Build your dream marriage part 1: Reconnect your disconnected relationship

Has your dream marriage turned into a nightmare? Are you facing the future with a hopeless feeling that nothing in your relationship will change?

When you’ve been together for years, and you’ve tried everything, it’s so easy to just settle into ‘I guess this is just the way it’s going to be’.

Let’s take the next seven weeks to explore how we can stop settling and start building our dream marriage.

What is a dream marriage?  It’s a relationship where there are deep feelings of safety, connection, passion, and joyful aliveness.

Who wouldn’t want that?

But I’ve learned from experience, you won’t get there unless you change how you relate to each other.

Someone said (probably not Einstein), ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.’

Jessie Potter said (she did, I googled it), ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.’

So for the next seven weeks, let’s talk about DOING SOMETHING DIFFERENT!

‘Let’s do what we’ve never done so we’ll see what we’ve never seen.’ (I might have actually said that).

Here is the first of seven powerful steps we will take over the next seven weeks that will help us build our dream marriage!


Disconnection is the fundamental problem that keeps us from the relationship of our dreams.

It’s not poor communication per se, or differences we can’t reconcile, or conflicts we can’t resolve, or even problems we can’t overcome. You can conquer all these, and still feel just as disconnected.

Couples fight for one fundamental reason: They feel disconnected and don’t like it!

What’s the answer? Reconnecting your disconnected relationship of course. Connection is everything.

You won’t solve your marriage problems by talking about the problems.


Buried beneath every marriage problem is a hidden desire for connection.

That’s right. The great paradox is that your partner is a ‘pain in the neck’ because he or she wants you. It’s as simple as that.

It’s connection that we all long for. If we get that, working through problems together is a piece of cake.

Let’s look at how the Imago Couples Dialogue helped Karissa and Doug, not just solve a problem, but reconnect their disconnected relationship.


Karissa: ‘The problem is that Doug never helps me discipline the kids! I feel like I have to be the bad parent and he always gets to be the good guy!’

Before I could direct her to dialogue with Doug, she was already complaining to me. And then Doug jumped right in with his own reaction.

Doug: ‘Help you discipline?! What do you mean? You make every decision and you’re so controlling and overprotective. It’s going to ruin our children. And you want me to help with that?!!’

At first glance you see only the problem – what they’re fighting about. You don’t see their desire for connection.

Their desire for connection was buried deep beneath a flood of pain, negativity, and defensiveness.

Karissa’s and Doug’s self-absorption only allows them to see their own reality and not the reality of their partner. Doug sees her as critical and controlling. She sees him as never helping, and leaving her to do all the hard work with the kids.

And what does all this this criticism, labeling, and name calling result in? Feeling even more disconnected in their relationship.

That’s why trying to fix a relationship problem usually makes it worse. Because the problem is not the problem. The real problem is the feeling of being disconnected.


The Imago Dialogue process went like this. After an appointment was made, and an appreciation was given by Karissa to Doug, she asked to share her frustration with him.

Doug’s role was to MIRROR, VALIDATE, and EMPATHIZE.

You can download this tool here.

(Note to self: Always ask for an appointment for a dialogue. Respect your partner’s boundaries. And always share an appreciation before sharing a frustration.)


Karissa: ‘The problem is that you never help me discipline the kids. I feel like I have to be the bad parent while you always get to be the good guy.’

Doug: ‘What I hear you saying is that I never help you with the discipline of our children. And you feel like the bad parent while I always get to be the good parent.

‘Did I get that? (checking for accuracy)

‘Is there more about that?’ (increasing curiosity)

At this point I coached Karissa to incorporate “sender responsibility” which means to not use accusatory or critical words, or statements like “you never…”, but rather to talk about what she felt when she saw Doug not helping her. And then to connect that with what it reminds her of when she was younger. After that I prompted her to share any deeper fear she became conscious of.

Karissa: ‘I feel so all alone. It’s like when I was little and my parents were arguing, and things felt out of control, and I felt helpless to do anything about it. My brothers and sister would just leave, and I felt so all alone and responsible. My biggest fear is that you’ll never be there for me and I’ll be all alone.’

