the talker feels safe and risks revealing what is inside.
Validation is a process of letting your partner know that you understand the meaning behind her/his words. To validate, you might say, “What you said makes sense to me,” or “I can understand your point of view, “ or “I see what you mean.” It may mean that you as listener have to stretch to understand the meaning, but it is worth doing and becomes an act of compassionate caring toward the other person.
Validation is an advanced competency for effective relationships. To understand the message and its meaning is not the same as to agree with the message or its meaning. Validation means to set aside one’s own opinions while stretching to understand the meaning of the other person’s message. The result is to reach for the possibility of real individuation—real grown-up freedom for each one. Validation is about growing up.
Empathy is the concept of understanding and acknowledging the feelings being expressed. It usually can be stated by saying, “I can imagine you are…” and filling in the feeling word. Feelings are usually one word: mad, sad, glad, afraid, ashamed, guilty, and versions of those emotions. To empathize with the talker is to understand the feelings behind the words and meaning.
One observation over the years, I have seen many persons respond with “I feel that…” which means you are giving your opinion and your ideas, not empathizing. The subtlety of empathy rests in the loving detachment from judgment, criticism, blame, self-pity, or “fixing” the other person. To find a solution or to explain why sends the message, “You are weak…I am superior”…
This dialogue is the core of Imago Relationship Therapy. While it may seem simple, it is a skill that takes a lot of practice to really learn and make it a habit. You may need a coach (I recommend an Imago therapist). It works and it is worth learning.
Three parts compose the Couples Dialogue:
1. Mirroring for the content of the verbal and non-verbal messages;
2. Validation for the meaning of the messages;
3. Empathy for the feelings underneath the message.
CHEMISTRY IS THE FLOW OF SENSUAL, SEXUAL, SPIRITUAL ENERGY BETWEEN US.
It is the pleasure principle in action.
“I give you my sensual, sexual, and spiritual energy as a support of our playing together and as a way to take our intimacy to greater heights. We play; we laugh; we cry; we are together as one and as separate Beings.
I give you touch, I give you a massage; I give you sexual play; I give you hugs, kisses, pats, rubs. I scratch your back. I sense your moods. I give you the gift of sharing my spiritual life.
“My eyes see you; my ears hear you; I like the way you smell; I like the way you taste; I love touching you; and I share my soul—my spirit self with you.”
Chemistry insures the magnet, the draw, and the attraction between us. Sometimes electrical in feeling, it is that connection between two people that turns on the flow of hormonal, glandular juices. It comes from the oldest part of the brain, the Reptilian Complex and the limbic system. This part of the brain has as its only interest the survival of the human race. Therefore, it has a force of unlimited proportions, which cannot be resisted. Sexual magnetism is the trigger to falling in love. If we knew how this worked, we could harness energy equal to the discovery of fire.
The unbelievable part of our sexuality is that we seem to be magnetically drawn to want to have sex with the person who will, after commitment is made, provoke all the unfinished business left over from our childhood. In Imago Relationship Therapy, based on theories developed by Harville Hendrix, we learn that the hidden purpose of any relationship is to complete this unfinished business. While this may seem to be an incredible idea, it explains why we don’t turn on to just everyone we date or everyone we know. Some might argue with that concept. I remember Woody Allen saying, “I have a strong desire to get back to the womb—any womb!”
Assume for the sake of this exercise in Chemistry that it is true that you fell in love with the exact right person who will provoke the conflict you need to grow into your rightful adult maturity. You can then learn from the sexual-sensual-spiritual life you have created. We propose that you enter into this with a strong interest and intention to make your partnership the very best it can be sexually. You sexuality is a result of the sensual pleasure possibilities between you. We believe this can be a very spiritual process, and that it takes time. You will need to create a time in which you join with your loved other in an extended “date”—at least 48 hours. My dear sister-cousin, Wistie Reid McKee, called it “honeymoon time.”
Here is what we mean, specifically: The goal is to create a date at home, or away from home, for the purpose of keeping the chemistry alive in your relationship. A long weekend without children is recommended. Some preparation needs to be made before you begin the weekend. Use your own desire lists for pleasures. Here are some of our examples:
Fire in the fireplace, light snacks, healthy food and drinks;
Comfortable, sensual clothing;
Water play (bubble bath, hot tub, swimming)
Comfortable places to sit together or lie together;
Pleasurable sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch.
A beginning ritual is a nice way to place importance on this time together. Prepare a “Circle of Warmth and Welcome” for each other. Candles, incense, or any artifact that will set the stage for something novel and inviting, as if you are designing a meeting for someone who is very important to you.
The reptilian complex in the brain will not open the gate to good ritual if it is the slightest bit threat threatened. This old part of our brain shuts itself into two modes. First, if it is safe, it opens to the possibility of all the “good F” words. These are Freedom, Fun, Fee, Frisk, Frolic, Flow, and the big 4 letter F word (which is mostly what the reptile has on its mind). If your reptilian brain instinctively senses danger or threat, it turns on the survival F’s. These are Fllight, Freeze, Fight, or Fog. I caught on that if this part of the brain goes into survival mode, it takes all the other brain with it, and no sex will be good in the midst of that stress-survival scene. This time together must be full of the good F words.
We have two ears and one mouth, so we suggest that there is a great wisdom in that ratio. Listen twice as much as you talk. Remember, also, the ear cannot shut but the mouth can!
