“The quality of your life ultimately depends on the quality of your relationships.” 

Esther Perel

What is a relationship?

In relationships, relating to another person is like walking through a door. We cross a threshold. We go from one world to the next. It doesn’t matter if we’re relating to a spouse, a friend, a store clerk, or ourselves.

To be with someone else is to be in a new space. What will we find there? Will the place be hospitable and remind us of home? Will it be exciting and new and full of adventure? Will it be frightening and awful? Will it meet us with contempt?

When we cross through that door, we are no longer on familiar turf. We venture into the unknown. We risk much because anything can happen. We can be awed with beauty. We can be hurt. We can experience loss.

“Each person is always on the threshold between their inner world and their outer world, between light and darkness, between known and unknown, between question and quest, between fact and possibility.  This threshold runs through every experience that we have, and our only real guide to this world is imagination.  One of the lovely things a person can do for another person is to awaken the power and sacrament of their imagination, because when you awaken someone’s imagination, you are giving them a new kingdom, a new world.”

John O’Donohue, Walking in Wonder

Sometimes crossing through a gateway is as easy as donning a new pair of clothes.  Sometimes it is harder, like traversing a river or sailing an ocean.  We travel far from home to get there. We find ourselves unprepared for the journey.

In relationships, the person we relate to enters that new space with us. They, too, are crossing through a door to join us. They are also venturing into the unknown.

We are all travelers.  We may not notice the journey when things are going well–when connection is easy. When things feel like home, the doorway may be almost invisible as if it wasn’t there.

Sometimes relationships are rocky. Sometimes we encounter someone quite unfamiliar. The environment on the other side of the door seems hospitable. When things don’t go well or when they break down, we start to question. We wonder if we made the right choice going through that door? Does this new place want us? Will it cause us injury? Will it chase us away? Or worse, will it trap us?

How do we break down a relationship?

Relationships are complex. Each journey into the unknown has 3 parts:

  • Purpose / intention
  • Competence
  • Worth

These three parts make up the three legs of a journey: the beginning, the middle and the end. Let’s look at a relationship between a man, Greg, and his spouse, Linda, to see how the parts fit together.

We start here with the major aspects of Greg’s life. Greg has five major identities. We will separate his relationship to Linda so that we can understand it better. We see a circle made up of two arrows connected Greg’s Self to his Spouse, Linda.

Next, we remember that relating to someone is like crossing a doorway. Before Greg gets to Linda, he must cross through. Once we add a doorway, we now see three arrows. There is the first arrow, the journey before crossing the door. There is the second arrow, which makes up the journey on the other side of the door. In this middle leg, Greg interacts with a new environment containing Linda. Finally, there is the return home. Greg is on his own again, returning to his familiar self.

To break down a relationship in distress, we need to understand each leg of the journey. Before we cross through the door, we are in familiar surroundings. We are home. We are well-protected. Nothing can surprise or scare us. We call this the familiar self. We know exactly what, where, and who we are.

As we cross through the door, we go into the land of the unfamiliar. Here is where we expect to encounter our spouse. It is here where we use our values to do something.

Finally, we return back to the familiar self. We return to safety. We know exactly where we are going.

Each of these three legs is quite different. Each of them is filled with different sets of feelings. Understanding the types of feelings that we might encounter is key to knowing what may be going wrong or right along the journey. Remember, feelings are information with purpose. We also use different sets of values in each step. Values are the tools that can be used to make something happen.

To see what went wrong, we must examine each part individually.

No human being is ever actually there. Each of us is emerging in every moment.

John O’Donohue, Beauty

Step 1: The journey away from the familiar self

Step 1 is the identity / purpose step. Here, we make a choice. We will engage with one of our identities (spouse, family, job, hobby, etc.) for some particular purpose. We cannot engage with all of our identities at once. We must choose one. And we have a motive for doing so.

This is the most difficult step. It sets everything else in motion.

Just like any traveler, we bring things with us along the journey. Most people don’t realize this part. We bring along our abilities and past experiences.

We also bring along our thoughts and feelings:

  • Do we feel good about the person with whom we are about to engage?
  • Do we feel connected or disconnected?
  • Do we hold the person up on a pedestal?
  • Do we trust them or are we already skeptical?
  • Do they seem familiar or unfamiliar?
  • What do we think about their motives? Are we cynical?
  • How flexible do we intend to be in the coming negotiation?
  • How do we feel about ourselves?

These thoughts and feelings help to make up our biases. They are preconceived notions that will alter how we interact in the next stage. Often, we are completely unaware of this “baggage.”

Our feelings towards the other person may be positive or negative. Some of them are aligned with our purpose and make things easier in the next step. Others may be contrary to our purpose and will likely hamper us. The more we are aware of all of these feelings, the easier the next step will be.

Step 2: Competence

Step 2 is the values step. We will use values to accomplish a task. Here we will be judged based upon our competence in performing the task.

