My husband and I recently heard the creator of Imago Relationship Therapy, Harville Hendrix, speak at a professional conference. In his speech he equated any negativity in relationship to verbal or psychological abuse and recommended that couples refrain from any form of negativity with each other.
Negativity as he describes it includes any expression of anger toward your significant other. He believes that most anger comes from a deep and unrealistic sense of entitlement. It reflects the belief that your partner should make you the center of his or her universe and meet all of your needs before you even express them.
This is taking to extremes my own belief that problems with your intimate partner can only be resolved by taking into account three important things. You must include your own needs and feelings, your partner’s needs and feelings, and relevant aspects of the situation.
My husband and I have a long history of trying out new ideas in our own relationship. However, we disagree with Hendrix’s view that anger is entirely based on the belief that the world should revolve around you and it doesn’t. We generally include three other types of anger:
1. Current anger, which is about something that just happened.
2. Archaic anger, which is about something that happened long ago. This can include anger at the world does not revolve around you, but also includes anger about abusive and inappropriate treatment that happened to you.
3. Racket anger, which looks and feels like an attempt to manipulate others. It’s usually about imagined rather than real situations. We have long recognized that expressions of archaic and racket anger only damage relationships — including our own. But we have allowed the expression of current anger in our own relationship as a prelude to problem solving.
Nevertheless we decided to experiment with Hendrix’s ideas and allow no negativity at all to be expressed in our relationship. This doesn’t mean that we don’t experience angry feelings — we do! Humans are wired from birth to experience frustration as increased energy and we identify that experience as "anger." We’re human and we experience that frustration with each other.
The difference lies in how we choose to express it. This has turned out to mean looking more deeply into why we may be annoyed with each other. It’s usually not about what we think it’s about at first.
Here’s one example: I may feel angry "because" he’s watching sports on TV again. When I look more deeply it’s because I’m feeling unappreciated. If I complain about the TV I may get myself some negative attention, but it won’t solve the real problem.
When I take the time to think it through, I can realize what I actually want or need and ask for it in an appropriate way. Another subtler example involves creating a negative atmosphere by complaining about something outside the relationship that you’re frustrated about but can’t control.
Jonathan used to routinely express anger at other drivers while I was sitting in the passenger seat in the car. Now this rarely happens, but if it does I say "this feels like negativity" and he honors our agreement and apologizes.
We have agreed that it’s fine to report feeling frustrated — just not to express it indirectly. It’s not perfect. We’ve been married for over 49 years and have an excellent relationship, mostly because, since our first major crisis, we’ve never stopped paying attention to what works and what doesn’t.
This is a refinement. It’s a subtle change but it’s making a very positive difference in how we feel when we are with each other.
Try having a talk with your partner about what negativity means to you and how you would like to change. Experiment for a week and then reevaluate. Decide if that’s the way you’d like to proceed with your own relationship.