Relationships are work. We all know that. Whether its friends, family, co-workers, or lovers— relationships tend to be the holy grail of self-growth challenges. The thing most people struggle with in relationships is being able to communicate effectively when they are regressed into a fearful, unresolved childhood issue. When this childhood issue is “triggered”, and we have an old fear come up, communication often breaks down into an attack / defend pattern. This defensive form of communication comes from feeling threatened and tries to prove that one person is “right” and the other person is “wrong” as a way of feeling safe. The end result of the pattern usually ranges from being stalemated to actually wounding each other psychologically.
Why do we do this obviously self-defeating pattern over and over in our adult relationships? It may seem normal for children to do this, but when we are in our adult life it makes no rational sense—yet we see ourselves still participating in it.
One idea is that we were not “mirrored” enough in our early development—leaving us with a psychic wound where we did not feel seen, heard, or validated. Because a child’s survival is tied directly to the parents, a lack of mirroring can actually feel life threatening. When a child’s experience is not reflected in the eyes and voice of their parents, that child goes into a panic. It is as if their identity, instead of being grown and matured, is being annihilated or abandoned.
If a child is crying and the parent puts them away in a room, ignores them, yells at them, or tells them to be quiet, that child suffers this kind of annihilation or abandonment. They also internalize a core belief that they are “in danger”, “wrong”, “bad”, “not enough”, “unloved”, or “unsafe.”
When, as adults, we hit conflicts in our relationships and regress into these beliefs, we can actually unconsciously believe that our life is being threatened and that we better attack the person threatening us to survive. We need to be “right”, and “seen” by the other to survive the fight. We might do this by screaming, arguing, cajoling, being passive aggressive, manipulating, or using whatever defense we learned that can get us seen, acknowledged, or validated. Conversely we may go silent, withdrawal, shut down, or regress into some form of helplessness. This attack / defend cycle can continue for months and years if it is not addressed.
So what is mirroring? Simply stated, it is looking in another person’s eyes and somehow vocalizing that who they are is seen, empathized with, appreciated, valuable, and held in equal esteem.
In Imago Couples Therapy the couple is taught to mirror each other in a very direct, simple, and powerful way. The mirroring bypasses the previously mentioned defenses and allows the unconscious childhood wounding to heal (i.e. heals the unfinished business of childhood). In this way we can move out of acting like impulsive, defensive children when in conflict, and move into operating from a conscious, self-aware, intimate, adult mind.
Below Harville Hendrix, the originator of Imago Couples Therapy, discusses how it works with his wife Helen LaKelly Hunt.
Take a look: