The concept of Imago, which is the Latin term for image, as an image of familiar love suggests that your early relationships teach you something about love and about yourself. Through these early experiences, you develop a sense of an identity related to love, such as what love is and what you need to do in order to experience love from others, accept and give love, and feel safe.
In your early relationships, you start to develop a sense of self-worth based on how you are treated by important people in your life, such as caregivers. You start to develop attachment patterns and gain a sense of how you think you should be treated by others.
For example, if growing up you only received praise and feelings of love from your caregivers WHEN you performed well at a task, you may move into your adult life believing that you must perform well in order to be worthy of love and to receive care and comfort from your partner. If your partner turns away or shuts down on you, leaving you feeling unloved, you might quickly start to reflect on your own behaviors, replaying things and looking for what you may have “done something wrong” for the person to treat you this way.
Our intimate relationships: parents, family, partners, close friends, are prime ground for bringing up raw spots, old wounds, and patterns of behavior. These connections can leave us feeling close and cared for or lonely and abandoned. It is not surprising that our intimate relationships often tend to bring up old, familiar emotional wounds since Imago therapy suggests that you unconsciously pick partners and friends and have interactions that feel “familiar” to you.
When these old wounds come up in relationships, however, Imago therapy holds that they can give us a chance to heal and grow. As psychologist Dr. Harville Hendrix, the founder stated: “We are born in relationship, we are wounded in relationship, and we can be healed in relationship”.
In my couples and family imago work, I emphasize the following:
- A commitment to the relationship. At this moment in time, do you value this relationship and find it important and worthwhile to address areas of difficulty?
- Acknowledgment of the vulnerability of the other person. At this moment in time, are you able to accept the vulnerability of your therapy partner without having to fix it, critique it, ignore it, minimize it, or try to change it?
- Acknowledgment of the value of dialogue. In addition to developing listening techniques through practice, two factors that are crucial in communication are: timing (e.g., not having a discussion when either person is exhausted, ill, at work, emotionally flooded, or intoxicated) and dosage: taking turns speaking, not interrupting, not taking over the conversation. Also important is how much to say and how to be specific. For example, intense discussions that go on for hours are usually not helpful). Also unhelpful is bringing up numerous past grievances in the discussion. Think of medication and dosage; it can heal or you can overdose. Staying focused on the actual feelings in the moment requires mindfulness. For parents and teenagers, I also emphasize not having intense discussions while in the car or by cornering the adolescent in their bedroom.
- Acknowledgment that we genuinely yearn to be heard. As part of the listening practice, your therapy partner will tell you if you have heard them accurately. If you have not, then you listen again, until they say you got it.
The core aspect of Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT) is dialogue. This dialogue is a structured method, initially facilitated by a trained therapist, which allows clients to gain understanding and increase empathy.
The goals of Imago dialogue are to:
- Remove negative, hurtful language from communication. This includes “absolutes,” such as ‘you never do …’ or ‘you always make me feel …’
- 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
- Allow both partners to share their personal vulnerabilities without asking for problem-solving or interruption
- 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:
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. For example, the receiver might say, “So what I’m hearing you say is…” and then follow by paraphrasing the sender’s original words. The sender then has to acknowledge that the paraphrasing was correct.
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. For example, the receiver might say something like, “I can understand how that would make you feel that way.”
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. For example, the receiver might say something such as, “I imagine you must be feeling disappointed.”
Many of these are also common techniques used in all types of therapy as a way of improving communication. The sender and the receiver take turns speaking, after making sure that the other person has had ample time to express what they are feeling without being interrupted or corrected. Sometimes, I suggest use of a physical object to pass back-and-forth to indicate that “this is your turn now”.
Imago therapy was developed specifically for the understanding and healing of relationships. Some of the issues that Imago therapy can help with include:
- Recurring disagreements/conflict
- Feelings of disconnection
- Improving general Communication skills
- Lack of intimacy or quality time with partner
- Trust issues or infidelity
- Sibling or friend rifts and ruptures
Like any other therapy, it requires practice. We are used to automatic ways of listening, hearing, and responding. Active listening can feel strange because we are used to adding a ‘twist’ to what we hear. Just like the childhood game of telephone, by the time the message is delivered/received, it may have entirely changed. The step of mirroring teaches how to accurately reflect the message that was sent, not what you ‘thought you heard’.