Years ago I heard Harville Hendrix, author of Getting the Love You Want, speak at a psychotherapy conference in L.A. He was there to demonstrate Imago Therapy, a couples therapy model that teaches deeper communication to enhance mutual understanding and compassion. Basically, if a couple really uses the Imago techniques, they will still need to work out their differences but they don’t have to butt heads over it so much.
That’s all cool, but what really caught my attention was Hendrix’s theory of why we marry the people we do in the first place. Why do we make that particular choice?
In a para-phrased nutshell: Hendrix’s idea is that we choose people who have enough in their personality that they remind us, often at a sub-conscience level, of a significant relationship we had as we were growing up. Say… your father.
When I first met John, the more I got to know my future husband, his similarity to my dad both delighted me and freaked me out.
I always went for the nerdy, bookish types, skinny and socially on the shy side. That was John. Add to that he was a scientist, he played excellent chess, he knew his way around diverse fields, like art, music, medicine, politics, literature… Just as at home in the City as in the country. Intellectually curious. Yikes! All like my dad.
But what really attracted me, I thought, was how John was different. He liked jazz and alternative rock, which to my dad was screeching noise. John knew how to cook and cooked for me often. My dad couldn’t tell you how to boil an egg. John knew how to push back gently, yet firmly if I got too forceful. My Dad’s idea of pushing back left me feeling crushed.
John was kind.
I fell in love.
Dr. Hendrix would have a field day with this! According to his theory, without being aware of it, we choose the partners we do in hopes of mending the parts that we’ve incorporated from that original relationship. Not just the good stuff but also the parts that didn’t work, that were hurtful to our psychological growth.
In short, he said, we look for a do-over!
In my own marriage I could see that so easily.
Early in our marriage, I bounced a check and John yelled at me. He rarely yelled so when he did I felt horrible. It took me a little while to shake off the flashback of my Dad yelling at me for not knowing how to solve an algebra problem. In my head I was right there, ten years old, powerless, the tears welling up because I was a failure.
Then I remembered I was a grown up. I had power now and I had a voice. I stated firmly to John, “You cannot talk to me like that!”
John stopped yelling, took a deep breath and said, “OK, let’s go over the account and see where the mistake happened.” And we did, quietly, as a team of equals, partners, not parent to child. It was a revelation for me. And I learned how to balance a check book! There you go. Do-over.
Hendrix said, this is how a good marriage works.
But sometimes the do-over doesn’t work and the person you chose isn’t able to grow with you. Dr. Hendrix himself said his first marriage ended in divorce because his stand-offish first wife never warmed up. His frustration in his marriage was similar to how he felt as a kid trying to reach his cold mother.
When the child of an alcoholic finds herself married to an active alcoholic who can’t find the road to recovery or a bully who isn’t able to change their abusive ways, then the do-over fails and often, so does the marriage.
When it does work, the do-overs are continuous, some obvious, others more subtle, but you work through them together to mutual benefit. Intimacy, trust and love have a chance to grow.