Imago’s roots in Psychology – A layman’s Guide

Tim Atkinson,  Executive Director, Imago Relationships International

May 2007

Psychology “makes sense” with Imago

Harville Hendrix wanted his work to help a wide range of couples.  So he made the decision to first publish the Imago system of couples therapy as a popular book, rather than a professional text.  The strategy worked, and nearly 2,000,000 copies of “Getting The Love You Want” have been sold, transforming relationships the world over.

The downside of this strategy is that Imago is sometimes confused with “pop psychology”.  Many are unaware that the work of Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt is based in a profound understanding of psychology, combined with penetrating insights from their own extensive clinical work.

This article is an exploration of the psychological roots of Imago therapy, from the perspective of someone from outside the profession of psychotherapy.  It’s meant primarily for the non-professional reader, who has an interest in Imago and how it relates to other psychological systems.   There’s also some useful information in here for therapists who might be considering using the Imago approach in their practice.

At the end of this article there is a list of some papers, by Harville Hendrix and others which explore the same subject for professional readers.

I explore this subject in three sections:

1. The theoretical roots of Imago dialogue

2. How Imago incorporates theories of childhood pain

3. A brief review of some other theories which Imago incorporates

1. The theoretical roots of Imago dialogue

What’s unique about Imago?

Let’s start with defining Imago.  It is a theory and therapy of couplehood, that is based on a synthesis and extension of insights about relationships that come from many established psychological theories and spiritual traditions.  What makes Imago unique is that couples can benefit from all of this wisdom by practicing structured dialogues, and through these develop powerful insights which become integrated into their lives.

How Freud’s theories lie at the heart of Imago

One of Freud’s significant contributions to the understanding of humanity was the concept of transference.  He observed that people often don’t interact with other people!  Instead they interact with a mental construct that includes a potent image of their own internal self constructed in childhood and now projected onto their partner.  Freud’s theory is complex, but let me offer a simplified approximation.  I may not be having a relationship with my wife.  Instead I may be having a relationship with an imagined construct, which has some of my wife’s characteristics, but also has a significant part of my own internal state projected onto her.

Freud saw the human psyche as driven to seek pleasure, but many of his followers saw the primary drive as seeking relationships in order to be whole and complete.  Object Relations is an approach which seeks to help people by encouraging them to become aware of transference in their interaction, so that they can create more genuine relationships with other people.  Much of the therapeutic work around this theory was done by working on the relationship between the client and the therapist.  Object Relations is a highly respected field in psychotherapy, and it is one of the sources for Imago therapy.

Harville Hendrix often summarizes the entire teachings of Imago in one simple phrase – “You partner is another person – get it!”  But how do we “get it”?

The Imago approach is to create a safe framework for couples to get to know who their partner really is, and to enter into a deep and genuine relationship with them.  Instead of working on the relationship between client and therapist, the focus in Imago is on the relationship between the two partners.  Hendrix has described this as moving from an individual paradigm in therapy, to a relational paradigm.

Moving from an individual to a relational perspective

A paradigm is an over-arching perspective which organizes thought and research.  Many psychological approaches assume a paradigm in which each person is viewed as an independent and separate entity.  They are taught communication tools to tell the other person about their needs, and negotiation tools to help resolve conflicts peacefully.  But each partner is still seen in terms of their own projections.  They haven’t learned yet to see the other person, and are missing out on much of the joy, magic and potential of a deeper relationship.

Imago instead views the couple from the perspective of a relational paradigm, and by engaging them in a dialogue helps them focus on their relationship rather than on each other.  In dialogue, one person listens to their partner’s perspective, whilst putting their own judgments and concerns on hold for a few moments.  They might imagine that they are crossing a bridge into their partner’s world, recognizing that it is very different from their own.  In their partner’s world they find that everything their partner is saying makes sense, even though from their own perspective it might have seemed that they were crazy.  This is very different from one partner delivering a monologue, while the other partner is making judgments based on their own worldview and projections.

Martin Buber and “I-Thou”

In 1923, Martin Buber wrote “I-Thou”, a radical essay on the relational nature of existence.  Inspired by Feuerbach and Kirkegaard, Buber made a distinction between two types of interpersonal relationships.  The first he called an “I-It” relationship, in which people have relatively superficial connections with one another, and fail to break through their own projections.   But Buber also talks of an “I-thou” encounter, where we have an authentic experience of our partner, understanding their “otherness.”

Martin Buber unfolds some beautiful spiritual concepts on what it’s like to have an ‘I-thou” encounter.  While the “I” and the “Thou” are capitalized as if they are the focus, what he finds most full of meaning and possibility is actually the hyphen between them.  The equivalent in Imago is to become conscious of the “sacred space” which is between two people in relationship with one another, a space that also includes them.   To live in full relationship with another person who is “thou”, rather than “It” leads to a rich and purposeful life.

