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  • Writer's pictureMaya Kollman

What Is Imago Relationship Therapy?

Updated: Aug 6, 2020

Imago Relationship Therapy, is a theory created by Dr. Harville Hendrix and Dr Helen Lakelly Hunt, authors of Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples,  Keeping the Love You Find: A Guide for Singles, and several other books. It is a comprehensive theory and mode of therapy for helping people with relationships. 

This theory is a combination of many theoretical ideas combined with usable skills to help people do the hardest thing they ever have to do: Live with another human being. This theory's basic premise is that the purpose of an adult committed relationship is to help each partner finish unfinished childhood business, and it is this dyad that has the potential for the greatest healing and growth possible--even more than any individual therapy or any other spiritual path alone.

Through our childhood wounding we have lost our sense of connection with those around us and deep inside we long to find that again. We drink, do drugs, eat, have sex, spend money, gamble, work, steal etc. in an attempt to make contact but none of it is lasting. It is our natural birthright to regain that sense of contact and connection and the relaxed joyfulness with which we were born.  It is the belief of this theory (and remember -  theories are ideas in search of the truth) that Nature's way of helping us heal is to hook us up with someone who will recreate for us in some way our environment of childhood, not so we can relive it over and be stuck there, but rather so we can re experience it with a different outcome, a healing outcome. We will therefore only choose people who have within them some of the positive and some of the negative characteristics of our early caretakers.

The five revolutionary paradigm shifts of this theory are:

  1. It is the dyad of the couple that provides healing, not the therapist. 

  2. The path to self love is to learn to love in the other what you most hate in yourself.  

  3. The job of the therapist is to keep the couple in process and that process is the  Intentional dialogue. 

  4. As you stretch to heal your partner you grow into your own potential. 

  5. You are responsible for becoming a safe person for your partner; keeping your partner safe is the best guarantee for your own safety. 

This approach to couples has greatly changed the field of couple's therapy. It is an idea whose time has come. Our belief about relationships from the 60's through the 80's was that we had to find the "right person" and pull them into the relationship box. When the box got too hot, we believed we had the wrong person so we threw them out, and pulled someone else into the relationship box, and when that box got too hot we threw them out too. We have entered this decade wounded and tired of serial relationships, broken marriages, and hurt children.

Dr. Hendrix's approach tells us that if we fall in love rather than marry out of arrangement, we are with the right person -- the problem is we don't know how to live with them, because no one has ever taught us. The belief of this theory is that we must commit to the relationship and then through various processes, begin to figure out how to be together in a healing way.

Our Four Journeys as Human Beings:

Imago Relationship Therapy believes that human beings are engaged in four journeys as they travel through life. 

  1. The Cosmic Journey 

  2. The Evolution Journey 

  3. The Psychological Journey 

  4. The Social Journey

Our Cosmic Journey: 

The Cosmic Journey began with the Big Bang. There was so much energy compacted and connected in one space that it exploded and threw particles in millions of directions. We all carry within us a piece of this cosmic energy. We are all a node of that energy embedded in the tapestry of being. Out inheritance is neutral pulsating energy. We all have it at birth.

Our Evolutionary Journey: 

The Evolutionary Journey is the way human beings moved out of the jungle using our  frontal lobe. Imago theory understands that although we think we are governed by our cerebral cortex or "new brain", site of logic and creativity, many of us are often ruled by the "old brain",  the part of the brain we inherited from the reptiles and the mammals. The old brain is interested in one thing only and that is to survive. The old brain's job is to decide if something in its environment is safe or dangerous and then to act accordingly. If the object is safe, we can play with it, mate with it, nurture it. If the object is dangerous, we either need to fight it, flee from it, play dead, or submit to it. All of this was well and good when we were in the jungle fleeing from tigers, or more recently perhaps in our childhood's where our parents were sometimes life threatening. The problem is our old brain does not distinguish between past and present, so that when our partners do something or have a certain look on their face that might resemble in some way our early caretakers, our old brain goes into high gear and signals "danger, danger, danger" and we go on the attack without asking questions. Our journey then is to begin to use our cerebral cortex and our frontal lobe to discern if we are really in danger or not, and instead of using our creativity to find ways to torture this scary partner, we can use our creativity to find out what is really going on and create a solution.

