Imago Relationship Therapy
By an IMAGO Practitioner.
When couples show up in my office for counselling, they are often in a stew of anger and shock, despair and sadness.
Some are relative newlyweds, and they can’t understand how they have plummeted from the heights of love and glory into a swamp of hopelessness and conflict. Others have been married for many years, and though they have been slogging along ‘in calm or in storm” and their days of wine and roses are a dim memory, they are no less devastated by the shambles of their marriage, and the consequent lack of fulfillment in their lives. Even if
life at home is relatively peaceful, couples lament they have “nothing in common anymore.” And so they lead a disappointed or angry co-existence, each with their own friends and interests, in a marriage of convenience, or an arrangement they endure “for the sake of the children”.
They wonder if they will ever again feel love for their mates. Can they ever breach the chasm of silence, or anger, that has grown between them? Perhaps they should just cut their losses and find someone who loves and understands them, who offers one more chance at the love and security they long for.
Whatever form they take shattered dreams are painful. In seeking counseling it is likely that you are struggling to find love and meaning in your marriage. I assure you, as I assure the couples who come to me in such distress, that there is hope. In fact the pain and conflict of marriage arise, not ours of lack of love for our partners, but from a
misunderstanding of what marriage is about. Moreover, your conflict can be
the fuel for the fulfillment you seek.
What’s really going on in relationships?
As a preface to the counsel you are considering, I want to talk a little about what happens when we fall ‘in and out of’ love. To make sense of what’s really going on when couples fight, to gain insight into the hidden agenda of marriage, we need to look at the complex process of human growth and development, and at how we human beings fit into the larger scheme of things.
We are creatures of nature, with the evolutionary program of our species encoded in our genes. We all begin life in a state of relaxed and joyful bliss, with a feeling of connectedness to everything and everyone. Our overwhelming impulse at birth is to sustain this feeling of connectedness, to remain attached. If our caretakers are attuned to our wants and needs, ready and able to provide warmth and safety and sustenance, our feelings of aliveness and wellbeing are sustained. We remain whole. But of course that’s not the way it works out. Even in the best of circumstances our parents are not able to maintain the perfect standards of our stint in the womb, when everything was provided immediately and automatically in an atmosphere of total safety and continuity. Even the
best parents are not available every minute, do not always understand exactly what is needed, or are unable to meet every demand. More to the point, most of our parents, hampered by their own nurturing deficits, beset by longstanding problems of their own, are unwilling or unable to meet our infant needs. Tired, angry, depressed, busy, ill, distracted and afraid, our parents fail to sustain our feelings of security and comfort.
But every unmet need causes fear and pain, and in our infantile ignorance, we have no idea how to stop the pain and restore our feeling of safety. Desperate to survive, we adopt primitive coping mechanisms. Depending on our temperament, and the nature of our caretaker’s neglect, our feeble defenses may take the form of constant crying to get attention. Alternatively, we may withdraw from the touch and attentions of our neglectful caretakers, denying that we even have needs. Though we do what we can, already the world feels unsafe, and love is rationed.
The Escalation of Loss and Dysfunction
Our impulse to remain attached is only the first in a programmed series of impulses that emerge as we grow. After the Attachment stage the need to explore emerges, and our mission changes accordingly: we need the freedom to move away from our caretakers, and the reassurance that we can reliable return to them. Again, our ability to master this task of Exploration, depends on how well our caretakers understand and support this new impulse. It also depends on how well our caretakers laid the foundation of Attachment. And so it goes, as the impulse to explore gives way to the impulse to establish a sense of Identity, then Competence, and on through Concern and Intimacy. Each stage builds on the last, forming the foundation on which new skills are built. Any impairment along the way compromises our ability to competently negotiate the next stage.
Meanwhile, throughout our childhood, we are also being socialized, molded by our caretakers and communities to fit into society. We are told what to do, what to say, how to behave: we see behavior modeled by friends, teachers, TV characters: we are intimate witnesses to the relationship modeled by our parents.
