by Becky Kamm
Rebecca Kamm talks to Harville Hendrix, who claims to have solved the mystery of how to live happily ever after.
OPRAH Winfrey’s favourite relationship expert is on the phone. Compatible couples cannot fall in love, he explains patiently, because that’s simply not how it works. “Incompatibility is the basis of attraction. What we’re drawn to are the parts of our partner that make us incompatible. That’s the stimulus of attraction, and the source of energy for growth!”
It’s just another day in the life of Harville Hendrix. Speaking from his hotel room in New Mexico, the 75-year-old couples guru is on a mission to change the world, one flailing marriage at a time. The key to romantic bliss is in his hands, and there are lectures to give, counsellors to teach, journos to tell. Everyone wants a piece of him.
Hendrix’s been hot property ever since Oprah touted his book, Getting the Love You Want, 20 years ago. But as the pioneer of a marital therapy model called Imago, he was already well on his way. Two thousand therapists across the globe use his system, many he’s personally trained. It’s a crusade born of research, personal experience, and a powerful urge to keep couples together.
In a nutshell, the Imago premise is this: we all emerge from childhood with “wounds”, along with an unconscious idealized image of our caregivers. As adults, this image (which psychologists term an “imago”) compels us to choose romantic partners resembling one or both of our parents. That is attraction. All going well, we will soon be daft with euphoria, because we believe we’re finally going to get what we didn’t get in childhood. (No, not the Sega mega-system. You will never get that.) This is romantic love. And marriage – well, that is where the real fun begins, because marriage is the arena in which you may heal childhood.
Not to infer, of course, that our parents all made a mess of our infancy. Or that Dad doomed you to life with a tightwad when you weren’t allowed a pony. But, no matter how much our parents strove to love us, the developing brain experiences times when love feels absent as small emotional traumas.
Hendrix believes the purpose of marriage is to address these emotional traumas and “help each other finish childhood”. “You don’t heal childhood in therapy,” he says. “You don’t do it with a book; you don’t do it alone. You have to have somebody who’s significant to you respond to your needs in a specific way, because your unconscious mind responds primarily to a particular kind of person who is similar to the people you were around in childhood.”
According to Hendrix, that is the person you should marry. There are several theories on romantic love, of course: “exchange” (I can’t punch any higher above my weight, so I’m done), “bio-logic” (your hip-to-waist ratio is tops), and “persona” (you will impress my impressionable friends). Yet, these theories don’t account for break-up grief. Or the fact that despite meeting thousands of people in a lifetime – including hundreds of fecund, symmetrical, socially acceptable suitors – we’re only deeply drawn to a few.
On the downside, attraction to an imago causes a power struggle once courtship is over. We thought our new special friend would cure all our past hurts, but guess what? Turns out they didn’t get that memo. So, when they brush against our raw childhood wounds, we fight, and they fight back.
It might sound hopeless, Hendrix says, but a power struggle inspires growth. “The defences we use with each other were developed in childhood, and now we’re hurting each other. We have to find out what each of us needs in order to meet their unmet childhood needs.”
Like some kind of therapeutic He-Man, Hendrix fights the Power Struggle with Couples Dialogue. The steps involve mirroring (“so what you’re saying is, having my alcoholic best friend stay on our couch is not ideal?”); validation (“I can see how my alcoholic best friend’s presence on our sofa might displease you”); and empathy (“does my alcoholic friend here make you angry?”).
“You create an environment that’s safe,” Hendrix explains, “and when your defences go down, you feel more connected to your partner. What we discovered was that most people wanted the feeling of connection, and their problems arose from not getting that.”
What he also found was that couples would divorce, then reappear in therapy experiencing the same problems with their new partners. It was enough to make anyone devise a new, world-dominating marital therapy method.
Not that it was instant fame and glory. Hendrix had been running workshops for couples and therapists for years before Oprah flung him into the public eye in the late ’80s.
A producer had thrown Hendrix’s Get the Love You Want on a pile of relationship advice books she’d received that month and didn’t intend to read. In a bad relationship and reluctant to do any shows on love, the producer’s partner dropped by her office one day, picked up the first book he saw, read it, then suggested his girlfriend read it too. She refused; he pushed.
The next thing Hendrix knew, he was hauled up in front of 50 million viewers in 30 countries, Oprah had dubbed him “The Marriage Whisperer”, and his book was firmly lodged in the New York Times’ bestseller list. He has now featured on Oprah 17 times. (For the record, she doesn’t ask him directly for relationship advice, but she did tell Hendrix his book has helped her enormously with “her guy”, Steadman.)
Hendrix first looked deeper into marital psychology after his marriage ended in 1975. He thought the prevailing therapy of the time, loosely termed ‘conflict resolution’, focused too much on compromise. “What we found, and what the whole discipline of marital therapy in America found, was that it simply didn’t work, because a part of us is always resentful if we have to give things up,” he says. “Also, it was very cognitive – ‘there’s the problem, here’s the solution’. Like fixing a car. But people are not like machines.”
Hendrix has an even, soothing voice. He cares greatly about marriage, believes God is present in couplings that thrive. “All my life I’ve been interested in changing the world. I think what’s happened is that my focus has shifted from getting people to God, to getting people to love each other – and when they love each other, actually we think God shows up in that relationship.”
‘We’ is the Imago Therapy empire, which five years ago became a non-profit organisation. Hendrix had grown tired of operating a company and set up a board and director to act as the administrators.
“I wanted Imago to function as a legacy on its own, in case I died,” he says.
There is another significant ‘we’, though. Hendrix is married in both life and work to Helen LaKelly Hunt, a psychologist. Together, they co-founded the Institute for Imago Relationship Therapy. Alone, Dr. LaKelly Hunt has become a leading feminist, elected to the U.S National Women’s Hall of Fame for her work, and founder of the Sister Fund, a small, private foundation that supports “fullness of life” for women and girls.
Yet theirs was a ‘we’ fraught with tension for a long time. The pair, who lives in New York, each brought two children into their 1982 marriage. The blended family went through “a lot of struggles”, as did their relationship. “Even though we were developing the [Imago] system and writing the book, we were having difficulty for the first 10 years. But then we began to put into practice what we were learning and teaching others and it transformed us.”
But what of their respective past marriages – might the Imago system have saved those, too?
“The answer is yes,” Hendrix says confidently. I sense he’s been asked it before. “They would definitely have worked if we’d known then what we know now. Both of us would say that.”
In Hendrix’s answer lies the Imago ethos: if your unconscious mind has already “done a selection”, as he puts it, then the raw components of a great relationship are already there. It’s then up to each spouse to work towards ceasing negativity, and increasing empathy – preferably through couples dialogue.
Another biggie is curiosity, says the kindly voice on the end of the line. Forget compatibility: underlying difference is where it’s at. “Curiosity is really sexy. People want to feel their partner is interested in them. It’s like, tell me what’s really going on inside you. What are your dreams? What are your anxieties? What do you love?”
And, at the intricate, conflicted, child-like heart of it all, “What do you need from me?”
Harville Hendrix is lecturing and taking workshops in New Zealand next week. Visit www.relationships.co.nz for details.