Imago Relationship Therapy

Some years ago, when I was still new to private practice, I met regularly with three colleagues for peer supervision. We shared cases and helped each other think through how best to help our clients. One day in 1991, as I sat in the big stuffed chair in a colleague’s office, I talked about a tough relationship issue. She handed me a book from her shelf. “You need to read this book,” she said emphatically. I looked at the cover: Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples by Harville Hendrix, Ph. D.

 

I took it home and read it straight through over the next two days, completely absorbed. The next year I signed up for the training. It was 1992. My son was five years old. Yet I left him with his father while I made three trips to New York City to train with Harville Hendrix himself. I was captivated. He had taken a lot of approaches I had studied and been trained in—Transactional Analysis, Gestalt, family systems, Jungian, psycho dynamic therapy—and focused them on relationships.

 

Here’s the theory: Imago is the Latin word for image. It refers to that first internalized image we form when very small from the family we grow up in about what love is, what life is. When we leave our childhood home as adults and go into the world looking for a mate, our imago operates like an invisible sensor causing us to be attracted to some people and not to others. We tend to fall in love with someone who is like our parents in all the good and bad ways. At first, intoxicated by love, we only see the good. This first stage of relationship we call the Romantic Stage, when we feel attraction, infatuation, and form an attachment. It can last anywhere from three weeks to three years. Inevitably, it is followed by the Power Struggle Stage, when the person of our dreams sometimes seems like the person of our nightmares. This is when the real work of relationship begins. We must learn to deal with our differences, with disagreements, and with conflict. Whatever is left over from the past–unmet needs, childhood wounds– comes up. If we understand what’s happening, it can be an opportunity for growth. If we don’t, it can begin the nightmare that ends in divorce court. The way through to the third stage, the Conscious Relationship Stage (or from Romantic Love to Real Love), begins with becoming thoroughly acquainted with our own childhood wounds and those of our partner. This way we learn to become a more loving person (which is what I think it’s all about anyway).

 

The basic skill taught in Imago Therapy is the Imago Intentional Dialogue Process. Not meant to replace ordinary conversation, the intentional dialogue is a structured way of talking most useful when there is a conflict or touchy topic. Dialogue is really a listening exercise. Listening is very difficult when we are upset. Dialogue slows down the process to help us listen to each other. It involves first one person taking the role of sender and the other as receiver. The sender shares a frustration, the receiver gives a neutral reflection, called a mirror, of what the other said: “What I hear you saying is you are frustrated with me because I get home late so many nights from work.” Then the receiver asks: “Is this correct?” and, if yes, then “Is there more?” Dialogue continues until the sender gets it all out. The receiver then summarizes, validates, and empathizes. Then they switch roles–the receiver now becomes the sender—and gets a turn to share his/her point of view on the given topic. It may start with a current issue but can deepen as the sender realizes the other’s behavior reminds them of past hurts from childhood. Most people say it feels awkward and artificial at first, but with practice, it becomes a powerful tool for couples to use.

 

The training was wonderful. There is nothing like a group of therapists hanging out together. After a long day of training, we went off in small groups to dinner at various New York restaurants. We had no reluctance to share intimate details of our own lives as we tried on the theory like a new dress or suit. We walked the streets late at night, exploring the city, laughing, and sometimes singing songs from Broadway shows. At the end of the week, I left the hotel and visited my childhood friend in Brooklyn, staying over with her Saturday night to get the cheaper airfare. Andy and I had been friends since fourth grade so this was a real treat. She had a daughter the same age as my son so we compared notes as parents. As a lawyer who wished she had become a therapist, she was fascinated to get a vicarious dose of Imago from me.

 

Imago became my passion. Its vision of the healing power of the intimate partnership sustained me through many ups and downs in my own life. And finding that I could use it to help couples who had worn out previous therapists just thrilled me no end. Riding on Harville’s marketing coattails as I built my private practice didn’t hurt either. A bonus for us all was that Oprah became a fan of Imago and had Harville on her show many times. Now there are over 2000 Imago therapists all over the world. Thanks to modern technology, we keep in touch through email, weekly phone bridge trainings, and annual conferences. In Imago World, support and consultation are available to me at the stroke of my keyboard. Conferences feel like family reunions. And now more and more couples seek me out because I am an Imago Therapist. Learn more at www.gettingtheloveyouwant.com.

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