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What is Imago therapy?

By Raymond Switzer

“What we are all striving for is authenticity, a spirit-to-spirit connection. That requires difficult emotional work. According to Harville Hendrix, PhD, one of the best marriage therapists in the country and author of Getting the Love You Want, most people are coupled with someone who brings up all their past issues. Dr. Hendrix explained it this way when he appeared on my show: ‘The purpose of marriage is to finish your childhood. And if you finish your childhood, you will live happily ever after.’ ”

“What I know for Sure,” Oprah Magazine, March 2002, page 216. Signed by Oprah Winfrey

Marriage is a relationship so intense, close and demanding that the adaptive styles we had developed throughout childhood to survive tend to become dysfunctional.  Imago theory posits that we emerge from childhood to some degree wounded through having some basic needs inadequately fulfilled and some of our potential capacities in certain of the key areas (thinking, feeling, acting, sensing and being), to varying degrees, attenuated. We carry in our implicit memory a deep sense of joy around the good connection and nurturing we had in childhood and we also maintain deeply embedded “recollections” around the hurts endured in our closest childhood relationships. This is what Harville Hendrix calls our “imago”.

We carry our imago with us into adulthood and unconsciously seek a match for this when we start to find a partner. We also tend to be attracted to someone whose high functioning in key areas corresponds to our low functioning ones. When we find someone whose imago triggers our own, and the complementarity of lost functions also match, we fall in love. While in love, the positive aspects of our imago are brought powerfully to the surface and the negative aspects largely overlooked. Once the romantic drive loses its energy, the negative aspects of the imago are brought, equally powerfully, to the surface and the positive aspects quickly forgotten.  At this stage, the fears or rage around which we developed our survival mechanisms as children are triggered. These same survival mechanisms cause pain to the other who then defends using his or her survival mechanisms. These survival mechanisms of our partner often resemble the worst traits of our early caregivers. This inaugurates a cycle of wounding and rewounding and the marital relationship falls into trouble. At this stage, also, the key areas of functioning which we had repressed as children, but which our partner had developed well, cease being a source of attraction. Rather, we seek to oppress them in our partner. The couple tends to move into conflict, distancing or combinations of both.

The romantic stage of love gives us a foretaste of who we can be and of the power of love in our relationship. The underpinnings of romance are, however, largely unconscious. The stage of conflict which follows romance brings to the surface unfulfilled needs and undeveloped functioning resulting in feelings of dismay and intense disappointment. The undercurrents of the stage of conflict are also, however, largely unconscious. From this point of pain or outrage we have an intense urge to escape or seek fulfillment in other ways from sources outside of the marital relationship.  However, no amount of work, distraction, or even finding other lovers, can fulfill what is our deepest yearning. What we long for most earnestly is what the unconscious stages of romance and conflict have set the stage for: a conscious, loving relationship where each partner chooses to override unconscious adaptations to serve the partner’s yearning for healing and acceptance.

In practice, imago therapy moves beyond the often boxed in, individualistic psychological orientation of personal psychotherapy whose credo or premise often reads as some variation of “You can only change yourself”. There is some truth in this but, taken out of context, it can be destructive to relationships. We were all wounded in relationship and – in imago theory – we are only healed in relationship. Marriage is the most potent relationship for healing and – according to imago theory – this is the psychological purpose of marriage. We can get rid of our partner but we will carry our problems with us. Thus, imago therapists see marriage itself as the client, not the individuals who make it up. Heal the relationship, and the individuals become able to reclaim the lost parts of themselves and reach their highest potential.

Why I like Imago

1. Imago Theory helps us to make sense of who we are, how we came to be this way, who we are attracted to, and how this affects our marriage.

2. Imago sees a psychological purpose in marriage and links this to the importance of commitment.

3. Imago recognizes that marriage only really works well when the partners are equal and the voice of each – including the frustrations each is experiencing – is thoroughly, respectfully and empathically heard out and understood.

4. Imago therapy brings past issues efficiently into the present, gives the subject a new experience around the issue with their partner now playing a positive role in healing past hurts.

5. In Imago Therapy, the relationship is the client.

6. An Imago therapist is an outside helper whose expertise lies in facilitating the couple in helping them to realize the capacity of their relationship to make conscious their woundedness and move them towards healing and resolution.

7. Imago theory sees conflict in marriage as growth trying to happen.

8. Imago training for therapists is carried out on a very professional basis with extremely well-qualified and experienced trainers. The process of the training is congruent with Imago theory and values the importance of Imago therapists doing the work in their own marriages.