You could see tears welling up in Doug’s eyes.

Doug: ‘What I hear you saying is that you feel all alone. Like when you were young and your parents argued and you felt things were out of control and you felt helpless. No one was there for you and you felt responsible. When I don’t help you with the children you feel that same sense of helplessness and being alone. And you fear that this won’t change and that I won’t be there for you.’

‘Did I get that?

‘Is there more about that?’

The dialogue continued. Then I asked Doug to SUMMARIZE what Karissa was saying.

Then I asked him to VALIDATE her.


Doug: ‘Karissa what you’re saying makes sense. I can see how, when you don’t feel supported by me in your efforts to discipline our children, you feel alone. And then all those feelings of helplessness you had when you were little and your parents were fighting all come back, and you feel extremely alone and helpless to do anything. And it makes sense that my lack of support would cause you to fear that this will never change.

‘Is that the validation you need?’

Doug learned that he can validate Karissa without having to agree with her.

He disagreed with how she was disciplining the children, but through the dialogue process, he could regulate his defenses enough to see how Karissa’s inner logic made sense, even though he saw things differently.

Then I asked Doug to EMPATHIZE with Karissa.


Doug: ‘I can imagine not having me present with you in the discipline of our children feels really lonely and scary. That must be very hard for you.

‘Am I’m empathizing with what you’re feeling?’

Suddenly Karissa felt like Doug was truly being present with her. Her pain began to lift, and her anxiety dissolved.

Then she felt an openness to hear Doug’s perspective through the dialogue process.

And here are some of the things that came out of that process as Karissa MIRRORED and VALIDATED Doug, and then EMPATHIZED with him.

Doug felt left out because Karissa always went ahead of him in to discipline their children without consulting with him. This triggered Doug’s childhood feelings of inadequacy. He never felt he could please his dad.

Doug feared that their children would not receive good parenting, because Karissa was too controlling.

Karissa was able to see that Doug had wisdom to add to their parenting process.

The dialogue helped Karissa regulate her own emotional reactions enough to see and validate Doug’s reality. This activated a new process where Karissa and Doug were able to ‘re-compensate’ for each other.

Re-compensate? What’s that?!

The best way I can describe what I mean by re-compensation is’¦

‘Because you have validated me, I feel open to seeing new things which I can validate in you.’

In our example, the boundary shifted where Karissa’s anxiety was relieved and she became less controlling. Doug, on the other hand, felt safer to become more engaged and present with Karissa in their approach to child discipline. Wow!

This was the beginning of a new way of doing things. Karissa not only felt supported, but Doug’s wisdom was also integrated into their parenting process.

With this skill now in place, Doug and Karissa now know how to use problems like this to bring them closer together rather than blow them apart.

Does that make sense? Do you see how connection is the real issue? Do you see how just ‘solving the problem’ will not solve the problem?

The first step to building the marriage of your dreams is to reconnect your disconnected relationship!

Let me know your thoughts below!

Next week we’ll look at’¦
Build your dream marriage part 2:
Discover your unconscious relationship agenda

Meanwhile, if you haven’t already…

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    Turning marriage conflict into an opportunity for deeper connection

    When Dennis and Marsha came to see me, their negativity toward each other was off the charts! Here are some steps they took to turn a nasty conflict into a deep and loving connection.

    1. Start by sharing an ‘appreciation’.

    When a relationship causes us pain, we begin to see our partner through the lens of negativity.

    Using a tool called ‘Four Powerful Appreciations’ every day can change this lens from negative to positive.

    Click here to print out that tool.

    Click here to read more about how gratitude can radically change your relationship.

    Sharing “appreciations” regularly pushes negative energy out of the space between you, and fills it with positive energy.

    That’s when your unconscious brain starts to identify your partner as a source of pleasure again. The result: feelings of safety.

    When safety increases it makes connection possible.

    It’s also important to share an appreciation before you share a frustration. Doing that helps creates a safer space between you, making it easier for your partner to listen to your frustration rather than react to it.

