Exclusive interview with Relationship Expert Harville Hendrix

Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., one of North America's leading authorities on communication and relationships, talks about why we fall in and out of love; how to heal yourself after a divorce; and how to talk -- and listen -- powerfully.

By Diana Shepherd
Updated: August 27, 2014
Divorce Recovery

One of North America's leading authorities on communication and relationships, Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., is the bestselling author of Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples and Keeping the Love You Find: A Guide for Singles. Through his books and workshops, Dr. Hendrix has helped thousands of couples to rediscover the joys of being together. He's also taught thousands of singles why their past relationships failed, and how to create lasting love in the future. His new book, Giving the Love that Heals: A Guide for Parents, has just been released; look for it in your local bookstore. Here, he talks with Divorce Magazine Editorial Director Diana Shepherd about why we fall in and out of love; how to heal yourself after a divorce; and how to talk -- and listen -- powerfully.

Divorce Magazine: Why do we fall in love with the people we do?

Harville Hendrix: The basic reason is what I call the "Imago," which is a buried internal image created in childhood of one's caretakers. This image serves two purposes: it helps the infant recognize and distinguish the parents from other adults so that nurturing can take place; and in adulthood, this unconscious image of the parents helps you to unconsciously select a person to fall in love with -- a person who is similar to your parents. This image includes the positive and negative traits of both parents, and also includes your parents' limitations in nurturing or supporting you. We are attracted to people like our parents in order to finish the business we didn't finish with them. Unconsciously, we feel like we're in a survival mode, and so when we meet someone who is similar to our parents -- I call them a "surrogate parent model" -- we go into a kind of euphoria because deep down inside we believe we're now going to get what we didn't get in childhood. That's what triggers the impulse most commonly called "romantic love." The definition of romantic love I like the best is that it is "anticipated need satisfaction that will soon be disappointed."

Divorce: How long does romantic love last? I've been in a relationship for two years now, and it still feels very romantic.

Harville: After two years in a relationship, if there has been much time spent together, there has to have been some ruptures in the romantic illusion: something one of you is doing really irritates the other, and the energy of the response to that irritation is intense. When the illusion breaks down a bit, you see some reality in your partner. You don't say, "Hey, that's like my mother or my father," but you nevertheless react.

In the romantic phase, we don't do much analysis -- we just try to repair the rupture when it occurs, saying, "Oh well, it was just a bad day," or "We love each other; we'll get over it." Lovers make lots of excuses to sustain the illusion. The romantic impulse is built into us, so it's a natural response.

Research indicates that the bonding seems to end in most people after about three years; the earliest I've heard of is before the wedding. When the bonding is secure, there's a growing perceptual shift towards irritability, disappointment, frustration, increasing conflict -- "You're not the person that I thought you were" kind of thing. Neurochemists say that there's an amphetamine high when you fall in love, which reduces into an endorphin sense of well-being. And when the bonding is there, the endorphins begin to be replaced by adrenaline. Then you've moved into the "power struggle," which is where most couples stay fixed for most of their marriages: they either function in a "hot marriage" -- fighting -- or a "parallel marriage" -- living together but not interacting much. Or they get a divorce and end it all, or they do what we recommend: become conscious in their marriage, heal each other, and go on to live out their dreams.

Divorce: So the power struggle is supposed to die at the time you move into a conscious marriage.

Harville: People have not been good at achieving that, and the culture hasn't been good at supporting that achievement. When Helen and I met and began to date and relate after both of our divorces, I was beginning to put together the first ideas in Imago. So we have been partners in creating this system while creating our relationship. We make these points in our workshop: that romantic love is supposed to go away; that the power struggle is supposed to happen; that the purpose of the power struggle is to become conscious that our woundedness is behind our conflict. Our defenses that we use with each other were developed in childhood, and we now hurt each other. We have to find out from each other what each one needs in order to meet their unmet childhood needs. When you start doing that, you begin to experience a decrease in the tension, and the power struggle slowly goes away because you're now in a needs-met situation. Then, frustration and conflict come up only in a situation like, "I'm sorry, it's raining today, so we can't go to the park," rather than some sort of accusation or criticism.

