A longer post about Imago Relationship theory.

Imago* is many things: a science of relationship, a way for partners to work towards closer connection and a form of therapy for couples who choose to ask for help. Unlike other forms of therapy, Imago was specifically developed to address relationship issues. Amongst many things it explains our tendency to repeat negative relationship patterns.

Since the first edition of “Getting the Love You Want”(1) by Harville Hendrix in 1988 and the founding of Imago Relationship International(IRI), Imago has proven to be extraordinarily effective. There are now thousands of trained Imago therapists worldwide. Imago is offered directly to couples in the form of self-help books and weekend workshops for singles and couples, as well as couples therapy through Imago trained therapists.

Imago theory says that to a greater or lesser degree we are all wounded in childhood; none of us had every one of our needs met in a timely way. Even for the best of parents this is more or less impossible. Hence we are left with a yearning or longing to get these needs met in adult life – to be heard and understood, or to be loved, or protected more, or listened to – whatever it was that we felt was in a large or small deficit earlier in life. So we hold an “imago”: an internalised image of our ideal partners, someone who will meet all of these previously unmet needs.

This “imago” is largely unconscious; so we are not completely in control of how we select our partners. Here is an example. A little girl called Jean, longs for her busy mother (or caregiver) to pay more attention to her; so she may cling or make demands. Her mother of course cannot always give her the attention she needs: “I can’t do that now, I’m busy”, or even “you are being selfish.” Soon Jean sees that her need for attention can meet with disapproval. So she may learn to feel ashamed of it, to hide it from mother’s disapproval and begin to believe that “being needy is a bad part of me.” She grows into an adult with a partly conflicted identity “I am a strong woman who has proved she can manage life independently”. But there remains a part of herself that has been split off and become unconscious: some shame about her yearning for more connection, validation or love; 

 something that she barely admits to herself.

The “imago” or the perfect partner for whom Jean seeks will materialise in a person who seems to her a bit like her mother: she can feel good about being independent around him or her, but with whom this time she senses she can get the closeness she did not get before. The partner has done the same – selected with a sense that Jean will be able to meet some unconscious needs. They are both surprised and excited by the power of this romance and love they “fall” into.

After this romantic phase is over Jean is likely to have internal conflict. She feels partly shameful about her wish for continued close connection. Since she sees it as “over neediness”  in herself she will not find it easy to express it cleanly and openly. So she may feel disappointed and then start to resent her partner for not meeting these needs which seemed so readily available in the first rush of romance. “You are just not there for me any more”. Criticism and blame may follow; for example, “You never ring me from work”, “You only ever touch me when you want sex” The partner may also be likewise expressing unmet needs as blame. “You always criticise me.” “You never appreciate all the efforts I make.”

Things may get worse and partners can find themselves living “together-apart”.  Some people come to realise that this is a pattern they repeat in serial relationship failures.  Blame can become more generalised: “All women are useless” or “Men just don’t get it.” Some may end up blaming themselves or feeling deeply depressed and lonely.

Harville Hendrix is saying that we unconsciously seek people who we think will embody our previously unmet needs. We want to mend things for ourselves by getting what was previously unavailable; this in a situation which is similar to the one where we felt in deficit as children. So adult relationships can fail because we begin to see fault in our partners for not giving us what we need. Ironically, this is when we, ourselves, don’t fully admit to needing it.

However, Imago, unlike many other therapies, sees a relationship that has hit this kind of problem as an opportunity. For we have picked a person with whom our inner needs are revealed, and with whom our old wounds have become evident. So Imago offers ways for couples to explore themselves together, their old wounds and their unmet needs, to connect and bond through structured communication and intentional different behaviours.

The primary tool Imago uses to help partners connect is “Intentional Dialogue“. This disciplined way of communicating is structured for safety, to encourage better understanding of the self, and to increase understanding and empathy for others. It is a way for partners to start communicating cooperatively and get into emotional connection, even if it has been long absent or the relationship is in trouble.

This site gives a description of Intentional Dialogue and it is very clearly described in the book Getting the Love You Want. Many people have successfully followed the program laid out in Harville Hendrix’s books, but if, like many, they lack confidence that they can manage this alone, they will gain from going to an Imago couples course together or, if they think they need more personal help, to couples therapy with an Imago trained therapist (With IRI after their name – Imago Relationship International). Intentional Dialogue practice, done properly, rarely fails to increase a sense of connection between partners at whatever stage or state of their relationship.

