Understanding Imago Relationship Therapy
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
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 lesbian couples retreat, 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.
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.