What Is Imago Therapy?
Imago therapy or Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT) is a specific style of relationship therapy designed to help conflict within relationships become opportunities for healing and growth. The term imago is Latin for “image,” and within the context of IRT, it refers to an “unconscious image of familiar love.”
Imago Relationship Therapy was developed by Harville Hendrix, PhD and Helen LaKelly Hunt, PhD. In the late 1970s, both clinicians had experienced divorce in their relationship history. After looking for effective and evidence-based support for understanding relationship dynamics, they found very little in the way of helpful resources.
As a result, they chose to build from their own experiences to research and develop an evidence-based model of counseling that would help facilitate healing and growth in committed relationships.
Imago therapy rests on the idea that patterns from childhood replay in your adult relationships.
When troubles from your childhood return and repeat, it keeps you from forming secure connections with loved ones — and the resulting sense of disconnect can contribute to a range of relationship issues.
To fulfill your desire to connect, you must:
- build new connections
- maintain existing ones
- work to repair damaged ones
According to a 2011 book on couples therapy, the theory behind Imago therapy suggests this happens in the following ways:
Choosing a partner
People generally feel drawn toward a specific image (“imago” in Latin) when seeking out partners. This image, a product of your unconscious mind, is made up of various personality traits and behaviors you associate with early caregivers.
You might wonder if it’s a little, well, creepy to seek a partner whose characteristics resemble a parent’s traits. But this is natural — it happens because those strong childhood bonds are deeply engraved in your consciousness.
Even if they didn’t do everything right, your parents likely still feel familiar and comforting, and your sense of self is partially bound up in that relationship.
In adulthood, self-identity becomes similarly connected to a partner’s as you join a bigger unit: the relationship. Where you once turned to your parents, you might now turn to your partner to get emotional needs met.
It stands to reason you’d feel attracted to someone with similar traits as your parent or caregiver. These characteristics make your partner less of an unknown. The unconscious knowledge of walking down a path you know well can foster a sense of peace and fulfillment in your relationship.
What happens, though, when your parents behaved in ways that caused pain?
Perhaps, instead of offering you support, they required emotional support and reassurance from you. Maybe they reacted to your mistakes with criticism, or simply weren’t there when you needed them most.
People generally want to heal the pain of unpleasant memories by finding a way to get those lingering needs met. Though you’ve already become an adult physically, this healing process allows you to leave childhood behind in a psychological and emotional sense.
The problem, however, lies in the fact that your partner might embody not only your parents’ comforting traits, but also some of the ones that triggered distress.
Romantic relationships, as described in Imago therapy, involve three key stages:
- the romantic phase
- the power struggle
- the conscious partnership
The romantic phase involves the early, euphoric stages: attraction, excitement, falling in love.
In the power struggle stage, childhood pain and trauma come to light in the form of frustration and conflict. Perhaps your partner also fails to praise your accomplishments, ignores you when you feel upset, or brushes off distress with claims that you’re overreacting.
You want to prevent childhood distress from recurring. Yet when you rely on childhood coping strategies and defense mechanisms, often because you don’t know anything different, these frustrations usually just fuel further conflict. And this weakens your relationship.
A better option, Imago therapists suggest, involves working together to discover reasons for hurtful reactions and behavior on all sides.
Remember, your partner’s reactions likely relate to their own childhood experiences too. Collaborative exploration helps you transcend a continuous power struggle and grow into more conscious partners. This allows you — and them — to feel safe, supported, and healed.
One core aspect of Imago Relationship Therapy is the Imago dialogue. This dialogue is a structured method, facilitated by a trained Imago therapist, which allows partners to gain understanding and increase empathy. The goals of Imago dialogue are to:
- Remove negative, hurtful language from communication
- Create a safe emotional environment for both partners to openly share
- Allow both partners equal space and eliminate the idea that one partner has more power over the other
Within this dialogue there is a “sender” and a “receiver,” the sender being the one to share thoughts and feelings openly with their receiver. The “receiver” practices the following three steps during the Imago dialogue:
- Mirroring:Repeating back what you have heard your partner say in order to gain clarification and understanding. The receiver does this with no judgment, criticism, or response, but simply repeating back what they have heard their partner say.
- Validation: The receiver works to validate parts of what their partner (the sender) has shared, what makes sense to them. As they are doing this, they are letting their partner know that they “get it” and are actively trying to understand. If there are parts that the receiver does not yet understand, they can ask the sender to share more.
- Empathy: At this point in the dialogue, the receiver shares with their partner what they think the other might be feeling. Sharing on this level is a way to let their partner know they are gaining a deeper understanding of their emotional experience, allowing the partner to feel seen and heard.
What Imago Therapy Can Help With
Imago therapy was developed specifically for the understanding and healing of relationships. Some of the issues that Imago therapy can help with include:
- communication challenges
- Recurring disagreements/conflict
- Feelings of disconnection
- lack of intimacy
You do not have to necessarily be in distress to participate in Imago Relationship Therapy. In fact, couples who are not in distress can significantly benefit from participating, learning about these dynamics within the relationship, and gaining a better understanding of themselves and their partner.
