ERP 393: How To Get Through The Power Struggle In Relationship — An Interview With Shan Merchant

By Posted in - Podcast October 10th, 2023 0 Comments

Power struggle is a phase in a relationship where couples face heightened awareness of their differences, needs, and unmet expectations. It represents a shift from the initial romantic honeymoon stage to a stage where partners become more aware of each other’s flaws and unresolved issues. This stage is marked by emotional turbulence and communication breakdowns as couples navigate the complexities of their evolving connection. However, it’s also seen as an opportunity for growth and transformation if approached with conscious effort and relationship skills.

In this episode, we explore dynamic strategies and practical tools to help couples overcome challenges in their relationship and foster a more peaceful, loving connection. Discover how to determine which stage your relationship is in, prioritize emotional safety, communicate with empathy, and deepen your mutual understanding. Join us as we discuss practical steps to strengthen your relationship and establish a robust foundation for lasting love and harmony.

Shan is an Imago Couples Therapist and Relationship Expert. She helps professional couples on the brink of divorce finally find peace in their relationship and put their wedding rings back on. She’s authored the book “From Power Struggle to Peaceful Couple”. Shan’s on a mission to stop couples settling for unhappy relationships that drain their energy because she believes great relationships are the foundation for a great life. Shan works globally from England.

In this Episode

3:52 Shan’s journey: From romantic dreams to relationship expertise.

14:08 Understanding and navigating the power struggle in relationships.

22:08 Embracing conflict as nature’s savage gifts in the power struggle.

26:36 Emotional safety and communication in a relationship.

34:47 The imago dialogue: A structured path to safe and effective communication in relationships.

38:02 Using dialogue to improve communication in relationships.

45:13 Improving communication in relationships through empathy and respect.

Your Check List of Actions to Take

  • Take time to assess which stage of your relationship you are in, whether it’s the power struggle or peace stage, to gain clarity about where you currently stand.
  • Make emotional safety a top priority in your relationship, focusing on creating a space where both partners feel safe to express themselves without fear of criticism or blame.
  • Learn and practice the Imago Dialogue, a structured way of communicating that emphasizes active listening, empathy, and respectful sharing of perspectives.
  • When both partners are triggered or reactive, pause and use deep breaths to regulate your emotions before engaging in a safe dialogue.
  • Dedicate time each day to work on your relationship, whether it’s through structured dialogue, open conversations, or engaging in relationship-building activities.
  • Recognize and honor the differences between you and your partner, understanding that these distinctions can lead to growth and deeper connection.
  • Develop the ability to empathize with your partner’s experiences and perspectives, even when they differ from your own, as this can foster greater understanding and closeness.
  • Consider consulting with an Imago therapist or relationship coach to receive guidance, coaching, and support in implementing these strategies and improving your relationship.

Mentioned

Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples, 20th Anniversary Edition (*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

Imago Relationship Therapy

Relationship Map To Happy, Lasting Love

ERP 138: The Most Critical Ingredient for Relationship Success With Dr. Harville Hendrix & Dr. Helen Lakelly Hunt

ERP 303: How to Create Safe Conversations — An Interview with Drs. Harville Hendrix & Helen Lakelly Hunt

Connect with Shan Merchant

Websites: shanmerchant.com

Facebook: facebook.com/shannon.merchant.3

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/shan-merchant-couples-therapist-dating-relationships

 

Connect with Dr. Jessica Higgins

Facebook: facebook.com/EmpoweredRelationship 

Instagram: instagram.com/drjessicahiggins 

Podcast: drjessicahiggins.com/podcasts/

Pinterest: pinterest.com/EmpowerRelation 

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/drjessicahiggins 

Twitter: @DrJessHiggins 

Website: drjessicahiggins.com  

Email: [email protected]

About Today’s Show

Shan, thank you for being here. I’m really excited about our conversation today.

Thanks for having me. Yeah, I’m also super excited to be here.

Yes. We’re going to be talking about the developmental stages of relationship, and we’re going to focus on power struggle. I am so interested in our conversation and how people can perhaps understand a little bit more of the terrain of developing intimacy in relationship through these stages. Talk to us a little bit, what got you interested in looking at relationship dynamics, supporting people in couplehood?

Yeah. Well, actually, there’s quite a backstory to this actually, and I do love to tell the story, because it’s just a really important story for me. So I have always been obsessed with love. So when I was a teenager, I was like 16, and I just so desperately wanted to be in love. I was completely obsessed with Barbara Cartland’s romance novels. I don’t know if you’ve heard of them, but I grew up in New Zealand. She wrote these romance novels, and I would be begging my mother every single month, when I was 16, to buy me these romance novels. I totally was just so desperate to fall in love, and I really believed in that whole romantic thing; my knight in shining armor, and being rescued by that, and really, really romanticized love. So I desperately wanted to be in love, but I didn’t have a boyfriend. 

