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The Healthy Family

Troubled Relationships Can
Bring Healing and Growth

Patricia Murphy, L.C.S.W.

Family members tend to bring out the best and the worst in us! We are often drawn into close relationships with people who end up pushing our buttons. This source of irritation is actually a blessing in disguise - because it brings to the surface our unresolved psychological issues and sets up an ideal situation for healing and growth.

Defense Mechanisms
Difficulties in relationships trigger childhood and other past wounds that require healing. Unfortunately, most of us do not embrace these struggles. Instead we tend to avoid them or set up defensive reactions that end up damaging, not only ourselves, but those around us. Defense mechanisms, created to survive when we were too young to cope with pain, damage our relationships as adults and are self-defeating. (What about the married couple who after the honeymoon is over ditches the romantic phase of the relationship, where only positive behaviors are used to get their needs met, and enters the power struggle phase where they revert to negative behavior.) Unfortunately, negative patterns can be absorbed by children born into the household!

Stretching
Healthy relationship building can help us overcome these negative patterns. During my years as a marital and family counselor, the best method I have found involves the concept of stretching and the skill of intentional dialogue. Stretching means extending ourselves beyond our defenses to meet the needs of another. Stretching asks a lot from us but is very rewarding. It often requires doing what we don't feel like doing and giving to another what we find hardest to give. In the process, however, we contact a part of our self that has been given too little attention, and begins to grow. Stretching, therefore, is healing to the one who goes the extra mile, as well as for the one whose needs are being met. Stretching creates a healthy bonding and transforms the relationship. It heals the "inner child" of both parties - that part of ourselves that is creative, childlike and spirited. (To find out more about the inner child read Healing Your Aloneness by Psychologist Margaret Paul.)

Intentional Dialogue
The skill fundamental to healthy relationship building is intentional dialogue. It is a skill that helps us to discover the needs of our loved ones as well as those of our own inner child.

Intentional dialogue happens by appointment only. The time lapse before the appointment enables both parties to be calm and centered before they speak: ready to communicate non defensively and without anger. It also gives participants time to get in touch with their needs so they can communicate them more effectively.

Mirroring
The intentional dialogue consists of three parts: mirroring, validation, and empathy. Mirroring is a process in which we learn to accurately reflect another person's message. You can mirror by paraphrasing, repeating in your own words what your partner has said to you so that your partner knows you understood. Mirroring lets your partner know that you are willing to put aside your own thoughts and feelings, temporarily, in order to understand him or her. It gives a partner the opportunity to correct you if s/he feels you didn't quite get it right or left something out. The process must continue until your partner has finished and you have mirrored everything back.

Validation
The next step is validation. Validation means you let your partner know that what s/he said and what you mirrored makes sense from her point of view. You can say, for instance: "You make sense because..." (Validation does not mean that you agree with your partner but that you respect your partner and are willing to suspend or transcend your point of view for the moment.) The process increases trust and closeness.

Empathy
The third step is empathy. Empathy means you try to relate to your partner's feelings. You can do this by saying, "I can see that you feel...." or, "I can imagine you must feel...." Empathy allows you to step into the other person's shoes for a moment and to genuinely meet. This in itself is remarkably healing.

The intentional dialogue allows you to express your frustration in a non threatening, non condemning way and be thoroughly heard by your partner. It is far more effective in working positive change than spontaneously expressing anger or frustration. Once complete, it can be followed with a behavior change request.

Conflicts are sometimes unavoidable but can be resolved peacefully by developing new communication skills. Intentional dialogue is a gradual process that requires patience but works long-lasting change. Although these techniques are simple, they are not easy to do and usually require a coach during the learning phase. Even though it may feel awkward at first, given a chance, it will transform your relationships forever!

Patricia Murphy is a clinical social worker with experience in child protective services, international adoptions and school social work, as well as counseling emotionally disturbed children and adolescents, military personnel and disaster victims for the Red Cross. She trained with Harville Hendrix and teaches the "inner bonding" work of Margaret Paul.

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