This post looks at Imago Relationship therapy, what it’s about, how I use some of the techniques it proffers when working with couples.
What’s Imago Relationship therapy about?
Imago Relationship Therapy was devised by Dr Harville Hendrix who wrote Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples. I read this book many years ago when it was recommended to me by my therapist and I loved the ideas that Hendrix had about how we find a mate and the stages that we go through when we are in a relationship. Here’s a quick summary of his main ideas:
We choose a mate that we think will heal all of the unresolved issues that we have left over from childhood. Yep – you’ve worked out what this means, we really do marry our Mum or Dad! In fact according to Hendrix, we partner up with a composite, or Imago of all of our significant caretakers squashed together.
Hendrix tells us that all relationships go through stages.
Stage one, the romantic stage, we do our damnedest to keep our new love happy. The focus is “what can I do for you”. This stage lasts for around six months.
Stage two is the power struggle. This stage is about how we attempt to manipulate our partner to heal those unresolved issues left over from our caretakers. The focus is “what can you do for me”. This stage can last for years or even decades and involves such strategies as arguing, fighting, withdrawing, stonewalling, living separate lives. If a couple has not separated during this phase and with time and effort they may progress to
Stage three. A conscious relationship. This is when a couple works together for the good of the relationship and hence for the good of them both. Couples strive for interdependency and have the ability to be separate within the relationship yet remaining in tune with what the relationship is about.
We can learn to have successful relationships by looking after each other. By looking after our partner, we heal our own childhood wounds (poetic eh?)
How do I use Imago Couples Therapy techniques in my practice?
I use Imago Couples therapy with couples that come to me for therapy. This post is too short to detail all of the techniques so I will mention a couple of the most important ones. Without doubt the number one most important idea is couples dialogue. This is where a couple will learn to talk to each other and be heard. And I mean really be heard. It’s broken down into the following sections:
Mirroring. One partner will listen to the other and mirror what the speaker has just said. Exactly what the other person has said, not an interpretation or a summary or anything else.
Validating. The partner that has done the listening validates what the speaker has said. This does not mean the listener agrees with it, just that they can see where the speaker is coming from.
Empathising. The listener shows real understanding of the feelings that the speaker has on the issue and feeds back some of the possible feelings to the speaker. The speaker may agree or disagree with the feelings being proposed but it doesn’t really matter if the listener has got some of them wrong because the process is creating a connection between the couple. That’s what it’s all about.
Here’s a video of Harville himself talking about couples dialogue:
I also use the Imago technique of Behavior Change Requests. This is a way of partners asking each other to change negative behaviours in a safe supportive way that does not set them up to fail.
How do Imago Couples Therapy techniques change your relationship beyond recognition?
If you are seeking couples therapy then the chances are high you are stuck well and truly in the power struggle stage. Both of you are trying and failing to get your needs met which leads to frustration, arguments and tension in the relationship. Imago couples therapy techniques give you tools to use that allow you to do things differently. Just learning couples dialogue on its own can be transformative. Let’s see if we can get our heads round that one. Can you imagine what it feels like to be truly listened to by your partner? To have your partner understand your point of view and be able to empathise with the feelings you have? I think that is a beautiful and powerful step for any relationship and any couple can learn to do it. It feels clumsy at first, but once practised gives a completely new way of communicating and relating to each other.
The other techniques build on this framework and allow an understanding of why you are both behaving as you are and what to do to move things on to a conscious loving relationship. What could be more beautiful than that?