Sometimes couples express concern about having no common interests in relationships with their partners. Last week, I visited two large arenas in Texas (AT&T Center and Toyota Center) where I paid ten times more for my stadium seats than I would have for equally uncomfortable seats in a movie theater. From a distance that exceeded the magnifying power of my glasses, I watched very tall men who donned expensive footwear as they played a game called basketball. I didn’t do this because I love the NBA. I did this because I love my boys. And, because I love them, I have made it a mission to get them to every NBA arena in the US (and one in Canada).
As it turns out, I have no common interests in relationships with my 16-year-old boys. (Well, I guess it’s true that my sense of humor is well matched for a 16-year-old boy at times). What they love to do is often not the same as what I love to do. I don’t watch NBA highlight films on youtube, (unless Cameron says, “Mom, watch this.”) and I never play fortnight, ever, though I did play a new game on Mitch’s phone until he gave up on me for being so inept. <Sigh> I do, however, care that these things bring my boy’s such joy, and I do delight in knowing what interests them.
Have you ever said to your partner (or just thought to yourself), “Is it just me, or do we have no common interests?” If so, I can’t imagine it was said or thought as a good thing. I know, it’s pretty amazing how quickly I can pick up on these nuances, right?
Fortunately, research offers us reassurance that it is not essential to have common interests in relationships. Instead, what matters most is having an interest in what one another enjoys. In some cases, it is possible to find ways to blend your interests, without actually sharing the same joys. For example, if your partner is obsessed with birdwatching, and you love hiking, photography, or travel, there are obvious ways to combine these passions without sourcing your joy from the same part of your shared activities. In other cases, this may not work and what floats your boat may not be compatible with what floats hers. That’s okay too.
If you tell yourself it’s a problem that you have no common interests, then it is very likely that it will be a problem. The problem, however, isn’t the lack of shared interests, it is the belief that it is a problem. It’s funny how that works. We are inclined to believe that if we think something, it must be true. Silly humans.
Another key ingredient in happy relationships is to have a shared meaning.
Shared meaning is a mutual understanding of the purpose and meaning of your relationship. There is no right meaning, there is only the meaning that is right for the two of you. Often, the shared meaning is found in the little things that define your “story of us.” It is the end of this sentence, “We are a couple who…” or, “Our love story is …” or, “We make a great pair because…”
A shared meaning develops from stories about who you are as a couple, how you view relationships and what is unique to your partnership. Shared meaning is what gives shape to who you are as a couple. When you have shared meaning, you are on the same page about what your relationship stands for, who you are as a couple, and how you go about the business of being an “us” in a world where there is no one way, and no right way, to be an “us.” There is only the way that works (or doesn’t work) for the two of you.
When it’s all said and done, we all want the same things from our relationship. We want to feel loved, important, secure, free to be ourselves, valued, worthy and like we are enough just the way we are, and we want to be treated kindly and with respect and appreciation. As for the boys and me, we only have 20 more arenas to visit before we reach our goal to see a game in all 29 NBA arenas.
Understanding Imago Relationship Therapy / Couple Therapy and Imago Workshop with an Imago Therapist
What is Imago Relationship Therapy?
Imago relationship therapy (pronounced “ehm – mah – go”) is a type of couple therapy (and also an imago workshop) that is based on the work of Harville Hendrix, which you can read about in his book, Getting the Love You Want.
Understanding Imago Relationship Therapy, starts with understanding “IMAGO?” During our childhood, we develop an imprint of the positive and negative traits of our primary caregivers. This imprint is a collection of images and experiences that are both conscious and unconscious, and they form what is called our “IMAGO.” Imago is simply another word for image. This imprint or “imago” represents what is familiar, which includes both the good experiences as well as the uncomfortable ones. This imago, over time, develops into an unconscious guiding force in our life. It serves as a map, directing us toward others who fit this image. Similar to a magnet that has the capacity to both attract and repel, our imago is able to do the same.
Unlike a magnet though, we are generally not aware (we are unconscious) of it when it happens. The magnetic force in our imago has the ability to magically pull into our lives all of the people, relationships and experiences that we need in order to recreate many of the painful aspects of our childhood. And likewise, the magnetic force of our imago tends to repel those people, experiences, and situations that do not fit with what is familiar.
