Imago Therapy is one of several counseling approaches to couples seeking help for their relationships. This approach is designed to assist partners in identifying how their unconscious mind has been influenced by their unique childhood experiences.
Growing up, we are surrounded by people, places and things that inform us about the world. We learn what types of behaviors to expect from people, based on the people we are most commonly exposed to. Our brain is built for shortcuts, for efficiency. Therefore, each time we negotiate a new behavior our brain is assessing the situation for the best responses – the responses that keep us safe and provide us with what we need.
What works for us may not work for others, including our siblings. Though we are raised in the same family, with the same adults, we all have unique relationships with different nuances. Suppose you grew up with one sibling in a family of four. Your mother was moody, unpredictable, and would occasionally get so mad she would stop talking to you for days, maybe even weeks. This is a strong emotional withdrawal that can register as very scary for a child. Your instinct will be to find ways to preserve your connection. It is likely that one sibling may try to pursue a connection even if she is not getting much of a response. This can involve efforts to please her, such as cooking, cleaning the house and otherwise making life easier for her mom. The other sibling might decide it is best to lay low until this passes. That getting involved will simply make matters worse.
We don’t identify the “right” way to respond to people in our childhood, we only discover the best way that works for us. And, like most things, when we learn what works, we tend to automatically repeat this behavior over and over and over again without even thinking about it.
In Imago Therapy training online, we explore your automatic responses to different life experiences, and in particular, different emotional experiences in your marriage/romantic relationship. By doing so, we can begin to grow more aware of what works and what does not.
Can you imagine consulting a five year old for advice about how to respond to a spouse who stops talking to you when her feelings are hurt or she’s upset? Unfortunately, that’s essentially what most of us do until we stop and consider that our automatic response is not really working.
Relationships are always harmed by our efforts to protect ourselves. Therefore, in order to reverse the damage in a relationship, and return to a more connected, safe, and loving experience, we must identify and reverse the coping responses that are not working.
This is a simple overview of the Imago Theory, and provides you with some insight about what the goal is when you pursue Imago Therapy.
For more information about imago therapy training online, you can read this article. To take a brief quiz to identify your imago, go here. If you are outside of Indiana, you can receive Imago coaching services which are essentially the same as imago therapy, given that most couples seeking help for their relationships are not experiencing mental health concerns. Though I am a licensed mental health therapist in Indiana, I am not licensed outside of the state, and all of my services outside of Indiana are limited to coaching, which does not involve a mental health diagnosis, nor does it qualify for use of insurance.
If you would like to schedule an appointment for Imago Therapy training online with Michele O’Mara, visit omaratime.com.
There are two types of communication: open-door and closed-door.
Open-door communication is a direct and vulnerable sharing of your feelings, which gives the listener access to your inner world.
Closed-door communication is a self-protective way to share feelings by using protective behaviors such as criticisms, making up stories, accusations, explanations, and defensiveness.
If your partner shares a feeling with you, she is giving you a glimpse inside a world to which only she holds the key. When she unlocks this door for you, it is a gift. The views into her inner world may not always reflect back to you what you wish to see.
The gift is not about what you find inside her inner world.
The gift is that you are trusted with access to her inner world.
Imagine your workload is doubled and you have to work twice as much for a temporary period of time. Likely, both you and your wife will have feelings about this situation. If you are committed to open-door communication, you will come to each other from a vulnerable place and express your feelings in a direct and genuine way.
Open-door communication might sound like: “I miss you. Lately, I have been feeling lonely since you’ve had to work more.”
Closed-door communication might sound like this: “You work too much. I feel like you don’t care that I am alone all of the time.”
While the closed-door message is coming from the same vulnerable source of pain, the delivery is harder to hear. She is letting you know there is something going on in her inner world, but she’s keeping the door shut by using criticisms, in an effort to protect herself.
If she says she feels something, then she feels something. Unfortunately, it is a common communication mistake to hear feelings as complaints, disappointments, and criticisms. For example, the first statement, “I miss you,” might be heard as a complaint or a criticism. You may hear it as if you are doing something wrong. That you should be home more than you are. This interpretation of “I miss you,” will likely provoke defensiveness.
When you interpret her feelings as a complaint, you are more likely to respond with a closed-door, such as: “I have no choice. I have to work.” This response misses the feeling she is expressing. This is a closed-door response to open-door communication.
If you heard “I miss you,” as a validation of your importance to her, you might respond with more softness. An open-door response may be as simple as, “I miss you, too. I can’t wait for work to slow down. Thank you for sharing that you feel the same way I do.”
