There’s a particularly sticky place that comes up in most relationships. It’s the place where your deep desires meet your partner’s fear and resistance - and vice versa. How do you unravel this dynamic, to experience the magic that lies on the other side? That’s what we’re going to cover in today’s episode with Hedy Schleifer. Hedy, the co-creator of Encounter-centered Couples Therapy, is going to describe what she calls “Unraveling the Survival Knot”. In this process, you get to uncover the gift that lies deep within the core of your relationship. The Survival Knot could seem like an impasse at first, but then it becomes a source of profound connection, growth, understanding, and healing for your relationship.

If you are curious to hear our first episode with Hedy Schleifer, you can listen to it here: Ep 69 - How to Be Completely Alive in Your Relationship. It’s not a prerequisite, but in many ways it sets the stage for today’s episode, so make sure you do check it out.

Click here to receive the Show Guide for Hedy Schleifer

Unraveling the Survival knot: Every relationship has a survival knot, and it most likely needs unravelling. A survival knot is that place in relationship in which one partner’s deepest and most profound longing meets the other’s unconscious place of resistance and defensiveness. And vice versa. This is an (almost always) unconscious impasse. It is at this impasse where we are the most defensive (sometimes offensive!) without actually knowing how or why we are becoming protective. Staying stuck in the survival knot means that we are learning to adapt and cope, instead of acknowledging and living! Coping occurs when we are in a fearful and isolated mode, while living and thriving occurs in connection.

Tough love: The optimistic truth is that once we have uncovered the survival knot, we can begin to unravel it. Unravelling only occurs in an environment of safety. Safety, however, does not mean easy or comfortable. In fact, it is required to be able to enter into and share our toughest neighborhoods (those places in our life and psyche we are the most ashamed/uncomfortable/afraid) with our partners. It takes courage to welcome discomfort, however it is possible to create a situation in which you are each being so present for the struggle that you can experience delight in the vulnerability.

Plasticity provides possibility. The concept and science of neuroplasticity (the ability for the brain to change due to new neural networking) reminds us that we CAN transform ourselves and our experiences. In couple’s counseling, or intensive exploration and processing, it is possible to juxtapose past trauma and/or old negative thought patterns with a present experience of compassion and safety that allows for the brain to reintegrate the past in new and healthy ways. When our past wounds are exposed in the presence of a loving, nurturing, and validating other we are able to allow the brain to update the meaning making of events and core beliefs in ways that promote and restore freedom, growth, and confidence.

The map: Imagine your inner world as a map consisting of different neighborhoods. There are the precious neighborhoods where you may feel your essence, or feel passionate and alive. There are mysterious neighborhoods which have yet to be discovered or explored. And there are the tough neighborhoods which we are too scared to go to. Our map is simultaneously static and constantly expanding. As you observe your reactions, your patterns, what excites you, etc. you can begin to fill in this map with increased detail. Have fun with this, and don’t forget to name your neighborhoods!

What is the name of your toughest neighborhood when it comes to your relationship? Take time to consider the places in your relationship in which you experience and encounter the most fear, anger, disappointment, resentment. Give this whole experience (cocktail of emotion) a one or two word name. For example, is it Never enough. Left out. Not appreciated. Despair. Or, Betrayal? This name is important as it can symbolize and contain a whole layered experience which allows it to become something tangible enough to enter and explore. For too many of us, and for too long, this neighborhood goes unnamed, and therefore mostly ignored. This leads to blight on both a personal and partnership level.

Full presence: As you begin to name your neighborhoods, and prepare to invite each other in as hosts and visitors, it is critical to build your capacity to stay present with one another. There is a visceral and embodied experience that can be felt when you are in full presence, versus just ‘being there’. In full presence you will find delight! Allow yourself to be so open to your partner that even when they are sharing difficult and painful feelings, you can be filled with awe, versus guard and defense.

Generative listening: There are 4 different types of listening. There is factual listening, habitual listening, empathic listening, and generative listening. The latter is a form of listening that is on a very different dimension than the others- it is a listening that requires and involves one whole person listening to another whole person. It is listening with everything we’ve got: our heart, mind, and body. It requires a full openness and the intention of attuning to everything, at once. Generative listening is an internal, integrative, and intuitive experience of listening for the spiritual and emotional meaning being communicated on a very deep level.  