Why you ask? Imago relationship therapy is based on the theory that once we experience hurts in our childhood, we spend our lives trying to heal them. If we feel unloved, not good enough, invisible, unimportant, not special or any other hurtful feeling as a child, we go to great lengths throughout our lives to reverse these feelings, to heal. Unfortunately, the trap we often fall into is believing that we can outrun these hurts; that we can get out of this relationship and find another, better one that will work.
Over time, and after several relationships, it becomes obvious (well, with the help of couple therapy), that we continue to unconsciously recreate these feelings and situations in each relationship we encounter. And in the unlikely, but possible event, that we attract a partner who does not fit our imago, we may just provoke those behaviors in our partner that do match our imago! Our imago helps explain why we are mysteriously and often magnetically drawn to one person and not others.
With this theory, it is also suggested that we do not actually “fall” into love, rather we “fall” into infatuation or lust. Love is more of a decision, a choice. Just as it becomes a choice or decision to not love. The notion of choosing to love is not to be confused with choosing our sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is more likely a function of genetics and other forces beyond our control. Choice in this context infers that once we become infatuated, (to the gender of our inherent sexual orientation) we make a choice to move those feelings further along a continuum, to deepen our commitment. We choose to give ourselves the opportunity to enter a more profound, more deeply felt place of love that comes in time through our contact and commitment to another.
STAGES OF LOVE RELATIONSHIP
According to the theory of Imago relationship therapy, there are several stages of development in a love relationship. The first two stages occur in our unconscious mind. These are the Romantic Love and Power Struggle.
STAGE ONE:Romantic Love [unconscious]
The first of these, the Romantic Love is the period of attraction that brings two people together, often with passion, intrigue, excitement, and anticipation. Our bodies are flooded with a natural feel-good neurotransmitter called Phenylethylamine (PEA) which is also present in chocolate. This neurotransmitter has the ability to heighten our sense of pleasure. Consider the start of some of your relationships—the initial weeks and months of spending time together.
Can you recall the food you tasted, the music you listened to, the places you spent time, the scent of perfumes/colognes—all of your senses come to life heightening the pleasure you experience in everyday activities? PEA can last anywhere from 3 minutes to one year, but inevitably it fades. The Imago theory of relationships suggests that PEA is nature’s way of bringing (often incompatible!) people together long enough to commit to one another. And once the commitment occurs—whether that is a decision to live together, to share finances, to have a child, to have a commitment event/marriage, or something else, the power struggle begins.
STAGE TWO: Power Struggle [unconscious]
Interestingly, 60 percent of all heterosexual relationships end in divorce. The rate for gays and lesbians would be nearly impossible to determine as there is no systematic measurement in our society that allows us to measure relationship commitments among same-sex couples. Of the 40 percent of heterosexuals who remain married, about 5 percent actually make it through the power struggle without an intervention such as counseling. While we are in Romantic Love, all we want to focus on is our similarities. However, as time progresses, so too does our understanding of one another, and our differences naturally emerge. When these differences surface, the power struggle is on.
Ironically, we often pick a partner that has a difficult time meeting our needs. If we crave closeness and connection, we are likely to be drawn to the partner who struggles with intimacy and contact. If we need a lot of distance and space, we are likely to find ourselves with someone who desires a lot of closeness, and who is maybe even a little clingy. What one partner most needs, is often what the other partner most needs to learn to give. It is in this exchange, the meeting of one another’s needs, that the healing begins to occur. In the less common case where our partner does not match what is familiar, we will provoke it! And to no surprise, the more energetic the Romantic Love is, the greater the Power Struggle is likely to be. Unfortunately, most couples spend their whole relationships at this stage, never progressing beyond the struggles.
What can imago couple therapy do to move beyond the power struggle?
Often this is where couple therapy with a certified Imago Therapist comes in. To move beyond the power struggle, a couple must become conscious of their thoughts and feelings. This consciousness occurs in four different areas and leads to the ultimate goal of Real Love. The following represent the four areas of conscious work that couples must move through in order to reach Real Love.
