Harville Hendrix, PhD, and Helen LaKelly Hunt, PhD, are couples therapists with over 40 years’ experience. They cocreated Imago Relationship Therapy, a couples therapy practiced by more than 2,000 therapists in 30 countries. Oprah Winfrey calls Harville the “marriage whisperer”, and he and Helen have coauthored ten books on intimate relationships and parenting, including the New York Times best seller Getting the Love You Want.
1440: You talk a lot about the importance of how we speak to each other. Can you explain your zero negativity approach?
Harville: One of the most transformative things is to implement a zero negativity policy in your relationship. Remove all judgments, stop criticizing your partner, and watch your tone of voice when you speak. When you stop the discharge of negative energy, the neural system of the other person eventually relaxes and the energy moves from the sympathetic side of the nervous system—which is the arousal side where you fight and flee—to the parasympathetic side where there’s a sense of rest and calm.
If you’re consistent with your commitment to zero negativity, it’s amazing what can happen in a relationship.
Negativity and love don’t go together.
If you really love someone you’ll find a way to ask for what you want or need. Instead of getting angry, you can say, “Next time we’re going to meet for dinner and you can’t get there on time, would you give me a call so I don’t worry what happened to you?”
Helen: When you bring up problems in a way that doesn’t land negatively with your partner, it makes it more likely that they’ll engage with you to problem solve. If you ask in a negative way, your partner is going to say, “I’m out of here,” and retreat into the lower brain.
If you talk in a way where the lower brain of your partner gets ignited, they can’t help but fight or flee. This is why zero negativity is so important.
1440: What happens when you slip up and fall into an old habit of criticizing or getting angry? How do you make up for that?
Harville: Every couple is imperfect, so they’re going to blow it. We’ve developed a reconnecting process for when that happens. First you need a signaling system. Helen and I use the word “marshmallow.” If I hear Helen say, “Marshmallow,” I know that whether I meant to or not, I had a tone of voice or a look that I wasn’t aware of, or that I didn’t do something I said I would.
Once you signal, you have an agreement that you’re going to use the system to reconnect. We teach people a bunch of things to do at this point. You could simply say, “Could you say that to me in a different way?” You could even model how you would like them to say it: “Would you be willing to say it like this?” and model it with warmth. You could also provide them with the words you would like them to use.
Sometimes a hug or an apology will repair it. Sometimes it’s a little harder and you have to sit down and talk for 10 or 15 minutes and use the Imago Dialogue process. If it’s really bad we have a longer process we teach people called the behavioral change request process, which is more involved.
In our workshops we remind people that your partner does not mind read. You can’t bring something to your partner and expect them to solve it for you.
You can ask respectfully for what you want, and if your partner cares about you, they’re longing to come through for you.
1440: Do you suggest people replace the negativity in their relationship with something else?
Harville: We thought for a long time that if you removed negativity, people would start to move toward each other, but we discovered it didn’t quite work that way. So we began to ask couples why. Their answers were very instructive. They said that they didn’t feel safe just by the absence of negativity. So we asked them what would make them feel safe and they said they wanted language or practices that made them feel appreciated.
We made a list of things that we call affirmations—things that affirm that I am a valuable person to you and that I’m safe to be around.
We have a series of fun exercises like thinking of surprises for each other, giving appreciations three times a day, and creating rituals together. When you change the quality of your interactions, you create new memories. Those memories create predictability and safety in the relationship.
1440: Is this practice applicable to relationships other than partnerships?
Harville: About 10 years ago, Helen and I realized we had been at this for a long time. I was 72 then—working in what I now think of as a backward way: I was trying to help people who were in trouble get out of trouble. So Helen and I began to think about prevention. Not just how we could do preventive work with couples, but how we could begin to support this change in the culture itself.
We brought this question up with a group of colleagues and decided to bring to the world what we’d been bringing to couples. After four years of planning with these colleagues we decided to do an experiment. We call it Safe Conversations and it teaches people zero negativity and affirmations. We’ve been working a lot in the city of Dallas and it’s now used in churches, schools, corporations, the police department, and more. It supplements whatever else people are doing in terms of relationship education.
If people learn how to talk without judgment and without creating anxiety, they can increase the health of any ecosystem. Our goal is to take this globally.
There is such a destructive use of language being used in our public and political dialogue right now. Helen says, “Words can start wars.” They can also bring peace, and that’s what we’re working toward.