Listen to the 93%: Research shows that we say most of what we need to communicate without words. In fact, only 7% of communication relies on words! The other 93% is everything else- landscape of the face, tone of the voice, color of the cheeks, body language… As a listener begin to hone your ability to attune to how your partner is speaking before focusing on the words. Only with generative listening will your partner reveal themselves. The more present you truly are, the more authentic and open your partner will become both to themselves and to you.

Speak the essence: As a host, it is your responsibility to tell the truth. By speaking with raw honesty you will come to the core of what you are inviting the other to visit. The truth is not complex or very layered - in fact, as a host you should strive to say your truth in 5 words or less. Speak the essence. Words, especially when there are many of them, actually cover the core truth of what we need to communicate, versus help articulate it. This level of truth speaking requires authenticity, vulnerability and transparency.  

The art of visiting: It is inevitable that you will, sooner or later, become triggered while visiting your partner’s toughest neighborhood. Hone your awareness of the sensation of being pulled out of connection (returning to old patterns of anger, sadness, overwhelm, shutdown, etc) so that you can catch yourself and return to presence. Choosing to return is a powerful act of commitment and love - in fact, the coming back is as healing for our partner to experience as the staying there is.

Celebrate moments of “I don’t know”. While the visitor’s main responsibility is full presence, the host’s main responsibility is honesty. Work towards becoming so truthful and transparent that you get to layers and places in your neighborhoods that you have yet to know. If you speak with full authenticity you WILL get to the point where you actually do not now what to say- and this is the best place to be! It is the places we don’t yet know that become entrances into completely new understandings and awarenesses.

Implicit memories: One very important task in order to get to new places in our neighborhoods is to work with implicit memory. Our past is a silent voter in our apparent present. Implicit memories stored in our conscience are always weighing in on our experience of the now, and thus constantly influencing how we relate to others. We need to acknowledge this, because if not, they will continue to vote without our awareness! Making implicit memories become explicit means that they are no longer ruling our relationship without our knowing. This process is best facilitated with the support of a therapist or spiritual guide/practice.

Main Square: Somewhere at the center of our toughest neighborhood, where “I don’t know” is discovered, there is something called the Main Square. This is that most core statement that one voiced has an overall visceral sensation of “this is my truth”. It is a life giving statement that has been needed to be spoken since you were a child - you will feel its potency right away. It is from this core truth that you can begin to rebuild your neighborhood in a more authentic and generative way.

Reflect, reflect, reflect: Whether with the support of a therapist, a guide, a spiritual practice, or solo journaling continue to ask the big beautiful questions that help you find your core reason for living and for love. Relationships are difficult regardless, but made excruciatingly difficult when we have lost a sense of our core and highest purpose of being in partnership. What is it you are most desiring in your relationship? Why are you in partnership in the first place? What is it you want from your life and your partnership? Strive to verbalize the answers to these questions - knowing that they will evolve and change over time. Furthermore, as you move through challenges and struggles and growth in your relationship, take time to ask the following 4 questions: What have I learned? What do I know now more but in a deeper way? What has surprised me? What has intrigued me?

Live the adventure: Your relationship is not a problem to be solved, it is an adventure to be lived. What becomes possible when you put your energy into the service of love and connection versus into the effort for survival? Equip yourself for love as an adventure with the resources, the know-how, and the communication skills needed. By making a paradigm shift to this being a hero’s journey, we can open ourselves up to experiencing challenges as opportunities. We find more delight than despair, and more moments for creative problem solving.

Get support and stay committed: It takes time and holding to dance a new dance. Entering into full exploration with your partner require committing to a continual learning process. The more you discover, however, the more opportunities you will have to recreate your neighborhoods in ways that are liberating and re-energizing. Be willing to get support for this remapping process, especially for when you first enter into the toughest neighborhoods together. Once you have gotten to the Main Square, and dealt with implicit memories, you will begin to feel as though you can truly start redesigning your relationship. Some dynamic and behavior shifts will be automatic, and others will require daily intention. Ask each other- what do we need to do, in general and today, to go down the Avenue of Big Love?

Click here to receive the Show Guide for Hedy Schleifer


Check out Hedy Schleifer’s website for resources, upcoming workshops, and more!

Want more help? Reach out to Hedy for a private 2 day couple’s intensive session

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Amazing intro/outro music graciously provided courtesy of:

The Railsplitters - Check them Out