    Marsha shared her appreciation with Dennis in this way:

    ‘Dennis, one thing I appreciate about you is the way you always take care of my car, making sure it’s always clean and well maintained.’

    As Dennis mirrored the appreciation, he saw for the first time how that act of kindness made Marsha feel especially loved and cared for.

    You could feel the atmosphere in the room change, as the space between them was filled with positive energy.

    2. Share negative feelings in a positive way.

    After sharing the appreciation with Dennis, Marsha went on to share a frustration – something that typified the regular conflicts they had been having for years.

    She said, ‘The other night when I was talking to you in bed, you just turned over and went to sleep.’ Marsha was furious, and typically she would accuse him of not caring about her.

    But instead of blowing up with a negative expression like, ‘You never listen to me!’, the Couples Dialogue helped Marsha use ‘I’ language, focusing on what she felt rather than what Dennis had done.

    ‘When you went to sleep, I felt so lonely. And I was so angry I didn’t speak to you the next day.’

    Simply asking Marsha to describe what she felt, rather than what Dennis was doing, helped her get more in touch with what she was feeling.

    Marsha’s anger was a surface emotion that was masking her deeper feeling of loneliness.

    When Dennis drifted off to sleep while she was talking, it triggered that loneliness.

    Her reaction to that feeling was anger toward Dennis. She expressed that anger by giving Dennis ‘the silent treatment’ for a whole day.

    3. Connect your frustration to a childhood wound.

    As Dennis mirrored these words back to Marsha, she was able to go deeper into her feelings.

    ‘It reminds me of when I was little and what I said never mattered.’

    Marsha had grown up the third of four children. Her older siblings always dominated their conversations and made all the decisions. On top of that, her mom always seemed preoccupied with her younger sister.

    Growing up, Marsha felt like her thoughts were inferior, and her feelings were not valid. As she entered school with this belief, it all became a self-fulfilling prophecy which limited her in life and in relationships.

    As she was making this connection with her childhood, it became obvious that her reaction to Dennis was unfair. She was reacting to him with all the pain she felt from childhood. He was not the source of her reaction. He was only the trigger.

    And, until now, Dennis could never understand Marsha’s ‘extreme reaction’. It would cause him to pull away even further, because her criticism triggered his own childhood feelings of inadequacy.  This, then, activated even deeper feelings of abandonment or rejection in Marsha.

    This cycle of conflict repeated itself over and over again, almost completely destroying their relationship.

    The Couple’s Dialogue helped them disrupt this pattern and begin turning their conflict into connection.

    4. Validate your partner’s perspective.

    Dennis validated Marsha’s perspective by saying, ‘What you’re saying makes sense. You always felt like what you have to say doesn’t matter. So it makes sense that my falling asleep while you were sharing important thoughts would make you feel bad.’

    Validation helps you see your partner’s differences without judgement, and therefore without polarization and conflict.

    It also makes your partner feel valued and safe and helps them drop their walls and defenses.

    5. Empathize with your partner’s feelings.

    Dennis was able to go even further into empathy with Marsha. ‘I can imagine how painful it is to be treated as if your thoughts aren’t important. It must be especially hard, because you expected that I would treat you differently from your parents. Instead I fell asleep, as if what you were saying was boring or not important. That must have really felt bad’

    Back in that heated moment, Dennis had responded defensively saying, ‘Hey give me a break! I worked hard today and I was exhausted. That’s why I fell asleep. Why do you have to make such a big deal out of everything?!’

    But as he empathized with Marsha, defending his own position didn’t seem so important any more.

    Empathy caused his perspective to shift so that he could see Marsha’s pain, rather than just his own frustration.

    Empathy dissolves our defenses and makes connection possible.

    6. Grant your partner’s request.

    It’s in the safety and closeness of this kind of moment that Behavior Change Requests are powerful. BCRs should be S.M.A.R.T. – Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-based.

    Marsha made this request of Dennis’¦

    ‘The next time we’re talking, would you sit up, look in my eyes and listen to me…and mirror what I’m saying?’

    Usually we encourage three requests that your partner can choose to grant, but this one request was on the money.

