Every year thousands of couples seek therapy, usually for one of two reasons: to resolve conflicts and / or heal wounds that are tearing them apart – often to avoid a breakup or divorce, or to improve areas in their relationship in order to strengthen and enhance it. Although there are many different approaches to couple’s therapy, one that has become quite popular since its inception in the early 1980s is Imago Relationship Therapy.
Imago Relationship Therapy was created by Dr. Harville Hendrix along with his wife, Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt. It draws from several different therapeutic approaches, including cognitive therapy, Gestalt therapy, and depth psychology. Many of the concepts that from the basis of Imago Relationship Therapy come from Hendrix’s New York Time’s best-selling books – Getting the Love you Want: A Guide for Couples (1988) and Keeping the Love You Find: A Personal Guide (1993).
Hendrix views marriage and other intimate relationships as a venue for working through and healing childhood wounds. Since no one grows up in a perfect family environment, each person comes into a relationship with at least some baggage from childhood. Unfortunately, these unresolved childhood issues are often at the core of the conflicts that arise between couples. For example, someone who grew up with a critical parent will likely be particularly sensitive to criticism from his or her partner.
Imago Relationship Therapy helps couples work through these underlying issues, develop a deeper connection with each other, and learn to interact with more empathy, honesty, and understanding. This is done through the use of the “Imago Dialogue”.
Imago Relationship Therapy was initially developed to help couples heal and improve their relationships. However, it isn’t limited to couples. It’s also used by therapists to help single individuals, parents, children, business partners and colleagues, and other types of close relationships – essentially anyone who is looking to better their current relationships and / or enhance the foundation for future significant relationships.
Imago therapists understand that some relationships can’t be saved. When divorce or going separate ways is truly the most viable option, Imago Relationship Therapy can still be very beneficial to both partners. It can help couples get through a challenging breakup by giving them the tools to establish a safe and respectful atmosphere as they go through the process. Using the Imago Dialogue helps both parties avoid the blaming and emotional reactivity that not only makes the process more painful, but also reinforces old wounds. When children are involved, it can make co-parenting go much more smoothly and amicably. This is a great benefit to the children.
The Meaning of Imago
Imago is a Latin word for “image”. In Imago Relationship Therapy, “imago” refers towards the image – the picture – in your mind that’s comprised of the positive and negative traits of your parents (or your primary caretakers from childhood). The potential intimate partners you’re drawn to – and the person (or persons) you ultimately select – is based on that image, which is your “Imago Match”. And vice versa.
In healthy intimate relationships, partners help each other heal those unresolved wounds from childhood. This enables them to grow and thrive both individually and as a couple. In troubled and highly conflicted relationships, however, the opposite takes place. Rather than healing, those key childhood issues continue to resurface in the form of conflict, drama, and emotional pain within the relationship.
The “Imago Dialogue” is one of the most important aspects of Imago Relationship Therapy. Couples not only learn and practice it in therapy sessions, but are encouraged to continue using it outside of therapy. It benefits relationship partners in multiple ways, including:
- It improves partners’ ability to truly hear each other and also feel heard when they talk
- It creates a safe environment for talking and resolving conflicts
- It facilitates growth, healing, and positive change
- It enables couples to quickly get to the heart of an issue
- It fosters empathy
- It promotes a deeper connection
Key aspects of Imago Dialogue include:
- Mirroring – this involves the process of stating back (to the other partner) exactly what is heard as opposed to interpreting it or reacting to it
- Validating – this involves each partner letting the other know that what has been said is understood and makes sense (in other words, indicating that the other person has a valid point and why)
- Empathizing –this involves both partners putting themselves in the other person’s shoes; i.e., looking at things from the other person’s point of view
Once couples understand and consistently use the Imago Dialogue, their relationship typically becomes much stronger. Conflicts are resolved much more quickly and without damaging the relationship in the process.
Imago Relationship Therapy versus Traditional Couple’s Therapy
Although the underlying goals of Imago Relationship Therapy and traditional couple’s or marriage therapy are generally the same, there are several differences between the two. One of the key differences is the idea that childhood wounds can be healed when emotional safety is established within the couple’s relationship. In other words, the focus of therapy is on the healing power of the relationship itself.
Another primary difference is that, in Imago Relationship Therapy, partners face each other while they talk (always using the Imago Dialogue), rather than sitting side by side facing the therapist. The therapist coaches the couple throughout the process.
