Imago Therapy: What Is It?
What is Imago Therapy?
Imago therapy is a style of couples counseling that focuses on transforming conflict into healing and growth. It combines behavioral and spiritual techniques with Western psychological methods to unveil each person’s unconscious parts.
Imago Therapy – Key Points
History of Imago Therapy
Imago relationship therapy or IRT was developed in the 1980’s by psychotherapist Harville Hendrix and his partner Helen LaKelly. “Imago” is Latin for “image” and within the context of IRT it refers specifically to an unconscious image of familiar love. The idea is that because early experiences with our caregivers are so impactful, we unconsciously seek out people in our adult life who are similar in order to fulfill our imago.
Theories of Imago Therapy
Imago therapy is built on the belief that the feelings you experienced in childhood are likely to be present in your adult relationships. And when these feelings reemerge they are apt to affect you even more. For example, people frequently criticized as a child will likely be extremely sensitive to their partner’s criticism. If you felt abandoned or neglected by your parents or other caregivers, you might feel doubly hurt when conflict with your partner stirs up similar emotions.
Imago therapy sessions and workshops center around understanding how early childhood experiences affect how we operate in adult relationships. The idea is that the way we behave, communicate and respond to our partner comes from what we experienced in our earliest relationships. Everyone’s formative years are different so our idealized version of love is unique as is the way we react to our partner.
Your Partner and Imago Therapy
According to Imago therapy, we are naturally drawn to a partner whose characteristics are similar to the traits of our parent or another caregiver. This is often referred to as our “Imago match”. This happens unconsciously because our early attachment is deeply engraved in our consciousness. Even if your childhood relationships were not so positive you would still find comfort in that person (or people) because they are familiar. And that relationship was critical in forming who you are currently. This is why we find ourselves unknowingly attracted to someone who resembles a caregiver’s characteristics. We want our partner to give us a sense of comfort.
Healing Childhood and Imago Therapy
If your childhood experience was one in which your parents caused you pain, you may be stuck in a period of limbo. In other words, you’re not able to move past this because you have wounds that are still not healed. When you choose a partner who is your “Imago match” you are unconsciously looking to them to heal those same wounds. Although it was your primary caregiver who hurt you, your partner is able to help you finish the unfinished business in your childhood.
Benefits of Imago Therapy
Imago therapy’s goal is to strengthen a relationship through greater intimacy. While doing that, the following are also improved:
- Mindfulness or being more present
- Recognizing your own and your partner’s autonomy
- Approaching each other with curiosity instead of judgment
- Expressing appreciation and positivity towards one another
Overview of Imago Therapy
At its core imago therapy is about consciousness. The intention of imago therapy is to move towards healing each other’s childhood wounds. In doing that you’re able to form a more conscious relationship. This is done through a structured process of dialogue.
Imago Therapy Dialogue
In Imago Therapy there are 3 critical things you can do when your partner and you are not seeing eye to eye:
Meet your partner where they’re at with nonverbal communication. This means adopting similar body language and tone of voice. So if your partner’s voice is animated and their using hand gestures, it’s best to adapt your own tone, posture, etc. This helps them feel more connected and supported by you.
Seeing your partner’s point of view and accepting it without judgment. Put yourself in their shoes to see and feel what they do. Tell them, “that makes sense”. This will help your partner feel understood.
Go beyond acknowledgment and get to a place where you can actually relate to your partner. Anticipate how something would make them feel. Say, “I can imagine that ___ would make you feel ___ way”. Ask questions about how they’re feeling. This will help your partner feel safe. They won’t feel like they need to be defensive.
We all have an idea or image of what love looks and feels like which comes from our early years. This image may not be obvious to us. The imago theory is that you are attracted to someone who represents familiar love to you or holds the “imago” (image) of what love is to you.
5 Core Principles of Imago Therapy:
- Reimagining your partner as a child who is wounded
Try to see your partner as an innocent child who has been hurt. Although they are now grown, they are still carrying some of that pain they once experienced. If you’re able to imagine them in this way, you will gain patience, understanding, and the overall ability to empathize with them.