Then I went to university and started to get into relationships, and I actually had some fairly successful, I think, relationships at university. Then when I finished university, I went overseas to London. Because New Zealand is such a small country and everyone goes overseas and they want to go to Europe and explore the big wide world. So anyway, when I was in London, again, I started to get into long-term relationships. But really, if I reflect back, the decade of my 20s was a really, really difficult time for me. I don’t know, I felt very lonely, even though I was meeting lots of really amazing friends and making new friends in London and having this amazing time. But then, really inside, I was feeling really scared and really fearful and really lonely. So I really pinned myself onto relationships. So I chose relationships purely for security, and that was sort of my anchor into the world. 

Then I ended up getting married when I was 24. Again, I thought this was it. And actually four years later, it ended really badly, and I was completely devastated. I just had the most terrible breakup. The worst thing about that significant relationship, for me, ending, was that I really thought that real love would win. I thought he would come back to me, I thought he’d be my knight in shining armor. Then when he didn’t, I was completely devastated. So it took me a really long time to get through that. At the same time, I got into a new relationship, another relationship. So I was in another relationship for seven years. 

Around that time, I started studying psychotherapy. So I studied to be a psychotherapist at the institute in London. So obviously, I’m starting to do work on myself, I’m starting to understand: Okay, so I need to learn to be in my feelings and not use relationship to give me safety and security. I really wanted to have the experience of falling in love. I wanted that, and I dreamt about it when I was like 16. I had a little bit of it when I was at university. So I ended up breaking up this relationship really badly. Because that time was terrible, the ending, it felt like a guillotine. Had this really lovely man that wanted to basically marry me, and we bought a house together in London, flat together. Anyway, so I ended up breaking up with him. Then actually, at the time, one of my friends said to me, don’t keep doing this! Because I couldn’t commit to him. So I was having real problems in relationship. 

So that is part of why I’m in the field of relationships, because I’ve struggled so much to have a healthy relationship. So then I also decided that I wanted to date women and that I was bisexual. So I met Josephine, who’s my current partner, and we had that courtship. So I got that beautiful romantic stage of love that I dreamed about, and it was really amazing. Then, basically, after that, we had like four years together, and then we decided that we want to have babies. So we went to Copenhagen, and we got a donor. So we’ve got two donor-conceived children. 

Then we did a number of things in quick succession. So what we did is, we had two babies, we bought two flats in London and did these two flats up. We then decided that we’re going to move to Ibiza, which is in another country in Spain, and start our lives up there. Then we also decided to set up online businesses. So we had all of this pressure on us, around finances and becoming entrepreneurs. Because obviously, that is a massive vehicle for growth in itself. Then also having two little babies. Then that just thrust us head on into the power struggle. But I didn’t know about the power struggle at that time, I didn’t know it existed. But all I knew is that we were in this really terrible place in our relationship. There was a lot of negativity. We couldn’t seem to talk to each other anymore. There was a lot of conflict, and Josephine withdrew. So it was just like this place where there was just no affection, no love. It sort of cumulated in us leaving Ibiza and moving back to England. So again, it was like this failure of the stream. You know, we’ve had this dream of moving to Ibiza and starting this new life and having this romance and then it’s sort of like just all really fell apart. I was like, okay, right. 

So at the time, I was a relationship therapist, I was a dating coach as well. I was like, this is really bad, I feel like a fraud. Because I’m teaching women love, and then I’ve got this terrible thing happening in my own relationship. So I was just like, I’ve got to fix this. 

One thing I know about myself is like, I’m really good at finding something that works. So what I decided to do was just to search. So I was like, I’m going to find something to fix this. So I searched everywhere. I’m a really massive reader as well, and so I read loads and loads of books. Then I came across Harville and Helen, and I read their book, Getting the Love you Want. I was like: Oh wow, this is so interesting. I loved the concept of the Imago, and the Imago match. So then what I did is I went on this masterclass, which was just for therapists here in the UK. Then in that masterclass, they started talking about the Imago cycle of relationship, the different stages of relationship. So Harville actually has six in his. I have four, and he has six in his. And when I saw the power struggle stage, I was like: Oh my God, this is it! I just had such insight. I was like, I didn’t know. And I felt so happy, because I was like, well, now I know, we just need to work. We need to get the skills to live this. So I was really, really excited. 

Finished that masterclass, went to my partner Josephine. I was like, “I found it! I found the thing that is going to transform our relationship.” I said, will you come to a couples’ workshop with me, the Imago couples’ workshop? She’s like: “No, I’m not. I’m not coming.” Because the resentments had built up so much in our relationship, and she’s like: “I’m not going to come, and this is just another thing that you’re doing for yourself, because you’re interested in relationships. I’m not doing it.” So that was really, really tough, because things were really bad between us. But anyway, I managed to talk her into coming to the couples’ workshop. It was really great, because she had this big insight in the workshop, again, and it was basically the one that we repeat our patterns in relationship. She was like: “Okay, so if I don’t stay here and do the work, I’m going to recreate the same thing in my next relationship.” So that for her was this big insight that she was like, okay, I will do the work. 

