Fifteen years ago, foremost couples counselors Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt found themselves on the brink of divorce. At the height of his career, thanks in part to appearances on Oprah, they were "the best-known couple around couple's therapy in the world—and probably had one of the worst marriages," says Hendrix, who authored the bestsellers Getting the Love You Want and Keeping the Love You Find.
What happened next, however, saved their marriage and can teach the rest of us a lot about how to keep our partnerships safe and strong.
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In some way, Hendrix and Hunt knew too much about relationships.
"I thought my role in being Harville's one-and-only partner was to help remind him of the good advice and keep pointing out ways that he could be doing things better than he was doing," she says, laughing at her generous dispensations of unsolicited advice. "I wasn't even going to charge him."
Hunt's idea of helping was actually harming the relationship, fueling the negativity that suffused their interactions.
"It was so chronic we didn't even know it," Hendrix says. And yet, negativity renders a relationship unsafe, the precise quality needed for intimacy to flourish, he explains.
"Nothing immobilizes you more than sort of beating yourself up or beating your partner up," says sex and relationship expert Laura Berman, who hosts the TV show In the Bedroom with Dr. Laura Berman on the Oprah Winfrey Network. It's about as motivating as kicking yourself for having that donut when you're trying to lose weight, she says. Instead, say to yourself, "Alright, I ate the donut," and move on.
So the next time you're at dinner, fuming because your date is studying his smartphone, stop. "Imagine your heart opening, and try to look at him through a different lens," she says. Think about what you can appreciate about him, she says. "If you simply shift your focus, "it will shift everything in the relationship, and he will just follow suit naturally."
That's essentially what happened with Hunt and Hendrix, although they had to undo an entrenched cycle of bad behavior.
They changed course with Hunt's revelation. "Other people can tell Harville what he needs to do differently," she says she realized. "What Harville needs is for me to be his advocate"—a source of love and support.
They strove to break the negativity, which Hendrix likens to an addiction. Hunt bought stickers—smiling and frowning faces—to mark their progress on a calendar. Frowns marred the pages for months until the couple reoriented. At first, they didn't know how to talk to each other without judgement, but they found a path through curiosity: Showing interest in each other's thoughts and feelings when something went wrong between them restored a sense of safety to the relationship.
They've also instituted a ritual of appreciation: Every night, they would relate three things they appreciated about each other, based on the events of the day. That wasn't easy at first. But now, the couple can rattle off lots of thank-yous and has found that this ritual is one of the most treasured moments of each day.
"What you focus on is what you get," Hunt says. "We had been so focused on what wasn't in the relationship and experienced that." By shifting their attention, "our relationship began to thrive. It began to feel safe. It began to feel joyful," she says.
There are a few morals to this story. One is probably best captured by the old Johnny Mercer song that you've surely heard and, if you haven't, it's a good idea to tune in to the lyrics: "You've got to accentuate the positive. Eliminate the negative. Latch on to the affirmative. Don't mess with Mister In-Between."
Another is learning how to communicate well. It's about listening, showing curiosity, ensuring you understand and validate your partner's feelings and, finally, showing empathy, Hendrix says. "If you know how to ski, you can ski the double black diamonds," he says. "If you don't know how, when you get that resistance to those moguls, you're going to fall."
Remember this, too: Conflict is a crucible for growth, Hunt says. And people need to coach each other about what they need—even after decades of life together. Hunt and Hendrix offer tips for couples, replete with cartoon-like illustrations, in their newest book, Making Marriage Simple, which comes out next month.
According to Robert Navarra, a San Francisco-based marriage and family therapist, the best long-term relationships are among couples who "treat each other like best friends, they're more positive with each other than negative, and they're very gentle in how they manage conflict." The stronger the friendship, the more likely a couple can resolve problems, which, in turn, strengthens the bond, he explains.
Navarra is certified and trains in the method of counseling taught by the Gottman Institute, a Seattle-based center for marriage therapy that draws heavily on research. According to the institute, following four behaviors—the so-called "four horsemen of the apocalypse"—will doom a marriage: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. Navarra elaborates on these by prescribing their antidotes: In the first case, partners should express their needs without blaming each other; in the second, it's critical to accept at least some responsibility for a problem; and understanding and validation should replace contempt, which Navarra calls "the single biggest predictor of divorce." Stonewalling, or shutting down, most often affects men, who can recover from feeling overwhelmed by taking a 20-minute break from a troubling conversation.
Apart from that, people need to realize that a successful relationship must allow for and encourage the differences inherent in two unique people coming together. "Someone who can't tolerate those kinds of differences is asking you to not be who you are, and that's going to be a problem. You can't give up who you are for the sake of the relationship," Navarra says.
At its best, the relationship grows just as its partners do. And there's the real prize, say Hunt and Hendrix. "After you've been stretched, and you've got a partner who's worked with you, and you've worked with them," Hunt says, "there's not a feeling greater in the world than that one."