It is not sufficient to add the word “feel” to your statements. When you say, “I feel THAT you…” or, “I feel LIKE you….” these are not feelings. These are opinions, stories, accusations, or potential criticisms. To truly share your feelings, you must be the subject of what you are sharing, not your wife or partner. A feeling statement will include a feeling word… I feel __________ (feeling word).
Feelings are never wrong, though they do change. They are also not accusations or criticisms. Sometimes we don’t fully understand our own feelings and all of the factors that contribute to them. The very best way to respond to your partner’s feelings is with open-door communication.
If she opens the door, appreciate and take good care of the access she is giving you to her inner world.
Infidelity is Not the Only Betrayal in Relationships
I have never understood the mindset that there is a game-winning or game-losing shot. This, to me, renders the entire rest of the game useless, and unimportant. If the star player has made a record breaking, 62 points in the game leading up to the final 3 seconds, the team is down by 2 and her final toss toward the basket misses, is she really responsible for the game-losing shot? I think not.
Nor do I think that one betrayal can make or break a relationship. Sure, it can complicate, undermine or greatly influence a relationship, but one isolated betrayal is not typically what leads to the demise of a relationship. Furthermore, just as a bad pass might lead to a missed catch in a basketball game, one betrayal might lead to another betrayal in relationships.
We are all responsible for our part. Always. No matter what the game. Especially in relationships.
Betrayals come in many forms. Though many people might disagree with me, I do not believe in a hierarchy of betrayals. A betrayal is a betrayal is a betrayal.
Not showing up on time
Not making their partner a priority
Not being there when their partner is hurting or sick
Not contributing to the well-being of the family (me rather than we)
Not keeping promises
Humiliating or putting down partner in public or private
Committing an act of emotional or physical infidelity
Being physically violent
Relationships are fluid. They are strengthened one choice at a time, and they are weakened one choice at a time. There are no make or break moments in a relationship, there is always a gradual movement toward better or toward worse. Take notice of the entire dance, not just the last few steps. T
LESBIAN COUPLES QUICKIES: VALIDATION, NOT EDUCATION
Couples Quickies #1
When your girl expresses a concern, need or frustration in her life (not about you), do not mistake this as her request for you to fix the situation, or fix her. If you are someone who often responds by telling her what you think, and what she should do, this quickie is especially for you.
In general, when we are hurting and we go to our spouse / partner with a painful situation, we are not asking for solutions, we are asking for support. We want to feel less alone with our pain. Often, we just want reassurance that we are okay.
Here’s a roadmap for those of you who are unsure how this might sound:
Let her talk. Don’t interrupt. Keep your questions to a minimum.
1. Let her know you’ve heard her.
“It sounds like … <repeat the highlights that you heard her share so she knows you were listening – don’t add your opinions or thoughts, just reflect back to her what you heard>”
2. Validate her feelings.
Let her know that when you look at the situation the way she’s looking at it (not the way you are), her feelings make sense (even if you disagree).
“Based on how you’ve described things, it makes sense that you feel <insert how she says she is feeling>, because <insert meaningful points she has shared that let her know that you were listening and validate why she’s feeling the way she is>…
3. Reassure her.
Remind her that you are here for her. Reinforce that you are a safe person for her to talk with when she is struggling, and that even if you see things differently, your ultimate goal is to be a safe and supportive person for her to talk to.
“I see this situation a little differently than you do, but what matters to me the most is how I can be here for you, and make you feel supported.”
4. Inquire if she wants your perspective.
“Would you like to know my thoughts about this, or is it best for me to just listen?”
5. Share with her consent.
IF she says she wants your perspective, THEN, and only THEN, share your perspective.
“How I see this situation is … “
Focus more on understanding, less on being “right.” Remember, she has come to you to feel better, not worse.
Do you ever find yourself saying what you don’t mean?
Have you ever noticed that when we are most afraid of getting emotionally hurt, our natural instinct is to behave in ways that actually make things worse, not better?
When we feel we are being blamed, our instinct is to blame the other and often this involves saying what you don’t mean.
When our feelings are hurt, our instinct is to hurt the other’s feelings
When we feel rejected, our instinct is to reject the other
When we are feeling ignored, our instinct is to ignore the other
When anything makes us uncomfortably vulnerable, our instinct is to protect ourselves
So much for “two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Saying what you don’t mean happens for a reason, and there is actually an explanation for how we can KNOW one thing (I know I don’t want to leave her.) and say or do another (tell her I’m over this, we are done.)? We actually have two different kinds of “knowing” that we experience.