Then for me, I had this thing around, when we were sitting in the couples’ workshop, she actually said to me that she experienced me as hostile. I was so shocked, because I have this whole way of how I view myself as this gentle, kind, loving, sociable person who loves my clients. And here I have, behind the door is my own partner saying: “Well, you are hostile, that’s how I experience you.” So I then also realized that I don’t have the skills that I need to have. So that was our really big pivotal moment. We went to couples’ therapy, worked on our relationship for six months. Then what we did is what many couples do as well, we were handing over the responsibility of the work to our therapist. I said, we need to stop this, and let’s do the work at home. So around that time, I had started to train myself. I had nearly finished my own training to be Imago couples’ therapists. So what we did is we really took the work home. So we used the Imago tools, and we just worked on our relationship at home. It has been so amazing. 

Then I realized that the next stage after the power struggle, I actually call peace. I just think I want all couples to know that the power struggle is a stage in your relationship, and the next stage is peace. So all you have to do is know that. Do you know what I mean? It’s just walking through that door. Obviously, you have to do the work to get there, and it is hard work. It can be hard work. But just knowing that, I think, is really, really inspiring. That’s what I tell all my couples, and that’s what I really want to inspire others with.

Oh my goodness, I am so appreciating what you’re describing here, Shan. I remember coming across a statistic about very high, I think it’s like 83 or something couples either gets stuck in the power struggle stage. They just kind of loop, and they find a way to cope being in that stage but have some way of just existing for the life of their relationship, which is not very fulfilling. Or people separate or get a divorce, because they think it’s the relationship. It’s not easy to walk through that door as you’re describing, learn how to work together, all the things that are getting activated. Then what transpires from that, this peace and this ability to support each other, work together, complement each other, and there’s a lot that can come from developing. So would you agree that most people get stuck in that power struggle, either they don’t move forward or they break up?

Yeah, I totally agree with that. That’s why I want more people to know about the power struggle, because so many people have never even heard of it, particularly in England where I am, because Imago is not very big here. But anyway, couples can spend from two to 50 years plus, like decades, in the power struggle. That’s completely true, that they just put up with what’s happening in their relationship. So they either normalize the conflict and think: Okay, so this is what I observed in my parents’ relationship, so this is actually normal, and they sort of settle in relationship. Or what they do is they have a relationship exit. So we have ways that we manage to stay in our relationship, but we exit in different ways, and it’s sort of like our escape hatch. So it’s the sign of divorce, where they have separate parallel lives, or so many times with the couples that have come to see me, for example, one person will have had an affair, and I’ll be like, okay, so what did you do? They’ll be like: “Well, I’m always down at the sports club. I watch TV all the time. I have an addiction, like alcohol. I am at work all the time. I spend all my time with the children, and that’s where I’ve put all my focus.” 

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“So people have these ways of staying in the power struggle and managing the pain which is in the power struggle. Or exactly what you do is, they walk away and they divorce, and then they just recreate the same thing again in their next relationship.”

It’s often slightly different. Because the thing is, we pair up with someone, and so they bring out something else. So we all have these wounds that we carry within us. So for me, I’ve observed, in some relationships, the wound I have with my mother is the one that’s really triggered, or in other relationships, it’s the wound that I have with my father. Often, me and my partner, Joe, we’re like: “Oh, we’ve done so much work in a relationship. Can you imagine leaving our relationship, meeting someone else, doing all this work all over again? But it would be a different mirror.” Do you know what I mean? It’s like, it really, really helps to know where you are, because it’s such an empowering thing.

Yes, I appreciate your ability to just articulate the landscape of this. Now you’ve mentioned Harville Hendricks and Helen Hunt. Is there anything you want to say about Imago briefly, before we go into the four stages and what you want to share about specifically the power struggle? Is there anything you want to say about Imago before we do that, just for people who don’t know?

Yeah. Well, basically Imago is a model of couples’ therapy, it was invented by Harville and Helen. It is basically all about having safe conversation. So the way that it’s different from other types of couples’ therapy is that we use a tool called The Dialogue, and it’s a really powerful way of starting to talk to each other without raising each other’s defenses. So it’s all around safety. The thing that I really love about Imago is that it’s very empowering for couples to learn. So it’s not like you’re going to traditional couples’ therapy and you’re really reliant on the skill of the couples’ therapists in terms of how we manage to work through your issues, and also, the couples’ therapist is the one that holds all the wisdom. But with the Imago philosophy and the tools that we use, the couple that comes, they learn the tools and then they take them home. So you’re really, really empowered, because you actually become your own couples’ therapist at home. So it’s a really amazing, precise way of working. I always tell my couples, it’s a direct path to conscious relationship. If you want to really transform your relationship, and you want a peaceful relationship, then that’s the path.

Thank you, thank you so much for articulating. I like hearing too some of the philosophies that really are the backbone of that model, so I appreciate that. All right, well, do you want to name the four stages that you work with?