We start step 2 by crossing the door. We have our feelings and preconceived thoughts with us. Our feelings will energize us. They get us moving. They are essential. Our thoughts may aid us or be a burdensome weight on our backs.

Thoughts and feelings that are contrary to our purpose will inevitably slow us down. It will take extra energy not to be derailed by them.

We can still use the feelings that at first seem contrary to our purpose. These feelings are energy, after all. All energy can be converted into useful energy with the right tools (values). Imagine a sailor that faces an unfavorable wind. Rather than plow ahead in the direction he wants to go, he is instead forced to zig-zag. The net direction will still be the same. However, it will take more time (and effort) to get there. He will cover more ground.

Likewise, we can take any type of energy and channel it. Negative, positive, aligned or misaligned–it doesn’t matter what type of energy. We only need the right type of tool. Values are our tools. Find the right value, use it correctly, at the right time, and we will succeed. Doing so is considered competence.

Here in step 2, we meet and negotiate with an unfamiliar person. Likely we won’t get to do everything we want to as quickly as we would want it. Neither will they. We must pick-and-choose. We must be flexible.

Just like we came into the negotiation with our feelings and preconceived thoughts, so did the other person. They are likely to catch us off guard with their energy and other “baggage.” Their intent and purpose may be aligned or contrary to ours.

There are two primary types of values: bridges and boundaries. There are many subtypes and mixed types. Understanding how these values work is key to channeling the types of energy we are given. We must use those energies to navigate any hurdles in the way.

It is also unlikely the other person will use the same value we have chosen. We must find a way to make our value complement theirs. If they intend to set sails, we can row.

More than likely, they will set their sails towards a particular direction that is not the way we want to go. Again, we can use our own tools to complement their action so that the final outcome is that both parties are partly satisfied.

There is a rhythmic dance to the process. If the other person pushes too hard, we must reinforce our own boundaries. If they are too soft, we can extend our bridges to meet them.

Sometimes we encounter a seemingly impossible situation. There is a magic there when we convert a misaligned energy to overcome a seemingly impossible hurdle. Especially when the person we are negotiating with a difficult partner whose intentions at-first seem contrary ours. There is a magic to picking the correct value and navigating these challenges.

We won’t know if we’ve chosen correctly until the final step–the return home.

Step 3: The return home

Step 3 is the reflection step. We reevaluate our intentions in step 1. We reflect upon our competency in step 2. Finally, we examine our worth.

Of this, worth is probably the biggest piece. Worth is the way our partner and society at-large think about us. How do they value our contributions? Would they engage with us again? What do we think about our own performance? Worth will inform our self-esteem. Do we feel valued and appreciated? Do we value and appreciate ourselves?

In the return home, we always bring something back with us. We bring memories of new experiences. We learned something about our interaction with our partner in step 2. We form new thoughts and judgments. Did we grow as a result? Is it possible that our personal growth contracted?

There will be knee-jerk reactions to what happened in step 2. How close was the outcome to what we had desired? How close did we come to meeting our original expectations? What new feelings arose as a result? Are we angry, sad, satisfied, fearful, etc?

These feelings naturally will give rise to new thoughts, conclusions, and judgments. We will have observed our partner’s actions and the impact that had on us. This impact will give rise to new feeling. From those feelings, we will conclude many things. We will assume we know what our partner values. We will naturally assume we know their intentions in the previous stage. We will then judge our partner’s actions and intent.

It will take energy not to allow our knee-jerk thoughts to run away with themselves. We have to remember that these thoughts and judgments are subject to cognitive biases. They are unlikely to be fully correct. In fact, they are highly likely to be wrong. They need to remain hypotheses and not be considered facts. We will have opportunities to correct our cognitive errors later.

Out of these feelings and thoughts will come a sense of connection (or disconnection). How has this changed? Are we more trusting of our partner? Or do we trust them less?

Now that we are back in the land of the familiar self, we can prepare to undertake another journey. We go back to step 1. We can choose which identity we will engage with. Our changing trust and sense of connection will inform this choice. Our intentions and expectations will change as a result of our previous journey.

Examining relationships

Now that we’ve seen all three parts, we can begin to diagnose issues with relationships. Relationship problems will come from one of these three stages. Often, for longstanding relationship issues, the partners struggle at all three stages. Here are some common problems at each stage:

Step 1 (Purpose / intention) aka “the Identity step”

  • Have we chosen the right identity for ourselves in this relationship? What is the role we and our partner are each playing?
  • What is our intention (purpose) in this relationship?
  • What is our value hierarchy? Where do we value this relationship in relation to other aspects of our lives?
  • What preconceived feelings, thoughts, sense of connection, sense of trust, and other baggage are we bringing into the relationship? How does the past inform the way we are going to interact?

Step 2 (Values / Competence) aka “the Values step”

  • What values did we use drive our actions?
  • What values did the other person use to drive their actions?
  • What was the resulting impact?

