What Is Imago Relationship Therapy?
Imago Relationship Therapy was created by Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt (Harville’s wife). They define it as “a theory and therapy of committed partnership with a focus on marriage/civil partnership.”
I have been using Imago Relationship Therapy as my model of couples therapy for several years now. I have chosen to use it because I love the structure and opportunity for closeness and understanding that it provides the couple.
Why I use Imago Relationship Therapy
Before Imago I was using a more traditional model of couples therapy where the couple sit opposite me in the consultation room and proceed to tell each other, through me, what the problems in the relationship were. When I was working this way it felt unsafe, for me and for both clients and arguments that the couple were having outside the therapy room would often be brought into it and I would be invited to be the referee. This was not a great way to spend an hour of my life and provided no benefit to the clients.
In Imago Relationship Therapy the couple sits opposite each other and talk to each other following a very structured pattern. It’s the structure that provides the safety. As each partner feels safe they begin to drop their defenses and start to talk to each other properly about what is going on for them.
Imago Relationship Theory suggests that the purpose of partnering up is to complete childhood and heal the childhood wounds we experienced as a child. We seek a partner that has many of the characteristics of our parents and and caregivers in the unconsciouse hope that they will help us to feel whole again.
OK – that’s one big statement we have here. Is Imago saying that we marry our mothers or fathers? Kind of. The theory says that we are attracted to a bit of a mash up, aspects of all our caregivers rolled into one. This ideal person is our “Imago” or perfect image. We unconsciously fantasize that if we can get this perfect image to love us just right then the pain we felt when we did not get our needs met as a child will go away so we set out to find this person that will “fix” us.
The stages of relationships
The romantic stage of a relationship is where we are all loved up with our partner and feel close and connected to them. At an unconscious level we can see the positive aspects of our imago shine through and at last we believe we will be healed. Hormones are flowing through our body deepening the attraction and feelings of oneness with our partner. This cannot last. Ultimately the limitations of our partner begin to show through and the frustrations we felt as a child begin to resurface.
Power struggle phase
At this point we attempt to bribe, manipulate and coerce our partner into being our ideal match. This leads to arguments and tension in the relationship. Possible outcomes include chronic conflict, a parallel marriage where the partners have little to do with each other or divorce.
The conscious marriage/committed relationship
This is the goal of Imago Relationship Therapy. Both partners intentionally go out of their way to meet the each others unmet childhood needs. This is often a big ask as it is often the opposite behaviour to what comes naturally to the partner. By meeting your partner’s childhood needs however, you are much more likely to get your needs met as your partner relaxes and feels more connected to you.
The foundation of Imago Relationship Therapy is the Dialogue process. Rather than talking at each other, the Dialogue process provides the conditions for both partners to talk to each other. The structure makes this easier. This is because in the dialogue each person takes on a different roll with a defined job
The sender is the person that is doing the talking. They say what’s going on for them keeping the conversations safe by focusing on “I” and owning their own feelings and behaviour. They send in short chunks so the receiver can mirror what they have said back to them. Once the chunk has been mirrored they send the next piece.
The receiver listens to what the sender has said and mirrors back at the end of a chunk of information. They then check that they have mirrored correctly with “Did I get you?” and ask “is there more?” to allow the sender to continue with what they were saying.
Let me give you an example of what this may look like (this is a made up dialogue and has nothing to do with anyone real):
Bob: I have a frustration with something at the moment, is now a good time to talk to you about it?
Mary: Sure, I’m listening.
Bob: I feel angry that the house is such a mess and feel like I’m the only one cleaning it.
Mary: (mirroring) So you feel angry that the house is a mess and feel like the only one cleaning it. Did I get you?
Mary: Is there more?
Bob: Yes. I want you to clean up after yourself and make up that you don’t care about me when you leave your dirty plates for me to wash.
Mary: So you want me to clean up after myself and make up that I don’t care about you when I leave my dirty plates for you to wash. Did I get you?
Mary: Is there more?
Bob: Yes. I think this gets in the way of us having fun together because I feel angry when you get home and then don’t want to talk to you.
Mary: So….. (mirrors)
After Bob has fully explored what is going on for him then Mary would use the final three steps of the dialogue process.
The receiver summarises in their own words what they have just heard from the sender. This checks that they are both on the same page and they fully understand each other.
The receiver puts themselves in the place of the sender and sees how it might feel to be there. “You make sense to me and what makes sense is………given that….”. This stage is not about agreeing, just seeing your partner’s point of view.
The receiver says what they think their partner might be feeling. This encourages them to understand more fully what is going on for their partner.
Let’s apply this to Bob and Mary’s conversation and see what these stages look like for them.
Mary: So to summarize. You feel angry that the house is a mess and you think you’re the only one cleaning it. You’re sad that this stops us from having fun together because by the time I have come home and you have spent all day clearing up after me then your anger stops you talking to me. You also make up that I can’t care about you because I leave you so much work to do. As a result we have less fun and don’t enjoy each other’s company as much. Is that a good summary?
Bob: Yes, that’s a good way of putting it.
Mary: (Validation). You make sense to me. What makes sense is that when I leave my stuff scattered about the place and you’re having to clean it and tidy up after me you would feel angry because it doubles the amount of cleaning you have to do. It also makes sense to me that you could think I don’t care about you when I behave that way. (empathy) I guess you’re feeling really frustrated and hurt. Is that how you feel?
Bob: Yes. Frustrated and sad.
It would then be Mary’s turn to talk about what was going on for her. She would become the sender and Bob would be the receiver. The dialogue would continue until both parties are happy that they have explored it enough.
Sometimes just having a dialogue about an issue is enough to solve it. It could be that Mary didn’t know Bob felt so strongly about her untidiness. Now she can make an informed choice about how she behaves and between them they can come to a resolution. Other times the dialogue might take a more structured approach at the end and Bob and Mary could come up with practical steps to take to resolve the issue. Bob might ask Mary for a behaviour change around her untidiness for example.
Another key component of the dialogue process is the opportunity for the sender to explore what’s going on for them. This will often be linked to childhood and so the dialogue process provides the safety and structure needed to explore this. It’s likely that the conversation between Bob and Mary isn’t just about the tidying. It is probably linked to Bob feeling unimportant and ignored by Mary and will give both of them an opportunity to explore this and put it right now the issue has been brought into Mary’s awareness.
Using dialogue keeps the whole conversation safer and allows both partners to express themselves. In a “normal” conversation Mary may have become defensive from the start saying “I don’t make a mess, you’re the messy one!” and no progress would have been made at all – the conversation would have descended into argument leaving two frustrated and hurt people, neither of whom got their needs met.
The conscious relationship
Imago Dialogue makes it much more likely that partners know what each other’s needs are. It encourages both partners to meet each other’s needs and take each other into consideration. The resulting relationship could be much more fulfilling and rewarding for them both.
If you are interested in having Imago Relationship Therapy please contact me at The Affinity Centre on 01625 529099 or complete my contact form.
Read the Books
The definitive book on Imago Relationship Therapy is Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples. This is written by Harville Hendrix, the originator of Imago and is easy to read. It’s one of those books that as I read it I was saying out loud “yeah, that’s how my relationship works too, I thought it was only me!”.
For more information about Imago Relationship theory, or if you are single at the moment, Hendrix has written Keeping the Love You Find: A Single Persons Guide to Achieving Lasting Love. (affiliate links)