Tami Simon: You're listening to "Insights at the Edge." Today I speak with Harville Hendrix. Harville Hendrix is a therapist and educator with over three decades of experience working with couples and singles seeking intimate partners. A former professor at both Perkin School of Theology and Southern Methodist University, he holds a PhD in psychology and religion from the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. His very popular books include Getting the Love You Want, Keeping the Love You Find and Receiving Love. With Sounds True, he's published a six-CD audio learning program called Finding and Keeping Love: An Imago-Based Approach. In this episode of "Insights at the Edge," Harville and I spoke about a biological explanation for the notion that opposites attract, how it is that we choose partners that reflect the negative traits of our childhood caregivers, what it might mean to recognize others in relationship, and the value and great benefit of creating a relationship that is without judgment—what Harville calls "living with zero negativity." Here's my inspiring conversation with Harville Hendrix.
Harville, you've been working with couples for more than three decades, and to begin with, here's what I'm curious about: what do you think, when you really boil it down, is the cause of the great distress it seems like most of us have in our intimate life? If you could just boil it down to what it really comes down to, after working with so many different people, what is the pattern that you see?
Harville Hendrix: Well, the fundamental thing that causes conflict and therefore stress is the problem of acknowledging difference. It's really a very simple thing that couples have a real challenge recognizing, that they actually live with another person and this other person has their own subjectivity, their own values, their own particular peculiarities that belong to them as who they are. The reason that is a problem [is] because the person they discover that they married and live with doesn't fit in the picture that they had of the person that they thought they married. So fundamentally, the difficulty is in acknowledging, owning and accepting difference. There are a lot of reasons for that being a problem, but that fundamentally when you boil it right down, difference is difficult. Or to put it another way, otherness sucks.
TS: Okay, that's very, clear. Let's talk more about that. I want my partner to deal with money the same way I deal with money. I want my partner to want to go on the same number of vacations I want to go on, etc. It seems like this is pretty common for people. It would be more convenient if our partner was just like us, but they're not. So this [concept] seems logical, it's not hard to understand. And yet, we try to turner our partner into this thing that fits the way we want, so what's going on, Harville?
HH: Well, I think there are two things going on. And the first one is amplified by the second the one. The first one is that there's a common human problem that has to do with the growth of the mind in infancy and childhood in which we assume that our inner world is the world. There's a simple sort of epistemology that what you see is what is there and it's sort of problem that shows up in the sciences as well. It has to do with the simplicity of perception—that if I see a tree, you see the tree, he sees tree, and everybody sees the tree. Isn't it a green tree? And somebody says, "Well, you could call it green, but it's sort of brown too. Oh, no, no it's green!" Or one of the things that Helen and I get involved in all the time is, "What is the meaning of the world 'cold'?" For Helen, "cold" is anything under 80 degrees. For me, anything cold doesn't start until about 72 degrees. All that has to do with the different sensors in our skin about what is cold. So when we walk into a room, she'll say, "It's cold in here." We go to hotels a lot and you know they have all these air conditioners and I'll say, "Oh, this is so comfortable" and she says, "It's cold."
All this has to do with the common fact that our receptors—brain, skin, eyes—are all unique and distinctive, although there's a great deal of similarity. It's like a tree. I'm looking at one out of my window now and there's probably 500,000 leaves on that tree, and from this distance they all look the same, but actually there's not a single leaf on the tree that looks like another leaf. Tremendous similarity, but no seams. So that's the reality.
So in relationships that I've worked with over three decades or so, as you've said, there's an amplification of that sort of distortion between perception and reality. And that's caused by a disturbance that occurs in childhood. And the disturbance that occurs in childhood is the caretaker's failure to accurately mirror and hold the child's experience of the child's self. For instance, if a child got scared by a big dog, many parents would say, "Don't be afraid, this dog is not scary." Well, to the child the dog is very scary. And it's a very simple, but it requires some awareness to say, "Oh boy, that dog was really scary for you, gee whiz, what a big dog! That really scared you." [In this case] the child says, "Well, my fear of the dog is recognized by my mother or father or whoever was doing this," whereas [in the case of the parents saying "don't be afraid"], the child says, "Gosh, I'm scared of a dog and my caretakers don't say I shouldn't be scared, so what do I do with my experience?" So that simple thing alone, the discrepancy between the child's experience of itself and the caretaker's response of that experience, produces an emotional injury. The child then begins splitting off its own experience of being scared from the experience that it ought not to be scared, according to the parents.
