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Couples therapy

What Is Imago Relationship Therapy?

November 8, 2022
Shan Merchant

Imago Relationship Therapy is a couples centred therapy created in the US by Dr. Harville Hendrix and his wife, Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt, and detailed in their bestselling book, 'Getting The Love You Want'.

Imago is focused on bringing back the joy, safety, connection, love and sex back into your relationship. The main tool we use is the Imago dialogue process. This is a deceptively simple but powerful tool to help you listen and communicate safely with each other. Once you've started using it, you'll find you're connecting on a much deeper level.

What's the theory behind Imago Therapy?

Imago Relationship Therapy is based on the premise that we're all born with a natural capacity for love and connection, but in many people this capacity was damaged by our early childhood experiences. In Imago Therapy we believe we all have an unconscious agenda which we act out in our adult romantic relationships and this is to finish childhood.

Burning Man 2015, Alexandr Milov sculpture titled 'Love'. Image by .
Alexandr Milov's beautiful 'Love' sculpture, Burning Man 2015. Image: Andrew Miller

Once we are adults it becomes our responsibility to heal any wounds we still carry from childhood. These could be around self-esteem, self-value, a fear of abandonment (common in women) or fear of rejection (more common in men). These wounds can manifest in thoughts like: 'I'm not good enough,' and 'Am I deserving of love?'

What happens in our adult lives is that we unconsciously turn to our romantic relationships and our partner to do the job of healing these childhood wounds. This has become our unconscious agenda!

To do this, we unconsciously choose partners to get the love we didn't get from our parents, in the hope that this time will be different and we will finally feel good enough, or completely accepted and loved.

Because we pick a partner who is similar to our parents in many ways, what we need from them to feel loved and 'good enough' is usually the hardest thing for them to give. Instead of the love we each long for, what we experience instead is the constant threat of abandonment, played out through conflict, withdrawal or criticism. Each partner defends to the death against the pain of not getting their needs met.

Another central premise of Imago Therapy is this: Conflict is not a sign that you're not meant to be together. Conflict is actually growth trying to happen. It's been proven, certainly in my own relationship and private practice, that if you're willing to put in the work, you can build a beautiful, satisfying, long-lasting relationship together – even if this has never been true of your relationship before now.

Imago relationship therapy will give you a clear path back to warmth and safety in your relationship. From there you create love and connection. From this loving connection that blossoms, you'll also heal from your childhood wounds.

As Harville Hendrix says: "We were born in relationship, we are wounded in relationship, and we can be healed in relationship"

Sound too good to be true?! Maybe.

Would this work for you? Definitely!

I'll be honest, it sounded unbelievable to my partner and I a few years ago. Back then we were teetering on the very cliff-edge of separation. The atmosphere between us was so hostile, we could hardly bear to be in the same room as one another. I didn't know how we were ever going to get back to the love we once had.

However, as a loving partner who's also a trained therapist and love coach, I wanted there to be a way! I did some research and found Imago. I'm an avid reader so I learned all I could about it, and I knew that if anything could help us, it was Imago. I found an Imago relationship therapist and we started Imago Relationship Therapy ourselves.

I'm delighted to say that we made a daily commitment to the Imago process, and we were able to slowly bring a new warmth, love and joyful connection to our relationship. This is why I've trained in Imago Therapy. It just works, and I want to help as many couples in the UK with it as possible.

How Imago Relationship Theory Can Help Couples Heal

Imago relationship therapy helps couples heal from conflict and move towards hope, by teaching them how to effectively communicate with each other, understand each other's needs, and resolve conflict in a healthy way.

Even couples on the brink of separation have been able to explore their childhood experiences and how these may have contributed to the current state of their marriage.

There are only a handful of UK couples counsellors who are using Imago Therapy. Having successfully used Imago Therapy in my own 13+ year relationship, I now use it as the framework for all the couples who come to me for relationship therapy, in person and online.

How Imago Relationship Therapy Can Help You

Your Imago therapist will use a number of techniques to help you improve communication with your partner and resolve conflict. They will help you to understand the negative patterns in your relationship and create a more joyful, loving relationship.

What's so great about Imago is that your newfound communication style will spill into all areas of your relationship and life. It can help you to improve the quality of your day-to-day interactions and to build a more satisfying and fulfilling partnership.

Why Do We Fall In Love?

