Imago relationship therapy (IRT) aims to equip couples with the tools necessary to relate to each other in healthier ways, and reveal the emotional pathway formed in childhood that led them to their current situation. This form of therapy combines spiritual and behavioral techniques with Western psychological methodologies in order to assist couples in unveiling their unconscious components. Imago relationship therapy involves viewing a conflict between couples as merely the outcome of specific circumstances—not the cause of disharmony. By examining the conflict itself, a couple can arrive at a satisfying solution, heal, and then grow together.

What Is the Imago?

Imago is the Latin word for "image." In Imago Relationship Therapy, imago refers specifically to an unconscious, idealized concept of familiar love that an individual develops during childhood, and which remains unchanged in adulthood. The development of the imago is based primarily on early interactions with one's parents or other significant adults in early life. Due to a child's individualized construct of what love is, he or she will develop specific behaviors or "survival patterns" (either by expressing or inhibiting personality traits) in order to obtain love and stay safe.

A couple in therapy reach resolutionHowever, even the best parents fail to meet a child's every need and expectation. As such, an individual's imago will incorporate both the positive and negative behaviors that he or she associates with his or her ideal loved one. As we consciously seek love in adulthood, we unconsciously seek out people who are similar to our imago and who will allow us to develop the qualities we either inhibited or were not allowed to express in childhood.

History of Imago Therapy

In the late 1970s Harville Hendrix, PhD, and Helen LaKelly Hunt, MA,—who had each been through divorces with their previous spouses—had a common interest in understanding their failed marriages. A lack of literature relevant to their previous marital experiences prompted them to use their own relationship, before and after their marriage in 1984, to examine the dynamics of intimate relationships.

In 1977, they theorized that the emotional and psychological wounds experienced during childhood via interactions with one's parents could only be adequately addressed within a context which reactivated those wounds. They believed that only another committed relationship, such as marriage, could provide the variables necessary to facilitate healing and growth. Hendrix taught strategies such as "mirroring" and "containment" to couples in his practice, and the couples reported significant improvements in their relationships. Hendrix and Hunt concluded that a marital relationship, based on mutual healing, is the most effective form of therapy.

Despite success in his own practice, it was not until the release of Hendrix's groundbreaking book, Getting the Love You Want, in 1988, that Imago Relationship Therapy drew the attention of the wider public. IRT evolved over the following years as Hendrix and Hunt modified and expanded the therapy's core procedures. Today, there are more than 2000 trained imago therapists worldwide.

5 Basic Tenets of Imago Therapy

Imago relationship therapy consists of 5 core principles. These are:

  1. Re-imagining your mate as a wounded child.
  2. Re-romanticizing your relationship via pleasurable surprises, gift-giving, and displays of appreciation.
  3. Restructuring your disappointments and frustrations by changing complaints into requests.
  4. Resolving feelings of extreme anger.
  5. Re-visioning the relationship as a source of happiness, satisfaction, and safety.

Conflict and Communication Problems

Conflict often arises as a result of an underlying emotional discontent felt within the context of the relationship. Outwardly it is expressed through criticism, anger, and dissatisfaction. Imago relationship therapy helps a couple explore the root of the emotional hurt or need and determines what elements causes those issues to manifest as strenuous and negative comments, feelings, and behaviors.

The Intentional Dialogue Process: Mirroring, Validation, and Empathy

The intentional dialogue process is the most important aspect of Imago Relationship Therapy. This structured dialogue incorporates speaking and listening techniques that facilitate contingent communication. Contingent communication occurs when expressions of vulnerability by one partner is met with validation and expressed empathy from the other partner.

  • The first step of intentional dialogue is called mirroring, and it involves repeating your partner's (the Sender's) words until both parties hear and completely understand the Sender's expressions.
  • During the validation phase, the partner who is listening (the Receiver) summarizes and expresses understanding of the points the Sender raised. Crucially, the Receiver must also express why the Sender's experience makes sense, even if the Receiver does not agree with it.
  • Showing empathy is the final step of the dialogue process, and it encourages each person to try to appreciate the experience in question, from his or her partner's point of view.

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While lowering one's emotional defenses can result in repeated suffering in other contexts, it can also lead to the development of deeply intimate connections in a therapeutic setting. The Imago dialogue encourages this type of deep communication and teaches couples how to do it until the process becomes habitual and feels natural.

Limitations of Imago Relationship Therapy

As Imago Therapy focuses on re-establishing loving relationships and deepening intimate connections, it may not be suitable for couples experiencing domestic violence, gambling issues, substance dependence, or similar health and relationship concerns. IRT may only be effective after such immediate threats to the relationship are suitably resolved. Therapists will take into account the specific factors, including any mental health diagnoses, when developing a treatment plan.


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