So when that happens, something very tragic occurs. The pain of that experience, of having the split and also in having to in some sense split from the caretaker, is an emotional pain. This is happening in a brain that is totally absorbing its environment, can't reflect on it, can't think about it, has no words—the first four years of life. So mainly what's in the brain is an emotional memory of a fear I had which I was told was not real—but it's an emotional memory, there are no words, not even an event memory. Just a concern about, say, dogs. And dogs, therefore, become a certain way. So now I've gone inside myself, and since the tendency of human beings is to—even under the best conditions—assume that what they see is what is there, and what they hear is the sound that's being sung. This now becomes amplified, because when you become emotionally self-absorbed because of a pain, you don't let in data from the outside. Because the inside world becomes your world, and data coming in saying, "Oh, that's not really your world," adds to the anxiety.
More and more, all of us grow up into a feeling that our world is the world now amplified, and if we let that go, we make ourselves subject to something catastrophic. I mean, what I do when I discover that what I'm looking at is not the world other people are seeing? So, that's what amplifies that. So then when you get married, you have this view of "men are," or "women are," or "sex is," or "money is." It's your narrative about [these things] that you've developed in childhood, and there's still this assumption that my narrative is the Narrative, with a capital n, not a little n. And when I run my narrative for my partner, and then my partner says, "That's not the way I see it. I think money should be spent, I don't think we shouldn't save very much because blah, blah, blah, blah, and people just save too much and they don't enjoy it." [But] my narrative is that it's not to be spent, it's to be saved. If we don't save it, catastrophes could come along. You know how the two narratives could go, and now you have a conflict.
So [with] these two narratives, both narrators assume that they are in the zone of truth. And neither one knows that they are in the zone of the way it appears to them. Therefore there's an enormous amount of flexibility in money itself—that money is not the issue, it's the relationship to money, and that relationship is built into a narrative that [started] all the way back in childhood and amplified by the tendency to see things as "real" from our perspective now—amplified by the anxiety and pain in childhood, which made us more self-absorbed and shut down outside sources of information, so that we become more rigid with that anxiety about the "facticity" of our inner world. That's a long story, but that's what I've finally figured out is what makes it so difficult to live with another person.
TS: There's a lot there, and a couple things that I want to tease out. Now the first is, that it seems that often people don't have as much trouble with the otherness of XYZ person, as they do the otherness of their partner. Like, other people do this or that and that's fine, but when comes to my love, this is what I expect.
HH: Right. And that has to do with the meaning of the partner in the unconscious. The partner, our love partner, our romantic partner, our married partner, the one we're committed to, is that person that we selected because we fell in love with them, because they are, in our minds, similar to the caretakers that we grew up with in childhood. This meaning that these people have makes our relationship with them more significant than it does with those other people because it's more emotionally charged. And it's therefore more emotionally sensitive. There's also an unconscious projection onto this person that we've fallen in love with that this person is a carrier of resources that satisfy our need, but in order for us to get those resources, he or she somehow has to fit into our picture of things. So if you don't fit into the picture—if you're not the generous, kind, warm, and loving caring person that I thought I fell in love with and married—then that raises anxiety that the needs I had from my earlier caretakers, which now I have in my unconscious mind as tied to you, won't get met. And that's not trivial.
For a long time, I wondered, why is that so important? So you didn't get hugs in childhood and you're not getting hugs from your partner and you're making a big deal out of it. A hug is a hug, go get one from somewhere else. I finally figured out that's not the point. The hug I want is the hug I didn't get from my caretakers in childhood, and I have to have the hugs from somebody similar to my caretakers in childhood. Unconsciously, I selected or fell in love with a person who is similar to the caretakers I had in childhood who did not hug me. But I want the hug from the person who is similar who didn't hug me. So it's not that I just want a hug—go get it from George—it's that I want a hug from Peter who is not a hugger.
