Harville Hendrix has been working as a relationship therapist over the last thirty years. Together with his wife, who is also a therapist, he shares his experiences based on psychoanalysis and scientific research. Harville’s ultimate goal is to help transform your relationship into a lasting source of love and companionship.
2. The key ideas
The book is made up of three parts:
- The unconscious marriage
- The conscious marriage
- Practical exercise
In this summary, I will try to give the essential theory of both the first and second part. At the end, I will share a more practical exercise you can try for yourself.
1. THE UNCONSCIOUS MARRIAGE
How and why do we choose our partners?
This is the central question of the first part of the book, “The Unconscious Marriage”. As the title of this first part suggests, there is a lot that happens in our unconscious mind that influences our choice of a lover.
Take a moment to think about the personality traits that your past and present lovers have (had).
You will discover a lot of similarities between them and —surprisingly— the attention will mostly be on their negative traits. It appears that every one of us is searching for a mate with a very specific set of positive AND negative traits.
Before we get into the Freudian explanation of this theory, let’s consider a little lesson in biology.
The biology of our brains
We can divide our brain in three parts. First, we have the brain stem. This is the most primitive part of the brain, located in the inner part and responsible for our basic needs such as sleep and reproduction. This part is also known as the “reptilian brain”.
Next, we have the portion of the brain responsible for generating vivid emotions. This part is called the limbic system. The combination of the “reptilian brain” and the limbic system is referred to in the book as the “old brain”.
And as there is an “old brain”, there’s also a “new brain”. When we talk about the “new brain”, we are implying to the cerebral cortex. This part of the brain represents most of our cognitive functions and is most highly developed in the Homo Sapiens.
So what roles do these old and new brains play in choosing romantic partners?
This is where it gets interesting —and a little weird. As children, no matter how well our upbringing has been, we all have experienced some kind of trauma. When I say trauma, people often think of extreme examples such as physical or mental abuse. However, these traumas can be much more nuanced. For example, you where the child of divorced parents and your mom started a new family leaving you feeling inadequate and jealous of the new crib. Additionally, you had to see your dad having to overcome the break up.
What Hendrix has discovered is that our old brain does not differentiate between past, present and future. In other words, our old brain is constantly trying to heal our childhood wounds inflicted by these traumas.
When we are feeling attracted to someone, it typically means that we recognize personality traits of our parents in that person—and yes, even the negative ones. Our old brain thinks it has finally found the ideal candidate to make up for the psychological and emotional damage experienced in childhood. As Hendrix argues, we tend to select our mates based on their resemblance with our caretakers or parents.
PS: Lewis Howes recently wrote a brilliant book on vulnerability and getting through past traumas. We summarized the key ideas here for you.
The danger of our old brains
The danger of this selection process is that these new lovers are potentially going to re-injure some very sensitive wounds. Hendrix explains how people often go into a relationship hoping to heal some childhood wounds, but as much as they hope to see their partner as their parent, this is not the case.
Hendrix explains that all our old brain wants is to heal these wounds inflicted during our childhood. This often leads us to project negative traits on our partners. And as childhood traumas resurface, we expect our partner to behave in such a way that this trauma can be healed. The problem is that—most of the time— we do not communicate these ‘wounds’ to our partner.
The problem with this is that it leaves individuals in a relationship searching for a way to regain wholeness or love and expecting this power to be in the hands of their partner. This stage is what Hendrix calls the “power struggle”. However, love and struggle never go together.
To get beyond this stage, we need to create a conscious marriage. This brings us to the second part of the book.
2. THE CONSCIOUS MARRIAGE
From all what you’ve read now about the old brain, you may think that it’s a “bad” or “negative” thing. It’s true that the old brain may make things more difficult BUT it’s also what binds us to our partners. It’s where all love starts.
As Hendrix explains, It’s up to us to learn how to use our new brain together with our old brain to create new behaviors that contribute to a conscious marriage.
