All About Imago: Relationship Therapy That Turns Conflict Into Reconnection

There are few words that create as many conflicted emotions in people as “relationships.” Sometimes we desire them, sometimes we detest them. We obsess about not having one, followed by a strategy to get out of one. They can be extreme and difficult, flat and lackluster, or like a roller-coaster, with adrenaline-filled ups and downs. Why does this happen?

Imago Relationship Theory and Therapy, developed by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. and Helen LaKelly, Ph.D., works to help couples answer three important questions about relationships: Why are we attracted to someone? What causes the conflict in relationships? How do we turn this conflict into reconnection and personal growth?

Imago holds that, “We are all born in relationships, we are wounded in relationships, and the way we heal is through relationships.” From the time we are born, we are forming psychological wounds or “baggage” from relationships, beginning with our parents and siblings, then moving outward to all other agents of socialization. We are taught what is acceptable or unacceptable. As a result, we tend to develop certain traits while shutting down other parts of ourselves, hiding them away.

When we grow up and form intimate, romantic relationships, our partners are likely to have many of the same issues and wounds—we’re often attracted to what we know. However, they may have different defenses, and this is where the conflict lies.

Two Stages of Relationships: Unconscious and Conscious

  1. Romantic Love: In this first unconscious stage, we fall in love with a person who we believe is perfect. We dote on every word that is said, our “love” hormones are raging, and we’re tremendously attracted to them. Everything about this person is fun, fascinating, exciting, charming, etc. We are blinded by our infatuation. 

  2. Power Struggle: After a period of time, these hormones settle down and the second, unconscious stage begins. They say love is blind, but eventually, the blinders come off. Suddenly they see each other through a different lens. Now other parts emerge that unconsciously remind us of the negative parts of our parents, and the things they do begin to be irritating. This stage is called the power struggle, or as many refer to it, “sleeping with the enemy.”

"Oftentimes, what we’re seeing in our partners that’s irritating us has more to do with our own childhood wounds than their actions."

Some couples simply stay in this second stage, adapting and settling for what we call a parallel relationship—going in the same direction, but never getting any closer to each other. You keep your distance to avoid conflict; together, but not as deeply or intimately as you’d like. Other couples end up in a volatile relationship—a roller coaster of arguments; making up, then fighting, making up, then fighting, and so on. Others may choose to end the relationship.

Hendricks and LaKelly Hunt, on the other hand, developed the idea of a conscious relationship. Instead of these unconscious stages and phases, we become aware of why and how these conflicts arise; how to move past them, and turn them into opportunities for growth and connection.

Oftentimes, what we’re seeing in our partners that’s irritating us has more to do with our own childhood wounds than their actions. For instance, we may have a basic, underlying belief of not being good enough. If they do or say something to touch on those wounds, however unintentionally, we will become angrier or sadder than normal, based purely on their actions alone.

Imago Dialogue

In Imago, clients participate in a specific type of dialogue. It’s referred to as Dialogue because both parties will have a chance to participate and share their thoughts and feelings, as opposed to just one person stating his or her case (a monologue). 

Imago Dialogue is a process that ultimately transcends conflict and creates connection and understanding, allowing two realities to exist is a safe context. You initiate a dialogue when: 

  1. You want to express your appreciation and love 
  2. You want to be listened to and understood 
  3. You are upset about something and want to discuss it
  4. You want to discuss a topic that you think might be upsetting

In Imago Dialogue both parties agree to some basic rules: One person talks at a time. One is speaking, or “sending,” and another listening, or “receiving.” The person in the role of the receiver will respond with the three main steps of Dialogue: Mirror, validate, empathize.

To begin with, the sender shares thoughts and feelings about a conflict the couple had. When mirroring, the receiver will repeat back to the sender what was said without analyzing, critiquing, modifying or responding. When the sender has finished, the receiver validates what has been said to assure it was heard correctly and makes sense given the sender’s point of view. In the final step, involving empathy, the receiver responds to what they imagine the sender might be feeling with regard to what was said. Once the sender has finished sharing, the receiver responds with any thoughts or feelings that evolved while the first partner was sending, and the sender shifts into the role of the receiver, who then repeats the three steps.

This dialogue is the primary tool used throughout the entire process of repairing the relationship.

"The truth is, relationship therapy is work, but it CAN work. Each small step toward a better understanding of yourself and your partner."

Six Steps Towards Creating a Conscious Partnership

  1. Recommitting: The first step towards repair is recomitting; first to the relationship, and then to the process of using Dialogue and other practices suggested to them in therapy. Whether it’s three months, a month, or simply another week, relationship therapy is like going to the gym; if you go there, but don’t make a plan and follow through—if you don’t do any of the work, you won’t make any progress. Nothing will change.

  2. Removing Negativity: From the very beginning, negativity must be removed. Couples take a zero-negativity pledge. This means nothing hateful or negative will be said to your partner—that includes eye-rolling, rude looks and slight put-downs. Partners should be aware of how, when and why that happens, then focus on removing it from the relationship.

  3. Revising: When couples begin creating a conscious partnership, they start taking the time to imagine how they really want their relationship to be. We call this a revision. Each person will have the chance to write down their hopes and dreams for the relationship. Most of us do not do this at the beginning of a relationship. We may have vague dreams and goals, but it helps to take the time and determine, specifically, what we want to accomplish. How do we want to spend our money? How do we handle conflicts? What are our aspirations? How do we want to treat one another?

  4. Reimaging: Couples practice using their curiosity to discover and differentiate their partner from themselves, as well as connect with the real person, rather than who we think they are. Often, we come into a relationship with symbiotic thoughts—we like the same things, think and feel the same, etc. It can become, over time, “You and I are one…and I am the one.” However, we need to understand that we are living with a separate individual with different thoughts, feelings, childhood wounds, world views, etc.

  5. Restructuring: Couples learn to restructure frustrations. Like all couples, your relationship started out great, then became difficult, and now a large part of your time is spent trying to make it good again. It’s important to discover that oftentimes, someone’s frustrations are simply a childhood need or wound in disguise. We learn how to convert these frustrations into what our partner really wants, translating them into specific behaviors to help resolve these challenges from our past. When a deep wound is triggered, we tend to act as children do, getting mad or yelling, or possibly avoiding and hiding. Regardless, your partner wants to understand that, and they might be willing to stretch out of their own comfort zone to meet you where you are and help you out. For instance, if your partner needs a lot of hugging to feel secure, but you are not a hugger, it may be helpful to stretch from your own comfort zone and do what you can to meet those needs, i.e., hug them more often.

  6. Re-romanticizing: This involves consciously putting the same romance we had early-on back into the relationship. We learn how to give little gifts, say kind things to one another, pay attention to each other and have fun. Anything from flowers, to kind actions, to sex… Whatever you can do to bring romance back into your relationship.

What often happens in relationships is that, healthy or not, we just get comfortable and stop putting in effort. When we start talking about making deep changes, many tend to want to pull back. The truth is, relationship therapy is work, but it can work. Each small step leads toward a better understanding of yourself and your partner.

If you and your partner may benefit from Imago or any type of relationship therapy, reach out to our care team in confidence to learn more or schedule an appointment with an experienced Ethos Wellness clinician.

Read more from the author of this blog, Roddy Young, BS, MSW, LCSW, in this Q&A.

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