In the unconscious mind, that's really important. It's important because for the first four years of life, the brain is purely a sponge. It absorbs everything and there's no way that one can say—so all of those [experiences] are emotional, not event experiences or verbal experiences or symbolic experiences. They are purely emotional, purely felt, purely timeless, and so consequently, purely powerful. Because what's happening now is always what's always happened for me—that whatever triggers me in the present, [whatever] triggers an experience that is really connected to the past, that's not in my awareness. What's in my awareness is that you're not hugging me.
TS: Now, this cornerstone of your work, this idea that our chosen love partner somehow is representing these qualities of one or both of our primary caretakers from the first four years of life, I'm sure people in your workshops have said, "You know Harville, I'm the exception to this. It's not just like that. I can't find my mom and my dad in my partner. I just don't see it." Have you ever really encountered that or is it always that the person just hasn't looked hard enough or seen it somehow yet?
HH: Well, it's an interesting experience that in most cases, one partner gets it completely, and says, "Yep, I see it all. I hadn't seen it before, but now that you've said it, I can see how George is like my withholding father." And George would say, "I don't get it at all. She's nothing at all like my mother." What happens is that you have to sit with it, because now George has decided already what that image is and he is also not connecting into something usually subtle. So, the answer is yes, I've heard it a lot and I hear it every workshop.
The process is always the same: we have to ask this question, "George, what frustration shows up over and over again with Mary and when it shows up, you're emotional about it?" And George will say, "Well, she never gets ready when we're trying to get ready, she's in the house doing something and I'm sitting in the car waiting for 15 minutes." So I say, "So this happens over and over again, and you get upset about that? And what do you feel?" "I feel like she's slow and insensitive and lazy." And then I say, "No, that's a description of her. What do you feel sitting in the car? What is your narrative?" Then George says "Oh, it's that she just doesn't care, or doesn't get it that I'm out here." Then, "What does that remind you of?" Inevitably, the person will then say, "Oh, gosh, I never saw that. It reminds me of not being able to get my mother's attention, no matter what. She was always busy doing something else." So then he would say, "Oh, yes, now I see the pattern."
So for [some], there's more denial and defense against that in most relationships, and for others there's more awareness. But it's always the case that if you fall in love—it's always the case, I tested it over the years—you will inevitably bring home with you someone with the negative traits of your caretakers. And you'll ask [your partner] to give you stuff that your caretakers didn't give you and because they are similar, they won't be able to do it, just like your caretakers weren't able to do. That then is the thing that fuels the struggle that we call the power struggle.
TS: That's a very strong statement. "It's always the case." Just to take it a little further, what about couples who meet each other very late in life? They've already done a lot of their personal work. They've worked through this material. Do you still think that's the case—they're still looking to heal these childhood wounds?
HH: Well, I think the "if" is, did they [really] work through stuff? If they did work through stuff, and they have learned how to relate to another person to get some needs met, have gotten those needs met at some level, then they will actually engage in a healing process that moves them up the emotional ladder. They become more mature, their wounds are more healed. At that point—let's say you had a wound in the first year of life, and the wound was around attachment. And so that attachment wound would interfere in the second year of life, which is about exploration and so forth, but that wound was never dealt with. [By] the third year of life, the potential wounding is around the sense of self. We call it identity. So if you worked on attachment and got attachment and exploration done—usually if you have attachment wound then you have an exploration and identity wound—you have evolved and become more mature.
I guess the bottom line is this without all these details, you will always be attracted to somebody at your level of emotional maturity. So the answer is yes, later in life you will select people whose emotionally maturity will match yours. If you have done the work, then you can do that. If you haven't done the work, you can be 70 years old and fall in love like a teenager and go through the same thing, because keep in mind that the part of the brain where all this drama happens is in the limbic system. And around the limbic area there's a thing called the amygdala. That amygdala is a reactive system to danger, and there's also a memory system built into it, the neuroscientists say. The memory in the amygdala is not a cognitive memory. Those memories, cognitive and event memories, are held in the hippocampus, which is sort of like a library and is also in the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain. But the memories around the amygdala are purely emotional, random, scattered, immortal, eternal, aren't connected to space or time. They are just there. You touch them and you're now one year old again.
