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What IS Imago Relationship Therapy Pt. 2

Why would we ever want someone who is a combination of the positives AND negatives of parental figures?

(See Part 1 if you missed it!)

A variety of factors fuel our attraction to the person we want to spend our lives with.  A big factor is the ‘imago’.  Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., who developed Imago Therapy, looked at a lot of research and his own experience as a psychotherapist and realized we had an ‘image’ of the qualities, positive and negative, we tend to be drawn to in people, especially those we love.

I can understand why we would be drawn to someone with similar positive qualities like encouraging, affectionate, dependable, but why in the world would we be drawn to someone who also had the ‘negative’ qualities of our ‘imago’?

Part of the reason is that the primary part of the brain that is enhanced with neurochemicals when we fall in love is not the logical, orderly part of our brain — even if we have occasional moments of logic in our falling in love!  Falling in love tends to enhance a more primitive part of our brain, which happens to be the area where most of our emotional memory is stored.

negative qualities can become positive qualitiesSo we might actually notice some of those ‘negative’ qualities in a potential love partner — a person who is an Introvert and so has some of those ‘withdrawn’ aspects of Dad, or that person who is passionate and enthusiastic and acts a bit controlling like Mom.   Under the influence of love we may notice the withdrawn and slightly controlling behaviors, but a few things happen:

  • We tend to tell ourselves more positive stories about the behavior: Her ‘controlling’ is really “passion, enthusiasm, a woman who is smart, knows what she wants in life, and goes after it.” The Introvert is ‘thoughtful, deliberate and gives you space to express yourself’.
  • Because we also get the positive qualities, love causes us to believe that because this person loves us, this love will finally give us what we always needed from someone who has some of those negative aspects of Mom/Dad/other parental figures, as well as the positive.  So the person who can be a bit withdrawn will always be there for us because he or she loves us.  Or, even though Jane is a bit ‘controlling’, she really respects what I think and feel, even if she has a different view, so she would not try to control me.
  • Love can lead us to the healing and growth we need to feel fully alive, and to be fully our best self.  This person who has a little bit of withdrawal, ignoring, controlling is precisely the kind of person from whom we have longed to get connection, interest, acceptance.  And as they give it to us, healing of unmet needs and longings happens.  At the same time, the person who now feels ignoring, by stretching to give me connection, to share some of his thoughts and feelings  because he or she loves me, brings forth more of the real essence of who he is.  He can learn to have his quiet time without losing connection.  Or as the person stretches to consciously hear and respect MY thoughts and feelings, she will keep her passion and enthusiasm and confidence, but also express and live it in a way that makes room for other perspectives and ways of doing things.

partner's behavior triggers our movie from childhoodAnother example might be that you loved your affectionate partner when you first fell in love, but now their affection feels needy, clinging and smothering. “Love”  in your family growing up felt clinging because your parent used you as his or her confident.  You felt like you had to be the parent.  So your partner wanting more closeness can trigger the ‘movie’ about your previous experience of “closeness=neediness and clinging”  — which may not at all be your partner’s intent.  Triggering your ‘movie’, gives you an opportunity to re-examine some of your internal stories you tell yourself about your spouse’s behavior.  It also helps you stay present when you realize there might be an alternative story, and can help prevent you from going into your armored self-protection mode.  So it helps you both step out of the ‘power struggle’ (which is much more about a struggle for self-protection) that produces stuck conflicts or impasses.

Hear founder of Imago Relationship Therapy, Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. talk about the ‘imago’ in this 7 minute video,  Why He/She Brings Out the Absolute Worst in You:

What if I’ve just picked someone that’s incompatible with me?

Good! You’re probably with the right person! They most likely have some of the parts of you that you have not developed, as you have some of theirs. Both of you can learn to help each other grow. And, because they find it hard to give you what you most need (which usually means that they are a close enough replica of familiar love), they will push your buttons that trigger those ‘negative stories’ of “I’m not worthy”, “No matter what I do, it’s never good enough”, inviting you to look at what needs healing. With some tools you and your spouse can become partners, instead of adversaries, in healing and growth — both as individuals and as couple

If you are tempted to look for a different partner, come back to this article and also read first the article on Stages of Relationship. Also know, that your imago, your ‘stories’, and your buttons are go with you. You can find a different partner, but at some point, they are going to bump into those same buttons and it’s going to feel like déjà vu. And, for the most part, you will most likely still be attracted to someone who is enough of a match to your template of familiar love that they will find it a real stretch to give you what you need. So it makes sense to do the work where you are.

This doesn’t mean that people should never get divorced, but it does mean that most divorce does not need to happen. It also means that if you do not do work on your own stories, buttons , self-protection patterns and undeveloped parts of yourself, it can be more like a set-up for repetitive disappointments in love and life partnerships. If you don’t change, your relationships will not change that much, no matter who you are with. At some point, healing and growth will need to happen and conflict will be the means of putting that in your face.

But how does Imago Relationship couples counseling help with all of that?

Read Part 3, the last part of this overview of Imago Relationship Therapy, to find out!

(Part 1 is here if you missed it)