Imago Relationship therapy offers a gentle approach for couples seeking support in resolving conflict and improving communication. If you are considering couples counseling for your relationship, keep reading to find out if this method might be a good fit for you.
What is Imago Couples Therapy
Imago Relationship Therapy was developed in the late 1980s by a husband and wife team, Dr. Harville Hendrix and Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt. Harville and Hunt were curious about why couples seemed to be drawn together only to then fight against one another and they developed the Imago Relationship theory to provide both an explanation and treatment approach for this paradoxical situation.
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 which can negatively effect the relationship. This image begins forming at birth and is often based on characteristics associated with the primary caretakers (for example, parents or grandparents).
If someone’s primary caretaker caused them harm or was unable to meet emotional or physical needs, they may unconsciously seek out a partner who they believe can provide the things that their caretaker was unable to. Unfortunately, in actuality, people tend to seek out partners who are similar to their caretakers, making it more likely that old hurts will be triggered and unresolved emotions brought to the surface.
These old hurts are even more 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 and a person may start to question whether they have selected the right partner.
A couple can work towards a more “conscious relationship” through use of the Imago dialogue. The method is predicated on the belief that people innately want to resolve old hurts. Imago therapy helps each individual in a relationship to heal themselves so that they can learn how to trust and heal each other. It also helps people learn to appreciate their partner for who they truly are, rather than for how they fulfill the image of their childhood caretaker.
Core principles that outline the sequence of Imago therapy include:
Re-imagining—learning to see your partner as a wounded child
Re-romanticizing—making your relationship happier with surprises and 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, partners tend to do their best to make a good impression and as a result end up reinforcing this idea that each other is perfect.
However, once a relationship moves into the commitment stage (often after marriage or similar milestone), people start to step back and engage less in this “impression management” behavior. As one partner begins to act more like their true and imperfect self, tension can actually arise if the other partner starts to wonder where their “perfect person” went. This new tension will then often lead to arguments.
If, however, both partners realize their past hurts, stay committed to one another, and focus on the wellbeing of the relationship, then growth can occur. Hendrix and Hunt believe that in order to heal old wounds and strengthen the relationship, couples must learn a new communication style called the Imago 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, to really resolve conflict, they need to develop a new, true connection to one another. This is accomplished through healthy dialogues that explore the old wounds which may be 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 and 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.
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 approach to provide more research support for the Imago techniques.
Who can apply the Imago Relationship method?
Psychologists and counselors can become certified in Imago Relationships Therapy through the Imago Clinical Training Program. This certification includes personal exploration and experiential work which ensures that therapists understand first-hand how to apply the approach. Many therapists choose to integrate components of the Imago approach even if they are not specifically certified in this therapy.
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 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 throughout the year and at various locations around the United States. There is also an Imago Relationships website that provides resources and information for couples looking to make changes in their relationship. While you may find books and certain online recommendations helpful, keep in mind that it may be difficult to fully adopt Imago theory recommendations without the assistance of a skilled couples therapist.
As you begin to sort through your personal past hurts and how they might be affecting your relationship, you might benefit from the perspective of an outside person.
We have several relationship experts at Mind Body Seven who offer a variety of therapeutic tools that can help you to work through problems and build a healthier relationship. If you would like to learn more about the Image Dialogue or other ways to take care of your relationship, please do not hesitate to reach out.