There are many theories as to why we fall in love, but two of the most interesting are found in the theory of Imago therapy. This theory suggests one of two things:

  1. That we are attracted to people who remind us of our (usually) opposite-sex parent. This is because, as children, we form an attachment to our opposite-sex parent and develop what is known as an "Imago" of that parent. This imago is an internalised shadow figure in our unconscious mind who holds the positive and negative traits of one (or sometimes both!) parents that we carry with us into adulthood. When we meet someone who reminds us unconsciously of our opposite-sex parent, this feels like a familiar love and we are attracted to them because there is a part within us that is unhealed and seeking integration. This person is called an 'Imago Match' and is the one with whom we will experience our deepest hurts and holds the key to our deepest transformations.
  2. That we are attracted to our "opposites" because they contain the qualities that we repress or neglect in ourselves in order to be accepted by others. This repression happened in childhood and our attraction to others in adult relationships is a mirror to the our missing parts of Self. However over time, we begin to hate these qualities which we once loved in our partner and try to repress them through criticism or conflict until we do the work ourselves to reclaim the missing parts we gave up in childhood. This returns us to our natural wholeness, a state of joyful aliveness.

Why Does Falling In Love 'Go Wrong'?

When we fall in love, we often idealise our partners. We see them as perfect and ideal in every way. This is because we are in the ‘Honeymoon Phase’! During this time we are drunk on love. Because we’re all ‘loved up’ on those amazing brain chemicals, we’re not conscious, and our psychological defences are not up.

In this phase you are free to be the version of your best self! You're free of all the insecurities that usually plague you – isn't it true! This is one of the reasons falling in love feels so amazing - because you're more in love with yourself! And you attribute this incredible feeling to your new partner and call them 'The One'.

In this phase it's easy for us to meet most of our partner's needs (because we have a strong drive to bond with them), so we tend to merge. It's in this courtship stage that you might find yourself doing things you wouldn't normally do. For example, on my third dinner date with my partner Josephine, she ordered smoked salmon and so did I. I hate smoked salmon. But I did it because I wanted to bond with her.

Some people repeatedly chase the heady feelings of the Honeymoon phase, like an addict chasing a fix. However thinking this stage should last forever is unrealistic. It's meant to be temporary. It's evolution's grand plan; to bring two people together long enough to mate!

Once the love hormones fade off, we start to get to know the real person, with all their imperfections and insecurities underneath. We see that they're actually different from you. At the same time you start to want to reclaim some of your own individuality that you gave up in the initial courtship stage. As time progresses conflict and chronic misunderstandings can creep in, Welcome to The Power Struggle - another normal phase of relationship.

Couple aged 50-something arguing on a sofa.

Why is Conflict Good?!

Conflict and frustrations are actually seen as a good thing in Imago Therapy because it's growth trying to happen! It's not evidence you should break up. Your relationship struggles are actually each partner trying unconsciously to grow. This is why it's called a growth struggle. In Imago therapy we will uncover the need that sits underneath your conflict and you will learn to stretch towards your partner out of your defences and start to give them what they need. They will also learn to do this for you. Growth will happen and you will find yourself on the path to the love you both always wanted.

How to make conflict a positive force in your life

Because Imago therapy can be an effective way to improve your relationship, you can start to make conflict a positive force in your life. Doesn't this feel incredibly different to how most couples see conflict?

In Imago therapy, you and your partner will learn to:

  • Communicate effectively with each other
  • Listen to each other deeply
  • Respect each other's needs and boundaries
  • Work together as a team to solve problems
  • Resolve conflict in a constructive way

With these tools, you'll be able to transform conflict from a negative force into a positive one. You will be able to use conflict to deepen your connection with your partner and to create a stronger, more loving relationship.

Renewing passion and intimacy with Imago

Nine out of 10 of the couples who come to me to help them save their relationship, are not having sex with each other. This is because passion and intimacy don't always last in a relationship. After the "honeymoon" period is over, many couples find themselves bored, irritated, or even resentful of their partners.

Because Imago Relationship Therapy helps us to see our partners in a new light and to appreciate them for who they really are, it can help to reignite the spark and bring back the passion.

However, reviving a non-existent sex life is a marathon, not a sprint. The key thing to remember is that a lack of physical intimacy is not really about sex; it's about warmth, affection and respect. Once you're on the Imago path to regaining warmth, affection and respect for your partner, keep going and a renewed, reinvigorated sex life will be just around the corner.

