Safety and Aliveness-Important Dimensions of Adult Love Relationships by Herb Tannenbaum, Ph.D.

As a practicing psychologist and Certified Imago Relationship Therapist for over 30 years my observations of couples have led me to believe that the two most important constructs of a satisfying and meaningful adult love relationship are safety and aliveness.

Safety connotes the ability to be heard and listened to without judgment as well as to feel valued for who we are. Of course, physical safety is a sine qua non to any sense of safety in a relationship. Harville Hendrix who developed Imago Relationship Therapy developed a specific intervention called “The Couples Dialogue” to help couples stay focused on what is being said and to track what a partner is sending by mirroring to make sure that the other partner hears their partner accurately without reactivity or judgments. Mirroring alone helps most people lower their reactivity and need to defend or justify themselves. The second component of the “couples dialogue” is about validation stepping into the world of the sending partner and letting them know that they make sense given their subjective reality.  This means understanding, not agreement. It is pivotal for a person to know that their partner understands their reality.  This facilitates changes in the brain so that each partner lowers their reactivity and begins to re-connect. The final component of the “couples dialogue” is empathy. I can best describe empathy as the receiving partner being like a piano tuner with a tuning folk trying to resonant with the sound it being heard.  It is about attunement. This concept is based in attachment theory which understands that in the original mother-child attachment emotions regulated by other. Thus, empathy is the experience of having the other through visual, verbal as well as physical and verbal cues resonant with what the other is experiencing.

The potency of the ability to stay connect and be heard by a partner is profound and often transformative.  There are right hemisphere connections which are profound in the regulations of safety in connection according to Allan Schore in the “The Science of the Art of Psychotherapy” (2012). Thus, as partners reduce reactivity and increase the sense of safety the “couples dialogue” allows each to feel safer and be more authentic thus increasing intimacy.

For many couples the opportunity to communicate without interruption, reactivity or judgment is something so powerful and something that they could not achieve without therapy. In Imago Relationship Therapy the “Couples Dialogue” is the main skill that other therapeutic interventions are based on. Research documents that the profundity of being mirrored, validated and empathized with has a powerful impact on the right hemisphere of the brain which is critical to connection and emotional regulation.

In addition to safety another key component that couples yearn for is a sense of aliveness. In fact, it could be postulated that one of the things that makes romantic love so special is the sense of aliveness that most people feel. The truth is that most adults exist and do not feel the joy and vitality of full aliveness in their daily lives. Safe relationships allow partners to feel more of a sense of aliveness as they journey through the days of their lives.  Imago Relationship Therapy postulates that in order to increase the sense of safety and aliveness that couples commit to a no exit decision regarding the use of other people or activities to deal with any frustration or disappointment with the other. Imago theory and its’ practice asks couples to communicate directly with their partner when there is frustration, disappoint, hurt etc. This helps transform the relationship to a sacred shared space (as Buber suggest in the “I and Thou” paradigm and keeps the energy between the partners. That means, not doing activities such as watching TV, reading the paper or anything that can be construed as an exit of dealing with feelings that related to the relationship. For example if someone chooses to stay at work late rather than go home and discuss something that is either upsetting them or their partner that would be using energy to avoid connection and something that is corrosive to the relationship.  The closing of energy exits is critical to allowing a relationship to be a facilitator of full aliveness . It makes sense, because when energy is used to repress, deny or avoid feelings, enrgy is lost from the relationship.

In conclusion, adult love relationships that facilitate and deepen safety and aliveness are the reflections of conscious love. That is, two people who value their partner and the differences and commonalities they share.  Imago Relationship Therapy promotes safety and aliveness through a skill called the “Couples Dialogue” which helps contain reactivity and allows the right hemisphere of the brain which includes safety and emotional regulation to evolve and prosper.

Dr. Herb Tannenbaum is a certified Imago Therapist and licensed psychologist.




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