Divorce: Can therapy save a marriage after the word "divorce" has been mentioned?

Harville: Oh yes! It's a little harder, but we see that all the time. I've even seen that happen in our weekend workshop. Last year a couple came having already signed their divorce papers. They said, "Let's try something else before we file this," and they came to the workshop and reconciled. At the end of the workshop, we ask couples to create a ritual, and we don't give them much more instruction than that. The woman said, "We have always fought about who is supposed to take the garbage out. I always thought that Peter was just lazy, so I've always been on his back. He refused to take the garbage out because I was always on his back. So we decided that our ritual is that we're going to take the garbage out together. And we're going to put scraps in a compost heap, and stir it once a week, so that it metamorphoses into fertilizer out of which new things will grow." And they ended the divorce proceedings.

Another time, a man came to the group with the divorce papers in his pocket. He came to the workshop under duress of his wife and said, "If this doesn't work, I'm filing these papers on Monday morning." On Sunday afternoon, he tore them up in front of the group and wept, because he had no idea that his wife was in so much emotional pain from her childhood. When he realized that, his empathy level rose so high that he became very caring. There are hundreds of stories like these.

Divorce: Do you keep up with any couples to find out what happens afterwards? Are the positive changes long-lasting, or were they caused by the euphoria of the weekend?

Harville: Statistics vary. When I was in full-time practice -- now I'm primarily writing and lecturing -- I would keep contact with many of the couples. It appeared that many did stay together, while some didn't. Some couples who do make it often show up at Helen's course -- called "Marriage As a Spiritual Path" -- and say "Remember us?"

Let's talk

Harville Hendrix defines dialogue as "a communication process that creates contact with another person, deepens it to connection and a level of empathic attunement. 'Dialogue' is a way to speak to each other from a place of equality and acceptance. And the procedure is to mirror what you're hearing, validate the logic of what you're hearing, and reflect the feelings in what you're hearing -- and do that without judgment." There are three steps to dialogue: Mirroring, Validating, and Empathy.


  • Mirroring is paraphrasing what is said to you, then requesting confirmation that you have received the whole message. The magic words are: "If I understand you correctly, what you're saying is x, y, and z. Did I get it? Is there more about that?" This response replaces the reactive response, and is the beginning of growth towards contact and connection.
  • Validating is seeing something from the other's point of view, and telling him or her that you can see the logic in his or her statements: "You make sense because..." You don't have to agree with the statement -- you just have to see the logic in it.
  • Empathy is being able to imagine what the other person is feeling: "I can imagine that you must be feeling sad and hurt about that..." Even if you have to grit your teeth at first, you'll produce a positive result with most people. But when you can do it authentically from your core, it takes the danger out of your relationship: neither of you has to be defended against the other anymore.


Divorce: Is it ever too late to save a marriage?

Harville: I can't think of a reason -- unless your partner is dead or emotionally incapable of responding. You have to find a means to restore enough safety in the relationship so that both partners can begin to deal with their pain. I know of no divorce that I would say is anything other than unresolved pain. It was just too hard; it hurt too much; there was no way out of it except divorce. And the culture doesn't support us knowing how to get out without divorce. Couples are incompatible by nature; their personality traits are always complimentary -- one person is aggressive, the other passive; one is more energetic than the other -- and this is what attracted them to each other. So this incompatibility -- both in terms of character style and that both are wounded -- makes the romantic marriage a high liability.

Harville (cont'd): But it is this very incompatibility that brings up all of the possibilities of healing and growth, because it's the energy that catalyzes the growth process -- if you know what to do with the energy. And here's where the culture doesn't support that. The culture says, "If you're incompatible, that's grounds for divorce." Many divorces have been granted just on stated incompatibility. So it's never too late if people can get the information they need: first of all, that most of this is about your childhood; and secondly, if you begin to explore each other's woundedness and defenses, your marriage can be saved.

