Mirroring. Empathy. Validation.
I love being a relational therapist. Not only do I have the opportunity to bear witness to people’s relationship improvements, but I am also able to assist couples in transforming their family lives. Strong couples positively affect families, which to a greater degree impacts communities, nations, and the world. It is interesting to discover that being a part of even a small transformation can create a great change. Thich Nhat Hanh, poet, Zenmaster, and former Nobel Peace Prize Nominee often explains, “ if we are peaceful, if we are happy, we can smile, and everyone in our family, our entire society, will benefit from our peace.” Increasing the joy and satisfaction in our own romantic relationships makes the world a better place.
We want to enjoy our partner and benefit from an amazing relationship and yet it just does not seem that simple. Our partner is often bothering “us” in some form. If he or she would only change BLANK, then we could experience true happiness. I can relate to this in a profoundly personal way! One example of this circumstance existed in my marriage. My husband is quite specific about the way he deals with his recyclables! He has a habit of constantly “policing” the recycling and trash after I throw things away. In the beginning I was surprised; I would spend “hours” cleaning the kitchen and separating our compost, trash, and recyclables. While I enjoyed a rest after my kitchen duties, I noticed he “slinked” into the kitchen. I heard the noise of movement and thought to myself, “What is going on here?” He came out of the kitchen and proclaimed that eggshells indeed belonged in the compost not the trash, and for the “last time” only plastics 1 and 2 were recyclable – not numbers 3 and 4 (geez, didn’t I know anything). At first, I found this quite funny. I would respond with, “What are you the recycling police?” But, after a while I felt he was similar to some CIA agent, watching my every move to insure that numbers 5 and 6 did not even contemplate the plastic bin reserved for numbers 1 and 2. Well, I will be the first to tell you that numbers are not my strength! But worse than that, with time, what once was funny turned into an “issue”. .. . I even contemplated going to my neighbor Brea’s apartment for a “recycling reprieve”. Sure we are just talking about bits of plastic and food, but I started feeling judged, watched, and even criticized.
That is the thing about improving a romantic partnership; it is never about the event that just occurred (at least – not usually). More often than not, it is the conclusions that we draw about ourselves and our partners from the event. Instead of thinking to myself, “Wow, my husband just loves the environment so much that he puts extra care into recycling.” I thought, “My husband obviously thinks I am not smart and that he is the only expert recycler in the family.” From this assumption, I am not going to be the “kindest” partner to him and there will be less peace in our house. Lately, we have been working on three easy steps to change our “assumptions” that we make about one another. It involves using a technique coined by Harville Hendrix and Lynn Hunt’s Imago Therapy. The steps are as follows: mirroring, validation, and empathy.
As I write out these techniques, I acknowledge that they may sound “cheesy”, however, what I like best is – they work! If you find yourself feeling stuck with your partner and unable to move forward in a disagreement, I encourage you to try them out.
Mirroring – First, mirroring involves using “I” language, where one person sends a “message” to convey his or her hurt feelings leaving out blame statements toward the other partner. In terms of our recycling issue it would sound like this, “I feel like you don’t trust that I will put the recycling items in the correct bin when you constantly rearrange them and that you are watching me like the “CIA” – which leaves me feeling angry.” Then my husband, in order to mirror back, would say something similar to, “Let me see if I have this right. You feel like I don’t trust you because I rearrange the recyclables, which, you think, is similar to the CIA and this leaves you feeling angry.” At this point, I can tell you that I am already feeling better, because whether he agrees with me or not, viola, I feel understood!
Validation – Second, validation entails supporting your partner. This does not necessarily mean that you agree with your partner, but given the information your partner provided that you might be able to see his or her point of view. My husband in this situation could say, “That makes sense to me, because I would not want to feel like I was under the surveillance of the CIA.”
Empathy – Third, empathy involves putting yourself in the “shoes” of your partner and imagining what he or she may be feeling. My husband might say, “I imagine you might be feeling angry at me and maybe a little frustrated, too. Is that what you are feeling?” After this conversation feels complete, the next step would be to repeat the process with the other partner. My husband could then explain the reasons why he was on surveillance duty and the importance of proper recycling etiquette coupled with his feelings.
While using the techniques of mirroring, validation, and empathy are no replacement for relational therapy, I hope you find them to be helpful tools for your relationship. Even though, at times, I still find my husband “examining” our garbage rather closely, I do not feel as irritated by this action. After all, the happier we are as a couple, the better our kids will feel. Stronger families build strong communities. My husband and I experienced this on a personal level, the better we became at communicating, the less trash was thrown away and the more plastic we “properly” recycled!
Imago Therapy Website
Hanh, T. (1987). Being Peace. Parallax Press, Berkeley, California.