Make a commitment [conscious]
This involves making a conscious choice to work on the relationship and to help one another heal. A commitment requires that we close our exits—eliminating people, places, things, and activities that give us an escape from fully being in a relationship. This may include: setting clearer boundaries with our families of origin so that our new partnership is the priority; or dealing with our addictions to food, drugs/alcohol, sex, and work; or ceasing involvement in friendships with people that distract and tempt you from your partner.
Seek Knowledge [conscious]
We must seek support and information. We need to go to a place of curiosity about one another and to be willing to see each other in a fresh new way. We need to let go of old assumptions and open ourselves to the knowledge of who is partner really is and what she or he wants and needs. As we go through life, we learn to associate what being loved means with all of the experiences we have had so far.
Sometimes, we respond to people who care about us as if they are all the same person (our imago) and we make assumptions that “we’ll never be a priority,” or “they’ll always leave me,” or “I’ll never be good enough.” These assumptions come from within us—and we need to be conscious of these so that we do not paste them onto our partners who may or may not fit the description. Gaining this knowledge and learning to know our partner for whom he or she is, frees us to transform ourselves.
Experience a transformation [conscious]
In this phase, there are many changes. This is a period of renovation, where partners have committed to do the work of healing, they have sought the knowledge and resources to assist in their process, and now they are doing the actual work. Partners are re-examining their relationship vision, their romance, their identity, and any outdated beliefs about one another that need to be overhauled. This transformation includes empathy for one another, validating one another’s experiences and beliefs, and stretching who we are to include that which our partner needs us to be. The transformation stage opens up the door to all kinds of possibilities and leaves us feeling hopeful and renewed about the prospect of achieving real love.
Enjoy your awakening [conscious]
In our awakening, we become more aware of our own journey—learning about what it is that we bring to relationships that do not work. We move the focus from ourselves to our relationship with our partner. We use the skills we have acquired to meet our own needs as well as those of our partner—nurturing our relationship by tending to one another’s hurts. We become more aware of the parts of ourselves that we have disowned and that needs healing. And with our partner’s help, we begin to heal. This healing journey then leads us into the final stage of Real Love.
STAGE THREE: Real love [conscious]
Real love is what we have come to associate with unconditional. This unconditional love, however, includes unconditional giving, receiving, valuing, and it leads to a spiritual intimacy that is deeper and more stable than that of romantic love and romance. This comes from really knowing ourselves, and really knowing our partners. Real Love is a non-defensive way of relating which evolves from feeling safe, and good enough, and healed with our partner. Real Love allows us to live with full aliveness and joy. Real Love involves no expectations in the way we relate. It is a natural connectedness and oneness that respects the individuality of each partner without moving to change one another into clones of oneself. Real Love is spontaneous and free. It’s the greatest gift we have to give one another.
What is an Imago Therapist?
As a Certified Imago Therapist, Michele O’Mara, PhD is specially trained in couple therapy, and offers imago therapy to all couples, as well as her own version of the imago workshop called the couples weekend, created specifically for lesbian couples. An Imago trained counselor participates in an intensive two year training program (after completing a minimum of a master’s level counseling program). The Imago therapist training involves a rigorous exploration of how we make our partner selection (the source of our attractions); how relational behaviors are impacted by our characterological growth (including that of the therapist), and how to make conscious the developmental wounds we experience in childhood; how to address difficult couples issues; and how to assist couples in communicating effectively.
What is the Imago Workshop?
The typical Imago Workshop is provided by imago therapists who have taken an advanced training through Imago Relationships International. This workshop is not the same as my Couples Weekend, however, as an imago-trained therapist, I included many key concepts of the Imago theory, including the Intentional Dialogue, the Stages of Relationship Development, the impact of our characterological development on our partner selection, and more.
Do you engage in regular and simple relationship check-ins?
I recommend that every couple set aside a minimum of thirty minutes each week to do what I call a regular relationship check-in. This is an important opportunity to remain mindful and aware of how your relationship is going. When you allow life to fill up your schedule, and you cease to make time to connect with your partner, it is easy for the months to accumulate and to find yourself so far down the road that you don’t know how you got there. Routine check-ins will help prevent this from happening.