Let’s look at an example of how your new brain can overcome the initial old brain’s reflex:
Imagine that you are eating breakfast when your spouse suddenly criticizes you for not doing the dishes before you started eating. Your old brain would prompt you to fight or flee. So, if you let your old brain take over you could react by saying, “I might not have done the dishes but you didn’t take out the trash!”
Another, more conscious approach, according to Hendrix, might be to paraphrase your partner’s message by saying “I can see you’re very upset I didn’t do the dishes yet.” Your spouse might respond: “Yes! I just really don’t like it when the dishes stack up, it makes me feel like I’m living in a dump.” Keeping the new brain in control, you react by saying “You’re right, it’s not pleasant when the dishes stack up, I’ll do them right now and continue my breakfast later.”
By reacting in a calm, non-attacking way, your partner will probably calm down as well and say something like, “Thank you, I’ll give you a hand so you can enjoy your coffee before it gets cold.”
Shifting from unconscious to conscious
Conscious discussions like these turn you into a confidant instead of a sparring partner.
In most interactions with your spouse, you are actually safer when you lower your defenses than when you keep them engaged, because your partner then becomes an ally, instead of an enemy.
When trying to make the shift from an unconscious to conscious marriage, you will probably experience friction. Change will always create some fear. So, taking your relationship to the next level will require dedication and expressing behaviors or communicating in such a way that may feel a bit discomforting at first. Nevertheless, it is only when we see marriage as a vehicle for change and self-growth that we can begin to satisfy our unconscious yearnings.
3. PRACTICAL EXERCISE
So, how can you start this shift from unconscious to conscious?
This is where an exercise comes in and we get to the third part of the book.
Before we start with the more in-depth exercise, you have to realize that there can no longer be a power struggle in the relationship. To help you get past this phase, Hendrix came up with the idea to artificially reconstruct the conditions of romantic love. He calls this exercise “Re-romanticizing”. The idea is that when we treat someone like we used to in happier times, we will begin to identify each other as a source of happiness and pleasure once again. This leads a couple to being more open to following exercises.
Here’s the deal:
Think about how you treated your partner when you where in the initial, romantic love phase of your relationship. Then, act on this initial feeling. For example: When you drive home from work, stop at a flower shop and get your spouse a bouquet with a note attached to it. Or start to play fight as you used to do in the beginning of the relationship. Go for one of those long walks that you had every Sunday.
This exercise is not designed to resolve your deep-seated conflicts, but it will re-establish feelings of safety and pleasure and set the stage for increased intimacy.
Let’s hold a recap of what we just learned:
We choose our mates based on their resemblance with our caretakers. Our old brain looks for specific negative traits that caused us harm as children so we can heal these traumas using our partner.
It’s up to us however, to use our new brain and be aware that we are actively looking for these negative traits in our partners. We should see our mate as a partner, who can help us get past these childhood traumas and the key skill to start the healing process is communication.
Communicating with our partner in a conscious way, or in other words by using the new brain to counteract the old brain, results in a companionship between lovers instead of a sparring match.
If we want to be willing to work on our relationship, there can’t be a “power struggle”, as Hendrix calls it. A solid first exercise to get beyond the power struggle is to “re-romanticize”. This will get your relationship ready for further development.
3. Final thoughts
There are a lot of books that are ‘easy’ to summarize, this is not one of them. Hendrix gives so much relevant information that it was hard for me to pick out the ‘golden nuggets’ for you. I think this book is a must read for anyone (wanting to be) in a meaningful and lasting relationship. Hendrix has a lot of experience in this topic and he explains things in very clear and concise way, using a lot of examples and stories.
If you liked the summary I really do recommend buying the book. There is much more in depth information about the self and a lot more exercises to be found to not only get your relationship to the next level but also to get to know yourself better.
It was a joy to read this book and I can proudly say it has helped me grow a stronger relationship with my girlfriend. The book rejuvenated the love in our journey as a couple.