Gay and Katie Hendrix have been married for over thirty years. Throughout their marriage and their professional careers as couple psychotherapists, they have sought the answer to an important question in modern American life. That question is: “Why don’t relationships seem to last these days?” It’s a good question, I think. The divorce rate in the United States is creeping towards 60%, which is a staggering statistic…especially when you consider that it doesn’t even include what we think of as “common law” marriages. What is going on here?
After many years of research, and, they will tell you, painstaking experimentation with their own marriage, the Hendrix’s have come up with some important keys to creating a “lasting” and “fulfilling” relationship.
1: In All Communications With Your Partner, Strive Toward Complete Honesty, Transparency, and Authenticity
The Hendrix’s speak of this idea that intimacy is created when both partners in the couple learn to tell the “microscopic” truth to each other. By this they mean, I think, that each partner learn to actually describe to the other what is going on for them from the “inside out”…. including thoughts, feelings, and even bodily sensations. For example, if you are describing for your partner an experience that caused you to be extremely fearful or anxious, you might say: “My heart was beating fast and my palms were sweaty.” You might think that such a visceral “blow by blow” account would be “off putting”, and you would be seen as weak and vulnerable. In fact quite the opposite is the case. When hearing about the emotional pain of a loved one… the “mirror” neurons of empathy are activated in the central nervous system of the other person. This is a true “bonding” experience.
As a corollary to the “microscopic” truth, the Hendrix’s also talk about the importance of having a “no secrets” policy in a committed relationship. In this instance, they are talking about secrets large and small. A small secret might be, “I overdrew the checking account”. A big secret would be: “Oh, I forgot to mention, I’ve got a child from a previous relationship.”
An important distinction needs to be made, I think, between what is a “secret” and what is “private”. A “secret” is information you are deliberately withholding because you know that the disclosure of it will create some kind of “waves” in your relationship. You want to avoid that, but the constant “avoidance” of the truth will always come back on you tenfold in the long run and lead to erosion of trust. Privacy has more to do with the careful guarding of your own inner life in a protective way. You may or may not reveal information to select and trusted others in the fullness of time.
2. Each Partner Has The Responsibility To Shake Up The Relationship On A Regular Basis
We are creatures of habit, and although overall this creates a feeling of security and predictability, its important to note that we also crave novelty and variety. “Shaking it up” can be as simple as trying a new restaurant, sleeping on the other side of the bed, or vacationing in a new spot. How far to move your partner out of his/her comfort zone is an important skill, however. You don’t want to have the unrealistic expectation that your partner will do something so far out of their comfort zone that they are truly uncomfortable. (And then blame them for it!)
3. Practice Giving Your Partner 10 to 12 compliments a day, and include with this practice plenty of “touching” “hugging” and “eye contact”
Does this sound “New age” and trite? Ok…but be aware that verbalizations and gestures of love and affection sprinkled throughout the day are actually found to be extremely highly correlated with successful long term “pair bonding” in much of the animal kingdom, including humans. This is sound neuroscience which is founded on brain imaging that shows areas of the brain to “light up” when the “pleasure centers” are stimulated. The “pleasure centers” are stimulated through words and gestures of love. Furthermore, “love memory” exists wherein we can see the pleasure centers light up even in the anticipation of being reunited with a loved one. This can be seen in our closest evolutionary relatives, the great apes, but is perfected to a very sophisticated degree in humans. In addition to this, the hormone oxytocin is released with physical contact, or even the anticipation of physical contact. It’s quite amazing really.The important thing to remember though, is that stores of oxytocin must be constantly replenished, or the well can run dry.
4. Strive To Eliminate Blame And Criticism From Your Relationship
This is perhaps the hardest “key” of all. Do we not all become irritated and upset with our partners? Also, if there is honesty and transparency in a relationship, surely some of this “honesty” is going to be of the negative variety? Here is what the Hendrix’s think about this: It is the their contention that it is a given that much of what we see and don’t like in the “other”, particularly our most significant other, is actually a reflection or an indication of something we cannot allow in ourselves.
In psychological terms this is known as “Projection”, and it is thought to run pretty rampantly, albeit unconsciously, in couples.
The trick is to tease out what the projection actually is…that is.. what is really bugging you underneath the surface issue?
In other words, what is triggering you? The example given in the case of the Hendrix marriage was that Gay Hendrix would always get really angry if his wife Katie came home later than promised. In his own “self” examination he was able to remember his mother leaving him at home after school. Katie was therefore “triggering” abandonment issues in her husband and causing him to feel unsafe and vulnerable every time she was late. In Gays case, “vulnerability” was not a very acceptable “manly” way to feel, so he converted this unacceptable feeling to anger and projected it onto Katie. It wasn’t actually about Katie at all.
In my view, totally eliminating blame and criticism from any close relationship is a tall order. However, it makes sense to examine your own feelings every time you are intensely triggered by your partner…. every time you see red, or feel that your world is falling apart. When confronting your partner about the feelings that have arisen in you, you can offer the microscopic disclosure that I mentioned earlier on. Just naming the feeling and having the attitude of curiosity and discovery about where that feeling might come from will go a long way toward dissipating the intensity of the feeling. Ideally, “blame” will fall away, and your partner will be happy to do whatever he/she can to heal the “wound” that has been uncovered.
5. As A Capstone to all the other Keys, Commitment and Intention to Co-Create the best possible Relationship for Both Of You Is Essential
It almost goes without saying, but bears repeating, that none of the other relationship skills are worth anything without the commitment to make it all work. Equally shared responsibility and somehow having the unspoken agreement that you will not, either of you, lightly let this relationship go…feel like the true “Art of Relationship”. Its almost impossible to define…but clear to you both when you have landed in this consciously loving and sacred place. You won’t ever want to leave.
By Leslie Kays MFT