Though there is no “right” way to do your check-ins, here are some guidelines to help you in the process of your regular relationship check-in.:
Summarize your feelings about how you experienced the previous week. For example, “I feel like we’ve had a great week and I feel really connected to you.”
Share your observations—both the good and the frustrating experiences in your relationship—about how things unfolded. For example, “I noticed that we were both taking more time to talk together and I think that really helped me feel more connected to you.”
Communicate your insights about how you can use this as information to continue improving your relationship. For example, “I think it would be a great idea for us really to commit to spending more time just talking because I really want to feel connected to you on a regular basis.”
Your Partner’s Turn Now. Once you complete steps 1-3, then your partner shares her observations. Discuss any differences in your observations. This is simply a time where you literally observe how you are doing as a couple and what you like about how things are going and what you would like to see be different. To make this a regular relationship check-in, it is essential to do this regularly, ideally on a monthly basis.
This time is NOT about:
being defensive or sensitive
criticizing or attacking
If you find yourself engaged in any of the above, chances are you have not selected the right time to do your regular relationship check-in, or, you have allowed too many issues to accumulate and not enough time to address them until now. If you can not find a way to engage in a routine check-in, you may want to seek some support to help you over the hump. This exercise is designed to create a much more conscious relationship by being as aware as possible about the influences on your connection with one another and on your relationship’s happiness.
Is your mind inclined toward judgment or did you develop an observing, curious mind?
Somehow, when I think about an observing, curious mind, I think about my childhood home on a cul-de-sac. I grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, in a large neighborhood, on a cul-de-sac. This was probably akin to today’s vinyl villages; only vinyl wasn’t a thing you built houses with then (even the three pigs knew that). My particular childhood cul-de-sac was a street that led to a stop sign, where you could either turn left or right to leave the neighborhood or continue forward to the other side of the same street, only to find yourself at another cul-de-sac. So, essentially, you could circle my street as many times as you wanted without ever leaving the neighborhood, just pausing to cross the street that could actually take you somewhere new.
Bear with me, this does relate to an observing, curious mind. As a parent, I can appreciate that cul-de-sacs are great for safety. There is rarely unexpected traffic because unless you live on that street, there is nowhere to go, except back from where you came. The neighbors who travel down the street can likely predict which houses may have a little fella chasing a ball into the street, or the three little girls speeding in and out of driveways, pretending to be Charlie’s Angels on their bikes (flashback, sorry). This makes a cul-de-sac much safer than a road that allows for new and unexpected traffic.
Cul-de-sac THINKING, however, is not so safe. When you have one way of thinking that leads to the same dead end, you will always end up in the same place.You cannot expand your mind without allowing in new information. Unfortunately, the illusion of safety that comes with cul-de-sac thinking makes it very tempting to lean into judgment, rather than observation. Judgment says, “I know.” Observation says, “I’m curious.” Observation allows us to take in new information, to notice things in new ways, and to consider changing our thinking about our understanding of things. The key is to develop an observing, curious mind.
Judgment is choosing to go straight at the stop sign, leading you right back to another cul-de-sac. Judgment, or the stories we make up, keeps us closed to new information.
For many, the pain of what we know feels safer than the illusion of pain that accompanies the unknown. For example, many people stay stuck in unsatisfying jobs, relationships, friendships, houses, cities, etc… because they fear they will not find something better; or worse yet, that they aren’t worthy of more. This is an example of a judgment that keeps people stuck. This is what people in pain do. They engage in cul-de-sac thinking. They think the same thoughts over and over, convincing themselves that their pain is unchangeable. How do we know what we don’t know? How do we know that there are no more rewarding jobs (or occupations, for that matter) that can support us well, or ways to improve our relationships, or our location, etc? We don’t. We just convince ourselves we do.
What would happen if you turned left or right at the middle of those two cul-de-sacs, and actually left the neighborhood? (Go left and you’ll head toward my best friend Kirsten’s childhood home, go right and you will find the YMCA – both very healthy choices). Choosing a new direction requires you to ask yourself a different question. Instead of viewing your pain as a permanent situation, you receive it as it is intended – as a signal that something must change for you to find relief. You do not pre-judge what needs to change; you simply open your mind to the possibilities.