We have two “talking sticks” loosely bound together. These are simply two tree limbs, which came from the large old trees outside our windows. We keep them wrapped in some leather skins. When we take them out, we follow a tradition of the Native Americans in that whoever holds the talking sticks is privileged to talk, and the other listens. The symbolism of two sticks, bound loosely together, but easily separated into individual talking sticks, is useful in our study of a marriage between two real individuals who are still in the process of becoming.
To sit across from each other with an intention of talking and listening is a wonderful way to build toward a satisfying and thrilling sexual experience. Make yourselves comfortable and prepare for an evening of being together. The spiritual element of your relationship grows through good, safe intimacy. Our friend, Dr. J. Zink, says intimacy might be rephrased as “into me see”. Open yourselves to learning and sharing with each other.
Do you need subjects to talk about? Try these:
“Minds join; bodies follow suit.” What does that mean?
“If I could introduce you to the most important person I know, here’s what I would say about you…..”
“If you could introduce me, here is what I hope you would say about me……”
“What I am feeling right now, right here, with you…..”
“Remember when…….a happy time for us…….”
“Tell me a memory from you childhood….maybe one about sex…..
Cooking a gourmet meal together is pleasurable. Feeding each other with attention to sensual pleasuring or simply feeding oneself in a sensual manner can be great fun. Remember the move, “Tom Jones”? The scene in the Inn where the couple made love through the eating of food is an unforgettable experience.
Make it meaningful. This is child’s play. Make a list of ways you have fun.
Some examples: play with any kind of bouncing balls all over the house—just the two of you.
Put on some music what you play children’s games—Hide and Seek, Strip Poker
Sing to each other. Read Poetry. Read good books aloud.
Make love to the beat of Ravel’s Bolero.
Wrestle, run, jump, play, giggle, laugh, tell jokes, make mudpies, have a marshmallow fight, make faces, and lighten up.
Try eye to eye gazing. Look deep into each other’s eyes. Hold the gaze as long as you can. Talk about it. Reflect what you hear. The eyes are the window of the soul. What does that statement mean to you?
Arms-Around-Holding. Before you move into the sexual part of your time together, offer each other at least one minute of holding. This one minute is asexual, no sensual pleasuring, but just the act of tenderly holding your partner. Take turns. Talk and listen. Arms-around-holding without sexual meaning gives the best possible comfort to your partner. It will make you safe while you build the intimacy.
Sit together, relax, and breathe deeply. Bring your fertile imagination to the party. Let you conversation bring forth your dreams for the future. Hopes, possibilities, intentions, and future plans can be shared. Not to worry how you will reach these tantalizing goals, just give voice to them. Gently and lovingly, give time to hearing each other. Follow the rules of brainstorming and let the ideas flow freely without judgment or evaluation. Create an ideal relationship list. Make it wildly optimistic and positive. Anything that is not agreed upon can become a creative way to give gifts to each other. E.g. Paul will never include ballroom dancing on his list of ideals. Yet, he gives me the lovely gift of dancing with me on occasions such as weddings. I will never have on my list that we do the same daily rituals but I offer that as a gift because I know he likes to have life predictable.
You have five sense plus one more, your intuition. Dr. Stanley Caplan designed a “turn-on list” for couples to use. Interview each other concerning experiences that give pleasure. Ask your partner to tell you ten things that give her/him pleasure to see; ten more things that give pleasure to hear; ten for taste; ten for smell, and ten more for things you like to touch. If each one of you constructs such a list, written or spoken, then you can include many of the turn-ons in your weekend.
Pat Love wrote a book, “Hot Monogamy” which is helpful for couples who are discovering the joys of sex. That book starts with childhood. When did you learn about sex? From whom? When did you first realize you were a girl or a boy? Fears, longings, disappointments, sexual experimentations, and any other memories can be shared. The caveat is that the sharing must be absolutely safe and a commitment made to not hold any of these revelations as power over your partner.
Your weekend will move into a positive-growth experience filled with joy when you give to each other these gifts:
· Listening with empathy
· Encouraging sharing with safety
· Allowing dreaming and “futuring”
· Offering protective holding
· Good eye contact
Your weekend will be diminished if you cannot resist these: Criticism, blame, faultfinding, or condemnation
· Put-downs, which are anything that negates self esteem
· Sulking, withdrawing, sleeping too much
· Anger, guilt trips, shaming, or anything that brings fear
Imagine your partner is new to you, a stranger that you are attracted to. See your partner as some exciting person that you would like to win as a companion for your life. Return to the same courtesies and civilities that you gave when you first wanted to be with this person. Refresh your own eyes and hear with accurate ears.
These ideas are the best of all foreplay for your sexual fun.
Read these statements together and discuss your ideas with each other:
We need to Face the Facts of Life
1. Acknowledge, Recognize, and Accept these realities:
2. Each of us hold childhood pain around the subject of sex.
3. Each of us holds childhood misinformation and ignorance left over from childhood.
4. Each of us has chosen a partner who brought their own unique childhood with them and recreates it in your relationship.
5. Each of us will continue in sexual conflict until we have worked through the leftovers of our childhood.
6. There is no “bad guy” in either of us, only woundedness.
We need to learn that our relationship is all about Process, Not Product. These issues left over from childhood can be processed by:
1. Learning to listen without blame, judgment, analysis, or solution
2. Encouraging your partner to talk it out
3. Setting aside time where each of you can talk and be listened to in safety
4. Allowing the process of sharing openly to become the proess of healing.
Give up the idea that there is a product-like solution. All is the process of life, living, learning, and loving.