Imago Relationship Therapy
Imago relationship therapy is a form of couples counseling and coaching designed to help relationship partners work out misunderstandings, reduce conflict, and rediscover ways to bond, communicate, and generally find common ground. A primary goal of the Imago approach is to help partners stop blaming, criticizing, and negatively reacting to each other and instead become more understanding and empathetic.
Developed in the 1980s, Imago therapy is based on the work of psychotherapist Harville Hendrix and his spouse Helen LaKelly Hunt and derived from the theory that feelings you experienced in your childhood relationships are bound to resurface in your adult relationships.
The term Imago is from the Latin word for “image,” and refers to what its founders describe as an “unconscious image of familiar love,” developed in childhood, and remaining as yet unchanged in adulthood. As clients address these childhood relationships, Hendrix has said, they come to recognize their personal imago as “the image of the person who can make me whole again.”
Much of the work that takes place in Imago workshops and private therapy sessions involves learning to recognize how early childhood relationship experiences have affected how we relate, behave, and respond within committed relationships. Imago therapists see conflict between partners as the result of their circumstances and believe that, through examination of the conflict, the couple can not only find a solution, but heal themselves and achieve personal growth.
There is only limited empirical evidence to support the benefits of Imago therapy, but some smaller studies suggest that it helps couples, at least in the short-term.
Couples dealing with communication struggles, consistent conflict, intimacy challenges, and trust issues may want to work with an Imago therapist but couples that are not in crisis may also benefit from the approach, learning how to manage conflict and enhance their dynamic. Dating partners, newlyweds, and long-term spouses may all seek Imago therapy to shore up their connection.
For couples experiencing frequent disputes in particular, the Imago approach, which perceives conflict as an opportunity for growth, may be beneficial. Imago relationship therapy can benefit partners trying to become closer or to bolster their relationship, as well as individuals who need to develop stronger communication skills to improve their relationships in general.
Imago therapy may not be the best approach for partners experiencing domestic abuse, or dealing with a partner’s substance abuse or addiction. Therapists may suggest that couples not enter into Imago therapy until such issues have been fully resolved.
No. Individuals hoping to find ways to make better choices in their dating life and gain perspective to help them recognize the traits they desire in future partners may find benefits in Imago therapy as well.
Imago therapy is based on the idea that our early relationships not only shape our personalities and attachment styles, but also what could be called a love identity derived from how we were treated by important figures in childhood, and the lessons we learned about what we need to do and how we need to act to receive love from those closest to us.
In adult intimate relationships, Imago’s developers believe, these dynamics are likely to re-emerge, as we choose adult partners who are “familiar” to us—in other words, with whom we interact in similar ways as we did with significant figures from our childhoods. Recognizing these patterns is precisely what can lead us to progress, “We are born in relationship, we are wounded in relationship, and we can be healed in relationship,” Hendrix has said.
Still, Imago therapy is not all about unpacking childhood issues; in fact, Hendrix says, the biggest mistake Imago therapists make is “allowing clients to spend most of their time processing negative feelings about themselves and others and spending too much time exploring the traumas of their childhood.”
Imago coaching can take place in group workshops, private counseling, or both, depending on the needs and preferences of the couple. Workshops often occur over weekends away from home, where couples learn exercises and dialogues designed to facilitate and improve meaningful conversation, explore emotions, encourage reconnection on a deeper level, and ultimately help them feel more positive about their relationship.
After, or as an alternative to, group workshops, couples may seek individual counseling with an Imago therapist. In either setting, couples typically sit facing each other and participate in exercises and conversation guided by a trained Imago therapist.
The Imago technique is focused on 5 core principles which play out over the course of therapy. An Imago therapist is likely to ask clients to re-imagine their partner as a wounded child; to re-romanticize their relationship through signs of appreciation, pleasant surprises, and even gift-giving; to restructure disappointments or frustrations by transforming complaints into requests and eliminating negative, hostile language from interactions; to resolve lingering feelings of anger; and finally to re-envision the relationship as a source of safety and happiness in their lives.
What clients find most difficult about Imago, Hendrix says, is “surrendering their self-rejection/hatred and letting themselves be accepted and loved.”
An Imago therapist generally does not act as an authority figure who will pronounce verdicts about a couple’s relationship, but as a partner who recognizes that couples are the experts on their own relationship, who will work with them to facilitate improved communication and connection and who will help them look more closely at their interactions and potential for healing.
The therapist plays an active role in facilitating the dialog between partners in a way that helps each understand how the other reacts and responds to conflict or stress, ideally enhancing empathy and reducing a recurrence of the same arguments or types of arguments.
The dialogue is the core technique of the Imago therapeutic approach, in which partners ideally learn to avoid hurtful words and statements, create a safe environment for sharing, and establish a means of interacting in which each partner has equal space and power.
In the dialogue, partners take turns as the “sender,” or the one sharing their thoughts, and the “receiver,” who takes in those words. A key step for the receiver is “mirroring,” or paraphrasing what their partner has just said, nonjudgmentally and without a response or rebuttal (“What I’m hearing you say is…”). (This is a common element of couples therapy in general.) The receiver next will be asked to validate their partner’s statements, letting the other know what they understand and asking for clarification on what they don’t, and, importantly, acknowledging their understanding of why the sender’s position makes sense, even if they do not personally agree with it. Finally, the receiver should display empathy by stating what they imagine the other is feeling as they express their take on their experience in the relationship, and showing their appreciation for it. Couples may work on the dialogue process until it becomes familiar and they can do it on their own outside of therapy sessions when facing conflicts.
By understanding how negative experiences and feelings from childhood carry over into adult relationships and form your particular imago, Hendrix and Hunt believe, you can better understand your reactions to your partner, and vice versa, and develop the skills and empathy necessary to transform yourself and your relationship. In fact, Hendrix and Hunt came to believe that marriage itself, as a forum for addressing old wounds and fostering healing and growth, may actually be the most effective form of therapy.
Little scientific research has been done to measure the long-term success of Imago therapy, but a 2017 study published in the Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy found that marital satisfaction increased significantly for couples that completed 12 sessions of Imago therapy, and remained higher for some time, but did not always result in what researchers determined to be “complete recovery.”
Look for a licensed and experienced psychotherapist with specialized training in couples counseling and specifically Imago Relationship Therapy. Imago Relationships International, founded by Hendrix and Hunt, certifies Imago therapists and can provide referrals to member workshops and individual counselors.