Notice what brings you pain. (“I hate my job.”) Pain is the signal from our self, to our self, that something needs our attention. It is wise to be grateful for our pain because it offers us the contrast needed to know what it is we desire. Pain is not the focus though, it is the signal that tells us where to point our attention.
Identify your desire, which is always the opposite of your pain: (“I love my job.”) You start with what it is you desire. If what bring us pain is, “I hate my job.” Relief is found in the opposite of this. The goal on the opposite side of, “I hate my job,” is, “I love my job.”
Lastly, find a question that directs your brain toward positive problem solving: (“How can I love my job?”) You will notice that this question is not, “How can I find a new and better job,” or “How can I get great benefits.” This question is OPEN. The question does not presume anything, it simply asks about the ultimate desire – to love my job. This question can only be found by turning left or right at the stop sign in the middle of the cul-de-sac.
There are so many thoughts to think all of the time. (Nope, that is not a Winnie the Pooh quote). The beautiful thing about thoughts is, we actually get to decide what we think. Try it. You don’t have to think what your mind is thinking about. You don’t stop the thoughts you have, you simply choose something else to think about. What questions are you asking yourself? Do they direct you down a road that ends in a cul-de-sac, or does it open you up for new information and new answers? Staying open to new information is an essential relationship skill (read more here about healthy relationship goals).
Last week, I was teaching this concept of thinking with an “observing mind,” rather than cul-de-sac thinking, to the staff of Cass and Company, a progressive hair salon in Avon that invests in the happiness and well-being of their stylists and staff! (Amazing, right?) In my session with them this month, we were discussing the importance of “building an observing mind.” While discussing how observation is power and judgment is a weakness, one of the stylists shared a story about a time in her life when all she did was observe. The stylist, Lina, came to the United States from Lithuania many years ago. She shared that when she first came to the United States, all she did was observe. Her whole goal was to learn and understand the American culture. She had no assumptions about anything. In fact, she said, she was more inclined to believe she knew nothing, so she was 100% open to everything. Jokingly, she said, “Now that I’ve been here for so many years, I know everything.”
Wouldn’t it be interesting to approach every situation we are in with the curiosity of a visitor to a new country? How would we see people, places, and things differently if we assumed nothing, judged nothing, focused on the facts, and stayed in the moment? That is what an observing mind does.
I’ve always heard, Knowledge is Power, but it seems to me, Curiosity is the real power. Whatever you do, be open to taking a left or a right if you find yourself headed toward a cul-de-sac.
It’s okay, I consider this a good thing. Not that I have anything against normal – it’s just that, well, I don’t find much about being normal very desirable. Webster himself describes normal as being “characterized by average intelligence or development.” He also describes normal as “occurring naturally,” or “not deviating from a norm.”
Isn’t this a contradiction? If, for example, being above average intelligence occurs naturally, wouldn’t that then be normal?
The dangers that surround the word “normal” remind me of similar dangers that surround the word “healthy” in the world of mental health. Therapists, like myself, are trained to look for “disorders.” Despite this training, I do not see others as “disordered.” Actually, I find that word offensive. A disorder is considered a disruption in “normal” functioning. Remember, Webster says, “normal” is defined as “occurring naturally.”
Who, exactly, gets to decide what is normal functioning?
I propose that you decide this for yourself because when we rely on others to define our “normal,” we risk their getting it wrong.
The Mental Health Community Admitted Getting it Wrong
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM – now on the 5th edition), is the psychiatric bible used by clinicians to diagnose clients. Until 1973, homosexuality was listed as a disorder in the DSM. The good news here is that I was only mentally ill with homosexuality until I was seven. By my 8th birthday, I no longer suffered from this disorder because it was removed from the DSM (though not entirely until 1986). Like magic, isn’t it?
Exodus International Admitted Getting it Wrong
Exodus International, led by Alan Chambers, makes a brave and public apology admitting wrongdoing in their 37-year long ministry designed to repair and remove the homosexual feelings from its members. He boldly confesses, “We (the church) have been motivated by fear.” “I spent the majority of my life pretending that I was something I am not because I was afraid of the church.”