Who Can It Help?
Those in committed relationships with a significant other would be excellent candidates to benefit from Imago therapy.
- Couples at all stages and seasons of their relationship are encouraged to participate, from dating and premarital couples to those who have been together for many years.
- Individuals can also participate in imago relationship therapy.
- People who are dating can certainly benefit from learning about their relationship patterns, choices of partners, and how to find and connect with someone who is a safe person and a healthy partner.
Benefits of Imago Therapy
Imago Relationship Therapy offers a number of key benefits that may make it a good choice for couples that are facing problems.
Understanding Early Attachments
Although these concepts are utilized in different types of dynamic psychotherapy, Imago therapy emphasizes that your early attachment experiences with caregivers may directly influence your choice of partner as an adult. As you date, you may come across someone who seems all too familiar and easy to connect with, almost as if you have known them before or for a long time.
What Imago therapy suggests is that these people feel familiar because they parallel relationship dynamics you have been in before with caregivers in your early life experiences. When you feel comfortable and familiar with someone, you begin to let your guard down and grow closer, which makes it easier to build a romantic relationship.
As you become closer to a romantic partner, you may find old emotional wounds surfacing within your relationship and wonder what is happening.
Conflict as an Opportunity for Growth
Another thing that makes Imago therapy different from other styles of therapy is that it is focused on using conflict and distress and opportunities for healing and growth. Rather than teaching people how to simply “fight better” or find ways to avoid conflict within your relationship, Imago therapy encourages couples to lean into those moments of distress and use them for exploration, curiosity, and learning.
Collaborative Approach to Treatment
Imago therapy is collaborative, meaning that there is not a distinct role of a therapist as an advice-giving authority but, rather, the therapist works together with the couple to take a look at what is happening for them and healing the relationship as a whole. The therapist allows for the couple to be the experts of their dynamic, facilitating the conversation in a way that allows partners to learn from each other.
Because this therapeutic approach is relatively new, there is not a great deal of scientific evidence supporting its effectiveness. However, there are some studies that have explored the efficacy of Imago therapy.
- One small 2011 study found that people who participated in Imago therapy saw improvements in self-awareness and gained a better understanding of their own and their partner’s childhood experiences. Couples were able to also achieve better communication with one another.2
- A 2017 study published in The Family Journal found that Imago therapy helped improve empathy levels in relationships.3 Empathy plays an important role in the satisfaction people feel with their partner, so increasing empathy may contribute to positive changes in a relationship.
- Another study published in 2017 found that 12 weeks of Imago therapy was linked to improvements in relationship satisfaction.4
It is important to note that these studies involve small samples, so researchers have not determined if the results can be generalized to the population at large. Further research is needed to determine the effectiveness of Imago therapy.
Things to Consider
As with other types of relationship therapy, there are times when Imago therapy might not be a good fit for your relationship. These times might include situations such as domestic violence, active substance abuse, or other addictive behaviors that can get in the way of a successful relationship therapy experience. Imago therapy may only be effective when issues like this are resolved first.
People who dislike structure may also find the Imago dialogue overly restrictive and unnatural. It may also not be the best choice if you aren’t sure that you want to preserve the relationship in the first place.
Prefer the written word? You can use books written by the creators of Imago therapy to practice Imago exercises on your own or with a partner. You might consider these two:
- Buy Getting the Love You Want (plus workbook) online.
- Buy Keeping the Love You Find (plus workbook) online.
Get Some Help!
If you feel like it could save your marriage because it helps to tackle some of the blame and criticism that you may have had in the past, then you should consider seeing a therapist help with imago relationship therapy. It can make a huge difference in your life, in the fact that you’re learning more about yourself, and others as well. Imago therapy is quite helpful with understanding some of the negative aspects of your past and how it can affect you, and from there, you’ll be able to create a life that’s better for you, and one that’s more fulfilled as well.
A marriage doesn’t have to be just healing, but it’s instead of learning how to understand and care for your partner, and it is a great way to benefit from this and to help change your life.
Harville and Helen. What is imago?.
Martin TL, Bielawski DM. What is the African American’s experience following imago education?. Journal of Humanistic Psychology. 2011;51(2):216-228. doi:10.1177/0022167809352379
Schmidt CD, Gelhert NC. Couples therapy and empathy: An evaluation of the impact of imago relationship therapy on partner empathy levels. The Family Journal. 2017;25(1):23-30. doi:10.1177/1066480716678621
Gehlert NC, Schmidt CD, Giegerich V, Luquet W. Randomized controlled trial of imago relationship therapy: Exploring statistical and clinical significance. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy. 2017;16(3):188-209. doi:10.1080/15332691.2016.1253518
Goodtherapy.org. Imago relationship therapy. 2018.
Harville and Helen. What is imago?.
Imago Relationships International. Relationship resources. 2016.
Reichlin, B. Imago dialogue: Building great communication. 2018.
- Hendrix, H. Getting the love you want: A guide for couples. Henry Holt & Company, New York. 1988.