Also, in Imago Relationship Therapy, the focus isn’t on the conflict (or conflicts) itself in terms of it being the “problem” that needs fixed. Rather, conflicts are viewed as an opportunity for growth and healing – both of which will strengthen the relationship. In other words, therapy isn’t about resolving conflict, per se. It’s about using it as a springboard for developing a much deeper – and lasting – relationship.
Core Principles of Imago Relationship Therapy
Imago Relationship Therapy is based around the following principles:
- We come into the world as complete, whole individuals.
- We’re wounded early in childhood by our primary caretakers
- We carry these wounds into our intimate relationships
- We seek out partners who are our Imago Match – someone who has the potential to help us heal our childhood wounds within the context of our relationship with that person
- Relationships always move from romantic love to a power struggle once there’s a commitment. The power struggle has the potential to bring about healing of those childhood wounds
- Understanding our childhood wounds – how they’ve impacted us and how they affect our relationships – can help us have a healthier, deeper relationship with our partner
- Although our primary caretakers initially wounded us, our partner inevitably wounds us in a similar manner
- Imago Relationship Therapy helps us become aware of these unconscious patterns and processes in order to facilitate growth, healing, and develop a deeper and more conscious relationship with each other
- The process requires commitment and courage on the part of both partners
Benefits of Imago Relationship Therapy
There are many benefits to Imago Relationship Therapy, including the following:
- Relationships move from conflicted or just tolerable to joyful
- People learn how to identify the key issue more quickly with proper dialogue
- Unresolved childhood issues are identified and can finally begin to heal
- Unconscious issues within the relationship are brought into awareness
- Emotional safety is established and enhanced
- Couples become more equipped to truly meet each other’s emotional needs
- Healing and awareness carry over into and benefit other relationships
- Conflicts are viewed and used as opportunities to strengthen the relationship
- Improved communication skills benefit every aspect of life
- Relationships become more fun, passionate, and fulfilling
- Relationships have a much greater chance of lasting than ending in a breakup or divorce in the future
- Children benefit by having 1) a happier home environment and 2) parents who are in a healthier, more deeply connected relationship as their role model for their own future intimate relationships
What to Expect
If you’re interested in Imago Relationship Therapy, it can be helpful to have an idea as to what to expect once therapy starts.
In Imago therapy, sessions usually last 90 minutes to 2 hours (depending on the therapist), rather than the more traditional 50-minute therapy sessions. This ensures that sessions don’t feel rushed, while allowing a substantial amount of work to be done each week.
In your initial session, as with most types of therapy, the therapist will spend most of the session time gathering information. This will include information about you and your partner as individuals, as well as a brief history of your relationship including the primary issue or issues, and what you hope to accomplish as a result of therapy.
The remainder of the first session will be spent discussing how the therapy process works, including a brief overview of Imago Relationship Therapy. You’ll also be introduced to the Imago Dialogue. This will be used in all conversations between you and your partner throughout the course of therapy. The first session will usually end with the therapist asking if you have any questions or concerns about the process.
Unlike other types of couple’s therapy, in Imago therapy you and your partner will sit facing each other, with the therapist to the side. This may seem uncomfortable at first – particularly if the relationship is highly conflicted at the start of therapy. However, it’s an important aspect of the process.
As therapy proceeds, you’ll spend the next several sessions learning and practicing the Imago Dialogue. This will allow you and your partner to safely talk about the issues within the relationship. Your therapist will be there to guide you.
The number of sessions it takes for you to reach your goals will depend on several factors. These include:
- The amount of work that needs to be done in therapy (e.g. the greater degree of conflict within the relationship, the more time it may take to work through it; also, the more childhood issues you and your partner bring to the table, the greater number of sessions will likely be necessary)
- How committed you and your partner are to healing the relationship
- How well you and your partner take what you learn in therapy and apply it to your relationship
Some couples will achieve their therapy goals in a dozen or so sessions. Others, however, may require twice that number – or even more. If you feel like you aren’t making progress as quickly as you’d like, it’s important to discuss this concern with your therapist. It may be that you have unrealistic expectations, e.g. expecting rapid improvements after just a handful of sessions. However, it may also be due to a lack of commitment or other factors that need to be addressed in order to facilitate the process. It is important in Imago Relationship Therapy, as with most types of therapy, to be patient with the process.
Imago Relationship Therapy is often a shorter-term therapy than other types of couple’s therapy. This is because the tools utilized in therapy – specifically the Imago Dialogue process – helps couples learn fairly quickly how to address and work through issues in an effective manner. Some couples may feel early on that they no longer need the assistance provided by the therapist, whereas others may feel more comfortable staying in therapy until they’re confident their relationship is solid enough to terminate therapy.
