There’s always a response in an Imago Dialogue, which must stay on topic. Giving a good response takes practice. Being defensive or setting the record straight isn’t constructive. Two good ways to start a response is to own what you can own, or say something like, “One thing that touched me in what you said is.…” Since it’s important that each stage of the dialogue be clearly structured, I began by saying, “I’d like to respond now,” and Francine answered, “OK.”
In the response phase, the listener mirrors the speaker once again, but this time, it was Francine doing the mirroring. I said, “I’m really glad you asked for a dialogue. I’ve been feeling that you’ve been more distant recently.”
After a hand squeeze, Francine repeated what I’d said, reversing the pronouns. “You’re really glad I asked for a dialogue. You’ve felt that I’m more distant recently.”
During this phase of the dialogue, I told Francine—with each statement punctuated by her hand squeezes to allow what I was saying to come out in manageable, repeatable segments—that I was touched by her tears and passion, and that I could really see how hurt she was and how much she wanted to feel connected to me. I then explained—with Francine mirroring, word for word—that I’d spent my day alone working on our joint article, “messing a bit” with the stock market, and seeing the new Woody Allen movie, Midnight in Paris. I added that I’d loved the movie and I’d wished so much she could’ve been with me. “It included places and museums we’d just visited the day before,” and after squeezing my hand, Francine repeated, “It included places and museums we’d just visited the day before.” Then she squeezed my hand again and said, “Pause a minute, I need to calm myself.”
After her pause to center herself, we began again. I said that the day off was helpful to me, that the two of us had been together day and night for the previous three weeks on our workshop training tour of Europe, and that I was beginning to feel an uncomfortable sense of “symbiosis” with her. “I think I was too abrupt, and I’m sorry for that, but the individuation felt really good!” I added, which Francine mirrored.
Francine then validated what I’d said by summarizing it, asking me whether she’d gotten it right, and, when I said yes, telling me, “Your perspective is important and valuable to me, and you make sense.” Following this, Francine expressed her empathy by saying, “I imagine that how you felt and feel now is relieved. Is that what you felt and feel?” I concurred and, when she asked if I had any more feelings to express, I said I felt grateful and connected—which Francine mirrored.
To those unfamiliar with Imago, this long, formal dialogue can sound stilted and artificial at first. How can anything good come out of repeating back what each partner says? But, paradoxically, the slowness and repetition is part of its strength. Once the dialogue begins, it flows along predictably from moment to moment. The structure of the dialogue basically ensures that there’ll be no nasty surprises, no sudden attacks, and no comments out of left field.
It should be clear that the tone of voice counts enormously—it should be calm and neutral, conveying nonjudgmental listening, with no impatient or snarky undertones. The dialogue essentially contains the couple’s interaction in a state of controlled mindfulness, which not only prevents blowups, but keeps each partner purposefully focused on the other and what he or she has to communicate. Since the process is predictable and the mirroring is exact—each partner knows what’s coming next—the limbic system is calmed and the prefrontal cortex is activated. The couple feels less defensive, more relaxed, more attuned and empathic toward the other, and better able to hear what the other is saying.
Clearly, we need more research to learn what the impact of the Imago Dialogue is on the brain; however, we know through experience that learning and practicing relational meditation via this dialogue can have a transformative impact on individuals and couples. Just as it usually takes years of consistent, regular meditation practice to bring about deep, lasting neurobiological changes, so, too, practicing Imago Dialogue won’t transform a marriage overnight. We encourage couples to enter marital therapy thinking about the long haul, just as they would if they were serious students of yoga or meditation. Couples in trouble need healing, not problem solving. The life-transforming skills that’ll heal and change them take months and years of practice.
Even with many years of Imago Dialogue under our belts, we haven’t become a pair of saints. We still have disagreements and times when we aren’t attuned. We’ve discovered that even when we feel the best with each other—safe, connected, and close—we can still move into painful disconnection quite suddenly. This is because when we feel safe, we’re most vulnerable, and at those moments—when our hearts are open and vulnerable and our defenses are down—we often feel the pain of disconnection even more deeply.
It’s clear that Eastern meditative practices are singularly helpful in calming the nervous system and enhancing a sense of relaxed well-being. As we’ve discovered, alternative forms of structured mindfulness can be helpful for couples hoping to explore the underlying heart of relationship.
Bruce Crapuchettes, Ph.D., and Francine Crapuchettes Beauvoir, Ph.D., are licensed psychologists who’ve been married for more than 40 years. They’re certified instructors on the faculty of the Imago International Institute in New York, and cofounded the Pasadena Institute for Relationships, the West Coast training center for Imago Relationship Therapy. Francine Crapuchettes Beauvoir is the author of Raising Cooperative and Self-Confident Children: A Step-By-Step Guide for Conscious Parenting. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; website: www.pasadenainstitute.com. Tell us what you think about this article by e-mail at email@example.com, or at www.psychotherapynetworker.org. Log in and you’ll find the comment section on every page of the online Magazine section.