Bringing it all together – the Imago dialogue

Dialogue is a practical approach that helps achieve an authentic relational connection with our partner.  The Imago dialogue has three key steps: mirroring, validating, and empathizing, each of which emerged from widely respected psychological principles.

Some of the core thinking behind the Imago dialogue process was influenced by the eminent psychologist Carl Rogers, who along with Abraham Maslow developed the Humanist approach to psychology.  In humanistic psychology there is a great respect for the client’s own experience of their life, and their active involvement in resolving their own psychological issues.

Rogers created an approach to applying these principles, which he called “Client-based Psychology”, later re-named “Person-Based Psychology”.

In Person-Based Psychology the therapist listens intently to the client, and reflects back to the client what they have heard. The goal is to convey that they have heard and understood and accept the client’s worldview without judgment. The therapist is trained to have an unconditional positive regard for the client and to listen sympathetically to their deepest concerns and feelings.

Rogers’ approach aims to create what Buber would call “I-thou” encounters between client and therapist.  Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt’s radical step with couples was to have one partner take the role of the client, sharing his or her world view, while the partner, rather than the therapist, reflected back understanding and empathy.  The “I-thou” encounter is now between the couple.

Processes like Active Listening, which involve mirroring the sender’s words are well known.  However Hendrix and Hunt realized that just mirroring back the sender’s words was not sufficient.  Carl Rogers deepened the connection by having the therapist ask the client clarifying questions.  Hendrix and Hunt modified this to coach the receiving partner to ask simple questions such as “Did I get you?” and “Is There More?”  These deceptively simple phrases powerfully reinforce the sense of connection, and invite the sender to take a moment to become more aware of their own thoughts and feelings, and to feel safe to share them.

In Rogers’ work, the dialogue became much more powerful when the receiver also made a statement to validate the sender’s perspective, in order to fully implement the reflective approach.   Validation requires one to look back through the eyes of the other, to see the world as it appears to him or her, and to understand the logic of the other person’s point of view.  Furthermore it requires suspending judgment about the sensibility of the other’s world and the accuracy of his or her logic, simply accepting that the other’s perception of the world is as valid as one’s own.

Robert Carkhuff was a student of Carl Rogers who along with Charles Truax performed much of the experimental work to demonstrate the effectiveness of Rogers’ Person-Based Psychology.  His results were quite startling, in that they showed that many clients got better, but many also got worse during therapy.  A key determining factor was the degree of empathy the therapist showed to the client.  Carkhuff even performed experiments using non-professionals in place of the therapist, and showed that they generally outperformed professionals in terms of the results they could achieve.  He showed that one of the key variables in successful therapy is not the therapeutic intervention used.  Instead it is the degree of empathy and the strength of the relationship between therapist and client.  Empathic listening is a healing process.

Harville Hendrix had some early training in empathy based on Rogers, Carkhuff and Truax, as well as other students of empathy such as Heinz Kohut and Martin Hoffman.  He used this experience as a basis for establishing the third step of the dialogue process.  But, in Hendrix’s approach, rather than the therapist showing empathy to the client, it is their partner who shows them the empathy that helps them overcome their inner blockages.

Gottman’s research provides support for the dialogue process

John Gottman greatly deepened our understanding of couples’ interactions by performing extensive research into the characteristics of successful couples.  He set up an apartment in his laboratory where couples would interact whilst wired up to a huge array of sensors.  By observing the same couples over many years he was able to chart the behaviors which led to a successful relationship and those which led to broken families.

Gottman observed that there are four traits which signal problems in a relationship.  He called these traits “The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse”.  Criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling are riding the wind on their dark horses, seeking couples to tear apart.

As couples learn the Imago dialogue, they banish Gottman’s Four Horsemen from their relationship.  Dialogue creates the safety for couples to open up to each other, rather than to stonewall. They respond by validating each other’s perspective, rather than being defensive.  The sender is coached to eliminate criticism and to speak about his or her feelings, to show respect for the partner.  Although few couples continue to use the formal Imago dialogue in all their interactions, they adopt the principles of the dialogue into their conversations, ensuring that there is no room for the Four Horses in their home.

How Susan Johnson and research into the effectiveness of Emotionally Focus Therapy supports the dialogue process

Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is a research-based approach to couples therapy which focuses on the interactions between partners.   Led by her research observations, Susan Johnson created a therapy system which has striking similarities to Imago.

