- It takes fewer sessions to get to the core patterns and roots that fuel most conflict and disconnection. (The roots of conflict can undermine marriage counseling if you do not become conscious of them and how to work with them. Problem-solving the incident won’t usually address the root of the conflict.)
- It empowers couples and individuals with tools, skills and principles that they can learn and use on their own, thereby reducing dependence on a therapist.
- It helps normalize and make sense of most of the distress that happens between spouses / partners, even though it clearly needs to change. Most people don’t need a diagnosis of a ‘mental disorder’ simply because they have a distressful marriage or relationship.
- It promotes connection and emotional intimacy without losing ones self in the process
- It increases compassion, even when you don’t like what your spouse or partner does, and provides more internal motivation for successful change
- It helps couples respect the needs and concerns of both partners, and opens up more possibilities for win-win approaches to conflict. Many times, it helps simply dissolve a conflict.
- It works if you work to use the tools, skills and information you learn. 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.
- The principles can be applied to any relationship, even though you may slightly modify some of the tools.
I have used the tools and principles of Imago Relationship Therapy for over 20 years in my own relationship and it works. It has given me a much more effective approach to working with frustrations, misunderstandings, unintentional ways that we hurt each other. And, it has helped us continue to learn new things about each other even after knowing each other for 40 years. I have also used it for tense or frustrating situations with other 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. Imago Relationship Therapy means it as the unique image of familiar love that each of us develops over time, 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 in the positive aspects of that love and the negative.
So essentially as human beings, we take in what love (and disapproval) feels like, looks like and sounds like from our parents and other adults who are significant in our life. For example, images of familiar love may include fun-loving and free spirited, emotionally unavailable, preoccupied or stressed, ignoring, critical, or interested and encouraging. Or the image might be of loving, fun parents / parental figures as long as you do what they want and think like they think. If you don’t, you are punished, shamed, or discounted. Your ‘imago’ will be unique to you, based on your experience of people in adult roles growing up, as well as in relationships as you grow up.
As children, we begin to make meaning — we tell ourselves our story — about those looks, tone of voice, fun, debates, affection, etc. For example, we might tell ourselves, “I’m loved”, “I have to take care of everybody else and ignore my own needs”, “I can depend on people who care about me”, “no matter what I do, it will never be good enough”. If I have a story that gives those words and behaviors, meaning, I know how to act and how I need to be in my family and relationships to get love and approval, how to protect myself. We hold on to our stories, usually without realizing that they are stories and we hold on to them even if they are not true.
For example, Joe had very loving parents who thought he was absolutely wonderful. They told him often that they were proud of him, they encouraged him telling him he could do and be anything he wanted and that they would support him. Joe felt very loved and cared for. However, sometimes Joe would get 4 A’s and 1 B. His loving parents would ask him about the B, if he was having trouble with anything in particular in the class. His parents went to his sporting events and Dad would give him a suggestion on playing defense. However, the ‘meaning’ or ‘story’ that Joe’s brain made up was “no matter what I do, it will never be good enough unless it is perfect.” So he worked very hard to be perfect.
So why does this matter in marriage or love relationships?
Because this ‘imago’ — the images along with the meaning we give them — show up in our spouse, our story starts playing like a movie that has just been on pause until a ‘trigger’ hits the play button. So when Mary says to her husband, Joe, “Honey, could you fold the larger towel THIS way so they will fit better in the linen closet?”, Joe hears, “no matter what I do, it’s never good enough” and stomps off saying “fine, do it yourself.”
At the same time, Joe got a lot of affection growing up, so having touch, affection, snuggling on the couch, hugs, kisses, all play the movie that he is loved.
Mary did not grow up in an affectionate family. Her family showed love by helping each other, doing things for each other, encouraging each other. So her low level of affection plays a movie for Joe “she loves the dog more than she loves me” or “now she’s mad at me” when in fact, that is not true. Or when Joe does not offer to help Mary on a project because he believes she is capable and can do anything she puts her mind to, he thinks he is showing love, but her movie plays “if he loved me and wanted to support me, he would offer to help me with this.”
Because of these ‘images’ and stories of meaning that we give them to make sense of our world and how we need to be in it, we learn quickly how to get approval and how protect ourselves from disapproval, disconnection, anger, and more. For example we might learn not to share our thoughts or ideas if they are different from the person we love. Or we don’t try to help because it won’t be good enough anyway. Or we withdraw to avoid conflict. Or we keep asking what’s wrong if our spouse is quiet for a while. Our self-protection behaviors become like a coat of armor that we put on.
When we play our ‘movie’, our story we’ve told ourselves, even if not true, like Joe did, we put on our armor to protect ourselves around those negative stories and the words or actions or our spouse or partner that trigger them to start playing.
When we put on our armor, we almost always trigger the self-protective armor
of our partner. So if Susie withdraws from her partner, her partner may play his or her movie of “unless I do it your way, you will disconnect from me.”
These patterns of triggering and self-protection are most often at the core of most conflict.
Here is Oprah Winfrey in one of her Lifeclasses talking about Imago therapy and how childhood plays into it. Although the man speaking here had a traumatic childhood, the same is true for Joe in our example, and for us. (There is a short commercial at the beginning — sometimes you can go to “Skip Ad”. Video is 3 minutes 25 seconds long).
The Imago and who we are attracted to:
The good and bad news is that subconsciously, we tend to look for someone who is a close-enough-copy of our imago — our image of familiar love — both in the positives and the negatives. So for example, we might subconsciously look for someone who is loving, generous, but who sometimes withdraws for seemingly no reason — just like Mom and/or Dad.
So why would anyone ever look for the positives AND the negatives in a potential partner?
Read Part 2 to find out!