Our Psychological Journey: 

In the womb all our needs are perfectly met without our asking, we live in the perfect temperature, experience minimal discomfort, and feel rocked and cradled most of the time.  We are superbly connected, then we are born and we become physically disconnected. As we grow, we have developmental tasks to learn:

  • to re-attach

  • to explore

  • to figure out who we are

  • to gain competence

In order to accomplish these tasks we must have the environment to do so. For many of us our parents were not capable of providing us with this environment, so that we arrive into adulthood with these tasks not complete and we spend our lives trying to find ways to complete these unmet needs. 

Our Social Journey:

At birth we arrive with all of our functions in tact. We have the capacity to be in touch with our core energy, we can feel, think, act and sense. Though socialization and our parents attempts to civilize us we lose parts of these functions. Our parents negative directives like "don't be angry, girls shouldn't get dirty, boys don't cry", influence us to put away the parts that our parents tell us are unacceptable. Our journey through life is to regain contact with all our functions. We do that by choosing someone who has the part we have lost and then learning from them how to regain and express it.

How do we choose our partners?

So, given all these journeys let us get a clearer sense of why we choose the people we choose. I'm sure you have asked yourselves, "Out of all the people in the world, how do I keep ending up with people like this?" The first notion is that you will only be attracted to someone who in some way resembles your early caretakers. Now, I'm sure you are asking, "Why would I want to do that?" First of all let me say, this is a totally unconscious process. We are wounded in childhood and then nature steps in. One of nature's imperatives is to heal its creatures whenever possible, and so nature sets up a situation in which we can repair whatever damage has been done to us in childhood. To do this Nature uses our unconscious as a vehicle and our adult relationships as a roadway.

Why is the relationship a roadway? Because we were wounded in relationship, we must be healed in relationship. We cannot accomplish this healing alone.

Nature uses the unconscious to steer us into the relationship though the doorway of Romantic Love. Romantic Love occurs when we choose someone rather than winning our partners in a lottery or through an arranged marriage. To do this Nature has set up something called the Imago. Imago means 'image' in Latin, and it is this image that determines who we will be attracted to. The image we are talking about is something that we create inside of us based on how our parents interact with us. Through their behaviors we form a picture, the only picture we know, of what someone who loves us will be like with us. When we grow up and begin to scan the world for that perfect someone, the closer the match between the person and our inner image, the more powerful the attraction will be. Now remember, this is a totally unconscious process. Consciously all we know is that this person has a great smile, a great body, is smart and funny, and that we feel wonderful in their presence. No one would sign up for this if they knew what they were in for which is why Nature had to blind us with romantic love.

What is nature's purpose in all this? The purpose is to recreate the environment of childhood only this time with a healing outcome. A second factor that attracts us is that the person has intact a function, or functions, that we have lost. For example if my parents told me I couldn't feel in childhood, and I lost my feelings, I will be attracted to someone who expresses their emotions, or if I was told that my body was something to hide, I will be attracted to someone has great contact with their body and their sensual, sexual aspects. The purpose of this is to reconnect with the lost parts of ourselves. A third factor that attracts us to another is that we will be drawn to someone who is wounded at the same stage of development, but defends against it differently. If the unmet need from childhood is learning how to express anger, one partner is anger sensitive, the other is anger expressive. The purpose of this is to work together within a committed partnership to accomplish the developmental tasks that were not accomplished in childhood. 

We have found our perfect mate and we are in love and in the blush of Romantic Love we make some sort of commitment. Perhaps we marry, or get engaged or, maybe we just move in together, but whatever we do, we begin to bond more strongly and then when nature sees that we are sufficiently bonded, it rips off the blinders of romantic love and to our horror we see that the person who met all our needs, has been replaced by someone who looks suspiciously like the last person who we got rid of. What occurs to dissolve the illusion are three things. 

  1. When we are sufficiently bonded, we are no longer on our best behavior and often become more interested in getting our own needs met rather than meeting our partner’s needs, so a lot of needs are going unmet and we are unhappy.

  2. The very thing that attracted us to our partners because it was a lost part of ourselves begins to scare us. As we get bonded and that sexy part or feeling part, or vivacious part that we loved gets close to us, the parent police arrive on the scene and tell us we are in danger if we have those parts. Those parts frighten us and we begin to feel unsafe with our new partner. 

