The Aspects Of Imago Relationship Therapy

Updated July 05, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Melinda Santa

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One form of therapy that couples seek out is Imago relationship therapy. This is a form of therapy that involves the relationship rather than just the person. If you've been curious, or think that you need Imago relationship therapy, read on to find out more about this.

What Does Imago Mean?

Imago means image in Latin, and in Imago Relationship Therapy, this mostly focuses on an unconscious concept of familiar love that may develop in their childhood, and it remains unchanged in adulthood. Imago is used mainly in interactions early on with parents or any adult that's significant in life. This creates a construct on what love is, and the person will create various "survival patterns" to obtain and keep love.

However, parents might fail when it comes to meeting a child's needs. Because of this, the imago will put together the positive, along with the negative aspects of the behaviors. In adulthood, we, in an unconscious manner, will look for people that are similar to the image that we've created and look for people that allow us to develop and improve the qualities that we kept inhibited or couldn't express during childhood.

The History Of It

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This therapy stems from the late 1970s, in which Harville Hendry and Helen LaKelly developed from their divorces that there isn't much literature on failed marriages. A lack of literature on this allowed them to put together information from their relationship, before and after, to look at the dynamics of these intimate relationships.

By 1977, they created the theory that the emotional and psychological wounds that you have during childhood based on parental interactions could only be addressed in a context where the wounds were reactivated. With this, they believed that only another relationship committed, for example, marriage, could give the variables needed to bring forth healing and growth. Two strategies are often brought forward in Imago therapy, and they are:

  • Mirroring
  • Containment

These two theories are practiced during imago therapy, and the couples that used this brought forth a significant improvement regarding their relationship therapy.

Marriage is based on mutual healing, and it's often seen as the most effective type of therapy.

Their findings were published in the book Getting the Love You Wanted in 1988, which grew wider public attention. IRT soon moved forward and evolved, and today, there are over 2000 trained imago therapists that someone can see.

The Theory Behind It

The theory behind it is that a person's brain creates the caretakers' characteristics, including the best and the worst traits. This then creates a drive that's unconscious of repairing the damages done during childhood, including the needs that weren't met and other such facets in the form of a partner that can give us what our caretakers didn't give to us.

Essentially, we take what both love and disapproval feel and look like from our parents. For example, you might show love in being free-spirited, preoccupied, critical, or even ignoring. You may develop over time what this is. You may also have the image established that you'll only feel love if you do what your parents tell you to do. It can even come forth in the form of "I have to help everyone else before I end up helping myself."

It can even show itself in the form of perfectionism. Let's say that you have loving parents that tell you that you're proud of them and that you could do what you want. You're loved and cared for. However, let's say you make a mistake, such as getting a B, and the parents would ask if there was trouble. Maybe your parents go to the sporting event and give you suggestions. This can start to put together the narrative within you "I always have to be perfect, and it's not good enough otherwise." From here, this then makes one a perfectionist and can make a person sensitive to suggestions.

In a marriage, this can even play a part. Let's say that there is a suggestion put forward. The partner isn't "perfect" as the narrative. This immediately, no matter how trivial the action they ask to change is, will stimulate the thought that "you're not good enough otherwise since you weren't perfect." However, the love and affection that the child got during their childhood are fine, so they respond well to it.

If the other didn't have a lot of affection as a child and instead showed it through others, the one that's a perfectionist can think that she's mad at him because she's not showing affection. But that isn't true, and the one that didn't get affection but learned love through actions might think that he doesn't love her because he's not offering to help.

Most of the time, this is why the traits of a future partner are similar to the traits of our parents. The unconscious drive to heal for this to help with the unresolved childhood wounds helps us grow.

This can also create a protective armor, including how to get approval from others and protect from any disapproval, and it's how conflicts arise.

The wounds we got from our parents are sometimes reticulated by new partners and potential partners, triggering the old emotions that aren't resolved. In essence, people in a relationship should learn how to heal each other and appreciate them for who they are. This takes time. Couples that engage in this type of therapy use a specific type of dialogue. While the conscious self may not see and grasp the reflection of their unresolved aspects of their partner, the unconscious person will try to heal these old wounds to make life better for the individual once more.

The Five Tenants Of This

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Five tenets are a part of imago relationship therapy, and they are the following:

  • Re-imagining the mate as a wounded child
  • Re-romanticizing your relationship visual and pleasurable surprises, giving gifts, and appreciation displays
  • Re-structuring the frustrations and disappointments by changing your complaints to requests
  • Resolving the extreme feelings of anger
  • Re-visioning the relationship as a means for happiness, safety, and satisfaction

When You Use It

This is typically used when underlying emotional discontentment is felt within the relationship in conflicts involving criticism, dissatisfaction, and anger. Imago relationship therapy will help those couples that need to find out the root of their emotional hurt and determine what elements caused them to manifest as negative feelings and behaviors.

It is also used to help couples who want to become closer as partners and as individuals since it can help with communication skills to benefit the relationship in a general sense.

Typically, this is done in different ways, including workshops in groups, and private counseling, depending on the preferences and needs. It can also help those with ADHD since it helps with communication, listening, and self-control.

The Process

One of the key processes of this is the intentional dialogue process, which in essence involves three elements, and they are:

  • Mirroring
  • Validation
  • Empathy

The structured dialogue here incorporates these elements, and it will help facilitate communication that's contingent. Continent communication occurs when the partner's vulnerability is met with empathy and validation from the other as well.

First, you begin with mirroring, which involves repeating the sender of the communication's words until both hear this and understand the sender.

Then there is the validation phase, where the partner listening summarizes the understanding of the points that the sender brought forward. The receiver also expresses why the sender's experience does happen and makes sense, even if he doesn't agree.

Finally, there is the aspect of showing empathy, which is the final step, and it encourages each person to try to appreciate the experience that's happening from the partner's view.

Sometimes, this does involve lowering the emotional defense, which can cause repeated suffering in some contexts, but often, it brings forth very intimate connections in a super therapeutic place. This type of dialogue does encourage deep communication, and it teaches couples how to do this, and it can start to become very habitual and natural.

Seeking Out This Help

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If you feel you would benefit from Imago Relationship Therapy, many different workshops and relationship counselors can help. It can help you understand why you act the way that you do and why you react in the ways that you react. Plus, it'll help with your relationship with your partner, allowing you both to grow and become better people due to this process.


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