By Dawn J. Lipthrott, LCSW

I use Imago Relationship Therapy as the way I work with couples because I have found it to be the most effective form of couple’s work that I have come across. I have seen couples take a marriage or relationship on the brink of break-up, and transform it into something stronger and more fulfilling than ever. I have seen couples take an essentially good relationship and find a way through the places they get stuck. I have seen couples with no complaints about their relationship use the tools to move into a level of connection, intimacy and personal healing and growth beyond anything they could imagine. That last two statements are true for me personally and I continue to use the tools over 10 years after first learning them. I also have used them in work and other relationships as well. I find that they have helped me and many other men and women become more conscious, more intentional , more connected, more ourselves . . . . in our relationships and in other aspects of our lives. It is a powerful set of tools and a path for all of us to create a better and safer world for all people.

What does the word, Imago, mean?

Imago is the Latin word for ‘image’. Several schools of psychology have used the same word in different ways. The way it is used in Imago Relationship Therapy is as the unique image of familiar love that each of us develops beginning at birth. Think of it as an image or a template of familiar love . . . how someone who loves us will be with us. . . . both the positive aspects of that love and the negative.

So essentially as human beings, we take in what love feels like, sounds like from our parents and other adults who are significant in our life. Some images of familiar love may include fun-loving and free spirited, emotionally unavailable, preoccupied or stressed, ignoring, or interested and encouraging.

What’s also important about this image of familiar love is that as we grow up in our families, we learn very quickly how we need to act and be in order to get love or approval and to feel safe. So we develop what we call survival patterns. While you can read more in depth examples in our couples examples, a quick example might be for someone who had a smothering parent, their survival pattern might include never getting too close to someone (because they feel like they will disappear, they can’t be a separate person, etc.). For someone who had a critical parent, they might learn to survive by becoming a perfectionist, or becoming very rigid about how everything needs to be done and how everyone needs to be to be OK. You get the basic idea.

The Imago and who we are attracted to:

While many people have a conscious (and sometimes written) list of what they are looking for in a spouse or partner . . . . tall, handsome, ambitious, responsible, . . . etc., all of us have an unconscious list too . . . one that is outside of our awareness.
We look for someone who has parts of us that we have not developed (or been allowed to express).
And our unconscious looks for love that feels familiar enough. It may not be an exact replica of mom and dad, but it is close enough . . . someone who can be fun, but is also just a little emotionally unavailable. Love that might be strong, but also a little critical. There are other reasons for attraction, too, but we are focusing on the Imago.

Why would we ever want someone who is a combination of the positives and negatives of adults in our childhoods?

Part of the reason we are attracted to it is because it feels familiar, there is a comfort in it even at an unconscious level.
But there is a bigger reason:

Our healing and growth as individuals and as a species.

What are you talking about?

All of us, no matter how wonderful or how awful our parents and caretakers were, have some needs that were unmet or not met nearly enough. We all have received messages from families, schools, religions, cultures of parts of ourselves we need to put away to be OK and acceptable.
Whether you language that which is bigger than us as God, the Divine, Nature, Creation, Evolution, or any combination of those . . . the Divine or Nature is most interested in our wholeness, in our potential. It is interested in our healing and growth to fulfill our purpose in the best possible way we can. It’s interested in creating a world that sustains and nurtures life at its best.

For us as human beings, we have two basic needs for healing and growth: one is to have a corrective experience of getting what we always needed and didn’t get enough of; and two is to develop in ourselves all aspects of ourselves to be able to express our Core Self, our aliveness in the world. In doing so, not only do we reach more of our own potential, we impact the people around us in a more constructive way and thus create healthier families, healthier workplaces, healthier relationships and a healthier world. We create together a world that is safe for all people.

So what does this mean for couples, or other relationships?

It means that while you will choose to be with someone who gives you some good things, they will also come with some of those things that feel familiar in a negative way. You will find that they often seem to be the most incapable of giving you what you most need (and vice versa, by the way!). And, some of the things you like in the beginning, you’ll hate later! What was free-spirited and playful begins to be called ‘irresponsible’. What was ambitious and stable begins to be called rigid and boring. Your partner will seem totally unreasonable to you in two basic ways:
a) they will seem to ‘over-react’ to things and get all upset about things you think or so minor
b) they will want you to do things that you think are just not you in a way that makes you think they want you to change who you are.

It also means that conflict is healing and growth trying to happen. It is something new trying to be born. Conflict itself is a door to deeper intimacy. It’s what we do with it that so often ends up being wounding and shaming, rather than constructive.

What if I’ve just picked someone that’s incompatible with me?

Good! You’re probably with the right person! They most likely have some of the parts of you that you have not developed, as you have some of theirs. Both of you can learn to help each other grow. And, because they find it hard to give you what you most need (which usually means that they are a close enough replica of familiar love), they will push your buttons, inviting you to look at what needs healing and to become partners with you in healing, and hopefully to become a healing presence for you . . . . as hopefully you will become for them.