As with all types of therapy, it’s important to talk about your progress with the therapist and address any concerns that may be interfering with it or slowing it down.
Imago Relationship Therapy for Singles
Like many single individuals, you may recognize the benefits of Imago Relationship Therapy but wonder if it’s applicable if you’re not currently married or in a serious romantic relationship. You want to have a better understanding of yourself, including a greater awareness of your unresolved issues from childhood that have negatively impacted past relationships and will continue to affect future ones – if they’re not addressed. Fortunately, Imago therapy can benefit you as well; in fact, Imago therapists are trained to work with single individuals.
Hendrix’s book “Keeping the Love You Find: A Personal Guide” was written specifically for singles seeking relationship advice. Being single is actually the best time to evaluate past relationships and learn how to greatly increase the odds of finding lasting love. It can help you:
- Learn and grow from your past relationships
- Develop powerful communication skills that will enable you to handle conflict effectively and use it to enhance and deepen a relationship
- Have a greater understanding of your Imago Match so you can make a more conscious choice in selecting a partner, rather than being swayed by unconscious factors
- Recognize unhealthy relationship patterns you learned from your parents so that you aren’t destined to repeat them in your own relationship
- Develop a healthier relationship with yourself, which will carry over into future relationships
Imago Therapy for Gay and Lesbian Couples
Imago Relationship Therapy can help all couples, including those involved in gay and lesbian relationships. The underlying principles are the same. Any close relationship is vulnerable to the impact of issues that stem from childhood wounds. And the Imago Dialogue will greatly benefit all couples, as well as anyone in a close relationship. Race, religion, educational background, socio-economic class, and other demographic factors don’t make any difference. The principles and techniques are equally beneficial to individuals from all walks of life.
Therapy versus Workshops
Imago Relationship Therapy is not only available as a form of therapy; it’s also available in a workshop format. Some couples prefer to work directly with a therapist in private sessions. Others, however, can choose to reap the benefits by attending a workshop in which all the same principles and techniques are taught. And some may choose to do both.
The advantages of individual / couples therapy include:
- Having a therapist guide you through the process (as opposed to guiding an entire group)
- Individual attention from the therapist
- Working through issues over the span of several weeks or months, which allows you to discuss and learn from any obstacles or issues that occur along the way
The advantages of attending an Imago workshop include:
- Lower overall cost
- Intensive training over the course of a few days
- Not needing to make time for therapy week after week
- The inspiration that often comes from being part of a group of like-minded individuals
For those who’ve already been through therapy, an Imago workshop is a great way to refresh and reinforce what was learned. For those who haven’t been in therapy, a workshop is a great way to gain a better understanding of the theory and process, and help you decide if it’s right for you.
Brief History and Background
As mentioned previously, Imago Relationship Therapy was created by Dr. Harville Hendrix and his wife of over 30 years, Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt. Dr. Hendrix is a seasoned couple’s therapist with more than four decades of experience. In addition to therapy, he also has written several bestselling books (most of which are co-authored by his wife), trains other therapists, lectures, and teaches. He has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show multiple times. Oprah refers to Dr. Hendrix as the “Marriage Whisperer”.
Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt, in addition to her ongoing work with her husband, also takes a very active role in empowering women. She is the co-founder of Women Moving Millions and also the author of the book Faith and Feminism: A Holy Alliance.
Where to Find an Imago Therapist
If you’re interested in Imago Relationship Therapy, you want to be sure to find a therapist who’s been properly trained and certified. One of the best places to find a qualified therapist in your area is via the Imago Relationships International website at ImagoRelationships.org. To date, there are more than 2000 certified Imago therapists in 30 countries throughout the world. The therapists listed on the official site have been trained and certified per the requirements of Dr. Hendrix’s Imago International Institute. Some therapists may have advanced training as well.
Certified Imago therapists have at least a master’s degree (many have doctorates) in a relevant field, including clinical psychology, marriage and family therapy, counseling, social work, and pastoral counseling.
Imago Relationship Therapy has significantly improved the relationships of countless couples and individuals for nearly three decades. It’s popular not only because it’s effective, but also because it gets to the heart of the most common issues – unresolved childhood wounds – that impact all close relationships to some degree. The tools that you’ll learn can greatly enhance and deepen your closest relationships – including your relationship with your self – throughout the rest of your life.