- Re-romanticizing your relationship
Make time for things like giving gifts, special dates, increased physical affection, or other displays of appreciation for one another. Focus on the shows of love that your partner values most. For some, it could mean surprising them with something new and exciting or simply using your words (aloud, messages, or notes) to remind them how much you care.
- Restructuring frustrations or disappointments
If you’re feeling frustrated or disappointed in your relationship work to transform those into requests. Any complaints you have can be turned into actions that create change. So instead of expressing that you don’t like your partner’s behavior, it makes you angry, etc., give your partner tangible action items. For example, “next time could you…”
- Resolving your anger
You can resolve feelings of anger by identifying where it’s coming from. Usually, it’s other unresolved emotions that led to the anger. Sadness, frustration, anxiety, vulnerability — these combined with external stressors can transform into anger towards your partner. Reduce stress through mindfulness, yoga, breathwork, or meditation.
- Re-visioning your relationship as a source of happiness and safety
A vision is a roadmap that helps you get where you want to go. It provides direction and focuses your energy and efforts on a goal. We all want to be happy and to feel safe. What does that look like for you in your relationship? Write it out or draw a picture.
When is it Used?
Generally speaking, Imago Therapy is used when the unconscious features of a relationship need to become conscious. In other words, Imago Therapy is for couples who need to address a root conflict and deal with the problem on the surface. This treatment is suggested so that the two individuals will have a deeper understanding of each other’s needs. This, in turn, creates the space for more intimacy and a more fulfilling connection.
Imago relationship therapy can benefit couples who are trying to improve their relationship and strengthen their communication with their partners. This is true for couples newly dating or those in long-term commitments or marriages. And it’s not limited to couples who are experiencing distress. It’s for couples who get along just fine but want to increase their understanding of each other. You don’t have to wait for issues to arise in the relationship before seeking help.
Imago therapy is also a valuable option for individuals in need of the tools and skills to better their relationships in general. The bottom line is that it can be helpful for anyone who wants to have deeper, more meaningful connections.
Depending on the needs and preferences of the couple, imago therapy may be facilitated through private counseling or in group workshops.
How is it Different?
Imago therapy takes a collaborative approach. The therapist does not have a distinct role like they do in other styles of therapy. Instead, they allow the couple to take control.
Imago therapy may require fewer sessions than other types of therapy to get to the root of the problem. Imago’s approach may also remove some of the typical stigmas or reasons for opting out of therapy. For example, many people avoid therapy because they don’t want to feel blame or guilt for their relationship issues. Imago’s approach looks at the relationship issues as no one’s fault but as a result of experiences each person has gone through.
Another thing that makes Imago therapy different from other types of therapy is that it is focused on using conflict and distress and opportunities for healing and growth.
Effectiveness of Imago Therapy
Anecdotal reports indicate many people find Imago therapy to be a helpful solution. However, today there is limited scientific research on the long-term success of Imago therapy. Despite that, there are still studies that seem promising. For example, one study published in the January 2017 issue of the Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, found that marital satisfaction increased significantly for couples who completed 12 sessions of Imago therapy and remained higher for some time.
Another study from 2016 suggests that 12 weeks of Imago therapy may help boost empathy, an important trait in all relationships.
Lastly, a 2011 study looked at African American couples who completed a workshop. After the Imago workshop participants had the following:
- Deeper understanding of personal childhood experiences
- Deeper understanding of their partner’s childhood experiences
- Better communication with their partner
- Improved self-awareness and authenticity
Finding a Therapist
An Imago therapist serves as a teacher and a guide for couples by helping them communicate in a safe and structured way. The therapist helps communication remain productive and free from blame, shame, and criticism. This is done by promoting a conversation that allows the couple to learn from one another. In addition, the therapist shows the couple how conflict can be used as an opportunity for healing and growth. Imago-trained therapists will offer a standard 12 therapy sessions, which can then be continued.
The Couples Center offers in-person and online therapy sessions individually or through workshops. Find a therapist today, who can help guide you and your partner to a healing, long-lasting relationship.