Yeah, so I actually mainly work with the two stages. So obviously, there’s the honeymoon stage, there’s the power struggle stage, there’s the next stage after that which I call peace, and then the final stage which I call power couple, which is really just conscious partnership. So it’s really continuing to elevate your relationship after peace. So I always want people to realize, firstly, I want people to know, because most people or everyone that comes to couples’ therapy and is stuck in their relationship, that I meet, are stuck in the power struggle. Actually, most people are, to some degree in their relationship, stuck in a power struggle, and they don’t realize it. 

So the power struggle stage of relationship is basically, if I can explain, and I might start off with a little bit more Imago actually, if that’s okay. So basically, there’s this whole thing around who we get into relationship with, and it’s actually no coincidence who you are in relationship with. So in Imago, we call it the Imago match. So we are attracted to someone specifically because of what is unfinished within us from our childhood, so it’s the unhealed parts of us that are attracted to that particular person. So people who are in the power struggle and don’t realize they’re in the power struggle. 

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“When you’re in the power struggle, it’s actually got two phases, the power struggle. So it’s got the fire, where the conflict is, the resentment is, the fighting, the blaming, stonewalling, all that type of criticizing type of behavior. Then there’s the other part, which is the withdrawal.”

So there’s two different sides of the power struggle. So people often don’t realize that they’re in the power struggle, and also, they don’t realize what the purpose of the power struggle is, is that we are in there and on purpose and for healing and growth. So what is necessary is that you realize that you’re in the power struggle, and you misunderstand it. Because many people who don’t know where they are in their relationship, all they’re aware of is all the behavior that’s going on; they’re aware of how hurt they feel. All these stories start to kick off around: “This person isn’t the right person for me, did I make a mistake? Should I leave the relationship and be with someone else? It shouldn’t be this hard.” You know what I mean, all those myths around relationship. 

I remember, when me and Joe were in our power struggle, the main thing that I kept repeating to myself was like, she can’t give me what I need. Then I went into this whole story around: Well, I’ve done so much inner work, I’ve trained for 10 years at the Psychotherapy Institute. She can’t give me what I need.” But actually, it was just that we were in the power struggle, and what we were fighting over was all that the unmet childhood needs. So basically, how we longed to be loved as children, but weren’t. So our childhood is over now, so we bring all of that into our adult relationships, and we are looking for our partner to give us now what we didn’t get. So maybe we have a wound around not being accepted, not being heard, not being seen, not being listened to, not being respected. All of that comes into our interactions, and we fight over that. So that’s what the conflict is over. So our first step is we have to understand what’s happening.

Yes. And what you’re really helping us get here is, so often, if we’re not aware that we’re in the power struggle stage, we could misinterpret the conflict as something like: “I need to help my partner treat me better. Or I maybe chose incorrectly. Or this isn’t a good fit.” All the questions around how what’s happening, rather than, we are mirrors for each other, and what’s getting activated is really important for me to reflect on and look at what is stirring in me that’s giving me this experience that I can turn towards to be curious about, and then work with differently. Is that right? 

Yeah, that’s exactly it. Because what it is as well is, actually, Harville has such a beautiful name for it. He calls it nature’s savage gifts, and I just love that. I think that is exactly what it is. Because it’s such a painful stage to be in, and also such an unconscious stage of relationship, because we don’t know what is happening, all we see is the behavior. But actually, if we can realize what it is, make it conscious, and then start to do the work that is necessary to transform what is unhealed within us, then that’s what is the gift actually. 

I’ll give you an example, actually. I have been amazed at the deep healing and growth that we, me and my partner, have been able to get in the container of relationship. So I have done over 12 years of weekly therapy just in terms of my training, so I’ve done a lot of therapy. But there were some things in my own individual therapy I just couldn’t seem to work through, and that’s because I wasn’t triggered enough by my therapist. I need to be in romantic relationship with basically my Imago match, the person that triggers all my childhood stuff, to be able to work through it.

So for me, one of my wounds from childhood was around, I had a very distressed mother growing up. So there was big feelings. So I grew up to be a woman that was suffocated by big feelings. So it’s really hard for me to hold space for other people’s feelings, my partner, only my partner. Because the paradox is, is that I can easily sit in a therapy session and hold all of my clients’ big feelings and be completely centered and grounded. But with Josephine, for example, I just couldn’t do it. So I would experience myself as being cold and distant and hard, and I just couldn’t work it through. I couldn’t do it in my own personal therapy. It really, really bothered me. I had worked on it for years actually before we got into Imago, and I just couldn’t do it. So for her, that was a really big wound because we have opposite wounds. So it was having really big feelings and her not having had her feelings held. So that’s what she needed the most for me. 

Also, we later found out that Josephine is on the autism spectrum. So she has really, really big feelings and emotionally flooded. So for me, out of anyone, in terms of extreme, that would be the hardest for me to hold. Actually, in our work together, using the Imago tools and really embodying the work at home, we really grow. So we always are each other’s healing and growth elements. So for example, for me, I grew into being a compassionate listener. So I was able to sit in the dialogue where I felt really safe and just really patiently listened to her feelings, and I realized one day that I had a shift. That I actually didn’t feel suffocated anymore, I felt quite peaceful. It was just there as a gift of love, really listening to her feelings. I said that to her, and I was like: Oh my God, I can really feel I’m growing here. So I grew out of my childhood wound in our work, and then for her, it was so healing for me. Because to hear from me, the thing that was hardest for me to give her, and I was able to really give that to her, which is so healing because she felt accepted. Because she’s got a wound around acceptance from coming out as being gay as a teenager, and lots of pain around that that she holds. The thing that really blows me away around this is, acceptance is really hard to work on. Like, how do you do that? You have to be in that container of relationship to heal. 

