What Is Imago Relationship Therapy, Will It Help Our Marriage?

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Imago therapy is a type of couples counseling that is committed to help couples to improve communication, to increase connectedness, and to lessen conflict in the relationship.  Imago therapy portrays how early childhood experiences and relationships impact how one converses, acts, and reacts during their adult relationships.  Imago therapy is comprised of counseling and coaching components and can be conducted during private therapy sessions or during group workshops.  During workshops, couples are invited to participate in exercises that facilitate deeper, healthier communication patterns.  Other workshop exercises assist couples to explore feelings, to achieve deeper levels of intimacy, and to jointly problem-solve issues that are impacting the relationship.

Imago therapy was developed by Harville Hendrix and his partner, Helen LaKelly during the 1980s.  The word “imago” is the Latin word for image and is representative of an unconscious image of the opposite sex that is developed during childhood.  Imago therapy is founded on the theory that feelings experienced during childhood relationships are inevitably going to reappear during adult relationships.  Imago therapy ultimately helps individuals to process and understand negative childhood experiences to foster individual growth and to improve adult relationships.  Imago therapy promotes individuals to be vulnerable and to lower defenses so that genuine intimate connections can be formed with their partner.

Imago therapists believe that every individual’s brain creates an image of positive and negative traits from their primary caretakers.  The brain is then fueled by an unconscious force to find a partner who can mend childhood damage and fulfill unmet needs from their youth.  The unconscious force locates a partner who can provide what they did not receive during their upbringing.  Imago therapists state that the traits of a person’s partner tend to mirror the traits from their parents.  Imago therapists go on to further describe that there is an unconscious motivation to heal and resolve unsettled wounds in order to foster growth and healing.  Adult partners stimulate and unearth unresolved emotions that originated in one’s childhood.  Imago therapy helps partners to heal and fully appreciate each other.

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Imago therapy is based on five main notions.  First, individuals need to “re-imagine” their partner as wounded children.  They then must “re-romanticize” the relationship and “restructure” dissatisfaction and annoyance.  Next, people must “resolve” intense angry feelings and finally, must “re-vision” the relationship as one that is promoting happiness and security.  The essential goal of Imago therapy is to provide couples with the necessary tools to improve empathy and understanding by teaching them to stop accusing, critiquing, and reacting poorly to one another.

The “intentional dialogue” process is the most crucial aspect of Imago Relationship Therapy.  Conversation is composed of practices that facilitate “contingent communication.”  Contingent communication arises when one partner expresses vulnerability, while the other partner validates and expresses empathy.  Intentional dialogue is comprised of mirroring, validating, and showing empathy.  Mirroring occurs when one individual hears and repeats their partner’s words, validation occurs when the listener demonstrates understanding, and the final step encourages both partners to appreciate and understand the situation from their partner’s frame of reference.

A limited amount of scientific research has been conducted to determine the efficacy and long-term success of Imago therapy.  One limitation of Imago therapy centers on the fact that it may not be suitable for couples encountering immediate threats to the relationship, such as domestic violence, adultery, or addiction.  These factors would have to be addressed and resolved before imago therapy could be employed.  Imago therapy is best suited for couples looking to re-establish affection and devotion, while intensifying intimacy and connection between them.

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy  facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.