When you are tempted to look for a different partner, read first the article on Stages of Relationship. And also know, that your buttons are your buttons. You can find a different partner, but at some point, they are going to bump into those same buttons and it’s going to feel like déjà vu. And, for the most part you will most likely still be attracted to someone who is enough of a match to your template of familiar love that they will find it a real stretch to give you what you need. So it makes sense to do the work where you are. It doesn’t mean that people should never get divorced, but it does mean that most divorce does not need to happen and if you do not do work on your own buttons and undeveloped parts of yourself, it can be more like a set-up for repetitive disappointments in life partnerships. If you don’t change, your relationships will not change that much, no matter who you are with. At some point, healing and growth will need to happen and conflict will be the means of putting that in your face.

So what is Imago Relationship Therapy?

Imago Relationship Therapy is the process of giving couples information and even more importantly, teaching them tools to:
* help make the unconscious aspects of their relationship conscious
* address conflict at its roots rather just trying to solve it in a surface way
* be successful in the work of healing and growth
* create emotional safety for each other
* learn how to better meet each other’s needs
* transform conflict into opportunities for deeper intimacy and connection
* make small changes that make the biggest difference in terms of happiness and fulfillment as individuals and as a couple
* learn how to become a source of pleasure instead of pain for your partner
* realize how to make your marriage or partnership a fulfilling, alive, passionate, fun, transforming source of increasing wholeness and sacred transformation.

The two most important tools are a form of healing and intentional dialogue and another is using the dialogue process to then help each of you make successful changes in your behavior that are good for both of you and that lead to healing and growth . . . and to deeper connection between you.

How is a session with a certified Imago therapist different from any other therapy?

One way is that they are working from the assumptions we just talked about. Therapists are trained and certified to use this model of helping couples and individuals.

Secondly, it is different from most therapies because it involves the therapist teaching and coaching you as a couple in specific tools to help you transform your relationship in this way. Instead of each of you talking with the therapist or the therapist being a referee, you will be talking to each other in a safe and more structured way that is not blaming or shaming, and that helps each of you help your partner understand what an issue is like for you. You will also learn how to use that information about yourself and your partner to take very specific steps to change your behavior in a way that is not only healing for your partner and meeting their needs, but in a way that helps you get some of yourself back and express your own aliveness more fully. It also gives you ways to bring more romance, fun, pleasure into your partnership. (I also have tips and suggestions in the article “60 Ways to Have an Affair with Your Spouse or Partner.”)

The therapist is not the keeper of the tools or wisdom in Imago Relationship Therapy. Her or his job is to help you find out how to discover the deeper issues and to walk away with information, tools, and a map to continue the work of creating the marriage or relationship you want.

How do I get Imago Relationship Therapy?

You can go to a certified Imago therapist in your area or travel and do intensive work with us for a day and a half or a two full day Imago Intensive. Depending on the situation, after the Intensive, I may then refer them back to someone in their area who is certified and can provide follow-up coaching. (Contact us if you would like to schedule an intensive or an appointment. I prefer that you attend a Getting the Love You Want workshop before the Intensive, but will sometimes take couples without the workshop, especially if there is a real willingness to work.)

You can attend a Getting the Love You Want workshop for couples in which you get the basic information and tools all laid out in one weekend. Click on the link to see upcoming dates and information about the workshop for couples.

Both with the workshop or in working with a certified Imago therapist, YOU have to work to implement what you are learning and practicing. It’s not magic. It is a powerful and effective set of tools to transform your relationship, but requires your willingness to push yourself, to take risks, to try new behaviors and learn new ways of communicating.

What if I am not in a marriage or love relationship at this time?

Many Imago therapists have had advanced training to do this work with individuals not currently in a committed partnership. It is especially useful if you find yourself ending up in the same unsatisfying place in relationships or if you have had a marriage or partnership end and want to do some of your own work to begin to shift your own patterns.

I do Imago work with individuals, either through regular appointments or a one and a half or two day Intensive. (Contact us if you would like to schedule an intensive or an appointment. )

Who developed Imago Relationship Therapy?

Imago Relationship Therapy was developed primarily by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. and his wife, Helen LaKelly Hunt, Ph.D. in the 1980’s. It was added to and significantly enriched by contributions of a core of Master Trainers; Maya Kollman, Sunny Shulkin, Pat Love, Joyce Buckner, and Bruce Crapuchettes. Harville, Helen, the Master Trainers, and now many more therapists continue to refine and expand the theory and process, keeping it true to the original core theory and process. The Getting the Love You Want workshops were developed, then Keeping the Love You Find (for singles) and now work is being done to create workshops and advanced training for Imago therapists in teaching couples and individuals how to use these principles in parenting their own children.

Licensed therapists are further trained to work with couples and singles using this approach and process and are certified by Imago Relationships International. Workshop presenters and clinical instructors for mental health professionals are also trained and certified by IRI.

For additional information on Imago Relationship Therapy, visit our Marriage and Relationship Articles section.