I have seen couples who didn't make it, but that was usually because they chose not to engage in the process -- because they were too tired or hurt, or the pain had been going on too long. I finally realized that if I could just get couples into dialogue, to start mirroring each other, to begin to stop rejecting and stop blaming, to reflect back what your partner is saying, and sustain that dialogue for a long enough period of time, the fear would begin to diminish and a little more sharing would happen. It may take two or three years of gently holding them to dialogue -- not to analysis, to dialogue. Eventually, their defenses relax enough for them to become vulnerable with each other. They finally feel empathy for each other, and then they're where they're supposed to be.

Divorce: Sometimes people meet and marry very quickly. We've all heard the stories: "We met on Monday and were married on Friday." Are those marriages salvageable?

Harville: I've had people come in with that kind of marriage. That impulsiveness of moving across a crowded room and saying, "Hello. Will you marry me?" means that both people are in an urgent situation. On the surface it feels wonderful, but the intensity of the attraction in that quick relationship is going to be counter-balanced by the intensity of their frustration when the illusion shatters -- and it will shatter quickly. It's difficult to work with them because of the way they manage their relationship and their lives in general. In the course of a longer courtship, when people have a chance to move from the amphetamine high of romantic love to the endorphin sense of well-being, they get some reality data that can integrate into the illusion they're projecting. This is a much more balanced situation.

On the other hand, some couples who have lived together for three, five, or seven years feel that their relationship is pretty good and decide to get married. And surprisingly, the casualty rate among those marriages is almost as high as of the impulsive marriages. The reason for this is that during the non-marital-but-living-together stage, they had some tacit agreement to not have too intense of an expectation of the relationship. It was almost a conspiracy of avoiding the really hard questions. So they get married, and the amazing thing is that an unconscious process is triggered by the wedding ceremony in which the little boy or girl inside says, "Now I'm entitled to have it all!" His or her expectation level goes up, and the conflict level goes up; this pretty good long-term relationship goes into a nose-dive. And these people say, "Marriage ruined our relationship; we should've stayed single!" Yes, that's true: it ruined the conspiracy. But it opened up the growth that had been on hold for years, with a deeper level of intimacy as a result of their more serious level of commitment.

Divorce: Many separated or divorced people want to immediately plunge back into the dating and/or mating game. Is there a problem with this?

Harville: Yes. Before I developed Imago therapy, I functioned as a regular psychotherapist. If a couple came in and said they wanted to work through getting a divorce, that was fine; we would support that. But over time, I became aware that a couple of years after people got divorced, they'd be back in my office because of problems with another relationship. I'd ask, "Why are you back here? You finished your therapy; we both agreed that you were 'well.' Now you're back in the same place you were before your divorce, with the same feelings, same issues, and so forth." I realized that if people go out straight from a divorce into a new relationship, they avoid enormous potential for new growth. So I started encouraging people to work through their grief.

The first exercise is to say "goodbye" to your ex-partner -- even if you've been single for years. Some people who have been divorced for more than 20 years find that they never really said "goodbye." And the pain of the breakup is almost as intense as if it had been yesterday.

Some people get remarried without really "finishing" their previous marriage, so they carry their first marriage into the second as unfinished business. And it shows up in the bedroom, and in discussions about money, managing children, and whatever. The second marriage becomes a casualty of the first marriage because the first marriage was never grieved and finished. So I began to say to people that I don't care if they date, have sex, whatever, but don't get serious with anyone -- no matter what they feel -- for at least two years. Grieve and experience alone- time; experience the suffering of not having anyone there.

Divorce: Can you really work through your pain just by sitting with it? Or do you need help -- like therapy or support groups?

Harville: Just sitting with it isn't what I'm talking about, because that often means just wallowing in it, holding onto it. You can work with the pain alone by reading or getting into a group or therapy. But you have to be able to bring it up and have a context in which to view it. It's kind of a paradox: you have to sit with the pain, but not hold onto it. You can let go of it by expressing it verbally and emotionally, and sometimes even physically. Freud had this clear in the 1890s. He wrote an essay called "Mourning and Melancholia" in which he made a distinction between melancholy -- which is the holding onto and wallowing in the misery -- and mourning -- which is allowing oneself to go through the misery.