Observant and malleable, we learn what to do to gain love and acceptance. Socialization, too, chips away at our sense of wholeness and safety, for inevitably we come to see that aspects of ourselves aren’t working – the way we look or talk, the things that interest us, our abilities, our attractiveness as boys or girls. In the interest, again, of survival, we repress or disown parts of us that society finds unacceptable or unlovable. Our sense of “all rightness” diminishes still further; we end up as shadows of our whole, true selves. If you want evidence of this self-dismantling process, think about the young children you know. At two or three most are still exuberant, lively, unique and eccentric selves, though some already show the signs of apathy or anger or fear that a deprived infancy has left in its wake. At eight or ten the inhibitions are more obvious and numerous; it’s the rare ten year old who is still unmistakably and unashamedly himself. By the mid teens the toll of incomplete nurturing and society’s messages have pretty much come home to roost, as we see in the rebellion, depression, or lack of self-esteem of inadequately loved teenagers.
To the degree that our caretakers and our society are able to support the emergence and solidification of our innate impulses, and to the degree that we are allowed to be ourselves, we survive and prosper. Most of us had “good enough” caretakers; we do all right. Others of us didn’t fare so well, and our lives are handicapped by our deep hurts. But all of us, to one degree or another, are nursing wounds sustained in childhood, with parts of our true selves stuffed into the drawers in the unconscious. We look grown up, we have jobs and responsibilities, but we are walking wounded trying desperately to live fully, all the while unconsciously hoping to somehow restore the sense of joyful aliveness we started out with.
Falling in Love
When we fall in love we believe we’ve found it. Suddenly we see life in Technicolor. We nibble each others’ ears and tell each other everything; our limitations and rigidities melt away. We’re sexier smarter funnier, more giving. We decide that we can’t live without our beloved, for now we feel whole, we feel like ourselves. For a while we are able to relax. Finally we feel safe and breathe a sigh of relieved deliverance, it looks like everything is going to turn out all right after all.
But inevitably – often when we marry or move in together – as night follows day, things just start to go wrong. In some cases, all hell breaks loose. The veil of illusion falls away, and it seems that our partners are different than we thought they were. It turns out that they have qualities we can’t bear. Even qualities we once admired grate on us. Old hurts are activated as we realize that our partners cannot, or will not, love and care for us as the promised. Our dream shatters.
Disillusionment turns to anger, fuelled by fear that we won’t survive without the love and safety that was within our grasp. Since our partner is no longer willingly giving us what we need, we change tactics, trying to maneuver our partners into caring – through anger, crying, withdrawal, shame, intimidation, criticism – whatever works. We will make them love us! Now we negotiate – for time, love, chores, gifts – measuring our success against an economic yardstick of profit and loss. The power struggle has begun, and may go on for many years, until we split or settle into an uneasy truce, or until we seek help, desperate to feel alive and whole again, to have our dream back.
The Imago Emerges
What is going on here? Well. it looks as if you have found and Imago (IH-MAH-GO) partner, someone I’m afraid, who is uniquely unqualified (at the moment) to give you the love you want. Well, this is what is supposed to happen.
Let me explain. We all think that we have free choice when it comes to selecting our partners. In a way, we do. Ours are not arranged marriages, after all, there are no exchanges of money, or cows, between our families. But regardless of what we think we are looking for in a mate, our unconscious has its own agenda when it comes to mate selection.
Our primitive “old” brain has a compelling, non-negotiable drive to restore the feeling of aliveness and wholeness that we came into the world with, To accomplish that, it must repair the damage done in childhood as a result of needs not met, and the way it does that is to find a partner who can give us what our caretakers failed to provide.
You’d think then, that we would choose someone that had what our caretakers lacked – and of course that is what we consciously seek. Would that it were so. But the old brain has a mind of its own, with its own checklist of desired qualities. It is carrying around its own image of the perfect partner, a complex synthesis of qualities formed in reaction to the way our caretakers responded to our needs. Every pleasure or pain, every transaction of childhood, has left its mark on us, and these collective impressions form an unconscious picture we are always trying to match as we scan our environment for a suitable mate.
