I’ll never forget the scene. I was 16, in a convention center filled with 2000 other teenagers, sitting in an uncomfortable chair and listening to a sweaty motivational speaker shout cliches from a stage. We were all members of an international marketing club called “DECA,” and between our naivety, our developmental need-for-conformity, and the laser light-show, I think most of us kids were hypnotized by the speaker. Be yourself? Take risks? What kind of a goddamn genius is this dude? Oooooh! Lights!!!
One thing that stands out to me, to this day, is the last phrase that the motivational speaker uttered on stage that night in 1997: Find someone who kisses your scars.
Years later, I would read “Getting the Love you Want,” and Harville Hendrix would become the next goddamn genius in my mind. And now, after a decade of conducting therapy with couples and almost a decade with my husband, the phrase “someone who kisses your scars” resonates even stronger. Just with less lasery-glitz and more practicality.
Imago Relational Theory suggests that we all have “wounds” or unmet needs left over from our upbringings or past relationships. And we usually find ourselves attracted to someone with the same wound, but an opposite way of managing that wound. For example, Joan feels unlovable/abandonable because she was neglected by her workaholic parents, so she falls in love with Bob, who feels unlovable/abandonable on account of growing up without a father. Joan manages her expectation that others won’t love her by resorting to demanding love and acquiescence, and Bob manages his wound by avoiding sources of potential pain. Imago theory suggests that we find partners that “complete” us psychologically by expanding our repertoire for defense mechanisms. Joan could stand to take a lesson from Bob and learn to stop sweating the small stuff; Likewise, Bob could take a lesson from Joan and become more assertive and confrontational.
Anyway. Another aspect of Imago Relational Theory is that it behooves couples to understand and EMPATHIZE with WHY the other has his/her particular wound or sensitivity. Joan is tasked with explaining how when Bob doesn’t return her texts or get her a gift on her birthday, it triggers her deep-rooted feelings of worthlessness. She remembers the times her parents left her with the nanny on her birthday and forgot about her school plays. Bob is tasked with explaining how when Joan criticizes and acts annoyed with him, his feelings of worthlessness are triggered. He is reminded that he is good-for-nothing, just like he felt when his father left him as a child.
The wounds and unmet needs (for adequacy, safety, worth, stability, etc.) that we incur throughout our lives are our SCARS. And a partner holding your emotional wounds in an empathic place, is that partner KISSING that scar. When we are kissing a partner’s scar, we are pausing to consider what it feels like to be them, considering all that they have been though, even before we came on the scene. We understand and we care. We suddenly want to reach out and love as opposed to make the wound worse.*
I am kind of obsessed with Imago, and it has helped me personally as well as professionally. The best conversations I have ever had with my husband have been when one of us has reacted lovingly to the other’s unmet needs as opposed to getting caught up in the surface issues. And this is what I challenge couples in therapy to strive-for.
“That makes me sad when I think of you feeling ignored and abandoned, and I truly understand how deeply this cuts for you,” goes a lot further than “Chill out with the damn texting me constantly while I’m at work.” “That makes me sad when I imagine you feeling inadequate and not-good-enough, and I understand why you feel that way,” goes a lot further than “You need to freaking stop spending money on designer bags.” In fact, kissing the scar, ironically, actually reduces the need for the other person to engage in the annoying behavior.
As usual, this is just something to think about. Says the therapist who knows that this is an ideal that requires willingness to be vulnerable and sometimes therapy, but who also wants all couples to try to kiss each other’s scars, not create more scars.
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*(of course the ability to do this depends on the other person being vulnerable and expressive, and seeking to learn alternative coping mechanisms. No one is saying to be a doormat here.)