It's very important for mental health, physical health, and the health of a future relationship to do the grieving. After a divorce, you have to cry; you have to work through the pain. And you ought to do it with some sense that you may be saving your own life: if you don't grieve, you could precipitate some kind of illness, and it certainly will prevent you from being fully available to the next person in your life.

Divorce: What should single people be working on to prepare themselves for a great relationship?

Harville: There are four things you should do to prepare yourself for a future partner. First, educate yourself about relationships; second, educate yourself about yourself; third, train yourself in the skills of relationships; and fourth, do what you can to change the behaviors and character defenses that are keeping you from finding and keeping lasting love. If you do these things, you won't have any problem in finding a mate -- and this person will be more able to make a commitment and will frustrate you a lot less than the person you'd pick (or who would pick you) before you do this work.

While you're single, you have to become aware of what a relationship really is. What romantic love is; why you fall in love (to get your needs met); why you fall out of love (because your needs aren't being met). Learn about the power struggle and the difference between conscious and unconscious marriages.

The defense you use in response to your own frustration will be exactly the type of behaviour that will injure your partner the most. The way you react when you're frustrated triggers the vulnerability in your partner; then your partner reacts in a way that triggers your wound, and the cycle continues. If you don't understand this cycle, the conflict in your relationship will never make sense: you'll think, "I'm the one who's hurt -- why is my partner acting like this?" If you learn what your unconscious defense is, then you can learn to stop reacting the same way -- the way that will hurt your partner the most -- when you feel vulnerable. Instead of saying, "You jerk -- you haven't hugged me in four weeks!" you could learn to say, "I'm really missing you. I'd love to have your arms around me -- would you be willing to hold me?" You learn how to manage the defense so it becomes an invitation for connection rather than an interruption of connection and a path to alienation and separation. If you don't identify and learn to manage your unconscious defenses, then your next relationship will be just like the last one.

You have to learn how to talk so that people will listen, and you have to learn to listen so that people will talk with you. We call this "dialogue." Years ago, I talked about communication skills for couples. But what I learned was that the better a couple communicated what they were thinking and feeling to each other, the worse their relationship became. The reason for that is that saying what you feel, "letting it all hang out," is not the way to create intimacy. Instead, you have to learn to "mirror" -- to actively reflect or hold -- what a person is saying. Mirroring is the first step to dialogue; the next step is "validation." People want to talk, they want to be listened to, and they want to know if the other person really understands and sees them. This is something you have to learn, whether you're single or married: you don't have to agree with what someone says, but you mustn't invalidate him or her for saying it. Don't say: "You're crazy! That doesn't make any sense!" You have to validate them, saying: "That makes sense." That's validation.

Divorce: The day after I took the "Getting the Love You Want" course, I had a conversation with a friend who has been a chronic invalid since his wife left him ten years ago. It started off with what I'd call his usual communication -- complaining about how terrible he feels -- and I could feel myself getting irritated. So I used the dialogue process with him, and the results were amazing: what would normally have been a two-hour discussion was over in about five minutes!

Harville: He delivered his message, and you acknowledged that you got it, so he didn't have to send it anymore. He's been trying to put it in your mailbox, but it's been closed! Divorce: I also requested that he tell me one unconditionally good thing about himself every day for two weeks, and miracles started to occur. For instance, he's now volunteering at a hospital -- this is a man who didn't get out of bed on many days!

In the case of your friend, he becomes a helper when he doesn't have to importune your attention anymore. Now he has all this energy he used to use for defense for service, for expressing his life.

Dialogue can be used in any relationship -- including parents and children, business associates, teachers and students -- because it is a universal human need to be in connection. And the thing that further deepens connection is empathy: "Not only can I see your point of view, but I can imagine that you must be feeling angry at me about that." This produces another level of visceral, bodily relaxation, and emotional connection.