So that's the really important thing: If you work and begin to heal a bunch of needs, then the hippocampus has event memories or needs being met. You become more emotionally mature, more emotionally stable, and therefore [you] will begin to respond to the world and to other people in a different way because your need system will change.
TS: I'm curious, Harville, with all of the interesting research that's now being done with neuroscience and meditative states and all the new things we're learning about the brain, if any of those discoveries have impacted your work on relationships in any new way—any new insights that you've had as a result of what we're learning these days from neuroscience.
HH: The answer to that is a resounding yes! This is sort of amazing to me and to my students in Imago—we have about 2,000 Imago therapists around the world now. And what we're all doing is reading the brain research and we're saying, "Oh my God, the brain research confirms what we intuitively discovered at the psychological level because this book was put together in the early '80s. Getting the Love You Want was put together in the early '80s before any brain research of any importance was done. That began in the '90s—that was the decade of the brain when we learned about neuroplasticity, namely that the brain could change and did change all of our lives. Then in the last decade, from 2000 until now, we've become more specific about what's happening in the brain as a result of new measurement devices like FMRIs, MRIs, and better use of GSMs, and so forth. There's all kinds of increased capacity to measure and not only take pictures of the brain, but actually take a movie of the brain functions—locating where particular things occurred. So what we're discovering now is the neurophysiological basis and correlates of what we had discovered earlier and posited as subjective experiences.
For instance, there's a dynamic in every couple—we call them the minimizer/maximizer, or the turtle in the hailstorm, in order to make it a little more interesting. That is [when] one person is always more energetic and takes more initiative and talks more and is more sensitive than the other person. The other person is the responder, talks less, doesn't initiate much, tends to respond, and so that's the turtle. The other one is the hailstorm or maximizer. So we've known that dynamic was there, actually before even the book was written, that there was this universal pattern—and I call this "complimentarenting"—that if you fall in love, and you are a person with a high energy expression, you will inevitably attract somebody whose energy expression is lower than yours. It's also the case that if you divorce and remarry, you might marry somebody where there's a reversal of that. Which means that we both do both, but in a relationship, we tend to balance it out with one of us doing more of one than the other. That is, one becomes more the initiator and one becomes more the responder.
So one of the simple things that has emerged is that we know about the two branches of the central nervous system: the sympathetic system is the one that regulates arousal and the parasympathetic is the one that regulates quietness, or relaxation. What we [can] now can posit is: Why would somebody who has both aspects of the central nervous system present always, or most of the time, be the one who responded to stuff with a lot of energy? What we've learned now is because in childhood, arousal got parental attention, and it therefore became a dominant behavior. Or in the other person: Why would they always kind of hold back and go inside and not make much of a fuss, unless you push them too hard? That's because if you were relaxed and quiet, the parents paid attention. So you then begin to under-balance—that is, you lost your balance. So if you became internal, kept your energy in, minimizing, you'll marry somebody who is a hailstorm, a maximizer, who expresses energy in order to have that oscillation of the central nervous system. So you're dealing with both sides of that but in two people.
What is so interesting is that when you are attracted—let's say the turtle is attracted to the hailstorm because she or he has got so much energy and you [have] low energy—and when you finally make a commitment, you don't like it, and you get scared when they do that. What we figured out was in childhood, if I was expressive, I got punished, so I [became] quiet where I didn't get punished and got my needs met. So while I'm attracted to your energy, it's also dangerous because when you're expressive, something bad could happen. So you have to stop being the way you are to be more like me, because what I did kept me safe and what you're doing makes it dangerous for both of us. So it's an interesting sort of thing. But the short answer to that is we now think we know where what we call the Imago is located.
TS: Tell me where! Tell me where! Where is the Imago located?
HH: One of the brain scientists that I've gotten familiar with who has been really attracted to Imago says it's in the front part of the cortex in the orbital frontal lobe, and he thinks it's probably a little more into that part of the lobe in the right brain because there's so much emotion attached to it. So it's a memory area in the brain where emotional memories seem to cluster.