In EFT each partner assists the other in helping overcome negative feelings and creating a positive and potent attitude to life.  This is similar to the help couples offer each in the Imago dialogue.   However, while an EFT therapist, like an Imago therapist, becomes a process consultant or coach focused on helping the couple create a strong connection, their approach is therapist-centered rather than partner-centered.

The EFT research, like Imago, also strongly supports an approach in which validation of each partner’s perspective and demonstrating empathy for each other’s emotions is critical.

Neuroscience and the Imago dialogue

Recent advances in Neuroscience also provide evidence for the effectiveness of the Imago dialogue.

Daniel Siegel is a leading Neuroscience researcher and author of several highly-acclaimed books.  He views the brain as a complex network of inter-connected neurons, and uses mathematical models to understand how the network operates.  Mental health is attained when the various parts of the brain are operating together, which he calls integration.

Siegel has created therapeutic approaches based on his research, which are aimed at increasing the degree of integration in the brain.  This is achieved by engaging in activities which activate the pathways between the various parts of the brain, especially connecting them to the mid-prefrontal cortex, which plays a critical role in integration and self-regulation.

As these interconnecting pathways are activated, research shows that the brain adds more neural connections.  The activity of the mind actually changes the structure of the brain in a lasting way.  Strengthening these new neural pathways enables the brain to achieve a new level of integration, leading to more stable functioning.

This discovery demonstrates how couples who learn to work calmly through their issues in a dialogue not only develop an increased capacity to show their care for each other, but also develop new neural pathways.  Recent research has discovered there are “mirror neurons” in the brain, which appear to be the location for experiencing empathy for others.  As couples practice empathy in their dialogues with each other, this exercises the mirror neurons, and helps both partners to increase their capacity for empathy.

It is also possible that Imago dialogue helps create vertical and lateral integration in the brain. Lateral integration is achieved by engaging both the right and left hemispheres during the dialogue.  The left hemisphere is primarily cognitive, and the right hemisphere is intuitive.  Imago Dialogue achieves vertical integration by connecting the reflective capacity of the cortex with the emotional center of the brain, known as the limbic system. In the Imago dialogue, mirroring integrates both hemispheres; validation integrates the upper brain with the mid-brain; and empathy fully activates the limbic, “feeling” capacity of the brain. We believe that encouraging this integration through the practice of Imago moves the brain towards healthy processing.  We are hoping to be able to demonstrate this experimentally soon.

2. How Imago incorporates theories of childhood pain

John Gottman’s experiments showed that even successful couples have long-running disagreements.  If a partner feels a intense frustration over a long time, it is often connected to something deeply hurtful which happened to them in childhood.  The Imago Behavior Change Request Dialogue provides a way to have an experience in the present day relationship with a romantic partner that helps to heal the hurtful experiences of childhood.

As he developed this part of the Imago approach, Harville Hendrix was influenced by the writings on love and marriage by Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Eric Berne (Founder of Transactional Analysis), and Fritz Perls (Founder of Gestalt Therapy).  Their views were based on the Freudian concept of transference, in which the emotions from childhood are unconsciously redirected onto another person.

Someone in childhood may have felt deeply upset about being abandoned by their caretakers.  As an adult, they may experience this same acute pain of abandonment when being mildly neglected by their partner.  They may experience this extreme frustration at a partner who is regularly late home from work, whereas their partner just doesn’t see it as a big deal.

All these four great founders of modern psychology mentioned above developed clinical approaches in which the adult would gain insight, differentiate the spouse from the parents, and surrender the childhood expectations.  Hendrix’s clinical experience led him to doubt the effectiveness of this method.

In the Behavior Change Request process a dialogue process is used in which one partner guides the other to link the present day frustration to a painful experiences in childhood.  Together the partners complete the first two steps in traditional psychological approaches in which they gain insight and differentiate their partner in the present, from the pain they experienced with their parents in the past.

But rather than the traditional third step of surrendering the childhood expectations, in Imago the expectations are actually met.   Their partner is able to say “I understand the love you didn’t receive from your parents, but I would like to meet that emotional need now.  What is it that I could do?”   In this way, rather than the partner being asked to recognize the futility of expressing childhood needs in adult life, these needs are brought into a relationship where they are validated, and met with a loving act.  It is their partner’s love that heals them.

The rest of the Behavior Change request process establishes in more detail how the partner can change their behavior to meet that need.  This was developed from the work of Richard Stuart who published a Social Learning approach to Couples Therapy in the 1980s.