These are examples of why I find it a dangerous business to ever assume that I can understand someone better than they can understand themselves. I see my work as providing people the tools and resources to understand themselves. I look at people with a keen interest in their life stories and their life experiences. In my world, people do not have a disorder, they have a story. Part of your story might include distressing thoughts, poor coping skills, feelings of depression, unwanted behaviors, and other concerns that could easily be found in the DSM. However, those are just aspects of the story of who you are, these things do not define you, they are not the whole story, and certainly not the whole of who you are.
And here is what I believe,
When I take the time to know you – who and how you are makes sense to me. Just as when you take the time to know yourself – who and how you are will make sense to you. But, only always.
The client-therapist relationship is personal. Just like any relationship, it is possible to have personality and style differences which make communication difficult, less enjoyable, or ineffective.
Be sure to trust your “gut” when you meet with a new therapist. It is your right to ask questions. In addition to basic information about availability, fees and location, you may want to consider asking: • How long have you been practicing?
• Are there any issues you are with which you are uncomfortable working?
• How would you describe your counseling style?
• How familiar are you with [insert your issue here]?
And any other questions that interest you are okay to ask too. Therapy is a service. You are a consumer. Be sure you feel comfortable with the service you are receiving.
It is common, however, once you begin counseling, to feel uncomfortable. If you are working on your “issues” then you are likely to feel a good bit of discomfort related to actually addressing important life concerns. Do not confuse this discomfort with your discomfort with the therapist. There is a difference.
If you are gay, lesbian, or bisexual AVOID THERAPISTS WHO….
Assume You Are Heterosexual This is generally the first warning sign of an unaware therapist. If upon meeting him or her they automatically assume you are heterosexual their level of sensitivity or awareness of diversity is lacking on some level.
Focus On Causes Of Homosexuality Researchers have not revealed any conclusive evidence about the development of sexual orientation, whether gay or not. So, to pursue “causes” of homosexuality is an uneducated pursuit, because there have been no links made between experiences and homosexuality. There is a strong suggestion from the scientific field that homosexuality is genetically influenced, however, no genes for homosexuality have been identified. Therefore, to investigate “causes” of being gay infers that there is something wrong with being gay and “we need to find out how this happened!” This is not a supportive focus in counseling for gays and lesbians.
Do not explore your beliefs about and overall comfort with, being gay, lesbian, or bisexual Some gay, lesbian and bisexual people are conditioned to believe that homosexuality is sinful, abnormal, or simply bad and wrong. It is essential that your therapist clarify the messages you have internalized about sexual orientation to identify how you feel about yourself. It is dangerous to assume that you are comfortable with being gay.
View gay relationships as morally wrong Although therapists can have values or beliefs that differ from their clients, it is important that you are working with someone who is able to support your movement toward a healthy gay, lesbian, or bisexual orientation. It is difficult to support others in moving toward something that we have internalized as “sinful” or “morally wrong.” It is your right to know if your therapist is able to support you in the development of a healthy gay identity. Feel free to ask him or her.
Works to help you become heterosexual To encourage the work of “changing” your sexual orientation from gay or lesbian to heterosexual is considered unethical by the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and by the National Association of Social Workers. To find a therapist willing to work with you toward these goals means that your therapist is either unethical or not licensed through one of the above mentioned professional associations.
Does not include same gender partner in therapy when appropriate to do so Although it is not necessary to include your partner in counseling. It is common to do so when there are issues that involve relationships or improved communication and support. To not include your partner because of your same-sex relationship is a sign that you may want to consider another therapist.
Is unaware of the voids in legal protection for gays and lesbians It is helpful if your therapist is informed enough to safeguard you from making poor choices regarding your work, living arrangements, financial investments within relationships, etc. There are many areas of the law under which gays and lesbians are not protected (employment, marriage, housing, partner benefits/insurance/health care/taxes, etc.). It is important to be aware of these and make informed choices about your life.
Is uncomfortable disclosing his or her sexual orientation Your therapist certainly does not have to be gay to be effective, knowledgeable and supportive. However, if your therapist is gay or lesbian and is not comfortable disclosing this to you, this may indicate unresolved issues, or shame of their own. If you are attempting to resolve conflicts around your sexual orientation it is essential that you are able to do that with the support of someone who is able to encourage your progress.