Marriage is a psychological and spiritual journey that begins in the ecstasy of attraction, meanders through a rocky stretch of self discovery, and culminates in the creation of an intimate, joyful, lifelong union. Whether or not you realize the full potential of this vision depends not on your ability to attract the perfect mate, but on your willingness to acquire knowledge about hidden parts of yourself.
— Harville Hendrix
My first introduction to Imago Relationship Therapy was while watching an Oprah Winfrey Show in 2002 in which she interviewed Harville Hendrix, founder of the theory and author of the bestselling
Harville worked with a few couples on (and off) the show who had lost their ability to listen to each other, which resulted in misunderstandings and arguments. By learning and applying the tools taught in Imago, they were able to truly communicate, deepen their connection, and bring love and passion back into their relationship. I became instantly intrigued. What is Imago Therapy? How did it work?
In this article, I explore how Imago Relationship Therapy works to help couples bring love and understanding back into their relationships through the simple art of listening. I discuss:
- The birth of Imago
- How Imago works in practice, and
- The role of the therapist in an Imago therapy session
The Birth of Imago
Harville Hendrix knows personally what it means to lose the sense of safety, passion and connection that keeps a relationship intact. Harville’s own first marriage fell apart despite couples therapy and the intense efforts he and his wife had made to save the relationship. With this failure, he became curious about couples, their communication, and what sustains or ends relationships.
Harville spent the next ten years listening to couples and researching theories to find what was missing in the work he had done in his own couple’s therapy to try and save his marriage
From this research, Harville developed Imago, a marital therapy theory bringing together aspects of depth psychology, Western spiritual tradition, the behavioral sciences, and added elements of Transactional Analysis, Gestalt psychology, systems theory, and cognitive therapy.
He felt that by synthesizing these models, he could illuminate the mystery of love relationships.
How Imago Works in Practice
Imago is a transpersonal theory that holds the belief the couple is capable of healing their relationship. It refuses to pathologize either member of the couple. In other words, there is nothing “wrong” with you and Imago does not attempt to “fix” you. Instead, the model explores the life experiences and childhood wounds that are at the root of the reactions and defenses getting in the way of the relationship.
Couples are taught to use the technique as a vehicle for healing their wounds.
What is an Imago? Your “Imago” is the inner image of an ideal mate your unconscious has been developing since birth. This Imago is a composite picture of your primary caretakers; parents, siblings, close relatives, and so on that influenced you most significantly at an early age.
Although we would all consciously seek out positive traits in a partner, our unconscious leads us to seek out both positive and negative traits of our caretakers. The negative traits tend to be more influential.
Imago Relationship Therapy requires that each person be willing and able to set aside their defenses, truly listen to their partner, and mirror what they have said. The process is called “The Imago Dialogue.”
Before beginning the dialogue, Couples are given certain instructions: The partner that is speaking must use “I” statements and speak only about how they feel in relation to the issue at hand, or what their experience is of it, and their partner is to listen attentively and switch their focus from “me” to “you”. Their only job at this point is to be an accurate mirror for their partner.
There are three parts to the Imago Dialogue: mirroring, validation, and empathy.
Harville Hendrix has said “When you mirror each other, you both get to experience what it is like to have someone pay close attention to you, understand exactly what you have to say, and honor your uniqueness.”
Mirroring consists of four basic parts; listening, reflecting back what was said, asking if you “got it”, and asking if there is more. As the mirroring process goes back and forth, empathy builds and understanding deepens.
After the sender has sent everything to the receiver and says there is no more, the receiver then summarizes the essence of what the sender shared and asks if that was a good summary. This step assures the receiver truly “got” what the sender was saying and if they didn’t the sender has the opportunity to clarify any missing or mistaken aspects of the summary.
The next step in the Imago Dialogue is validation. Validation is also simple and continues the reparation process. During validation the therapist asks the person that has been mirroring if they can understand where their partner is coming from and has them validate their feelings.
It goes something like this. “From everything you’ve just shared about the trauma you experienced in your childhood, it makes sense that you feel irritated when I don’t call when I am late coming home.”
Again, the partner doesn’t have to agree with what is being said, instead the beauty is in being able to hold the two realities and truly understand how the other person’s early experience has led to how they internalize and react to events in the relationship now.
The final step in this process is Empathy. Once the partner has received all the messages and heard them the way they were intended, they can strive to understand the feelings behind them.
An empathic statement would be: “Now that I’ve heard and understand what you are saying, I’m wondering if you feel scared when I don’t call or I imagine you may feel anxious?”
The receiver then asks if those are accurate feelings, which gives the sender another opportunity to expand on their felt experience.
These three steps taken together form the Imago Dialogue. Above all, mirroring is the primary tool to establish. It may take several sessions before the couple can add on validation and empathy, and that is okay. The most important piece is that they learn to send in a way they can be heard and to listen in a way they are able to receive and mirror effectively. The healing that comes from being heard is profound in and of itself.
The Role of the Therapist
The therapist’s role in Imago Relationship Therapy is important, but it is decidedly not the central role. The therapist facilitates and models appropriate communication techniques and holds the frame of the dialogue for the couple. But it is the clients, working together, who set the agenda and communicate directly with each other. The focus is first and foremost on the client.
When clients come in for their first session they sit facing the Imago therapist. The therapist begins by asking 5 questions:
- What would you most like to get out of our work together?
- Describe your previous individual and/or couple’s therapy experience if you have had any.
- Describe falling in love with your partner. What were the traits that made you decide to connect with them? Things changed when . . .
- What do you imagine it’s like being in relationship with you?
- What are the strengths of this relationship?
The therapist then mirrors the answers to the questions given by each. From the first meeting, the clients are able to experience what it is like to be heard and have their words reflected back to them. The therapist is modeling the mirroring process for them in that very first session.
After the therapist has mirrored each client, she has the clients turn their chairs to face each other. This is the format of the sessions from then on.
The clients sit facing each other—eye to eye and heart to heart. The therapist positions herself midway between the two, facing them, which puts the therapist outside of the couple’s circle. This is meant to encourage the interaction to remain between the couple.
The therapist will sometimes use what are known as “sentence stems” to deepen the communication, to redirect a client when he or she speaks to the therapist instead of the partner, or to remind the sender to speak from “I”.
For example, a sender may say: “You make me feel like I am always doing something wrong when you lose your patience with me.”
The therapist would then ask the client to complete this sentence stem: “When I feel you are impatient with me I respond by______.”
Maintaining the frame of the dialogue is an important part of a successful Imago session, thus the therapist will gently guide clients back to the form should they depart from it. When one (or both) client becomes too triggered or angry, the therapist will step into the dialogue in the role of the receiver. Rather than allowing the anger to be directed at the partner, the therapist herself mirrors the sender’s feelings until he or she is able to deescalate.
In this way, clients are unlikely to fall into an unproductive argument and further erode their connection to each other.
Imago Relationship Therapy is a client-centered technique that allows each member to listen and be heard. By learning and applying the Imago Dialogue principles, couples are able to once again find joy and passion in their relationships.