    Dennis eagerly agreed to grant this request, and they talked about how their newly learned skill, ‘mirroring’ (the first step in the dialogue process), would help Dennis stay interested and curious (and awake :-)). And it would ensure that Marsha felt heard and valued in the process.

    The powerful thing about this little breakthrough was that this conflict was similar to most every other conflict they had.

    Because they were able to turn this conflict into connection, they saw how every future conflict had this same potential! Wow!

    Of course it’s easier said than done. But it’s exciting to see the journey that Marsha and Dennis are on – turning marriage conflict into deeper connection!

    What about you? Try using these steps to turn your conflict into connection.

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      How to stop overreacting and start reconnecting in my marriage

      When we overreact to something our partner says or does, we kill any chance of connecting with them.

      The logic goes like this: The connection we long for can’t happen when a conversation is not safe. A conversation will not be safe when there is negativity. And negativity always fills the space between you when one of you overreacts.

      So, if you do the math, overreaction = disconnection.

      On the other hand, controlling our overreaction can make it safe enough for reconnection to occur.

      Ok, Ok, I get it. But how do I do that?

      The answer came to us last weekend when Sandy and I attended a Getting The Love You Want – Couples Weekend Workshop.

      That’s right! We were at, in my opinion, the best marriage workshop on the planet! If you haven’t been, I really encourage you to go.

      Our workshop leaders were none other than Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt themselves – authors of the book, and co-creators of Imago Relationship Therapy.

      This was a dream come true for us.

      And it was a great weekend’¦until I had an overreaction of my own.

      What do you mean?

      Well, on Saturday morning, Sandy and I had a disagreement and for the moment, I walked away from her and did NOT want to talk about it.

      You’d think I’d just use the dialogue skills I know so well. Right?

      Well honestly, it’s easier to talk about those skills and even write about them in a blog than to actually use them!


      Because our reactive brain is so powerful when triggered, we’re often incapable of doing anything but overreacting. That’s why so many couples just can’t stop fighting. I get that.

      For me, in this moment, to not overreact was impossible.

      Some of us (like me) are like a ‘turtle’ and our overreaction is to pull away.

      This may activate our partner’s childhood wound of being abandoned or rejected.

      And some of us are like a ‘hailstorm’ and we overreact by exploding outwardly.

      This may activate our partner’s childhood wound of being smothered or controlled.

      Here are some lessons we learned at the conference that helped Sandy and me to not only reconnect, but also prepare us for a completely unanticipated event that broke our hearts later that afternoon.

      The first lesson was…

      1. You can’t control your first thought, but you can control your second thought.

      Sandy said something that really took the wind out of my sails. And even though we were in this amazing marriage workshop with these wonderful people, things went really negative.

      Sandy: ‘I’m am glad we’re here together, but I don’t think you understand the stress I felt leading up to this weekend.’


      Chuck : ‘She thinks she had a tough week! What about me? What does she have to complain about anyway? Why even try?! I’m done!’

      And then, being the turtle I am, I start to pull into my protective shell.

      You CANNOT control that first thought. That’s impossible.

      BUT…here’s the amazing truth that will set you free!

      You CAN control your second thought.


      Chuck (thinking): ‘I should use my dialogue skills and stay present and curious with her rather than letting  this reaction cause me to withdraw.’ (But then there was a fight inside me. ‘First thought’ tries to take over.) ‘But I don’t want to. Forget it. She’s being unreasonable. I’m done.’

      But then the thought came to me, ‘No, Chuck that’s your first thought. Of course you can’t control that. But what’s your second thought? The one you can control?’

      (Still languishing in my first thought.)

      Then it came to me…and I turned toward Sandy, standing courageously facing the conflict (not like me at all) and I said…

      “Sandy, let me see if I’ve got what you said. You said you’re glad we’re here, but you don’t think I understand the stress you felt leading up to this weekend.’

      That may sound weird if you’re not familiar with the “mirroring” skill (which is part of the Couple’s Dialogue), but that sentence stem became a powerful pivot point that helped me grab control of my second thought.