TS: Okay, now Harville, you mentioned neuroplasticity, that our brains can actually change over time, and of course as I'm listening to you, I'm in touch with all of the different ways that the neural pathways in me have formed, I believe. And my interest is in changing them through loving, intimate, relationships so that I can grow and mature. My question here is, what do you see as the primary engine of growth and healing in relationships so that these neural pathways evolve and change—that's what we want.
HH: Well, there's a pre-statement that I have to make: what we are finding is that, of course, nearly any input that is repetitive changes the brain, and novel input changes the brain, because the brain has to [change] unless there's so much anxiety that the brain allows hardly any input. So what that [concept] leads to is that the greatest brain growth seems to be a consequence of being in a different context, in a context of safety. That is, [if] you are emotionally safe, then you can in fact allow new information to be received into your library. You can say, "Oh, so that's new." Or I can say to my partner, "Oh, so that's what's really going on in your mind. That's how you really feel. And that's really different from what I thought and I get that, and hey, I can accept that. And I'm going to tuck that away in my hippocampus as an event experience with you which discredits the other books in my library that said you were X,Y, and Z. Actually, you're A,B,C, and D. So I get that straight."
Now, I can do that if I'm safe, but if my partner is behaving in such a way that I'm scared, and then I can't let in the new data. So no brain changes can occur. What I'll do is reinforce what's already in the library. "I got you pegged, you're in row 7, shelf 4—that's where you're housed in my library. And I can't move it around because the data [is] telling me that you really aren't that. You're telling me in such a way that you're confirming that you are what I think."
TS: So let's take that one step to unpack that a little bit more. What creates that kind of safety for people?
HH: Here's what we've found works best, and it works not only best, but it works every time—that is what we now call "zero negativity effect." And what we mean by zero negativity is basically that. Two people in a relationship, whether it's an intimate partnership or any other relationship, like the one you have at work there at Sounds True, if you agree to eliminate judgment from your transaction with your friend or your partner—judgment meaning a judgment that would say to your partner, "You are really not okay," or "What you said is not okay," there's an element of a put-down to it, that you are slightly inferior if you have that thought or feeling. "It doesn't make any sense. I can't imagine where that thought would come from. Other people have said that but they were wrong." Whatever you would say to another person that essentially says "you are inferior, wrong, one down," creates danger.
What we have now learned from the brain research is that the amygdala is very sensitive to the put-down. The people who do this from a cultural anthropological perspective say that for millions of years human beings have been sensitive to the put-down. And you can sort of see it in animals: when an animal feels put down, in order not to get themselves killed, they will actually take the one down position. Then the alpha male will say, "OK, you're OK, you're not going to die now, I'm not going to eat or hurt you." But this sensitivity to the put-down has been around for a long time, and it has been related to all kinds of authority structures.
A partner can put a partner down simply with the roll of the eye, or with a harsh look, or with a sound of their voice, or they can say something. And that creates danger. Danger activates the amygdala, the amygdala says, "Close the gates to the port, we've got an incoming arrow, and troops, tighten around and become your best defensive self." When that happens, what strengthens in the brain are the perceptions that are rooted in the past. So if you don't have safety, you're not going to open the doors to the castle and let some new stuff in which might in fact be some great new furniture that can make your castle even better. But you're not going to let it in if you think that it's a Trojan horse.
TS: OK, now "zero negativity." How about like 20 percent negativity. I mean zero negativity, that seems, I have to say, almost implausible. Maybe not impossible, but implausible.
HH: Well, if it's 20 percent, then you're not safe, because I don't know when you might decide to shoot an arrow. So I'm going to live in anticipation that at any time, you could hurt me. But if we have an intention of zero negativity, it is in fact possible to zero it out. It doesn't mean that you can't decide that your executive director's job description needs to be changed, or he needs to change his behavior to match the job description because there's some inconsistency between job performance and job needs—it doesn't mean you can't make certain kinds of evaluations. But even in the evaluation, you don't do the put-down. Because the put-down is going to mean that I have to do something to put you down [in return], because one down means I could be dead. So I'm going to go back up.