Divorce: During the "Getting the Love You Want" course, my partner objected to having to learn the dialogue process. He thinks it's too mechanical...

Harville: In your life, you go through many skill-learning experiences where you have to be mechanical at the beginning -- like learning to ski, or to use a computer. Many of us resist the learning curve in relationships that we assume is normal in any other context. Yes, you can ski the double black diamonds -- after you learn to snowplow. If you just go straight for the double black diamonds your first time out, you fall and maybe die. Dialogue will produce the results you want, but you do have to learn the skills.

In my work with couples, I found that they visibly relaxed when their partner listened to and validated them -- despite the fact that I was coaching their partners and giving them the words to say. And the only way I've ever been able to explain this is that the primitive old brain inside us doesn't care if you are being fed the lines -- it just wants to hear the words. At the cognitive level, you may be thinking: "I don't know if you mean what you're saying -- you may just be making it up." But at the visceral level, you relax with the words even if your analytical new brain may know what's going on. I still don't fully understand how we can have such a cognitive-visceral split. It may be that some communications bypass the defenses of the cortex and go straight into the emotional centre.

Divorce: Maybe that's how you can convince an intelligent person that he or she is stupid.

Harville: That makes sense!

Divorce: What are the benefits of being single?

Harville: Many people who marry have never finished their adolescence. So after a divorce, many people are in some sense single for the first time: they grow up in a family, go to high school and college, get jobs, and get married. They never really get out of a social structure, and there's no period of aloneness. And sometimes that contributes to the breakup of the marriage: they start acting out their adolescence in the relationship. So there's a tremendous benefit to experiencing the freedom of aloneness. You have so many more options for doing things -- people travel for the first time, or start reading for the first time -- you have time to think about what you want to do, what you are feeling.

Singleness can give you a deeper awareness of who you really are -- not someone defined by some relationship. You can increase your self-awareness, differentiate more as a self, and get more in touch with your emotions and thinking.

Divorce: Does this process short-circuit if you jump back into a relationship too soon?

Harville: It can indeed. If you go right back into another context where you have to live in an interactive mode with someone else, you may not get enough time, privacy, or distance to discover who you really are. That's why the two-year hiatus is so important. If you take the time to complete your adolescence and find out who you are, you'll find yourself attracted to a very different type of person than you were before. You can shift in terms of the emotional maturity of the people you're attracted to.

Divorce: When some people come out of a relationship, they're very wounded, and vow never to get into another committed relationship again. Are there any benefits to being in a relationship?

Harville: From my perspective the benefits are pretty clear. Once you have done the grieving and re-integrated a lot of the pieces of yourself, your unconscious defense system will still be in place. You'll still engage in behaviours that will produce results you don't understand. What you need -- and you can only get it in a committed relationship -- is a "mirror" in which to see yourself. Your partner is going to give you data. He or she will say things like: "I don't like that; you're doing that again; I wish you wouldn't do that; why do we have to do this again?" You constantly see yourself reflected in this mirror. There's also a wall to push against: this partner is going to have needs that you are not comfortably going to be able to meet.

Nature puts us with somebody whose deepest needs are connected to the least-developed part of ourselves: what you need the most is what I'm least capable of giving. So your partner is going to call on you to relate to them in a way that will be uncomfortable. The reason you're uncomfortable is because that part of you didn't get supported in childhood. For example, let's say you're not comfortable saying emotional things or engaging in spontaneous affective displays. But if you work to become conscious, you'll be able to say: "It's very difficult for me to say and do these things, but I'll try." Then you'll do or say something emotional, which will begin to stimulate that dormant part of yourself into aliveness, and this means that you become whole.

Divorce: Can you do this on your own?

Harville: You can't do it on your own, and you can't do it in therapy. I can tell my clients what's going on, but I can't mirror them in a way that will activate their growth because my need system isn't attached to them. So I can't mirror back to them their coldness, their stinginess -- I can only listen to them talk about people's reactions to them, and then ask them to look inside to see how that might connect with their own experience.

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