Most of us can identify the big, ugly problem in our marriage. It's that "the kids just went off to college" or "we're not having sex" or "he spends all his time at the basketball court" or "she doesn't like to travel to countries without plumbing" or "god, he never laughs." For decades, working as therapists in counseling sessions, Hendrix and Hunt heard hundreds of couples name that lone wrecking-ball that was bringing it all crashing down. They knew, of course, that the problem under discussion wasn't the problem.
The fundamental idea of Imago therapy, after all, is that people tend to marry the person that they hope will solve their own problems from childhood—a person who, paradoxically, often exacerbates those problems until the two learn to communicate. Who on earth can recognize that all alone?
And yet...they suspected still another kind of conflict was lurking around in most marriages, wreaking havoc. They weren't able to identify what it was, though, until their own relationship began to fray and falter. "It was a terrible time for us," says Hendrix. "We could hardly stand each other. We knew we loved each other, but neither of us felt loved, or even understood."
One day, they went to the bookstore. They'd exhausted all the sections that offered clinically acceptable advice about their situation, such as self-help and relationships. Instead, they decided to check out an area they'd never visited: astrology. On a back shelf, they found a book about the compatibility of couples based on their signs. The two were so desperate for help that they did an exercise in the back page. "The result was," says Hunt, 'You are going to destroy your relationship unless you suspend all negative scrutiny.'"
Yes, this was a book about horoscopes. Yes, these were two people with doctoral degrees, two professional therapists who considered astrology along the lines of hocus pocus. But whether it was fate or luck or just a very insightful analysis based on their birthdates, the message hit home—painfully. "All the blood drained out of my face," says Hunt. "I thought somebody must be watching us, that somebody must have set this up." Negativity was the root of all their problems—and they wondered if it was the root of their clients' problems, too. "We were so embarrassed we hadn't found this out in therapy," says Hendrix. "But, at the same time, it was a relief to know what was wrong."
Next: The experiment that may revolutionize your marriage
They decided to do a private experiment on themselves. They would cut out all negativity in their relationship. This doesn't sound that hard. That is, until you consider that negativity in a marriage is, as Hendrix says, "anything you say or do that your partner experiences as a putdown." So, that could be a joke ("It's back again, the attack of the killer perm!") or a criticism ("Honey, I love you, but you're not the most challenging Monopoly player") or a guilt trip ("If you don't really love your kids enough to go to the pot luck, then...") or an outright attack ("You're such a know-it-all!") or even a dismissive look. "We went cold-turkey," says Hendrix. "For a few months, we had very little to say to each other. We couldn't talk. Which let us know how much negativity had been seeping into our lives."
Once they got the hang of speaking and acting differently, the results were astonishing. Their marriage had rebounded. They were happier. The idea of divorce was over. They took the no-negativity approach into their workshops and therapy sessions and got the same result. People recommitted to each other—and found a new kind of joy about being together. This wasn't totally surprising. Traditional Imago therapy teaches couples how to resolve problems by using a specific line of dialogue that reduces stress, anxiety and aggression. "When a couple follows our steps," says Hunt, "they learn over time how to speak to each without negativity. All we did was start at the end." Which, in effect, turned their well-known method on its head. Rather than learning to communicate and thus becoming non-negative to one another, a couple just cuts out the negativity—and then learns to communicate—which for many struggling people is faster and more effective than the original technique.
A decade later, the advantages of the approach are just coming to light in terms of science. "Negativity erodes a feeling of safety in a marriage," says Hendrix. "Neuroscience now shows that when you or your partner don't feel safe, they get anxious, and neither of their brains can problem-solve. So they can't find solutions to arguments."
Like so many seemingly simple things, however, the process is trickier than it seems. People can't click their heels and whisper, "We will not be negative. We will not be negative. We will not be negative." You do have to say this. It's the first step. But what comes next? Here are a few doable ways that Hendrix and Hunt were able to banish negativity and start over—for real.
1. Define the ouch.
The big problem with negativity is that we often don't know that we're engaging in it. Our judgment is clouded about what we're really saying to our partners. "In my case," says Hunt, "I prided myself on all the constructive ways I helped Harville live his life. I had ideas about how he could improve how he dressed. If he said something during a speech that wasn't quite clear, I pulled him aside and told him how he could do it better. I thought I was being his best friend." Hendrix also thought he was helping. He let Hunt know every time she was being too loud or too intense. He was "correcting her" with love.
To remove the negativity, each of them had to admit when the other had unintentionally hurt them. And this is where it takes courage. Because "the one who flinches," says Hendrix, "has to take the responsibility of telling their partner. And it can be scary when you're not getting along." But what's even scarier, when you think about it, is getting hurt over and over—until you give up or leave.
Okay, your partner knows what you consider a putdown. He's no longer making those kinds of comments. Except...when he slips up or unwittingly makes a new kind of comment that whaps you right to your knees (on the inside, of course, where he can't see). Let's say he says, "I wish you'd stop using such ghetto detergent." You came from a poor family, this was the detergent you used all your life, and his way of saying "ghetto" felt as if he dismissed you, your family, your culture and your past. Your instinct is to say, "Buy your own detergent, then, and do the laundry while you're at it, because you never help around here!"
Sorry, you're not allowed. That's negative, and you promised not to be so—even if he was first. Hunt struggled with this putdown/comeback cycle and found these few sentences helpful: "I know you just said something that's important to you, and I want to hear what you're saying. But right now, all I hear is a putdown, even if you didn't mean it. Would you be willing to say that again in a way that isn't negative to me?"
Sure, this may sound jargony and wooden while you're saying it. But it does allow your partner to rethink and re-speak. For example, the mythical husband might pause and come back with: "Hey, can we buy fancy detergent? I really like the fancy kind because it smells so good." Eliminating negativity, says Hendrix, doesn't mean that you don't have frustrations anymore. It means that you find a different way to express them.
3. Make the sticker chart.
One way that Hendrix and Hunt were able to get a handle on their progress was to use a calendar. They put it up in the bathroom. If they were able to get through 24 hours without a negative comment, they got to place a smiley-face sticker on the day. If they weren't, they got a frown-face. "It took two years," says Hendrix, "for us to get 30 days of straight smiley-faces."
The technique may feel a little kindergartenish. But what it's really about, says Hendrix, is brain training. The stickers help you see what happened during the day in an intellectual way, so that you're not simply reacting with emotions like sadness and rage. In addition, both partners have to earn that sticker together, which means that the two of you must work as a team. You're both responsible for the day. Think about it this way: If you fail and your partner doesn't, your partner can't point this out (that would be negative), but you will know all the same, won't you? Not letting the people you love down (even if you can't stand them right now!) is a powerful motivator.
4. Don't turn off the light...just yet.
The best counterbalance to negativity is encouragement. So Hendrix and Hunt instituted a rule. They each had to list three things that they had seen the other do that day that made their lives better. They called these the "three appreciations." And they had to do them each night before falling asleep.
"The first night we did this," says Hunt, "it was snap." The second night, it was hard to come up with three whole things. The third night, "we lay there in silence for a long, long time." Over the months, though, the ritual began to work. The two were forced to pay attention to each other during the day in order to have something kind, true and supportive to say at night.
These days, they use what they call "the zero-negativity pledge" in all their marriage workshops, where it's changed the lives of thousands of couples. "We tend to think of marriage as about two things—you and him," says Hunt. "But there's really three things at play: you, him and the space between the two of you."
"Negativity," says Hendrix, "is a pollutant. When you clean up the space between you, it's just like cleaning a river or stream. Everything comes back to life."