Imago Relationship Therapy or IRT is a comprehension approach to couples therapy practiced worldwide. It is the brainchild of Drs Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt and took the public by storm after the release 30 years ago of Hendrix’s New York Time’s Best Seller, Getting the Love You Want. Imago Therapy provides a comprehensive understanding of why couples choose their partners and why they inevitably face conflict. It also provides a structured approach on how to resolve the conflict and achieve relationship success.
Imago Relationship Model
Imago therapy starts with the assumption that we all have an unconscious image of the ideal partner we are looking for. This image or, our imago, is a composite of the positive and negative characteristics of our primary caretakers. We unconsciously choose a partner who will remind us of the best and worst of our parents so that we can heal our childhood wounds and meet our unmet needs. Marriage is the unfinished business of childhood and a chance to “do over” so to speak. Marriage is also for the purpose of growth and healing so we will pick someone who will push our buttons in way to help us stimulate our own personal growth. Our spouse is often our mirror image and their needs are usually the hardest things for us to give, but specifically what we need to grow.
Couples don’t realize this hidden agenda of relationships when they fall in love because they are too busy blinded by infatuation during the romantic phase. These positive feelings serve to bond us to our beloved as well as prevent us from seeing what we are getting ourselves into. That’s why it is a bit of a rude awakening when after we commit, we begin to experience challenges, This second stage, called the power struggle, is inevitable for all relationships and it is at this point where couples eventually call it quits or chose to live together, but more like roommates than soulmates. It is only through working through the conflict and realizing that our spouse is our imago, that we are able to unpack the baggage of childhood that we have brought into the marriage. As we our able to become more conscious and respond more intentionally instead of reacting based on past triggers, we enter the third stage, real love or the conscious marriage.
The tool that helps us work through the power struggle and become more intentional is the Imago Dialogue. The Imago Dialogue is a structured process that allows for safe conversations where both parties can safely express themselves and deeply be heard. It is structured in a way in which one person talks while the other must intently listen and repeat back, or mirror, what the other said without interjecting opinion or interpretation.
It allows for the reactive spouse to calm down and truly hear the other, thus opening up the brain to access new areas of processing. The Dialogue allows couples to feel connected despite working through difficult issues by exploring underlying causes, eliciting compassion, and removing the projection of childhood triggers from the relationship. More than a communication tool, which it is a fabulous one, it is a vehicle for transformation, enabling couples to experience the otherness of their partner in a safe and non-threatening way.
Imago relationship therapy vs traditional marriage counseling
The Imago theory as well as process makes it much different than traditional marriage counseling. Because Imago therapy assumes you chose the right partner and that he/she is triggering the very issues that need to be addressed, it is expected that whatever problem you are facing can be worked out and it is not a reason to call it quits. Obviously, in cases of abuse and severe mental illness, there is often not a workable partner present so they would be exceptions.
Traditional marriage counseling does not come in with the assumption that the marriage is meant to be or can necessarily be fixed. Imago also recognizes the role that both spouses play in their troubles and does not place blame on one particular spouse. The focus is more on the dynamic and how, with safety, both couples can show up as their best selves.
Traditional marriage counseling can focus on one partner as the problem and not address the overall dynamic. Finally, the hallmark of Imago therapy is a safe and structured approach.
Unfortunately, traditional marriage counseling can be quite combative, with couples yelling, screaming, and fighting, feeling worse when they leave than when they came in.