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“So when we bring our consciousness into relationship, and we’re willing to do the work, and we do it in a safe, structured environment, and we need to talk to each other safely, then we’re each other’s healing and growth element. It’s so amazing.”

It is so amazing. Because this is what we long for, is this depth of closeness and intimacy and connection. And when we are disconnected, we feel the pain of that, so we’re reaching towards each other. Then when these fears or old childhood wounds are running in interference, it’s this mixed message of like: “I want you. But I don’t trust you, or I’m triggered by you.” So part of what you’re describing with this safe dialogue Imago structure, that it gives the scaffolding to go slow enough to have the consciousness and the awareness to be more revealing, that allows for this growth to occur. Is that right?

Yeah. I think what it is, is it surrounds firstly being able to put down our defenses. So really, the golden key for your relationship is emotional safety. Because in the power struggle, there’s no safety. So that’s the key into, obviously, peace; we have to have safety to have peace. Safety and peace is where all the things that we want in relationships are: the love, the sex, the laughter, the trust, the connection, the intimacy. Everything that we want is there. So with emotional safety, we have to learn how to be safe with each other. 

Actually, I’m going to be honest here, that’s one thing I just didn’t get. So that was really hard for me to understand, even as a therapist. I just couldn’t really understand how to be emotionally safe for Josephine, all I knew was that she was drew for me. She would say to me, you’re critical of me. And she would withdraw, and then I just felt the pain of her withdrawing. It’s such a painful thing, that whole withdraw-pursuer dynamic, which is what 90% of couples are caught in, to some degree. So for me, and also, for us, it came to the stage where in couples’ therapy, she said to me, “I want you to no longer call me Josephine, because you have called that name in such a tone in the most intense part of our power struggle, that I can’t bear to be called Josephine anymore. I want you to call me Joe. So I said that I would no longer call Josephine, because that’s what had happened between us. So that sort of gives you an idea of the amount of negativity and anger that was in our relationship. 

Actually, I even think, I was doing so many things to try and fix this. Like, we were in Ibiza, we were doing Ayahuasca ceremonies to try and work on our connection and stuff. But it was more about really deeply understanding the relationship and communication skills, and that all comes from returning emotional safety into relationships and removing negativity. So that’s me learning to talk in a way that I’m not blaming or shaming or criticizing again. I know I keep going on about this all the time, but I can’t help, I’m so passionate about Imago. The Imago Dialogue is just such an amazing tool to really hold those conversations. 

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“Again, the other thing that you really need to cut or just to split is that whole emotional symbiosis, where we are so enmeshed, and we want our partner to think like me, feel like me, behave like me, be me. And if you aren’t me, I’m going to attack and criticize you.”

So we want to really separate that out, and really start to understand that all of the time, there’s two truths that exist in our relationship, and I’m not going to fight you over your experience of the truth in our relationship. I’m going to learn to respect you, and I’m going to learn to have empathy for your feelings and respect for your logic. Because actually, Imago is really a couples’ therapy of empathy. That’s what it is, it’s the empathy and that heals, and you learn to learn how to do that. 

One of the things that I was thinking, as you were describing just a moment ago, is that this safe dialogue helps it to come to more experience that your partner is your ally, even if they’re different. Because when we’re in power struggle, we feel that our partner is against us, or they’re threatening the very thing that we’re trying to work towards. So almost power struggle is this like jockeying or fighting and push/pull over the thing that we’re needing. Yet, what we really want is what you’re describing in the peace stage, is this sense that we’re for each other, and the closeness and the connection that can occur. But when we’re feeling threatened, it’s usually our partner that we feel like is hurting us. So it’s hard to see them as an ally. So this slowing down and this differentiating, if we will, that our partner has their different experience, and that when we can start to witness them and their sharing and understanding, in a safe way that cultivates a little bit more of that empathy, we love them and we care about their experience. And when we can recognize that they’re different person living a different experience, that can help create some space, that also ironically, brings more empathy and passion. Because they’re not required or obligated to love us, they’re their own entity.

Yes, I totally believe it. I really loved it. Because the amount of couples that come into my office and they say to me, he or she doesn’t even like me anymore. Because you get to the stage where you’re just only receiving negativity in your relationship, and you just feel like your partner is the enemy. That’s exactly about having to put down your weapons. I actually say that, put down your weapons; this is not a place for weapons. Put down our defenses. And we learn to talk with our defenses up, actually. So often, that’s the role actually of an Imago therapist or coach, is to help you learn to speak like that so that you can start to build that connection again. 