So we do push it a bit, and John Goodman and I are discussing this now. He says, "No, I don't think we have to go to that level, couples just can't do that." But what I'm finding is that until couples do that [aim for zero negativity], there's a certain quality of the relationship that doesn't happen. That quality is a sort of plateau effect of joy that if you can't have a reliable—or to put it another way, if you anticipate that your partner cannot be reliable around negativity (i.e. zero it out), then you're gonna have your gun in your holster and it's going to be unsnapped.
TS: Okay, so what happens when I have the patterned judgmental thought? It comes up, whatever it might be, but I've made this commitment to zero negativity. What do I do?
HH: Well, we've found that there are two or three things you can do. One thing that makes you safe is that you can say, "Hey, Mary, my intention is to not be negative, [but] I'm really having a hard time and I just want to share it with you, and I want you to mirror it back and then know that I'm going to let it go." So that's sort of [a] bottom line. Not a great thing, but a bottom line thing. If you want to make, or up the ante, for safety, what you do is when the judgmental thought comes up, it is always about this other person not fitting your picture. They're doing something which comes out of their otherness and is different from your picture of who they are.
TS: Their otherness, which I find wrong, their "wrong otherness."
HH: Yes, right. In fact, negativity means otherness is not gonna show up here. I'm gonna get you to fit my picture, even if I have to beat you up. I coerced you when we were in romantic love to fit into your picture, and you agreed and now you're slipping out of the picture and I'm going to beat you up to get you back in. So what you have to do is say—and this is a mental training thing that requires some effort, sort of like meditation requires some effort. You have to get it that anytime you're frustrated with another person, it's you. It's you, not the other person. It's a discrepancy between your view and what reality is.
So what you do is go to curiosity, and say, "So I'm experiencing you chewing gum right now, and standing on one hand. Tell me what's happening for you." In other words, you move to curiosity and then they say, "What's going on for me is that I'm chewing gum and standing on one hand, it doesn't have any meaning. I was just feeling bored." So then you don't say to them, "Well, that's stupid!" because now you've gone to judgment. What you go to then is acceptance and validation and empathy. "Gosh, it makes sense that if you were bored you would want to do something that is stimulating, and I can imagine that you are feeling better." And those are what we call intentional or dialogical conversation. That it is always the case: when you are frustrated, go to curiosity and empathy and acceptance. You train yourself to do that instead of, "What in the hell are they doing? Why are they doing that? They must be a Republican!"
Here's the reason why [you should] do this. Somebody asked me, "Why should I do this?" I said aside from the obvious, that your partner will feel safe with you and will like you a lot better and you might even have better sex and whole range of things that comes with safety—because with safety comes with connection and intimacy. Aside from all of that, whatever judgments go through your mind are received by your limbic brain that is just below the cortex, which has no direct connection with the outside world. It receives information from the outside world fundamentally through the cortical. There's one little thing about danger that it receives directly—that is if you move, you'll be bitten by a rattlesnake. So you just don't have time to think about rattlesnakes. But fundamentally, the information that goes from the prefrontal cortex—which is like this: "So, that was a really stupid thing to do. I'm using words and I'm pissed that you are doing that, I just think it was dumb." Whenever you say that to another person, that part of your brain underneath the cortex—which is the limbic system, having no direct connection with the outside world—experiences the statement to the outside person as if it was sent to you, to the inside person. In other words, the information that goes out and goes down. So therefore, you get the same abuse that your negativity voices on others. So the reason to eliminate negativity is a radical form of self-care.
TS: Now, I just want make sure that I'm tracking with you there. I receive the same abuse—I think I'm judging this person outside of myself but it's registering in the brain as if I'm sending that message against myself.
HH: Yes. And we thought for a long time . . . you know, I interviewed couples, [asking] "how do you feel when you say that—how do you feel inside?" "Well, I feel terrible." We explored that, and for a long time we knew that effect was going on, that what went out, went down, and then the [scientists] came along—I'm bad on dates, but it's been about decade or so now [since] the discovery [of] mirror neurons. So with the discovery of mirror neurons, it was discovered that we have a capacity, without a necessary exchange of words, to experience what goes on in another person's mind, to influence what goes on in another person's mind, and [to know] that there's a mirror effect between the two minds. And that is a complicated thing, too long for this conversation, but that set of neurons established the neurophysiological basis for simultaneous effect.