Step 3 (return home, evaluate worth), aka “the Reflection step”

  • What knee-jerk thoughts and conclusions did we come to? What did we infer about the other person’s intent?
  • (Deep dive into impact) – What was the impact on each of us? Who bore which costs of our collective action? Who received which benefits?
  • How has impact affected our sense of trust and connection? What other feelings arose?
  • If we had this to do over again, would we take the same action (use the same value) or try something different next time?

As we examine relationships in this way, we use a three-step process. We first prepare for the journey (Identity step). We undertake the journey (Values step). Then we return home (Reflection step).

Human beings do this intuitively without realizing it. When things go well in our lives, we proceed through the steps effortlessly. One step flows into the next.

When things go wrong, we typically get caught at one of these stages. Breaking them down can help diagnose the problem. Doing this is the basis of IVR therapy (Identity-Values-Reflection therapy). Teaching people how to do this on their own is the purpose of this website.


There are many take-aways from viewing problems as a three-step cycle. A few of the key ones are listed here:

  • The cycle is typically repeated. And so, we are allowed to make mistakes, especially at first. In fact, making mistakes is part of the process.
  • There is no right or wrong way of doing things. Everyone values things differently. Such differences are assets, not liabilities.
  • We can become stuck in a cycle of doing the same thing over and over again. Judgment, lack of listening, and inflexibility are three common ways that people become stuck. IVR therapy can help people become unstuck from these situations.
  • Feelings provide the energy for the cycle to move.
  • Values (especially listening) help to channel our energy in a positive direction. Most complex problems require a host of values to solve. Values are like tools. Solving difficult problems is similar to a carpenter using a bunch of tools to build something. You can’t just use the hammer.
  • Cynicism (believing the other person has ill intent) is toxic to the cycle. Cynicism is an easy way of skipping through the cycle without doing the work of actual listening. Giving in to cynical impulses is an easy way out. It is a theft of the other person’s dignity. We also rob ourselves of perspective and connection. Repeating this mistake over and over is called negative cycling. Negative cycling eliminates possibilities, shrinks imagination, and diminishes understanding. As human beings, we contract over time.
  • The end goal of IVR therapy is understanding. We strive to understand the complex interplay between past experiences, preexisting feelings, connection, trust, identity, values, thoughts, contributions and impact. Seeing how these pieces influence each other moves us towards understanding.
  • The process of moving towards understanding, called positive cycling, opens up our imaginations to solutions of mutual benefit that previously seemed impossible.

The sea manifests freedom: she is the primal dance… the wild divinity of the ocean infuses the shore with ancient sound… Who can tell what secrets she searches from the shoreline?  What news she whispers to the shore in the gossip of urgent wavelets?  This is a primal conversation.  The place where absolute change rushes against still permanence, where the urgency of Becoming confronts the stillness of Being, where restless desire meets the silence and serenity of stone.

John O’Donohue, Beauty

Healing from injury

Healing from injury is a journey of crossing.  We cross from our familiar surroundings to someplace new, someplace unfamiliar. This takes courage and openness.

Anytime we make this journey, we should expect to encounter both beauty and loss. There is beauty in finding new places and discovering new connections. We need only be ready to receive it.

There is also loss. We must, at least temporarily, choose an identity in the crossing. To remain authentic to the moment, our other identities must be put on hold. They still exist. They are in the background, observing.

We should also expect that when we return home, we will have changed. We are never the same person who started the journey. We have acquired new memories and feelings. There is a loss of the person who was. We must let go of that person to complete the journey. If we refuse to let go, we become stuck. Our wounds cannot heal.

Letting go of the familiar takes a leap of faith that we will one day return home. We venture out to come back again. We push forward, knowing that we cannot go back. We accept what must be. Forward is the only way. By letting go of the familiar, we too relinquish old feelings. We let go of our regrets, our anger, our guilt, and our grievances. We ride the wave of bitter feelings towards the unfamiliar. In that way, we are transformed.

Healing from a deep injury requires many repetitions of this cycle. We don’t do the same thing each time–that is likely to get us stuck somewhere along the way. Instead, we must navigate complex challenges, maneuvering, learning at each step, feeling the winds and responding to them.

Healing requires connection to the unfamiliar. That is–connection to unfamiliar people, to unfamiliar environments, and connection to our unfamiliar selves.

We cannot escape our entanglement to these unfamiliar beings. Embracing that entanglement will lead to healing. If we run from it, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to be whole. We prolong the wound and let it fester.

Imagination is like oxygen for the journey. We breathe in that oxygen by listening. We listen to the unfamiliar. We must be open. When we inhale, we grow.

As we grow in this manner, we learn to trust along the way. We trust ourselves first. We trust the new boundaries that we’ve built. They will keep us safe from repeating our mistakes. We trust the bridges that cross to new places. We are open now. Open to receiving that which was previously unfamiliar.

We clarify our purpose, we grind out competence, and we cultivate self-worth. We find ourselves awash in awe and wonder. We know we’re on the right path.

Next: What is Identity-Values-Reflection therapy?