Archive for October, 2010

Couples Therapy Lesson 3: Asking Your Partner the “Magic Question”

October 26, 2010 Leave a comment

It is important that you and your partner know how to recover well from a fight.  Do you feel safe to stop being angry or defensive or withdrawn?  Do you trust each other to make up?  Can you risk being vulnerable again?

Small children tend to recover from fights well.  My young son, for instance, on the heels of a temper tantrum, states plainly “I need love!” when he is no longer angry and wants affection.  It never fails to elicit a positive response.

Children, whose needs are consistently met, are able to move confidently between anger and their desire to reconnect.  Why?  Because our DNA ingrains in parents a nurturing response to children’s vulnerable pleas.  We are quick to forgive even the most hurtful comments (“I hate you!” or “Go live in another house!”) when our children reapproach us with vulnerability.

But the angry partner who holds a grudge, pouts, withdraws, or simmers will not be met with such sympathy.  His behavior will likely elicit a ‘fight or flight’ response when it appears unsafe to make up.  And it is difficult to reconnect with your partner when you feel that you are warily circling each other as combatants rather than intimates.

Finding a vulnerable space is key to making up with your partner after an argument. You need to create a dynamic which sees past and forgives your partner’s adult, aggressive behaviors, and uncovers the wounded child crying out in pain.  This allows you to tap into your ingrained, nurturing instincts and reconnect.

Knowing your partner’s inner wounded child can be very helpful in this process.  If you have engaged in the exercise outlined in my previous blog entry, you should have a sense of your partner’s most sensitive issues.  This information (and compassion) can guide you in asking what I call the “Magic Question.”

The Magic Question is a gesture indicating that you want to put down the boxing gloves.  It shows that you care about your partner’s wounded child needs.  It is a verbal bridge going to the very core of your partner’s childhood experience and coming back to heal what is paining them in the present.

For instance, if your partner had parents who were dismissive of her every need, she will likely get very triggered when she is feeling unsupported.  Of if your partner had parents who were very critical, he will likely resent feeling judged.  If these two were in a relationship and fighting, the woman, whose needs were never attended to, might have a tendency to get enraged or shut down in the face of an unsympathetic response, while he, who constantly feels criticized, might get angry or withdrawn in the face of her vocal (or what he what he interprets as) silent condemnation.   The argument, that starts off on a concrete issue (e.g. someone late, some chore not finished, or some request unheeded), spins out of control because these sensitive buttons are being pushed.   The content of the fight (the actual words being spoken) are not addressing the core issues.

The Magic Question allows the couple to extricate itself from this whirlpool and hone in on the acute problem fueling their negative responses.  The Magic Question is formulated as follows:  “What can I do right now so that you will feel ____?”  The blank should be filled in with what you know is most important to your partner.  For instance, “What can I do right now so that you will feel supported/empathized with/that your needs are being listened to?” would be ways to formulate the Magic Question to the woman above.  “What can I do right now so that I can state what is bothering me without you feeling judged/criticized/like nothing you do is ever good enough?” would be good questions for the man.

When I work with couples, natural responses to the above might follow in the vein of (for the woman): “Just spend ten minutes listening to me without reacting.”  “Repeat what I have said so that I know that you have heard me.”  “Tell me that my concerns are important and legitimate (even if you disagree on their solution).”  Or responses from the man: “Tell me three things that you are pleased I did before criticizing my behavior.”  “Tell me that you still care for me, even though you are unhappy with this particular thing.” “Please comment on my actions and not on my character.”

One problem that I see again and again in my practice is that couples are not attuned to taking care of each other’s sensitive, core issues.  When dating, they often coo over each other like mother hens – anticipating needs, making romantic gestures, and showing infinite patience.  These behaviors reassure the other that, like a loved child, they will be taken care of.  But as the relationship progresses, these behaviors fade into the distance.  And when a fight is brewing, they hyperspace into a distant galaxy.  Suddenly, this person, with whom you are supposed to be so intimate, feels like a stranger or an antagonist.  And the relationship feels very unsafe. Reconciliation seems so difficult.

But if you can ask the Magic Question, you are making an important gesture to your partner.  You are conveying that you want to soothe the inner child, to reassure him that he will continue to be taken care, and to convince her that she will be safe.   And if you can deliver on the request made in response, you have opened the door to changing the argument’s whole dynamic, creating emotional empathy, and forging reconciliation.

Categories: Couples, Family Therapy

Couple’s Therapy Lesson 2: Getting to Know Your Partner’s Inner Child

October 7, 2010 2 comments

How can you get to know your partner’s inner, wounded child?  Often your partner’s behavior will appear unfathomable.  Why does he seem withdrawn when I most need to talk to him? Why does he seem to be
smoldering with anger when I haven’t done anything wrong? Why does she give me these constant judgmental looks when I am doing the best that I can?

Surely, an inner child would be more accessible and not so intimidating.  The problem is that the wounded child, disappointed by early, parental attachment figures, has basically decided “I am mad and I am not going to take it any more!” As a result, she learns a variety of self-defense mechanisms that, when utilized by the adult, often antagonize subsequent relationships rather than cultivate intimacy.

These coping mechanisms usually take the form of “acting out” or “acting in.” For instance, the adult, whose emotions and needs were ignored as a child, when faced with a similar situation from her partner, will either become very demanding and critical (“acting out”) or very withdrawn and uncommunicative (“acting in”).  Or the adult, who experienced verbal or physical violence from his parents, will when feeling powerless in a romantic relationship, explode with anger as a way to reassert control (“acting out”) or smolder with internal anger and resentment (“acting in”). As you can imagine, this behavior does not naturally cultivate a response of “Gee, I would like to get to know THAT person better…”

So how do we push through our partner’s negative defense mechanisms to find the vulnerable child within?  First, you must pursue the relationship with your parner’s inner child.  Second, don’t be dissuaded by the acting out or acting in behavior.  And third, realize that this takes time and dedication (best devoted when both you and your partner are not triggered or upset).

In his book “Getting the Love You Want,” Harville Hendrix suggests a useful exercise. Summarized briefly it works like this:  You and your partner write a short narrative in which you describe what it was like to live in your parents’ house.  How did you spend your time?  What things did you like about living at home?  What things did you not like? Describe your interactions with family members.  Imagine walking around the house and approaching each family member and telling that person what it was like living with him/her.  Did they affect you positively and negatively?  What do you wish they would have done more of?  What less? What caused you pain? Sadness? Worry? And what brought you happiness? Comfort? A sense of security?

When you finish with this exercise, trade narratives with your partner.  Read and study the description of your partner’s childhood. Then, reconvene when you have time to talk together intimately and at length.  At that meeting, each person retells from memory the other’s story.  When you are finished, ask your partner: “Have I understood your childhood?  Is there anything I have missed?”  When they answer that first part in the affirmative, you have gotten to know your partner’s inner child.

In my next blog, I will elaborate on how this information can be beneficial to a relationship.  How couples can deescalate arguments and work through anger by addressing the inner child.  And how making room for the wounded child’s past can heal and even prevent problems from occurring in the present.

“Getting the Love You Want, A Guide for Couples” by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D can be found on Amazon:

Categories: Couples
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