Smiling couple walking on a beach.
Image: Allen Taylor

Get the Unconditional Love you always wanted

When our partner learns how to listen to what we need with Imago, they're learning to mirror back to us the love and acceptance we needed as children. And it goes both ways. You will learn how to listen to what your partner needs and mirror back to them the love and acceptance they needed as children. This really is a beautiful phenomenon to watch. I've had couples of all ages and sexualities in my counselling practice, with children and without children, coming back together and renewing their commitment to each other.

Is Imago Therapy Only for Couples?

Imago's more immediate use is with couples. However, if you're a single woman or a single man I often use it in my dating coaching and individual therapy practice to help you understand your core issues and primary relationship wound. I will work with you to break painful, repeating relationship patterns such as a pattern of being attracted to emotionally unavailable men or emotionally unavailable women.

What to Expect in Imago Therapy

Couples usually attend weekly or biweekly 90-minute sessions. In the first session you will both get a chance to tell me the story of your relationship and where you've got stuck. I will want to know this from each of you. We will also talk about what is working in your relationship and your strengths as often couples just focus on the area they are struggling with yet so much of their relationship is good and this has been forgotten. In session two onwards we will focus on learning the Imago Dialogue and other techniques which I will coach you on and we will dive into all the topics where you have got stuck. I will support you to shift out of disconnection and to move into loving connection.

As the therapy progresses, you will learn how to effectively communicate with each other, resolve conflict, and deepen your connection with each other.

What is Expected of Clients In Imago Therapy?

Couples who come to their first Imago Therapy session with me will be completely new to the process and I take them through what is expected:

  • First, you will commit to becoming the safest partner possible for each other. This means committing to zero negativity which is no blaming, shaming, guilting, criticism or name-calling etc. in the therapy room and at home. Vulnerabilities of your partner uncovered in the session are never to be used as a weapon outside of the session time.
  • If you are in a pattern of issuing ultimatums to each other you will stop this.
  • Be willing to communicate openly and honestly with your partner about what you are thinking and feeling. This can be challenging, but it is necessary in order to build a stronger, more trusting relationship.
  • Finally, you will need to be willing to work on yourself – both individually and as a couple. This means that you will need to be open to change and willing to put in the time and effort to make changes in yourself and your relationship. You will also be asked to do some homework in between sessions.

What is the Therapist’s Role In Imago Therapy?

Imago therapy is a couple-centred therapy because the couple is at the centre (doing the work!) and the therapist is at the periphery facilitating a conversation between partners who will spend the majority of the time looking into each others faces whilst dialoguing. This is different to the more traditional couples therapy where you will see the therapist talking to each partner in the presence of the other partner and the couple will be looking at the therapist most of the time.

In Imago therapy you will sit facing each other (not facing me) in chairs with almost your knees touching. I will be there as a facilitator to provide support, coaching and structure as you dialogue together. I will also make be there to keep the therapy space safe.

What is an Imago Dialogue?

The Imago Dialogue is a conversation between two people in which each person takes turns expressing their thoughts and feelings about a particular subject. The focus is on listening to understand and being the safest partner possible for each other. The Imago Dialogue can also be used in other settings, such as between friends or family members. If you are interested in Father- Daughter or Mother-Daughter sessions please feel free to get in contact with me.

What to Look for in an Imago Relationship Therapist

If you are considering Imago relationship therapy, you want to make sure that you find a therapist who is trained and experienced in the Imago method. There are a few key things to look for when you are choosing an Imago therapist.

  1. First, the therapist should be in training or certified as an Imago Relationship therapist. This certification can be obtained through the Imago International organisation.
  2. Second, the therapist should have experience working with couples. This experience can be in the form of couple's therapy, or it can be in the form of training in the Imago methods.
  3. Third, the therapist should be someone with whom you feel comfortable. This is important because you'll be sharing a lot of personal information with your therapist. You want to make sure that you feel safe and comfortable with the therapist so that you can get the most out of your therapy.

What to expect in your first Imago Therapy session

Your first session is really an information gathering session. We will explore the areas of your relationship that need work and commit to working on them together in service of the relationship. If there has been an event like an affair, we will use the Imago communication framework to safely communicate what has happened, making sure each partner's feelings are heard and work out a plan for moving forward.

Take the next step: Book your session

I provide Imago Relationship Therapy to couples – you can choose to come weekly or fortnightly as an online session via Zoom, or in-person at my private practice in Otley or therapy room in Harrogate.

Book a call with me now and let's arrange your first session.

Read next: When and How to Choose a Couple Therapist

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