The image of “the person who can make me whole again”, I call the Imago. Though we consciously seek only the positive traits, the negative traits of our caretakers are more indelibly imprinted in our Imago picture, because those are the traits that caused the wounds that we now seek to heal. Our unconscious need is to have our feelings of aliveness and wholeness restored by someone who reminds us of our caretakers. In other words, we look for someone with the same deficits of care and attention that hurt us in the first place.
So when we fall in love, when bells ring and the world seems altogether a better place, our old brain is telling us that we’ve found someone with whom we can finish our unfinished childhood business. Our imperfect caretakers “freeze-dried” in the memories of childhood are “reconstituted” in our partners. Unfortunately, since we don’t understand what is going on, we’re shocked when the awful truth of our beloved surfaces, and our first impulse is to run screaming in the opposite direction.
But that’s not all the bad news. Another powerful component of the Imago is that we also seek the qualities missing in ourselves – both the good and the bad – that got lost in the shuffle of socialization. If we are shy, we seek someone outgoing; if we’re disorganized we’re attracted to someone cool and rational. The anger we repressed because it was punished in our home, and which we unconsciously hate ourselves for feeling, we ‘annex’ in our partner. But eventually, when our own feelings – our repressed exuberance or anger – are stirred, we are uncomfortable, and criticize our partners for being too outgoing, too coldly rational, too temperamental.
Waking Up to Reality
All of this seems to be a recipe for disaster, and for a long time this depressing state of affairs puzzled me. How can we resolve our childhood issues if our partners wound us in the same ways as our caretakers, and we ourselves are stuck in childhood patterns that wound our partners?
Consciousness is the key:
It changes everything. When we are unaware of the agenda of love, it is a disaster, for our childhood scenarios inevitably repeat themselves with the same devastating consequences. There is method in this madness though. The unconscious recreation of the ambience of childhood has the express purpose of bringing the old impasse to a resolution. When we understand that we have chosen our partners to heal certain wounds, and the healing of those wounds is the key to the end of longing, we have taken the first step on the journey to real love.
Conflict is Natural: What we need to understand and accept is that conflict is supposed to happen. This is as nature intended it; everything in nature is in conflict. The hard truth is that the grounds for marriage is really incompatibility; it is the norm for relationships. Conflict needs to be understood as a given, a sign that the psyche is trying to survive, to get its needs met and become whole. It is only without this knowledge that conflict is destructive.
Ignorant of this process, our culture has made incompatibility the grounds for divorce, which counters nature’s intention. Society has institutionalized permission for divorce out of the response for the childish wish for idealized, conflict-free relationships, which is a
distortion of the natural process.
Divorce does not solve the problems of marriage. We may get rid of our partners, but we keep our problems, carrying them into the next relationship. Divorce is incompatible with the intentions of nature.
Romantic love is supposed to end: It is the glue that initially bonds two incompatible people together so that they will do what needs to be done to heal themselves, and in the process, heal the rifts of nature of which we are an integral part. If we remain fixated on romantic love – “in love with love” – we remain stuck at the one-year-stage of attachment. To restore our wholeness, our relationships need to successfully grow through all the developmental stages that were mishandled during our childhood. The good news is that, although many couples become hopelessly locked in the power struggle, it too is supposed to end. The emotional bond that is created by romantic love to keep partners together through the hard times evolves into a powerful organic bond through the process of resolving conflict.
The way I have come to see it is that nature is healing itself in our relationships. Each individual is a node of energy woven into the tapestry of being, and the tapestry is frayed and weakened where there is conflict. With our self-awareness, we humans do not have to remain stuck in childhood ruts; we are uniquely able to correct what has gone wrong. When we heal our relationships, we heal the rift in nature: putting our relationships to rights is ecologically sound!
Making a Choice for a Conscious Marriage
A conscious marriage is not for the faint hearted, for it requires reclaiming the lost, repressed parts of ourselves which we were told were dangerous to have, and which we unconsciously hate ourselves for having. And it means learning more effective coping mechanisms than the crying or anger or withdrawal which have become so habitual for us. In Imago relationship therapy, we change to give our partners what they need, no
matter how difficult it is, no matter how much it goes against the grain of our personality and temperament. We stretch to become the person our partners need us to be for them to heal. This is not easy but it works.