  3. Because we have chosen someone who is wounded at the same stage we are but defends against it differently, when we get bonded and begin to experience the difference, we get frightened because difference is scary and means "you are not my friend but my enemy". This is because most of us grew up in families that taught, either overtly or covertly,  if we were different we did not belong to our family.

Quite suddenly, or over a period of time, we no longer feel safe with this person and as the illusion continues to crack we get more and more upset. We have lost the wonderful feeling of safety and warmth that we experience in Romantic Love. We have had a taste of a connection to our core, to our alive pulsating energy and we want it back. This loss is experienced much as any loss would be and we go through the stages of death and dying. First shock, then denial, and when we can't deny anymore and we are too hurt and too scared, we begin to get angry and when we get angry we begin to employ power tactics such as yelling, pouting, withholding, guilting, blaming, and criticizing in order to bring that loving person back.

Of course, all power tactics do is make our partner even less loving because who in their right mind would want to be close to a yelling, pouting, guilting person? When the power tactics don't work, we resort to bargaining, which doesn't work either because we are keeping score and the other guy never does as much as we do. Finally we reach depression and despair, and when we are here we make some choices. Either we leave, or we stay in a hot marriage, "Till death will I fight with you", or a cold marriage "Till death will I ever show you my heart again", or we can make the choice that Imago therapy offers, and that is to move from an unconscious to a conscious relationship. We can choose to co-operate with nature and choose to work toward a conscious relationship. By choosing conscious relationship we learn that the power struggle is a good thing, for embedded in our frustrations are codes to what we both need to be healed.

The only problem is that nature forgot to give us a way to decipher our patterns, a code book.  It is through choosing to become conscious that we learn to talk, listen, and understand, and are on our way to a mature, evolved relationship.

If we refuse to co-operate with our unconscious, we will keep the relationship we have. If we leave to find another person and don’t do our own “work”, we will go through very similar challenges all over again, because if we enter the relationship through the doorway of romantic love, we will always end up in the power struggle.

Creating Conscious Partnership:


The first step on the way to a conscious relationship is to commit to the relationship and the Imago process. To do the healing work that is required, the relationship must become safe. No one will be willing to let down their defenses and examine their character structure and make lasting change if they are in threat of being abandoned or swallowed up. So the first step is to make a commitment to the person and to the process of Imago therapy.

Intentional Dialogue: 

The second step is to learn a new way to communicate called the Intentional Dialogue. This dialogue provides a safe way for us to begin to know one another as we really are, rather than as we make each other up to be. Theology tells us that the most terrifying thing for a human being is the recognition of "other" because we believe if "the other" emerges "the self" disappears. This is a myth, perpetrated by our parents and our society that is terrified of difference, and we believe emotionally that this is the truth. In order to achieve true intimacy and connection, there must be two separate people, with different realities, or points of view. To achieve this we must have a safe vehicle for "the other" to emerge without feeling our “self” disappears, and to create this safety we must use the dialogue.

What is this dialogue? It is a three part process that can be used by the couple to grow themselves and the relationship. Satisfactory experiences utilizing the Intentional Dialogue provides couples an opportunity to successfully meet needs that may have been unsatisfactorily met in childhood.


When a partner agrees to mirror, s/he is saying essentially, "You are vital to my well-being. With that in mind, I will put my version of the world aside for a short time and be with you and see the world through your eyes". This position mirrors the experience needed by the child in infancy. The mothering caretaker holds the child and mirrors them, confirming for the child his or her sense of belonging and lovableness. The child experiences fulfillment of physiological and safety needs, and a sense of the mother/world as attentive, prizing, mirroring, filling, adoring and soothing. The infant forms a core feeling of the good self and experiences self-love. When the partner takes the mirroring position with his or her partner s/he pledges that for a short period of time, re-parenting will exist, reparenting by the good enough parent. The statement "Can I mirror you?" is experienced by the child within as "Wow! You mean I matter enough to you that you will put yourself aside and focus only on me". The statement "Did I get it?" is experienced as "Wow! You mean not only do I matter to you, but you are so interested in what I have to say that you want to make sure you heard what I said?". The statement "Is there more?" is experienced as "Wow, you want to hear all I have to say, and if I have no more to say, that is OK, too!"  Just the act of mirroring is healing in that it communicates to the partner what often was not communicated in childhood; that s/he matters, that her/his thoughts are important, and that s/he has the right to share themselves or not. 


