Relationship Therapy and the Imago Dialogue

Imago Couples Therapy

We are going to continue our discussion of couples counseling by examining Imago Relationship Therapy. If you have not yet read it, check out our previous blog post on Ingredients to Good Couples Counseling, which provides an introductory overview of what to look for in a couples counselor.  

If you are considering whether couples counseling is the right choice, Imago couples therapy is one particular option that many people enjoy.  This method helps couples to resolve conflicts and improve their communication through the use of the Imago dialogue. 

Dr. Harville Hendrix and Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt developed the Imago Couples Therapy.  Hendrix and Hunt are themselves a couple. Early in their relationship, they were curious about why couples are drawn together only to fight against one another. Together, they developed the Imago Relationship theory to provide an explanation and treatment approach.


Principles of Imago Relationship Therapy

Imago Relationship Therapy is named after the word “imago,” which is Latin for “image.”  Hendrix and Hunt selected this name because they believe that people hold an unconscious image of their potential partner that has been forming since birth.  That unconscious image is often based on characteristics associated with each person’s primary caretakers (for example, parents or grandparents).

If someone has had primary caretakers that were unable to meet their needs and perhaps even caused certain hurts, then a person may unconsciously seek out a partner, who they believe can fulfill the psychological needs that the caretakers were unable to fulfill. Unfortunately, people tend to seek out partners that are similar to their caretakers. If old hurts are triggered by the new partner, it awakens unresolved emotions.

Old hurts will also be easily awakened, because people tend to be sensitive to those situations that remind them of behaviors that previously caused them pain (for example, critique or feelings of abandonment). This pain and hurt can overshadow the positive aspects of the relationship. People may start to question whether they have selected the right partner.

:: See our related post: How to Build a Strong Relationship ::

Hendrix and Hunt believe that people innately want to resolve old hurts. Imago therapy helps both people in a relationship to heal themselves so they can learn how to trust and heal each other. It also helps people learn to appreciate their partner as they truly are, rather than as similar to that caretaker image. This is considered a “more conscious relationship.”  

Core principles that outline the sequence of Imago therapy include

  • Re-imagining: learning to see your partner as a wounded child
  • Re-romanticizing: making relationships happier with surprises & appreciation
  • Re-structuring: changing your complaints into requests your partner can fulfill
  • Re-solving: letting go of extreme anger
  • Re-visioning: seeing the relationship in a better way, as a source of satisfaction

What does Imago Relationship Therapy involve?

Hendrix and Hunt believe that when couples first develop their relationship, they idealize one another. During the early stages of the relationship each partner does tend to do their best to make a good impression. This reinforces the belief that this potential partner is perfect.

Unfortunately, once a relationship moves into the commitment stage (often after marriage or some other symbolic commitment), people start to step back and engage in less impression management. As they act more like their true and imperfect self, it causes tension in the relationship. Each partner wonders where their perfect person went. The resulting tension leads to arguments between the two.

Yet, if both partners realize their past hurts and stays committed to their partner, then growth can occur. Imago theory says that both partners need to focus on the well-being of the relationship. In order to heal the wounds and strengthen the relationship, couples must learn a new type of dialogue. Imago therapy can help each partner examine their relationship fantasies and adopt the Imago dialogue.

According to Imago theory, people may sometimes talk through a problem and just patch it up. However, they need to develop a new, true connection to one another to really resolve conflict. This is accomplished through healthy dialogues that explore the old wounds affecting the current discord.

Imago theory indicates that healthy dialogues are emotionally safe, predictable, and reliable. Each partner needs to know they will not be hurt in the interactions. Each partner needs to be curious about the other and interested in learning about their experiences. As you learn about each other, you can further increase feelings of empathy towards your partner and feelings of safety for your partner.

Does this method really work?

Imago Relationship Therapy is based on an integration of other approaches, including Gestalt psychology, Systems theory, and Cognitive therapy. Each of these approaches is well supported in their own right. Research on the Imago therapy workshops indicates at least short-term benefits from improved communication. The Imago Relationship Institute is also currently conducting clinical trials on their approaches, which could provide even more thorough support for the Imago techniques.

Psychologists and counselors can become certified in Imago Relationships Therapy through the Imago Clinical training program. This certification includes personal exploration and experiential work, so the therapist understands first-hand how to apply the approach. However, many therapists integrate components of this approach even if they are not fully certified.


Imago theory Self-Help Resources

There are some excellent books from Imago Relationship theory that many couples enjoy reading on their own to help strengthen their relationship. These include:

  • Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples
  • Getting the Love You Want Workbook
  • Receiving Love
  • Receiving Love Workbook
  • The Couples Companion
  • Keeping the Love You Find: A Personal Guide

Some couples choose to attend an Imago Relationships workshop. There are several types of workshops, such as Getting the Love You Want that occur at various points in the year, around the country. There is also an Imago Relationships website that aims to help couples make changes in their relationship. Located there are some resources that couples might find helpful. However, it may be difficult to fully apply the resources without the assistance of a skilled counselor.

Final Recommendations

Website resources can be helpful. However, as you sort through your personal past hurts and how they might be affecting your relationship, you might benefit from the perspective of an outside person. In this case, you will want to pursue couples counseling. Working with a couples counselor provides the benefit of having someone, who can get to know you and help you implement the Imago dialogue in your daily life as a couple.

If you feel the Imago Relationships theory may be the right fit for you, then you can look for a provider nearby that knows how to apply this method. Many skilled providers also integrate other approaches, as needed. Simply search online for providers in your area (for example ‘Couples Therapist in Brooklyn’). Then, you can view their website and ask questions to learn more about their approach.