TS: Now Harville, I'm curious, you've been married for many years.
TS: Have you been able to accomplish zero negativity in your marriage?
HH: Let me put it this way. It is an intention that Helen and I are both committed to, so when we blow up—or rather blow it, we don't blow up anymore—but when we blow it, we do immediate repair. So it doesn't sound like we're perfect and we've got all this down. But mainly, we have surrendered negativity. It took us about nine months to retrain our brains but we did and you know, there are times—and when you do that, you begin developing a new neural net about your partner. The old neural net that [says] she's not an OK person is no longer filled with any energy. [The energy is in the net that says] she is an amazingly, wonderful, good, kind person, and whatever is going on right now has to do with what is happening to her. Maybe she got a bad phone call or her back hurts. That's a new neural net that includes perception, awareness, empathy, compassion, and curiosity and all that. It takes awhile to build, but you can build it and it becomes the new operating system. Occasionally, as you know, the new operating system breaks down and—the computer analogy doesn't work too well—and you flip over to Microsoft or—what was that old system, that old operating system for Microsoft was called, before Windows. Anyway, you get my point.
TS: I do, I do.
HH: You flip over to another track that's very old, very dysfunctional, but you always know when you're over there because it simply feels terrible. [But] since you have a new network, which feels wonderful, you know [this old track is] like falling in a briar patch, you just get back up on the road real fast. And you get back over in the other place because that's where you want to live.
TS: And what might an interpersonal repair look like? How do you do that?
HH: You go to your partner. There's two or three things you can do. One is to say, "I'm sorry. I slipped." Hold them. Look them in the eye, and make contact—we call it looking from the glare to the gaze. If you look softly in the eye and say, "I'm really sorry, and I love you, and I never, never intend to hurt you. I take responsibility for what I did and I recommit to this." And then you touch, you want to touch and hug. What that does is stimulate bonding chemicals, and you feel better in about two or three minutes instead of about two or three weeks.
TS: Now, Harville, just a couple more questions. It seems—and tell me if I'm right or wrong here—that you have a bias that it's better to be in a committed intimate relationship, than it is to either be single, to live your life as a single person, or to live your life in an unconventional open marriage, or some other unconventional form that we might be able to come up with—who knows what? Is that true or not?
HH: Well, let me answer it this way. I think that couplehood is a reflection of the dyadic structure of nature. And that therefore, couplehood exists. It's more than just a psychological or social structure. It's actually built into nature itself. There [are] all different kinds and types of couplehood, but everything in nature seems to be dyadic and complementary. And that what that means for singles [is] it is important for them, if they're not in an "intimate committed partnership," to be in relationship, because we are relational creatures. It started in the '70s where the old model of autonomy and independent self-sufficiency that came from Newton and Darwin and Freud began to break down—when we discovered a child is a social being at birth instead of merged with the mother. And then a whole range of even the basic psychotherapy, the psychoanalysis, developed a whole subset called relational psychoanalysis, which was rooted in the fact that . . . I think it was—oh gosh, I'm blocking the name, an English, British, object relations therapist—
HH: Winnicott! What he said was that relationship is fundamental, that there's no such thing as a baby in isolation. There's always a mother-child relationship. Sullivan in the 1950s said it doesn't matter what happens inside of people, what matters is what happens between them. Buber, with the "I-Thou" relationship, said that all life is meeting. The whole idea of singularity and the isolated self has taken—you know, it's been 25 or 30 years of strong conversations and directions. So yes, I do have a bias toward relationality as [being] fundamental. There's another part of your question that I want to address too, not just about singles.
TS: Unconventional relationships or open marriages.
HH: Yes, I did want to address that. Here's what we found about ambivalence. It's that the degree and intensity of your growth in a relationship depends on the degree of your commitment, which is why you finally tie that knot and say "I do." Your unconscious mind begins to do something, [it begins] a program in the relationship that will heal the childhood wounds. Very dynamic things begin to happen after you tie the knot that don't happen before that.
