Well Being

Romantic Relationships: Staying Together By Letting Each Other Go

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This is the fifth and final post by Valerie Reiss on following romantic relationship advice from a book. Read last week's column here.

“Allowing means that we grant to others and protect in ourselves the right to live freely and without outside control.” – David Richo

This week, “A” is for “Allowing.” In the relationship self-help book I’m reading (and writing about) with the newish boyfriend, B., David Richo’s How to Be an Adult in Relationships: The Five Keys to Mindful Loving, we’ve reached the fifth and final “A” – “Allowing” or “Allowing Freedom.”

Well, B. and I  actually got our biggest lesson in “allowing” last weekend when we attended a relationship self-help extravaganza – a nine-hour couples workshop with about 50 other pairs in a hotel ballroom at an Omega Institute conference in NYC. Taught by wife-husband team Helen LaKelly Hunt and Harville Hendrix (a man who has clearly inspired Richo and many other connection counselors with his 30-year-old method, Imago), the weekend rocked our newly bonded world.

At Imago’s core is a simple-but-not-easy “dialogue” – basically, a script that allows couples to communicate better. You take turns offering each other three basic listening elements: mirroring, validation, and empathy. Mirroring reflects back what the speaker has said and that the listener understands. (“What I’m hearing you say is…” and then, “Am I getting that right?”) Validation confirms the speaker’s reality – whether or not the listener “agrees”. (“You make sense to me, and what makes sense is…”) And empathy shows that you understand and relate to the emotion. (I can imagine that when that happens you may feel…)

The approach, which has become pretty well integrated into lots of modalities of couples counseling, aims to allow each partner his or her experience, something most of us didn’t get in childhood, and that most of us crave like crack. It’s the very essence of “allowing” and the very opposite of control, trying to convert someone to our worldview, even if we’re doing it with good intentions.

As B. paraphrased Hendrix, who taught in one of his many Hawaiian shirts: “The number one thing you’ll find out through this work is that you’re married to someone who is not you – and that’s a good thing and a bad thing.”

Meaning, most of us forget that our partner is not an extension of ourselves, but, in fact, a whole other being with passions and habits and preferences that might seem incredibly annoying because they’re not ours. Imago posits that most unhealthy relationship energy is spent trying to sway our partner to our reality – leading so many of us to power struggles over everything from finances to the channel-changer. And, says Imago, we’re all pretty much indoctrinated in this during childhood.

To illustrate, Hendrix told this story:

A parent and child are in the playground together when a big orange Irish Setter trots over and starts barking loudly. The kid has never seen a dog like this before, and though there’s no danger (this is no pit bull), screaming and sobbing commence. In a surge of upset, the parent, naturally wanting to calm the child, says, “Honey, you’re fine. The dog’s not scary, there’s nothing to be afraid of.” But the child is not remotely comforted by this.

“What did that parent just do?” Hendrix asked. He invalidated the kid’s experience. “And this,” he added, “is when we split from ourselves.” The whole room got silent, digesting this mini, very familiar inner catastrophe.

The Imago-schooled parent would have done something like: “Honey, that was so scary. You really feel scared of that big dog, don’t you? That makes a lot of sense.” There’s a hug and some toddler-nodding; then tears abate. The child relaxes because he’s just been mirrored – having had his very real experience reflected back to him and validated and empathized with – even though the dog is objectively “safe.” Then, once all is calm, the parent could say, “Let’s go visit the doggy and you can see that he won’t bite you.” The child is left whole. At this part in the story, I swear, the whole room sighed with that kid’s relief. As Hendrix said, “Being present to another person’s experience provides healing.”

And though it’s simple, we are not taught to communicate this way virtually anywhere. I could see that for me it was going to take some learning to translate it to real relationship life. But luckily, it didn’t take long for B. and I to get a chance to check it out.

On the subway ride home after our final session – sessions full of listening and sharing and tears and hugging and uncovering wounds and healing with presence – it was time to part ways. B. and I don’t live together and he had laundry to do; I had bills to pay. So we were readying ourselves to leave each other, an experience I'm often jittery about: After spending a long while with a partner, I get industrial-strength separation anxiety. I know I’ll be fine ten minutes after parting, busied with whatever the next thing is – reading, chores, seeing a friend. But those moments between knowing parting is imminent and actually walking away (or even hanging up the phone)are sweaty-handed shame-laced anxiety fests; on top of the panic, I freak about being seen as a clingy baby-woman. B. knows this by now, and is terribly sweet about it. And I try and be more anthropologist than drama queen about it, meaning that I report the feelings rather than clutch his pant leg. But still, it’s no fun.

“Uh-oh,” I say, as we bounce along on the jostling #5 train. “It’s here – and even worse than usual.”

“Oh baby,” he says, pulling me toward him, “It’s ok. It’s going to be totally fine.” I noticed this flash of a feeling – kind of a maw that felt not one iota comforted, and a bulb went off.

“Hey, can we try the dialogue? I think you just did the Irish Setter thing.” I was excited, that feeling of being onto something that could actually change your life.

“Sure,” he said, unsure, but game.

We followed the script. I told him the feelings I was having about separating, he encouraged my responses, and then instead of doing the “It’s ok” thing, he said, “So, you’re feeling anxious and scared and like every time I leave it might be over between us.” Basically word for word what I had said. And my body relaxed. Panic evaporated. My heart slowed, palm sweat stopped pumping. And then some tears of the sadness came –  apparently they're behind the anxiety that I had never really accessed before. I nodded. He said that he understood how I could feel that way, given my past experiences, and then said he’s felt that way before, too.

With all this separation stuff I’ve been playing out for decades, for the first time, I didn’t feel ashamed and scared. Just vulnerable. And seen and satisfied. And deeply allowed. “There is a connection between freedom and self-confidence,” writes Richo, “When you are kept from expressing your deepest needs and wishes, you lose trust in their validity and in your own judgment.”

It was a very cool moment to actually feel the opposite of invalidation, which, surprisingly, wasn’t validated, or right – but free.