It’s really interesting actually, because it’s so powerful this work. Because if I look at, for example, me and Josephine’s relationship, we never had an affair; there was no fear in our relationship. But there was a big, breaking trust from various ways we let each other down years ago. I was thinking in my head, how am I ever going to repair this? My hypothesis was part of her autism is she couldn’t forgive, she’s got very black and white thinking. I was like, how am I going to repair this? This is 13 or 14 years ago. Actually, part of it again is, we went back, and we talked about this really, really old stuff, and we did repairs as well. Do you know what I mean? So it’s also about that. So it’s stripping out the negativity and starting to tell our partner the things that we like about them, so we can start to build that bridge to them again. So that requires us putting down our weapons. But also, of course, doing all those little repairs. 

Because the amount of times that, again, I meet couples and there are all of these things have built up. So what happens is, the reactivity just goes up and up and up a level in your relationship, and so you’re just fighting all the time. And what I’ve observed in my own relationship, and I observe in others that I work with, is that for us, reactivity has just completely drained away by going back, by learning how to talk, by learning how to have empathy and listen to each other, by individuating and separating into two separate people, and then by going back and being willing to listen to the stuff that happened years ago. 

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“The repair is just being willing to listen and having empathy, and then that drains all the reactivity out of the relationship.”

Again, that’s the exit from the power struggle stage, because I’ve been wanting to give you, to heal you. Because again, the person that really needs that will have a wound around not being listened to, and they’re with the person that doesn’t listen to them.

Yeah, and what you’re describing is incredibly difficult, when one is feeling criticized, to not want to defend. So if we can stay with it and tolerate that discomfort, to recognize: “Okay, they’re having an experience. Can I get curious? Or can I work with what’s coming up for me?” How do you help people negotiate that? Because sometimes both people are activated. Well, first of all, before you answer that question, I’m wondering, do you want to give people a little bit of an understanding of what the safe dialogue is, as you’re referencing?

Yeah, sure. So it’s a dialogue that has obviously been crafted by Helen and Harville. So basically, it’s a structured way of talking, and so it’s very different from normal conversation. So I say to my couples, this is not conversation. When you’re out there in the world, you are not listening; you are listening to defend, listening to respond in some way, listening and in your head thinking, what do I need to do? So it’s a completely different thing. So The Dialogue is a structured way of talking to each other, which is really safe. Even for me, I can be talking about a little issue, any issue with my partner, and I can be quite defensive about it. But when I go to sit down in a dialogue, I behave completely differently. I am present, I’ve got my dialoguing hat on, and I behave completely differently, and I’m ready to work and really get down to the core issues in the relationship. 

So in a nutshell, what The Dialogue is, it’s a way to talk to each other in a safe way, where one person talks and the other person listens. Then what we do is we repeat back what we’ve heard, which again, for some people can feel really weird at the beginning. The reason that we repeat back what we’ve heard is, again, we’re trying to break that emotional symbiosis, and we’re trying to separate out the two worlds. Because we want to see the world as our world and we’re self-absorbed really, and we’re just thinking about ourselves, then what we do is we try and twist our partner’s words. So what we do is we add in all our extra words. So that twists the meaning more of it to our perspective. 

So in The Dialogue, what you’re doing is you’re taking turns to speak and listen, you’re repeating back what you heard, you’re trying to stretch into your partner’s world and have empathy for them. It’s the empathy piece that heals, and it’s also really showing your partner that you are listening, which builds the emotional safety. So we actually change your brain, and we’re actually coding in emotional safety. So it’s like, The Dialogue itself, which is a tool, very easy to learn, hard to practice. Because it requires relationship skills. It requires being willing to listen to my partner’s perspective when I want to fight you actually. It requires me trying to stretch into your world and see things from a different way, and have respect for the fact that you see things differently from me. It requires me to learn to speak in a way that’s not blaming. Actually, the other thing, which is hard, that it requires, is it requires containment. So you have to learn to contain your feelings and hold until it’s your turn to speak, whilst you’re listening to your partner. So very simple tool, but you have to grow practically to be able to do it.

Is there a lot of support around how to speak in non-blaming ways, how to listen when you’re feeling reactive? 

Yeah. So that’s actually why I’d recommend, if you are in the power struggle, I recommend seeking out Imago couples’ therapists and learning this really amazing technique. It’s Imago Therapists Worldwide, they just have to look up Imago worldwide, for example, or Imago North America. But anyway, so the way that we work in session is that we’re working like a coach. So we’re obviously therapists, but we work like a coach. So the Imago therapist will coach you into safe conversation, so they’ll help you. So you might say something, and we’ll be like, actually can you rescind that, let’s make that a little bit safer. So we sort of train you into learning how to speak in a way that isn’t blaming. Again, I had to learn this stuff. I did not learn this. I see the way that my parents communicate, and I had to learn a whole new relationship language. So you get a lot of support around that.

