What is Imago Relationship Therapy?
Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT), developed by Harville
Hendrix, PhD and Helen LaKelly Hunt, PhD of the Institute for
Relationship Therapy in New York, is a paradigm shift in the
understanding of marriage and marital therapy.
Imago relationship therapy is a short term therapy that
combines insight and practical skills. Couples learn to
become safe and intentional, to recognize and repair
the wounds of the past, and to restructure frustration and
‘incompatibility’ as opportunities to reclaim their whole self.
Some of Imago relationship therapy’s basic assumptions
are the following:
• Our original state is one of wholeness, joy, connection,
curiosity, spontaneity, and passion.
• Over/under-parenting and the process of socialization,
creates wounding at various stages of childhood
development as essential developmental impulses
are blocked. The child unconsciously determines the
impulse, rather than the parent, to be ‘unacceptable’
and creates patterned behavior to adapt to the
wounding. This is our ‘character structure.’
• Partner selection is the result of the unconscious desire to
complete or correct what was unfinished in childhood.
We select a partner who carries both the positive and
negative characteristics of our caretakers (the ‘Imago’),
and who was wounded in the same area, but adapted
in a complementary way.
• The adaptation patterns of one partner triggers the
wound and survival pattern of the other, creating a
cycle of reactivity. Pattern relates to pattern, rather than
person relating to person.
• Developmentally specific nurturing of each partner
helps heal the childhood wound. And paradoxically, our
partner will need the very thing that will stretch us out of
our own pattern and help us reclaim aspects of our self.
• The more primitive part of the brain stores emotion and
memory related to perceived threats to survival. It is
atemporal and ignores our rational explanations about
its fear. While insight is important, consistent corrective
experience is need to change survival.
• This therapy helps couples access and integrate those
unconscious developmental needs triggered in relational
conflict, and become increasingly conscious and
intentional in their own behavior in order to create safety
for their partner. Frustration and hurt become pathways
to create a ‘conscious relationship’ that is characterized
by real love, intimacy, passion, connection, joy and
other inherent qualities of our original self.
Healing in Therapy Related to Quality of Relationship
Research has consistently shown that the effectiveness of
therapy is more closely related to the relational qualities
between therapist and client, particularly affective and
cognitive empathy, than to any particular technique.
We take in and contain the experience and feelings of
the other, and at the same time, act as a differentiated,
yet connected self. Cognitive and affective empathy
validates a part of the person’s self that has long ago
been invalidated, rejected, or abandoned by childhood
caretakers, and in the resulting pain, by the self. It is kept
unconscious because it is locked in self-hatred. However,
through continued empathic holding and communication,
a person can stay for a period in a previously inaccessible
area with the help of the other. As the person is ‘held’
empathetically, s/he gains access to and can begin to
incorporate the ‘intolerable’ part of the self, discovering
within it the ‘potential’ self that has not yet been realized.
Traditionally, the therapeutic relationship has been the
primary experience of this kind of empathy and safety. IRT
empowers couples to learn and use these skills to create
safety and healing in their own relationship, and to foster
the process of differentiation while remaining deeply
Basic Tool is Imago Couple’s Dialogue
The basic tool of Imago Relationship Therapy is a specific
form of couple’s dialogue that teaches couples to contain
their partner, to mirror precisely, to validate (cognitive
empathy) the other’s experience, and to empathize
affectively. Through various processes based on that
structure, couples can access childhood wounding and
hold the seemingly ‘intolerable’ aspects of the partner so
that s/he can begin to reclaim the imprisoned ‘potential’
Re-Imaging the Partner
Just as importantly, couples use their knowledge of the
childhood wounds to both empower them to become
increasingly intentional in the relationship and to discover
very specific ways to nurture and reverse the developmental
arrest. The image of the partner is transformed from
“someone who won’t give me what I want or need, etc.” to
“a person who was wounded, and who can recover their
inherent self as I, the partner, create the necessary safety.
“ The partner can then provide the corrective experience
that is needed for healing, and in doing that, stretch out
of his/her own character structure. The attitude toward
the partner shifts from criticism and blame to compassion,
hope, and a commitment to assist the partner in healing,
and to reclaim one’s fullest self. In this way, emotional safety
is created and deepened. Far from being just another
communication tool, the skills provide a structure for safe,
effective, healing and lasting change. In a revolutionary
way, Imago relationship therapy shifts the power of the
healing relationship traditionally reserved for the therapist/
client relationship into the hands of the couple.
Copyright 1996, Hedy Schleifer, MA, LMHC. Winter Park, Florida
For more information kindly contact Merle Lifson-Dettori,
IMAGO Relationship Coach, on 083 709 0467, 021 762 1773