The second step of the dialogue, validation, truly stretches the dyad. Each partner has to take leave of themselves long enough to enter the world of the other and stay long enough for this world to make sense. Validation does not mean agreement but rather understanding. It simply says, "What you are saying really makes sense and what makes sense is..." Validation is both very scary and very powerful. Nothing is scarier than to acknowledge that another person's reality is valid, because we believe when we do that, we invalidate our own reality. Couples must be coaxed into trying this, with reassurance that their own reality will remain safe. It is in the act of validation that exquisite intimacy is born, because it is that moment when we crawl into the experience of the other that we make the most powerful connection.


The final step of the dialogue is empathy. When we have mirrored and validated we are able to take a guess at what the person's experience is and can say to them, "and I imagine when that happens you might feel..." and we can guess a feeling.

This dialogue allows us to safely get at important information about the power struggle. The dialogue begins to allow us to find the codebook that nature forgot.

In Imago therapy this dialogue is applied to four processes as a way to gather information and create a healing environment for the couple. These processes are:

1. Re-imaging 

2. Re-structuring our reactions

3. Re-romanticizing 

4. Re-visioning the relationship.


In re-imaging we use the dialogue to discover things about our childhood and how we are recreating the wounding of childhood in our current relationships. Through reimaging our partners and ourselves as wounded children, we can grow in compassion and understanding about the often difficult behaviors we each engage in when we get threatened. We also can begin to see that our partner's upset with us doesn't mean that we are bad or wrong, but rather that we have unwittingly stepped on a land mine that their parents placed around their feet.

Restructuring Frustrations: 

To restructure our reactions we use sentence stems to discover the fear, the hurt, and the childhood wound underneath it.  This process helps  to uncover the gold mine hidden in our and our partner's negative reactions. There are two pieces of information.  The information about the person who is reacting is an unmet childhood need. The information about the partner is a clue about a lost part of him/herself trying to come into being. This process promotes both healing and growth. Healing for the person who is reacting because s/he gets an unmet need fulfilled, and growth for the person who is stretching to meet the unmet need as they reconnect with a lost part of themselves.


When we re-romanticize, we encourage the couple to remember the Romantic Love period and examine their life together today. They are asked to think of things that their partner did or does that helps them feel loved and cared for. These are written down and shared and then the couple works on doing these consciously on a weekly basis. This process helps to highlight what is already working in the relationship. Too often the focus is only on the difficulties that exist in the relationship. In addition to these caring behaviors we also focus on having high and low energy fun and surprises as a way to get positive energy into these relationships. Imago understands that where we put our energy grows, so there is a great emphasis on the positive elements.


The final process encourages the couple to imagine all the elements they want in their relationship. Too often we stop dreaming and just hope to survive. The idea of revisioning is based on the principal that if we bring into consciousness what we want and think about it, we can actually make it happen. Also, research shows that couples who have common goals and dreams are happier than couples who don't.

How an imago Therapist is your guide.

The job of an Imago therapist is to create a safe environment where people can do what they all long to do but are terrified of, and that is to make contact with one another. An Imago therapist is always in process with a couple and is always working to keep the couple in process with one another, and by process I mean dialogue. An Imago therapist is less interested in outcome and more interested in process, recognizing that if the couple can make contact safely, all issues dissolve. As my father once said to me, "There are no solutions, seek them lovingly". We must help couples make contact lovingly, and not try to solve problems. When we simply solve problems, new ones emerge instantly. Imago Theory is much more than a mode of couple's therapy. It is a theory that was created with the hope and belief that in order for our planet to survive, we have to begin to create people who live in love rather than fear. Most of us on the planet today because of our early injury, have lost the capacity for empathy. We had to lose it and wall ourselves off in order to survive childhood. However, when we lose the capacity to have empathy, we can do damage to our fellow man as well as our environment, because we no longer feel our brother or our world's pain.

The idea of Imago theory is to heal couples so that they can raise healthy children who will retain their born-with empathy and therefore behave in loving ways to both their fellow man and their environment. In this way, humankind may be able to heal the planet before we destroy it. Also,  healthy, life affirming relationships give us energy rather than drain us, energy that we can use to help begin to do the work of healing the world around us.

Discover and learn all of these tools at a Getting the Love You Want workshop. LEARN HOW

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