Regardless of what we may believe, relationships are not born of love, but of need; real love is born in relationships as a result of understanding what they are about and doing what is necessary to have them. You are already with your dream partner, but at the moment, he or she is in disguise – and, like you, in pain. A Conscious Marriage itself is the therapy you need to restore your sense of aliveness. The goal of Imago Relationship
Therapy is to extricate you from the power struggle and set you on the path
to real love.
What Happens in Imago Relationship Therapy
How do we set about disentangling ourselves from this mess? By redesigning our relationship to complete the unfinished business of childhood. In other words, our unconscious aim – to become whole, to restore our joyful aliveness – must come with conscious intention. Your goal is to become passionate friends with your partner, to develop what might be called “Reality Love”, which is based not on childhood notions of Attachment, but on knowledge, care, respect and value of the other.
In the safe setting of the therapist’s office, and in the structured work you and your partner will do together, you will:-
1. tell each other about the wounds you received as a child;
2. tell each other exactly what would make you feel loved;
3. use that information to re-channel behavior into effective strategies for loving and caring for each other, as well as for meeting personal needs;
4. dismantle inappropriate beliefs from childhood;
5. replace inappropriate behaviors and defense strategies;
6. give each other what he or she wants.
The Ground Rules
Now that’s a tall order. Let’s look at some of the tools and processed you will use to fill it. At the onset of your therapy you will be asked to comply with the following ground rules:-
1. You will agree to attend a minimum of 12 sessions with your partner, and to actively and openly participate in those sessions to the best of your ability.
2. You will agree to complete all in between session readings and assignments.
3. You will agree to make no decision to terminate or continue your relationship until the completion of the 12 sessions.
To help you meet the above commitments you will be asked to make a No-Exit decision, in which you identify how you spend time and energy which might better be spent in your marriage – golf, PTA meetings, reading, drinking, watching TV, sleeping late, even caring for your children – and agree to cut our those diversions which are being used as an escape or an excuse not to be with your partner – the ingredients of what I call the “invisible divorce”.
Creating a Safe Haven
The essential background to all you will de doing is a willingness and openness to change. Some of your early therapy sessions will focus on creating a hospitable climate in which to do this difficult work.
1. At the onset your therapist will ask you to give up blame and criticism. A major weapon in the power struggle, criticism is adult crying; it is not an effective way to get the love you want. Just as you seek safety in your relationship, you must cease being an object of enmity and fear for your partner. You will use the Couple’s Dialogue to tell each other all about your childhood’s, to state your frustrations clearly, and to articulate exactly what you need from each other in order to heal. Clear communication is a window into the world of your partner, truly being heard is a powerful aphrodisiac.
Now the dialogue must be turned into action: we must give our partners what they need, and not just the easy stuff. Now we come to the heart of the matter: in a Conscious Marriage we agree to change in order to give our partner what he or she needs. This is a radical ideas. Conventional wisdom says that people don’t change, and we should just learn to accept each other as we are. but without change there is no growth; we are resigned to our fate, to remain stuck in our unhappiness.
Change is the catalyst for healing. In changing to give our partners what they need, we heal our own wounds. Our own behavior was born in response to our particular deprivations; it is our adaptation to loss. In giving our partners what it is hardest for us to give, we have to bring our hidden selves out into the light, owning the traits we’ve repressed (rather than projecting them onto our partners), and enlivening atrophied parts of ourselves. When we change our behavior in response to our mate, we heal our
partner and ourselves.
2. You and your partner will create a Relationship Vision, in which you imagine the marriage you would like to have: this co-created vision will be a daily reminder to you of your goals.
3. To remind you of the love you once felt for each other, you will be Re-romanticizing your relationship, giving each other special loving behaviors – with no strings attached, and regardless of your current feelings about your partner – on a daily basis. These are Target Specific behaviors i.e. they are exactly what your partner needs in order to feel
loved and appreciated.