Yes. Because I mean, even when my husband and I have been in therapy, there’s times where I’m coached to say something, and I’m like, I said that exact same thing before! But perhaps he didn’t feel safe to hear it, or my emotional tone was different. So I had said the exact same words, but the tone and the quality of what I’m revealing emotionally is different. So I think that coaching can be very helpful to have that assistance to really be as safe as possible. It is, like you’re saying, it’s a muscle that we don’t just go from defensive patterns to practicing this very safe, vulnerable share.

Totally, I’m sort of smiling when you’re telling me that. Because I’m imagining, because I was actually thinking of a specific couple that I was sitting with yesterday actually, and she raised an eyebrow when he said something. I think, I read a statistic recently, it’s something like 10% of what we communicate is through our words, and the rest is through our body language. So it’s through my eyes, my eyebrows, and it’s just like, you can communicate so much with it, and the tone, if the tone is slightly off, and then it can really raise the defenses. So I totally get what you mean. Actually, in this particular session, that raised eyebrows took them off. That’s where actually having someone as a coach to really help you, pull it back in, ground yourself again. So we have to learn these things.

Yes, the micro-facial expressions, the nonverbals, the tone, all of it is, to your point, I agree, they say 80 to 90% is what we’re really responding to. So what you’re describing, I’m not sure if I understood your couple exactly, but the person listening, their nonverbals are key to creating safety in the dialogue. 

Yes, the person listening raised the eyebrow.

Oh yeah, it’s hard to listen when the way somebody is describing is different. But if we’re listening for what is it like for them. Like, okay, given everything you’ve said, I want to understand you and what this is like for you. If that’s the thing that we’re in service of, to get that empathy, it’s like holding, holding, trying to find the key or the core there.

Yeah, exactly. 

So what if both people are triggered? What do you recommend in the safe dialogue? Is it getting a little bit more regulated before having the safe conversation, and then taking turns? How does this work?

Yeah, exactly. So definitely, we use the breath quite a lot. So it’s to see if we can pause a moment, regulate with the breath, get started when we’re ready, we might go to a safe place. It’s really just, calm yourself, and just be ready to listen to what your partner really wants to say to you, knowing that I’m going to keep you both safe and it’s going to be safe communication. Because when we know actually that our partner is going to talk to us in a safe way, we’re not going to be attacked or blamed, you can’t actually attack each other in The Dialogue. When me and Joe have done it at home, we’ve had some bad dialogues, it’s happened. I’ve had to go afterwards, what happened there? Okay, we blamed each other. Let’s not do that next time. But basically, when you know that your partner isn’t going to blame or attack you in The Dialogue, then actually, you sit down in The Dialogue, and you can actually feel quite calm, because you really just want to listen to what my partner’s perspective is. 

But the most difficult thing is to listen to difference, and actually, that’s what the whole power struggle is about. Because I was in the romantic honeymoon stage, and obviously, I’m high on all the love chemicals, and my psychological defenses come down, and I’m most free to be myself who I am, and you’re the same. It’s like, everything’s the same, we’re the same; you’re my soulmate, we’re the same. Then we come into power struggle stage, and all of that fades away, because obviously, it’s supposed to wear off, love chemicals. So then we start to be aware of that difference. So again, that feels bad to us, which is why we end up fighting over it; the conflict is around difference. 

So in The Dialogue, that’s also really hard to hold in the beginning, is that my partner is really different from me. 

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“We always remind the people that are in Dialogue, that actually you’re just listening to a different perspective, and we’re starting to separate this out, the two truths that exist in your relationship. You never have to like what you hear, but it’s just about really starting to respect the fact that my partner is different.”

It’s really amazing. Because when you do that, and you validate your partner’s perspective, and you have empathy for that, sort of respecting that they are different from you, then all of the softening happens in the relationship, and so all of the things that you want come. 

Actually, another thing is, instead of fighting your partner for what you need, so we fight over our childhood needs, so how I wanted to be loved, but I wasn’t. So I bring this in and I want you to love me in the way that I wasn’t loved. So we fight over this, that’s what the battle is over. So the work is actually where I start to ask for what I need, and I ask for it in a really safe way, and you, because you love me and we’re working on the relationship and the safety is returning, you are willing to give that as a gift of love. So for me, I really wanted to learn to listen to Joe and be present for her. So I grew into a compassionate listener. It wasn’t because I was a bang. If I was a bang, that would be me being in my childhood. But I gave it as a gift of love. So there’s a real heart-opening, empathy, loving source that it all comes from.

Absolutely. As you’re describing here, Shan, one of the things that I’m feeling is a quality that can be developed from these dialogues is that it’s perhaps a reminder that we don’t take each other for granted in relationship. That when we start to really see that different perspective, we start to want to honor with the empathy, and we hold them with us differently and consider them differently as we’re moving. Rather than this assuming or expecting or trying to get them to do what we want. Is that right, the different quality starts to nurture?

Yeah, I love that as well. I just really love the honor, because we’re really coming from a place of love. It’s like, so we put down our weapons, and we want to learn to love our partner the way they need to be loved. The way they need to be loved is the way they weren’t loved in childhood and have bought this in, and they so desperately need to either be respected or a priority or accepted. This is another thing about conscious relationship. So we understand our partner’s history, how that comes into our relationship, we understand their wounds, and we want to care for them, so we want to learn to love them. But always, what they need from us is the hardest for us to give, because we have opposite wounding.