LOGICAL/CONSCIOUS KNOWING – One part of knowing occurs in our conscious mind, also called our cerebral cortex. This part of our brain is logical, conscious, and the problem-solving part of our brain. We hold conversations with ourselves here (it’s our inside voice).
INSTINCTIVE/UNCONSCIOUS KNOWING – The second kind of knowledge comes from our reptilian brain. This part of our brain is unconscious. There is no inside voice here. The unconscious mind is responsible for our instinctive reactions. This is like a massive network of shortcuts that our brain has been programmed with to ensure our ability to respond quickly in a crisis.
The unconscious reptilian brain is reactive and acts quickly without consulting our logical mind. This part of our brain is famous for it’s limited, butthe speedy-fast selection of coping responses that include: fight, flight, freeze, play dead or submit.
For example, some unconscious programming may look like this:
touch hot stove > move hand away quickly
car driving toward you > leap out of the way
baseball flying toward your face > put your hand up to protect face or dodge the ball
someone is yelling at you > *depends on early programming
you fear rejection > * depends on early programming
your feelings are hurt > *depends on early programming
* When it comes to perceived threats such as someone using a raised voice with you, how you respond is based on how you learned to respond to this behavior as a child. Everyone’s experiences shape their responses according to what you learned was most effective with the people around you. The opposite of this is an open and curious mind. (Do you have an open and curious mind? Read more here.)
Your early life experiences taught you through trial and error how to negotiate different moods, behaviors, personalities, etc. to get what you wanted or needed to feel emotionally or physically safe. Once our brain identifies the best response (the one that results in what we want or need to survive), we will use this response repeatedly and without thinking about it, when we are in a similar future situation. We will continue using this response until we realize with BOTH parts of our brain (logical and instinctive) that this response is no longer working.
Our logical mind and our automatic brain each have their own version of “knowing.” The cerebral cortex knows what it is taught, and this knowledge is cognitive, intellectual, and conceptual. Our reptilian brain, which is unconscious, knows what has worked in the past to keep us alive. This knowing is intuitive, felt, sensed, also learned, and automatic. Sometimes what we learn logically does not match what our unconscious brain learned instinctively a long, long time ago.
For example, imagine that growing up you frequently heard your parents have loud conflicts. You felt your heart rate pounding in your chest, and you felt sick to your stomach with fear about what might happen. Eventually, one of them would then leave the house for an unexpected length of time after these fights. As a child, upon your parent’s return, you expressed your disapproval, hurt and feelings of abandonment by not engaging with the parent who left; by shutting them out.
Eventually, either your parent would respond in a way that helped calm your system (come to you, apologize and reassure you that everything is okay) or the silence was useful in creating enough distance from the source of your pain that you could calm your system and you could eventually reenter a connection with that parent. The successful resolution of your pain by being silent sent your brain the message that this was a good strategy. Now your brain is wired with the shortcut: raised voices > silence.
Fast forward to adulthood. Imagine that your partner raises their voice. Your system is alerted to danger. When this happens, your body quickly releases a chemical cocktail designed to protect you. Your body is suddenly sweating, your heart is racing, and you feel sick to your stomach (look for a future message about this chemical process, and how affects you). Your logical brain may be telling you that your partner isn’t mad at you, she’s just trying to share her feelings with you. But soon your instinct is to shut down, to be silent. So you do, and you stay quiet until your system feels safe again.
It doesn’t matter to you if you are saying what you don’t mean, even if you know that you are making things worse for your relationship. At this moment, your system is more concerned about surviving this PERCEIVED EMOTIONAL THREAT than it is concerned with responding to the issues being communicated with a raised voice.
What’s important about this information is:
• We are all operating with two parts of our brain at the same time: one conscious, one unconscious, and both are designed to help keep us alive and feeling emotionally safe.
• When we become activated or feel unsafe, we are at risk of responding with the same skills we learned at age 6 or 12 or 15, etc. when our automatic responses were first programmed
• Our failed efforts to protect ourselves from hurt are a clue that we are allowing our unconscious brain to lead the show. What we learned as a child to keep us safe now needs to be updated because it’s no longer useful.
• Being sensitive to, and patient with ourselves and our partner will improve our ability to grow into new and improved responses to our pain. Believe them when they say they didn’t mean what they said… it’s likely true.
• Though you can not communicate directly with your reptilian/ unconscious brain, you can observe your body’s reactions/sensation and notice when you are responding with behaviors that don’t seem to work. For example, my heart rate increased when her voice got louder, and I had an overwhelming urge to disengage and be silent.
• With these observations, you can ask yourself this simple question, “When have I felt this way before?” The answers will give you insight into what kind of programming is filed in your unconscious brain.