And so as we work with that [concept], we've come to the conclusion that ambivalence interferes with psychological growth, which means that many people who get a divorce have never actually fully committed to the relationship, "from death do us part." But when there is no ambivalence in a relationship, then there are energies apparently in the unconscious that are activated, that move toward deep internal healing and repair that are not activated unless there is a full commitment. So an open marriage—probably maybe there are some, but structurally it looks like an open relationship would be one of ambivalence. Consequently, it might have all the other kinds of values and I have no evaluation of it. But at the functional level, it appears that commitment is necessary for deep healing and growth, and ambivalence interferes with that process.
We have a big reality now in the Western world of the number of co-habiting couples. The co-habitation is an ambivalent relationship for most people. Some people may decide to co-habitate as if we are married and we're committed until death do us part, but there's another larger strain that co-habitation is in some sense a practice or experiment—if we get it right without getting married then we might get married. What we found is that most people that move from co-habitation to marriage go through a very difficult period, and the divorce rate for co-habiting couple is much higher than the divorce rate of couples who don't live together before marriage. But it's that ambivalence that prevents growth. And when you get married, then the unconscious says "OK, now we can get the work done," but it's so painful and disheartening that you lived together for five years in a great relationship and now it's gone to pot. We've been working with this for a long time and that's what we've come up with: the theory of ambivalence and how that limits psychological healing and growth.
TS: But it sounds like it's the commitment that's the key thing, not the form per say—whether you co-habitate or you don't. It's the quality of commitment and all the doors are sealed.
HH: That's exactly right. It's the non-negotiability of the commitment or the unconditionality of the commitment. Helen likes to talk about the "covenant marriage," which is an Old Testament term in which the relationship between Yahweh and his people, at that time the Israelites, was not breakable. It was non-negotiable. You could count on it. And I think that's the quality in relationships, when it's unconditional and non-negotiable, then safety is created and then you're not wondering, "Is he going to be gone? Are we going to divorce? We're having such a horrible time, he's gonna walk." No. If you're in a covenant relationship or one that's rooted in non-negotiable commitment, then you know that it's just a storm and we need to come together to move toward what I call a "zero negativity increase of curiosity and empathy," because we know that out of that [commitment] will come a real sense of connection. And when you feel sustainable connection, you can then feel very, very deep passion. And then you have the relationship of your dreams.
TS: Now, Harville, I want to end to respond to a quote of yours that I read. And here's the quote: "God shows up in relationships that are thriving."
HH: Yes, I stand by that. Let me take a minute to build the infrastructure of that statement. We talk in Imago about "the space between." [The] space between is what couples create to eliminate what we were talking about before, "my world is the world, too bad about yours," which can be called "merger" or "symbiosis," [where] there's a kind of emotional merger with you with me. What we have to do is differentiate. You have to become aware that you are collapsing your partner into your world and stop doing it—to put it bluntly. And that's called "differentiation."
When you differentiate, you create a space between the two, and that space means two differentiated individuals are capable of having a connection. When you differentiate, you [understand] that your partner is not you and is another person. And now you can have a connected relationship because you're differentiated. When you're merged, you can't really have a connected relationship because there's no sense of the other. When you get to the sense of the other, you can then have a connected relationship. When you are in the differentiated place, with the space between, you only allow into the space kindness, care, curiosity, empathy, compassion—you are basically creating love. And then I pick up on Martin Buber, who said that God dwells in the space between. I pick up on him and say that when couples create love in the space between, God comes to live in that relationship and certainly couples will thrive.
TS: Wonderful, thank you so much. I've been speaking with Harville Hendrix. He has created a six-session audio learning course with Sounds True called Finding and Keeping Love. It's an Imago-based approach, and really, Harville, you are such a master and so committed, you've done so much work in this field to train so many therapists and help so many people, I'm really grateful to you for holding the torch. It's really beautiful.
HH: Oh, thank you very much Tami.
TS: Thanks everyone for listening. SoundsTrue.com. Many voices. One journey.