      When I said those words, I could feel my overreaction subside, my curiosity switch on, and that kept me in the game with Sandy. I was able to stay present with her rather than abandoning her in the heat of the moment.

      In that moment, I’m no longer thinking about how hurt I am. I’m now curious about Sandy and especially about the feelings that drove her to say those hurtful words.

      It’s like a miracle occurred! From reactivity…bam! into curiosity.

      That was a 180 degree turn that happened in a heartbeat.  

      All because you CAN control your second thought by using this powerful tool called mirroring.

      So I continued…

      Chuck: ‘Did I get that?’ (checking for accuracy)

      Sandy: ‘Yes.’

      Chuck: ‘Is there more about that?’ (continuing to be curious)

      Suddenly she burst into tears.

      Sandy: ‘I can’t believe that I’m doing the very same thing I asked you not to do a few weeks ago. I’m being so negative. Would you forgive me?’


      This leads to a second insight I gleaned from the workshop.

      2. Choosing to be present with someone who is overreacting dissolves their criticism.

      Sandy’s criticism melted and in that moment she wanted nothing more than to connect with me.

      You say, ‘Well I try to control my overreactions. But what if my partner doesn’t even try?

      This is where you have the power to change the whole dynamic of how you’re interacting.

      Choosing to be present with someone who is overreacting dissolves their criticism. Your partner won’t be able to continue reacting, because your regulated response will cause them to recompensate.

      To do what?

      Harville Hendrix told of counseling a man suffering with schizophrenia who said he was Jesus.

      Instead of reacting to him, he said, ‘Let me see if I got what you’re saying’¦’ and he mirrored him. He kept mirroring him, and mirrored him some more.

      Instead of reacting (which is what most people might do when someone claims to be Jesus), Harville controlled his reactivity by continuing to mirror him.

      Soon, Harville could see how this man’s own inner logic made sense. It made perfect sense to this man even though we might not agree with his conclusion.

      So, Harville validated him.

      ‘You make sense. And what makes sense is’¦’

      After he validated him, the man paused…and then said…‘Well, actually my name is John.’ 🙂

      He recompensated!

      In the same way, when you control your reaction by mirroring, validating, and empathizing with your partner, guess what?

      If you partner is off-base, they can see it and correct it on their own.

      Why? Because when it’s safe, they don’t have to dig in their heels with their own opinion. The conflict is dissolved and there’s an openness to see your partner’s perspective.

      That’s how the Couple’s Dialogue process dissolves conflict.

      There’s a third lesson we learned that helped us face one of life’s unexpected, tragic turns.


      3. Guarding your connection helps you as a couple deal with unexpected loss.

      Within an hour after experiencing this wonderful reconnection, Sandy got a text from her sister who was watching Brie, our Irish Setter, while we were away.

      Brie had collapsed and couldn’t get up. She was almost 15 years old but seemed to be in perfect health.

      We drove down the hill about 45 minutes and found her completely paralyzed. She could only look up at us with her soft brown eyes. We sat with her for about hour, and there was no change.

      So we picked her up on her bed, gently put her in the back seat, and drove 10 minutes to the nearest veterinary hospital.


      Bottom line, we had to put our baby down.

      I never dreamed that would be so hard.

      I was reluctant about adopting her over 10 years ago, and resisted the whole idea at first. But now the loss was almost unbearable.

      Every day of the week that followed I was reminded in so many tiny ways how she had subtly woven herself into the very fabric of our hearts.

      Needless to say there is now a huge hole in our hearts.

      Hard times, experiences of loss will either draw you together as a couple, or blow you apart.

      Imagine what this would have done to us had we gone into this situation upset with each other and disconnected. We could not have possibly been there for each other when we needed each other the most.

      But because we had been able to regulate our overreaction and reconnect with each other, this huge loss has actually worked to draw us even closer together.

      And we’ve been there to comfort each other every moment.

      Over the last week there has been a lot of healing. And a powerful reminder that we need to guard our relationship and keep connected.

      I hope this encourages you as much as it has us to stop overreacting and start reconnecting in your marriage!

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        My goal is to provide free relationship resources delivered to your email inbox every week!