4. Dealing with your issues around gender, you and your partner will learn ways to transcend the entrenched roles our culture has defined for us as man or woman, husband or wife, so that we can be wholly ourselves.
5. Through all of this, you will be doing exercises geared to waken your dampened feelings of aliveness, relearning to laugh and have fun together.
Changing Our Behaviors
Many couples’ problems are rooted in misunderstood, manipulated or avoided communications. To correct this you will be introduced to the Couples Dialogue, the core skill of Imago Relationship Therapy. Using this effective communication technique, you will restructure the way you talk to each other, so that what you say is mirrored back to you. Overcoming your fear and resistance to acting in this unfamiliar and uncomfortable way, you will grow to a new level of wholeness through accessing your denied affectionateness and emotionality. In the course of healing your partner’s wound e.g. the need for closeness, you would heal your own tendency to withdraw emotionally, and your partnership would transcend its former limitations.
Change rarely comes easy; it requires great courage. Awakening traits long buried, traits both feared and hated, learning new and uncomfortable behaviors, can bring up tremendous anxiety. As long as we hate ourselves for having the repressed traits, we cannot believe that our partners can love us as we truly are. We are trapped in our own lie. But when we stop projecting our disowned traits – our anger or stinginess or sexual
inhibition – onto our partners, and take responsibility for them, we see that our partners can accept us as we are.
I call the process by which we alter our entrenched behaviors to give our partners what they need stretching, for it requires that we conquer our fears, doing what comes unnaturally, moving beyond our accustomed beliefs and behaviors to access long-dormant parts of ourselves. Our resistance reflects our defenses. Often we feel that we are losing ourselves. We are not ourselves now, it is in the crucible of change that we regain ourselves.
If you were hospitalized, and unable to give your child (your partner) much emotional support when you returned home: in this situation of powerlessness your partner might have developed a fear of being abandoned, attended by a fear of being ignored. These fears would have gone “underground” into the unconscious, only to be expressed outwards as clutching, dependent, attention-seeking behavior. Unless these behaviors
were resolved later in childhood, they would show up in your relationship, and be a source of irritation and frustration for you. As you came to know your partner’s history through the Couples Dialogue, you would understand that these behaviors, though triggered by something that you might do, actually have their roots in your partner’s childhood. Rather than feel angry or blamed, you would be more sympathetic.
But it would also be safe to assume that you have trouble dealing with this clutching or jealous behavior, and that you are emotionally distant and unsupportive of your partner. We would assume this because, According to Imago Theory, your partner has an unconscious desire to change a person who is emotionally abandoning into a person who is emotionally close. One of the reasons your partner selected you is because you possess these required negative traits. Your own emotional distance is probably your way of coping with some childhood pain caused by emotional smothering, and you naturally defend yourself against the experience. However, if you could see that your reaction serves no purpose in the present situation, but instead is distancing you from your partner, you would be willing to drop this childhood defense and over the course of time, as our partners demonstrates their love for us, as they learn about and accept our hidden selves, and as we stretch to love our partners, our pain and self-absorption diminishes. We restore our empathic feelings for our partners, and our feelings of connection that were lost in the pain of childhood. Finally we learn to see our partners for themselves, with their own private world of personal meaning, their own ideas and dreams, not merely as extensions of ourselves, nor as we wish they were. We no longer say, “What, you liked that awful movie?” but “Tell me why you liked that movie, I want to know what you
Learning to Love
The barrier to love is self-hatred. When it breaks down, in the course of our dialogue with our partners, and in stretching to meet each others’ needs, we see that we can be ourselves and still be loved. Finally we can relax; everything is all right.
A conscious relationship has tremendous potential to correct the distortions of our caretaking and socialization. It is a spiritual path which leads us home again, to joy and aliveness, to the feeling of oneness we started out with. All through the course of Imago Relationship Therapy, you will be learning to express love as a behavior daily, in large and small ways; in other words, in stretching to give your partner what he or she needs, you learn to love. The transformation of your marriage will not be accomplished easily or quickly; you are setting off on a lifelong journey. But in order to have a different relationship, you must do something different. Imago Relationship Therapy is that something.