Exactly, and this is where it’s almost as if we’re getting the manual of them of how to love them in a way, and vice versa. It’s really beautiful. Well, I know we’re winding down, and we haven’t said very much, and I know our focus was on this second stage. Is there anything you want to say about the peace third stage, or the power couple conscious relationship fourth stage?

The main stage I’m interested in is the peace stage, because I want everyone to know it’s just a stage in relationship, and so the next stage is peace. So aim for that. I don’t get anyone to aim for power couple. I just put that on, because that’s really the extension of the work as we continue to really embody the fourth stage of conscious relationship. But I just really want people to aim for peace. So what that is, is it’s starting to learn how to communicate with each other in a safe way, understanding that your goal is firstly, know where you are in the power struggle. So you’ve moved from an unconscious couple to a conscious couple. Okay, so we get where we are, we understand the purpose, let’s start to do the work. So the first thing is to learn how to return the emotional safety into our relationship; we remove the negativity, we start to take responsibility, we think about who I am being. Again, we ask for what we need, our partner learns to love us the way that we need to be loved, and that just takes you into peace. So it’s like, the work just sort of takes you in there. So I guess I just really want to inspire people to know that that’s right there on your doorstep. So it’s just there for you to learn the tools and head there.

Yeah, and I love the being in service of that peace. There is a way of being in relationship, that conscious, peaceful way of relating can be cultivated, that that’s the goal. So we know that when we’re doing some of this difficult work, or we’re tolerating some of these differences, that we might adamantly disagree that to our partner’s perspective. But if we can hold a little longer, that we’re in service of these higher intentions, and that that is what we’ll be experiencing on the other side.

Yeah, exactly. That’s exactly right.

Thank you for what you’re saying and helping really give example to and exemplifying in your own life and relationship. Is there anything else that you want to say that we haven’t touched on? Or would you like to just move into what would you like people to get in touch with, with you? 

I guess the last thing that I would just comment on is just being aware of the myth of the effortless marriage. Because some people think that actually, to have a really healthy relationship. And I’m sure, I know really that many people have said this to you in different words on some of your other episodes. But I just think it’s really important to know is that it’s not just enough to show up in your relationship and think that because I earn the money, or because I’m enjoying the children, or that I look after the house, that actually that’s enough in my relationship. 

It’s about really, what’s the word I’m looking for, just really showing up in your relationship and recognizing that actually a long-lasting happy, beautiful relationship actually, I believe, transforms your whole life. I really believe that everything comes from the platform of healthy relationships, and that’s what I’ve observed in my own life, that it becomes this amazing source of energy and joy. It’s not supposed to be something that takes from you, but actually, it requires nourishment and work. Even, for example, me and my partner, we work on our relationship for half an hour every day; we do an appreciation six days a week and a formal Imago dialogue. But we also do work for half an hour every morning. It’s just those little touch points every single day. So I guess I just really want people to do the work. It’s just these little pieces of work, and then it just really sustains and grows and elevates your relationship beyond what you could even imagine.

Thank you for just encouraging and giving some voice to what’s possible. I have found, in my own healing, that it does affect every area of my life, and my own sense of self, and the experience of my own wholeness is much more clean, clear, integrated, when I do my healing work and have done my healing work. I can feel qualitatively how different it is, and would not change it for anything. 

Wonderful! Well, how can people get in touch with what you’re teaching or what you’re offering? What would you like to share?

Yeah. So the main way to get in touch with me is by my website, so ShanMerchant.com, and I’m also on LinkedIn. Actually, I also have a two to three-minute quiz on my website and on LinkedIn, which is called, which one of the four stages of relationship are you in? So if anyone’s interested to find out where they are, then they can do that quiz. That’s an interesting thing to do. So the main place to find me is actually on my website. I’d also love, if anyone resonates with any of the teachings and they’re interested in getting an Imago therapist, I would really recommend it, and that’s worldwide. So if you just look up Imago worldwide, obviously you’re in America, so there’s a lot of therapists over there, and I just really recommend trying one. 

No kidding, wonderful! I’ll put the link to your website, your LinkedIn, and also, that they can get the quiz on your website. What else might they find on the website? Also, just on a side note, I’ll put a link to finding an Imago therapist on the show notes. But what else might people find on your website?

So there’s also my book, which is called From Power Struggle to Peaceful Couple. So I’ve got a book which they can buy on my website, as well. It’s like a short, easy reading book, just to get some of the main concepts of Imago and understand more about what we talked about today. So yeah, there’s that book that they can find on my website as well. And my blogs actually, I write on my website as well.

Well, it sounds like you have a lot to offer for people that are resonating with what you’re describing. I can feel your heart and your passion for helping people have access to this material, and I’m really grateful for what you do. Thank you.

Thank you. Thank you so much for having me today.

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Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication

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Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching