Thea and Duane Harvey, Licensed Marriage & Family Therapists
If you’ve ever wondered why so many New Years resolutions fail, you’re not alone. Part of the reason is doing it alone; the other part is futurizing. A goal is by definition something placed in the future. Therefore it never happens. Turning a goal into a vision, however, brings it into the present moment and stimulates new actions that create and support it. Also, fixing your mind on a goal requires willpower, which is a limited resource, quickly depleted. A vision, on the other hand, as anyone who practices guided mediation can tell you, refuels and replenishes the mind. A vision is a renewable source of energy.
Individual goals and aspirations are undoubtedly important, but why not utilize the most powerful resource you have: your partner. Our brain is, first and foremost, a social organ and functions optimally when in sync with another. Two logs burning on a fire generates more heat than one. So take each resolution, turn it into a relationship goal, and then envision it as if it were already true.
A conventional resolution such as I will lose five pounds has several problems. First the word will puts it perpetually out of reach. Second, the mind reacts strongly to the suggestion of losing anything, so you’ve instantly got an internal fight on your hands. Turn the I into a We, then turn the phrase “lose five pounds” into the action and benefit: We exercise regularly, enjoy healthy foods and fit into our favorite clothes.
When a couple can hold and express this sentence together, it becomes true almost effortlessly because they’ve tricked their brains into acting as if it were real now. It changes behavior.
A successful relationship, one that is inline with your dreams and ideals, requires a shared vision. This couples exercise was created by Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt. A vision is a roadmap. It provides direction and focuses your energy and efforts on a goal that you and your partner create together.
When Thea and I first met we talked a lot about relationships, and when I told her about the Relationship Vision, and she burst out: “I’ve always wanted to make a vision board with a boyfriend.” She knew exactly what I was talking about. A Relationship Vision is a visual representation of what you want, a picture of the life you want to build together, but made out of words.
When you see a picture in your mind’s eye, the visual cortex in the brain lights up. It then interprets that image as a command and sends signals to the hypothalamus to start producing hormones and other fuels to get your muscles moving in that direction.
What you see is what you will get. So create a clear picture of where you want to go with your relationship. If you see disaster ahead most likely you will encounter disaster, or make it. If you see a picture of happiness and bliss your brain and body will do all it can to make it so. What you look at is where the muscles in your body, where your decisions, will lead you.
Without a vision your relationship is easily distracted and aimless, you become vulnerable to frequent disagreements and misunderstandings. It seems as if you are constantly at odds with one another. This can be exhausting and demoralizing, making it difficult to get back on track and repair conflicts. Defining your vision turns your energy away from the past, away from frustration and toward the future you want to create. It is a vision of the whole that unifies all the parts of your relationship. It gives direction to each decision and shapes every action.
The first thing to do is make your individual desires explicit and clear. Your own personal dream of a deeply satisfying relationship. If you are single, do this step to clarify what you want, and who you want to be in a relationship. This will focus your dating energies and help you make decisions in finding a mate.
Write about 10 to 15 positive statements in the present tense starting with the word We. (download Our Relationship Vision Form)
For example, We settle our differences peacefully. Rather than, We don’t fight. The “don’t” part of that sentence is struck out by the visual cortex because it is a grammatical construct and not an image. Saying We don’t fight is giving the command: Fight.
Include positive present tense statements that are already working within your relationship and qualities and activities you wish to add.
Subscribe to The Morning Email. Wake up to the day's most important news.
firstname.lastname@example.org SUBSCRIBE Once you have your own Vision, make an appointment to share it with your partner. Decide who goes first. While one of you reads the items, the listening partner mirrors and then says “Yes.” When you mirror your partner you repeat back what your partner said without adding any intonation. You want to keep your face relaxed. Mirroring is a mindfulness practice because you are really listening to what your partner is saying rather than thinking about your response.
You say “Yes“, in the spirit of open-mindedness and infinite possibility. You are not agreeing to a time frame or a logistical action.
A Vision is about Dreaming, first and foremost, not about practical reality, at least not yet.
Bring all the items together, working out redundancy and adding important detail. Some items will be similar; some will be different. Everything gets included in one way or another unless it expressly violates a core value. For example: We have an open relationship does not get included unless it is something you both want. If an item does not make it to the co-created Vision, it is used in a different process we can address at another time. It is important to recognize that your partner is different from you and that we grow by including parts of their world and desires into ours. A shared Vision synthesizes your separate dreams and desires. Once you have a co-created Relationship Vision make several copies and post them around your house, on the refrigerator, inside the medicine cabinet, on your phone. For 30 days read it together like a prayer, or a meditation. Turn this into a ritual.
In some ways, a Vision is a mission statement for your relationship. But a statement alone does not have enough energy to convert a dream into reality. Next, we want to walk you through how to ground each item so it becomes real. (download Grounding Your Vision Form)
As an example we are going to walk you through one of our Vision items: We create novel, exploratory dates.
Scheduling novelty dates is vital to keep the passion alive in your relationship. Studies show that doing new activities together stimulate the hormones that keep us attracted to our partner (read our previous article: What Grown-up Marriage Looks Like). How many innovative outings did you experience with your partner last year? Now is the time to set an intention to schedule fresh and fun experiences.
First, turn your Vision item into a goal: To keep the excitement and passion alive by having new experiences and learning about new places, faces, fashion, design!
Next, we articulate the objective or purpose of this goal: To activate each other’s dopamine and norepinephrine receptors, and get the testosterone flowing between us. To experience new places, people, and things, stimulating more conversational and possibility.
Then, add a time frame. Ours is: Monthly, Saturday nights!
Now, write down specific strategies and tactics: Contact Duane’s sister to babysit, start researching newspapers and media outlets for new places around town, such as restaurants, bars, museums, art shows, performances, theater, films, dance clubs, potential friends for double-dating. Plan route, itinerary. Get well rested beforehand. Prepare for spontaneity.
To further ground the vision it is important to engage all five senses. Tuning in to the five senses is also a mindfulness practice to stay present and in the moment. The problem with most relationships is the inability to get out of the past.
The first sense we engage is sight. What would this look like? I wrote: bright lights, Thea’s eyes, people walking, couples, color, sexy dresses, short skirts, menus, food, glasses filled with sparkling liquid, stars, moon, neon art, window shopping displays…
We grounded our vision under sound and included: music, live guitar, street musicians, singing, radio songs, background bass beat, voices, foreign languages, conversations, exclamations, greetings, traffic, horns, background noise...
Under smells, Thea included: wine, beer, roses, gardenias, jasmine, ocean, salt, night mist….
For the tactile sense of touch I wrote: holding Thea’s hand, warmth, moist, tongue, tight, skin of her leg, arms, shoulders, squeeze, hug, face, hair.
Taste: sour, sweet, salty food, salty lips, salty skin, steak, grilled veggies, bitter IPA tang…
These sensory items can be anything that comes to mind, either literal or metaphoric associations. So make them as personal or idiosyncratic as you like.
Then we added the emotions experienced: exhilaration, thrill, surprise, arousal, delight, closeness, desire…satiation.
Next is the payoff, the consequence. What is the benefit of all this concentrated focus? For us, the payoff is: full aliveness, fresh conversations, the renewed vitality of romantic connection, new friends, new learning…
Then the progress report: How did it go? What would you change? What would you add? What would you delete? Overall we are doing pretty well: We could plan events better by scheduling earlier.
Lastly, revise the plan based on the progress report. Reaffirm, recommit, or amend the Vision or any part of the grounding process. For us, we need to keep it up and stay creative.
Your Relationship Vision is a living, evolving process, growing as your relationship grows. You and your partner will inevitably falter. This is your guide to realign your intentions.
By translating your goals into a vision and embedding that vision in your relationship you are fast-tracking your resolutions into reality.
Thea & Duane Harvey, Harvey Center for Relationships