FR: The Mirror of Love
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THE MIRROR OF LOVE
By Harville Hendrix, Ph.D.
My wife, Helen, and I have known each other for eighteen years and have been
married for thirteen. Recently, we were asked to present a keynote address
on the subject of "keeping the dream alive." We were asked to talk about our
relationship and the techniques we have devised to keep our love growing and
thriving. At first, Helen and I were intimidated -- we certainly didn't want
to present ourselves as models, but we also didn't want to present ourselves
as too flawed. Finally, we decided we'd just tell the truth -- that our
current relationship is the result of thirteen years of struggle, years that
have been every bit as challenging for us as for anybody else.
One of the major difficulties that we encountered over the years was an
inability to make romantic moments last. It seemed that every time we
created a romantic moment, whether it was reading poetry to each other,
going to a movie, or having dinner at a fine restaurant, we just couldn't
seem to hold it. It would last for that evening, maybe -- but we would
definitely blow it within a few days, if not that very night. Then we'd be
back into tension with each other. So, at a certain point, we both just
stopped trying to be romantic. Why work at what wasn't working?
Once we realized what was happening, we began to look at our relationship
with a critical eye. We found that our romantic moments were sabotaged when
we became analytical of a trait or behavior in the other person. For
instance, we would have different points of view about a movie and we'd show
little appreciation for the other's ideas. We would criticize each other.
And then we made an interesting discovery: We each possessed the very same
traits that we criticized in the other. And not wanting to accept a
particular disliked trait in ourselves, we would assign it to the other. We
came to understand that rejection of a trait or behavior in the other was
actually a form of self-rejection. We concluded that unconscious self-hatred
was the source of our conflict and probably fueled the power struggles of
many (if not all) couples.
Not only does this unconscious self-hatred get in the way of expressing
love, it also interferes with receiving love. You cannot feel worthy of
accepting love if you unconsciously hate yourself or even hate some parts of
yourself. We finally realized that in order to increase our self-love, we
had to learn to love in the other person the trait we most disliked in
ourselves. And we had to stop criticizing each other, because the more we
criticized a disliked trait in the other, the more we increased our
unconscious self-hatred. Putting it all together, we came to the conclusion
that self-love is the paradoxical achievement of loving another, especially
that part of the other which we reject in ourselves.
To this end, we created a system for developing what we call a conscious
marriage. In such a relationship, conflict is reframed as an unconscious
attempt to resolve issues and connect at a deeper level. We developed a
special form of communication that we believe is essential to any
relationship. This process, called "intentional dialogue," was inspired by
the Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber.
The process includes three steps.
The first step involves what we call "direct mirroring." It is designed to
help the listener hear the other person without any interpretation of
emotional reaction: the listener merely reflects back the speaker's words.
All emotional interpretations of what the words mean are dropped. The
listener simply paraphrases back to the speaker what the speaker just said,
Step two is what I call "validation." Once the listener has heard the other
person without adding any interpretation, he or she then must try to see the
issue from the others point of view. An example could sound something like,
"What you are saying to me makes sense, because ..." Then the listener
completes the sentence, filling in the blanks after because. Another
example: "Given the fact that I was late, it makes sense to me that you
would think I didn't care or that I didn't take my obligation seriously."
This statement forces the listener to see that the logic in the other
person's mind is equal in value and truth to the logic in his or her own
mind. It's a very self-transcendent act and a great equalizer!
The third part of the dialogue process is "empathic relating," or truly
understanding the partner's feelings. When you are able to mirror the
feelings of the other person, validate the other, and see through his or her
eyes, then you have become empathic. An instance of empathic relating:
"Given what you are experiencing, I can imagine that you must feel hurt or
excited or angry." Amazingly, if you keep practicing empathic behavior, you
will eventually begin to experience the actual feelings and inner world of
the other person. Through empathy, you will share your essential
connectedness while remaining your unique individuality. We call it freeing
the partner from the prison of our conceptions.
Helen and I, with the help of Buber, see this process as discovering the
"Thou-ness" of the other person without surrendering the "I-ness" of
oneself. I am not really capable of loving you until I surrender the
position that my way is the right way, until I can see the logic of the way
your mind works, and until I can experience your feelings as yours, separate
from mine. It's when I can truly see and experience your "Thou-ness" that I
can begin to love. Up to that point, what I may profess to love is actually
what I imagine you to be. I am only really loving my own representation of
you. True love is when I can experience and honor your otherness, apart
from my needs and expectations. And I can maintain that love, even though my
experience of you may not always be either satisfying to me or a way to
serve my needs.
We have also been able to use this process when dealing with our children.
Just recently, I was frustrated with Hunter, who is ten, and began to
express my feelings in a strong way. Instead of reacting by defending
himself, he began to mirror my thoughts and feelings, which rapidly brought
the tension to an end. Another time, during a car trip, I was expressing
some anger to my wife about something she had done. My daughter Leah then
leaned over the front seat and whispered into Helen's ear, "Mirror him,
Mom." That effectively ended the scene! But the best part of all this is
that the level of emotional connection between Helen and me is now being
experienced by our children.
Helen and I also use intentional dialogue with our adult children. Whenever
they are upset with us, we invite them into dialogue. The conversation
sometimes is very long, but it always ends with connection rather than
conflict, distance, and alienation.
You can also use this process for responding to positive experiences, not
just conflictive ones; it enhances the communication and deepens the
connection between you and the other person.
Feelings of being unloved have more to do with a person's own unconscious
self-hatred and self-rejection than with a true absence of love. So the
question is, "How can you get in touch with your unconscious self-hatred and
begin to modulate it?"
You can do this by becoming aware of what you really don't like in your
partner or your children or in humankind in general. What is it that really
bugs you? I find that I get annoyed when my wife Helen overindulges in
sweets or spends what I think is too much time on the telephone. But then I
also sometimes overindulge or withdraw from people by spending too much time
on the computer. Once you can truthfully figure out what bothers you in
other people, you probably have accessed your own self-hatred, which has
then been projected on someone else.
How do you transcend this projection? I have found that I can learn from
looking at the function of a behavior in Helen's life (let's say, talking on
the telephone) and seeing what it means for my life. Then I try to figure
out if there's some part of my own behavior that is like hers (being on the
computer too long). If I reframe Helen's behavior as functional for her,
serving her in an important way, and value it -- even support it and love it
-- I can then begin to experience what I call parallel self-love. While I am
loving her, I am also loving myself. I have bypassed the unconscious
self-hatred. Every time I look at another person without judgment but with
understanding and empathy, I am doing the same thing for myself. The result
is that I experience the love I give.
As Helen and I have increased our own self-love through loving each other,
we have found that we don't need to set up romantic events and times to
express our love. We have created a safe place and, as a result, feel
romantic all the time. If we get too busy, then we can just go back to the
intentional dialogue system and give ourselves some time to reconnect. And
there doesn't have to be a conflict for us to communicate in this way. It is
my belief that it's in the safe space of seeing the other as a "Thou" that
love is born and sustained. One of my favorite sayings is that love does not
create marriage -- intentional, conscious marriage creates love. The same is
true in all relationships. This is how we have been able to keep the dream
of love and romance alive.
From "Handbook for the Heart: Original Writings on Love," edited by Richard
Carlson and Benjamin Shield. Harville Hendrix, is the founder and president
of Imago Relationship Theraphy and the author of "Getting the Love You Want:
A Guide for Couples" and "Keeping the Love You Find: A Guide for Singles."
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