• Once you get clarity about the trigger (raised voice), and you notice how you respond (silence), you can be more CONSCIOUS (that’s the key) of this dance you engage in and begin practicing new responses to see what will work better now that you are an adult and have access to more coping response options.
36 Questions To Fall in Love went viral, but does it work?
By now you have probably heard that there are 36 questions to fall in love with anyone. This idea was given a public platform January 9, 2015, in a New York Times articletitled, To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This, by Mandy Len Catron. This idea went viral. It’s not surprising in our culture of quick fixes and fast solutions, that a 36-Question guarantee to fall in love would spread like wildfire. Who wouldn’t want to have that sort of love potion, with ingredients accessible to every last one of us…by simply asking 36 questions to fall in love, or make someone fall in love with us.
If you missed the original article by Mandy Len Catron, here’s a brief backstory that will help put this in perspective. In the article, Catron explained that she would occasionally run into a “university acquaintance” while at the climbing gym. In one of her random encounters with the climbing-gym-aquaintance, the two struck up a conversation. To her readers, she confessed to having had a pre-existing curiosity about him, saying she wondered, “what if?” after having “a glimpse into his days on Instagram.”
Wittingly, Catron found a way to weave into her conversation with this fellow-climber, a story about a research study she had read by Dr. Arthur Aron. The study, she explained to him, “tried making people fall in love” by having research participants ask and answer 36 questions. This study was published in 1997, and it is the original home of the 36 Questions to Fall in Love. Next she explained to fellow-climber, “I’ve always wanted to try it.” Now, I don’t know about you, but I consider this some pretty advanced-level flirting. I’m impressed.
Predictably, fellow-climber-guy took the bait, and responded by suggesting that they try the questions together. They met at a local bar over drinks. With iPhone in hand, Mandy cued up the 36 questions, and they passed the phone back and forth, taking turns answering each one. By design, the questions progress from less revealing to more and more personal. Clearly, doing this experiment over drinks at a bar, with someone you have an existing curiosity about, is significantly different than the lab research by Dr. Aron. However, the spirit of the research is kept alive, as Catron observes, “We all have a narrative of ourselves that we offer up to strangers and acquaintances, but Dr. Aron’s questions make it impossible to rely on that narrative.” She alludes to how the questions forced her out of her safe zone where she could manage how she was being perceived, and took her into territories that required greater vulnerability. As the questions intensify, the road ahead becomes less familiar, and this 36 questions adventure invites more and more self-disclosure.
Taking much longer than the 45 minutes allotted for Dr. Aron’s research participants, Catron and her climber-guy decide to do a suggested activity involving 4 silent minutes of eye contact with one another at the conclusion of asking and answering all 36 questions. Preferring more privacy than the bar allowed, they decide to walk to a nearby bridge, stand on the highest point, and exchange four minutes of silent eye contact. As Catron brings her story to a close, she reveals that she and climber-guy started dating after that night, and as of last report, they are still dating.
While it’s a more fun to think Cupid’s arrow was built with these 36 Questions, a quick look at the facts tells us we are going to need more than 36 questions to fall in love (and though I have 1,000 more questions if you wish to ask them, I’m not talking about more questions. There are great lessons we can learn from Catron, though, about how we can effectively improve our own search for love, as well as our efforts to nourish the love we have. What strikes me as important pieces of Catron and fellow-climber-now-boyfriend’s love story are these things:
Curiosity. This is how all real connection begins – having an interest in someone.
Reciprocation. When curiosity is reciprocated, the potential for a spark exists. It doesn’t work if it’s only one-way.
Vulnerability. This is the risk-taking part, that opens us to hurt, yet also forms a foundation of trust and intimacy for a relationship to grow.
Take action. To build love we must do something. Love isn’t a thing we have, it’s a thing we do – so to find it, grow it, and maintain it, we must take action. Love is a practice that never ends, because love is the practice and the practice is the love.
If you want to be an epic sparkster (spark starter) like Catron, here’s a challenge that will give you the perfect opportunity to take a risk to get to know someone better (or to better your knowing of someone you love) – THE 36 QUESTIONS CHALLENGE.
Speaking of practicing love, this recent Style video from the New York Times Modern Love video series, is a perfect ending to this post. Enjoy this quick video that highlights three long-term couples who ask one another the 36 questions to fall in love. Their experiences are captured in this touching video. You will see the unfolding of exactly how curiosity and vulnerability combine to make the perfect intimacy cocktail, and their answers highlight the fact that love is a practice, a thing we do.