Neuroscience and healing past pain

New discoveries about the brain provide a new basis for understanding the power of the Behavior Change Request process.  Childhood pain is seen as a traumatic event which leaves an imprint in our brain stem.  This part of the brain works in relatively black and white terms, and is associated with the flight or fight response.  In the case of an experience of being abandoned as a child, the memory of abandonment is stored in the brain stem.  A later adult experience of neglect can evoke this memory in the brain stem, and trigger intense anxiety.

The Behavior Change Request process begins with the sender talking about a frustration experienced in the present day.  This cognitive process takes place in the cortex at the top of the brain.  But when the receiving partner asks the sender to talk about their feelings, this engages the limbic system, lower down in the brain where emotions are processed.  Finally the sender goes back into childhood to find a memory which they associate with these feelings, which is stored in the reptilian brain.   The brain is now processing in an integrated way, connecting the painful memories in the reptilian brain, through the emotional limbic system, and up into the cortex where cognitive processing takes place.

Neuroscientists have demonstrated how integration of the sub-systems of the brain leads to healthier functioning.  We hope to complete experiments soon to demonstrate that this integration takes place as a result of successful deployment of the Imago dialogue technique.

Gottman and the Behavior Change Request

John Gottman, the pre-eminent marriage researcher, teamed up with his wife Julie Gottman, a clinical psychologist, to create a set of clinical interventions based on his extensive research.  One of their core processes is also designed to convert feelings of frustration into specific requests for change.  This provides couples with a tool to manage arguments.  John Gottman determined that the success with which couples manage arguments is a key determining factor in the success of the relationship.

The Gottman research-based approach has many similarities to the Imago Behavior Change Request.  Couples are coached to discuss the frustration together, in a safe and respectful way to reach a deeper understanding of each partner’s concerns and feelings around the problem.  Based on this the couple agree to making small, easily achievable changes to reach a compromise.

3. A brief review of some other theories which Imago incorporates

How Imago changes as new theories emerge

The story of the Container Exercise is a great illustration of Imago’s ability to make changes to its recommended practices, based on new understandings of theory.  Since the core principle of Imago is to work in a relational paradigm, it feels natural to make adjustments to techniques as current theories change.

The Container Exercise was developed to help couples deal with anger, and for a while was regarded as the “Flagship” of the set of structured Imago dialogues.  The exercise was built on Jung’s theory of projection and holding, adapted into a structure based on Gestalt therapy.  In the Container Dialogue this was translated into the relational paradigm, where one partner was coached to express their rage in a safe and controlled way, while their partner supported them.

However developments in Neuroscience showed that the brain builds new neural pathways to reinforce and strengthen our behaviors.  Rather than letting out the anger by expressing it, the concern is that rather than dissipating anger through the Container Exercise, anger actually increases.  Nowadays, the Container Exercise is rarely used, usually only for those who have not expressed anger before, and may need to build some form of release.

Gestalt Therapy- and a story of how Imago Therapists contribute to the evolution of Imago

Hendrix’s own therapist for a long period was John Whittaker, who used Gestalt methods.  In Gestalt there is a lot of emphasis on the healing power of completing “unfinished business” through experiencing it in the here and now.  For example, Hendrix was trained to heal his childhood experiences by imaginatively recreating his parents, who provided what he did not receive in actuality.

Bruce Wood and Maya Kollman, who trained with Hendrix, translated this process into the relational model.    They created a role-play dialogue, in which, rather than one partner imagining their parent, the other partner actually plays the role of that parent in a dialogue.  The sender shares their childhood memories, while the partner in role play listens sympathetically, and offers empathy.

This is one early example of many times when Imago Therapists trained by Harville Hendrix have also contributed to the evolution of Imago theory and practice.  Maya Kollman, Pat Love, Bruce Crapuchettes, Sunny Shulkin and Joyce Buckner formed the original group of Master Trainers who worked particularly closely with Harville and Helen.

The “Imago” in the history of psychology

The role of the Imago in selecting our partner is a useful model to help us make sense of our romantic history.  It helps us understand why it is that a power struggle usually emerges between even the most ardent lovers.

The Imago theory of partner selection has its roots in Freud’s work.  Freud gave the name “repetition compulsion” to the tendency for people to reconstruct the past by choosing a partner who resembles their parents.  Fritz Perls expanded the idea in Gestalt Therapy – calling it “Unfinished Business”.  Perls saw that feelings and memories of our parents are unconscious, and avoided, but they come out in our behavior anyway.  For Freud this repetition of the experience is an attempt at resolution.

Jung used the term “Imago” in his works to mean the “inner representation of the opposite sex”.  Hendrix broadened the Jungian concept, and for him the image or “Imago” is formed out of the internalization of all childhood caretakers, and its projection onto our partner, which is part of the process of falling in love.

© 2012 Imago Relationships International.