The Couples Counseling & Therapy Practice You Can Do From Your Own Couch
I often hear from couples who want to rekindle the effortless intimacy they had at the beginning of their relationship, back when they were full of curiosity, fascination, and acceptance. When the chemical cocktail of love is exploding in your brain and body, it’s easy to feel unending interest in an amazing and mysterious stranger.
Over time, one may start to feel like they know their partner inside out—like they can predict their partner’s responses regularly. Even in a great relationship, one’s responses may become reactive, even parental ("I told you what to do, and you didn’t listen to me"). But these responses only shut down communication.
Reviving a relationship that has become stale often takes doing things differently, risking vulnerability, and leaving your comfort zone. Like physical fitness requires practice, so does communication fitness.
As a trained Imago therapist, I teach my clients the Couples Dialogue, created by Dr. Harville Hendrix and his wife, Dr. Helen Hunt, to help them move beyond painful power struggles to reconnect and create a new space of safety, permitting the free flow of conversation they once enjoyed.
The brilliance of the Couples Dialogue is how quickly it can restore safety for the speaker and create empathy in the listener.
What is Couples Dialogue, and why is it used in counseling and therapy?
Imagine there’s a bridge; you’re on one side and your partner is on the other. You’re both looking at the river between you, but you have separate views. Similarly, many arguments between partners—be it about sex, money, or even how to properly wash the dishes—start because one person sees the problem differently from the other, and they are fighting about whose view is right.
Well, usually, both of you are right. But more than winning an argument, what you really want is to feel heard and acknowledged. Sadly, that’s the last thing that happens when you’re trying to prove your point and disprove theirs. While you may say you’re listening, your true agenda is to show your partner how their view of the river is wrong.
The brilliance of the Couples Dialogue is how quickly it can restore safety for the speaker and create empathy in the listener. The purpose is not agreement but understanding—and sometimes that's all that is needed to remove the destructive energy from an issue.
In the Couples Dialogue, both parties agree to a basic ground rule: One person speaks at a time. In the four-step dialogue process, one person (the sender) is speaking, and the other person (the receiver) is listening. Here are the essential steps of this therapy practice:
Step 1: Inviting your partner to dialogue
Make sure you have time for the dialogue. By inviting, you create an intention and a space that’s free from screens, rings, and buzzes.
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Step 2: Mirroring
Choose one topic to talk about. Make it something non-inflammatory until you're good at the mirroring technique. Mirroring is not parroting. Instead, the receiver repeats the words the sender uses, trying their best to capture what the sender is expressing. As the receiver, you should put your own point of view in an imaginary box and move it to the side. This exercise is about the other person. Your partner, the sender, begins with an "I statement," like, "When you didn’t get home in time for our walk tonight, I felt…"
Then follow these guidelines:
- Mirror your partner’s message with empathy, trying to match the energy and the tone in their voice, then check for accuracy.
- You might say something like, "You felt disappointed and abandoned when I didn’t get home in time for our walk tonight. Did I get that right?" Then, they'll tell you yes or no and add any corrections. After that, you could ask, "Is there more about this?"
- Continue sharing back and forth until there is no more to say. Then you may ask, "If there was one more thing, what would it be?"
- When the message is completed (meaning, the sender answers your "anything else?" with a "no"), summarize everything you heard them say. (For example: "Let me see if I got that...")
- You may check for accuracy by asking, "Did I get it all?" Don’t include your opinion or reasons or give nonverbal cues that communicate that it's in any way about you. It WILL feel unfamiliar, and even strange at first, but stay with it. Remember, we usually resist what’s out of our comfort zone!
You don’t have to agree to be able to empathize
Step 3: Validation
In this important step, you let your partner know they aren’t wrong, bad, or crazy to feel a certain way. You don’t have to agree with them. In fact, you might have very different perspectives, but it's key to let your partner know that you understand their point of view and it makes sense. You might say, "I understand that you were counting on our walk, and when I came home late you felt sad and even abandoned. This makes sense to me because we haven't had much time together this week." This is not a defense or an explanation.
Step 4: Empathy
Again, I cannot emphasize this enough: You don't have to agree to be able to empathize. You are trying to put yourself into your partner's shoes and show them that you understand what they are going through. Remember, this isn’t about you. This is not the time to say, "One reason we haven't had time is that you have gone to four extra yoga classes this week." Instead, you could say, "I imagine you felt disappointed, hurt, and even angry when I didn’t get home on time."
Once your partner feels heard and understood, you might want to share your side of the story. You can ask to switch roles and then start the process from the beginning.
Unfortunately, like any tool, the Couples Dialogue can be misused by someone trying to prove they are "right." To avoid this trap, you can try waiting 24 hours before switching roles with your partner about the same issue.
The Imago Couples Dialogue is not a problem-solving process; it’s a way to seek understanding. The more you practice dialoguing, the better you will get at it. When you both feel respected and understood, your problems will often seem much smaller. As you soften your defenses, compromise becomes easier, sharing is safer, and intimacy can be restored or ignited in a new way. Ultimately, you and your partner will be willing to take more risks while talking to each other when your goal is understanding instead of winning.
Next up, check out a couples therapist's top 7 "systems" that will help you build a better relationship.
Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and board-certified life coach currently living in Oregon. She received her master's degree in counseling from Oregon State University and has practiced psychotherapy since 1981, specializing in couples and communication. She is the author of the highly acclaimed book Love Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Lasting Love, which has been translated into four languages, and she regularly teaches relationship courses based on the Love Cycles method at wellness spa Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. Her next book, Love Skills, will be available in February 2020.