Intentional Dialogue can be challenging to practise; at times it takes discipline to do it and perseverance to stick with it. However it is an extremely powerful and quick-acting tool and it is often a moving and bonding experience. Typically, one couple embraced at the end of their first guided dialogue and agreed: “We haven’t talked with each other at this deeper level with such honesty and openness for years”.

The underlying purpose of Intentional Dialogue is to let couples move from disconnection and conflation to connection by understanding and acceptance of how the partner is different from the self. This is done by creating greater safety, deeper understanding and empathy, so that the partner can be seen for their real self rather than being an object of projected ideals or fears.(4,p25) Dialogue helps us to see our partners realistically, to be less judgmental of their behaviour just because it is different from our own. It helps us become more inquisitive about the root causes behind their actions and to become less reactive and more accepting of them.

Other Imago practices, focus on bringing about behaviour changes. For example, Imago helps us to identify “caring behaviours” (5, p92) that we need from our partners. Examples may be ‘give me a hug before you go to work’, ‘make love with me in a certain way within the next few days’ and ‘talk to me once a week about how you are feeling underneath’. Only when needs are stated openly and cleanly, is the other person then free to choose how to respond. They are also free to choose which ones they cannot respond to, and to dialogue further about that. Imago focuses on other simple behaviour changes: giving surprises to our partners, regularly telling them what we like about them in “appreciations” and so on.

Imago touches upon our past and our formative personal history; but only in terms of how that history affects how we relate now. It does not seek to “drag up” our pasts. It helps those who feel motivated to explore themselves in relationship, to understand better when they are being triggered into the old defenses they learned from past experiences. It aims to help us be conscious of which responses belong in the past and which are better fitted to present life. Understanding how our past effects our responses helps unblock current relationship deadlocks.

All Imago practices – increased self awareness, dialoguing, and giving/receiving loving behaviours help re-create safety between us and pacify “old brain” defensive systems. For only when we feel relaxed and safe can we think and talk clearly about what we need – how we want to love and to be loved.

Imago has no agenda; it aims to help people be in closer connection: how they relate, if they want to relate and how to get into better relationships if they are single.(6) This is a journey of a lifetime whether people are working alone or with a therapist. We get older and circumstances change, so there is a need to renew our relationships and keep in connection throughout our lives. The full course of action is spelt out in Hendrix’s books.

Hendrix says: “We cannot live in isolation and we cannot heal alone.” He goes on “We are born into relationship. Our personalities are formed by relationship. And, we are healed in relationship.” (2, p144/5) He is saying that whether a therapist is involved or not, the focus is on learning how to connect better. Healing will come naturally from the couple being more deeply connected. “.. we are healed in relationship”

For Harville Hendrix, and Helen Lakelly Hunt, his co-author and partner, the experience of connection goes beyond human relationship. They say that when parts of us are wounded, denied and split off, “connection rupture” occurs, and we are disconnected from our spiritual core, .. Emptiness is attended by loneliness.” (2, p80)

They say that connection is not something that can be destroyed; that when we make close connection with others again, “when our wholeness is supported … we experience joy and, eventually, wonder and Oneness with Everything.” (2, p74)

You might also like:
Couples Therapy,
Intentional Dialogue,
Improving Things, Six Steps,

*Imago: pronounced ‘im ar go’.

1. Dyadic adjustment and the use of imago skills by past participants of the “Getting the Love You Want” workshop for couples, Beeton T. A. PHD, Walden University. 2005.
2. Hendrix H. and LaKelly Hunt H., Receiving Love, Simon and Schuster UK, 2005.
3. Hendrix H. and LaKelly Hunt H., Getting the Love You Want, Pocket Books, Simon and Schuster UK, 1993 (New addition published in 2019.)
4. Sophie Slade. Imago Relationship Therapy Basic Clinical Training (Handbook) 2005
5. Getting the Love You Want Workbook by Hendrix H. and LaKelly Hunt H. Atria Books, 2003, US)
6. Keeping the Love You find, by Hendrix H. and LaKelly Hunt H. Pocket Books, 2005, UK

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