Therapy FAQ

The Goal and Benefits of Imago Relationship Therapy

Perhaps you have difficult memories from your childhood when one of your parents or caregivers was controlling, absent, angry, or behaved in some other way that was hurtful to you. Whether you realize it or not, those same feelings and the ways you learned to cope with them can come up again in your intimate […]

By Alan Deibel, LPCP
Mixed race lesbian couple.

Updated on Apr 18, 2024

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Perhaps you have difficult memories from your childhood when one of your parents or caregivers was controlling, absent, angry, or behaved in some other way that was hurtful to you. Whether you realize it or not, those same feelings and the ways you learned to cope with them can come up again in your intimate relationships in adulthood. Have you ever heard the saying that “we tend to date our parents?” Read on to learn more about Imago therapy, a type of couples counseling that can help you understand the influence of your childhood experiences on your romantic relationships, and how it can help you and your partner work together to resolve conflict and foster more connection with each other.

What is Imago Therapy?

Imago therapy is an educational and counseling approach that aims to help people better understand and find greater connection in their relationships. The Imago approach, also known as Imago couples therapy or Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT), is a form of therapy based on the idea that a person’s relationship with their parents or caregivers during childhood will unconsciously affect their adult relationships. Imago therapy can be done in different formats and may include exercises that aim to increase connection and intimacy, such as dialogue, practicing caring behaviors, and decreasing negativity. While Imago therapy is usually used as a type of couples therapy, it can also be used as a form of individual therapy for people who want to understand their past relationship patterns in order to form future healthy relationships.

How was Imago Therapy Created?

Imago therapy was created by Dr. Harville Hendrix and Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt, two couples therapists who were experiencing difficulties in their own marriage with each other. Applying their psychoanalysis training and teaching experiences toward mending their own relationship, they developed the IRT approach. In 1988, Dr. Hendrix wrote about IRT in the book “Getting the Love You want: A guide for Couples,” which became a New York Times bestseller and was featured several times on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Since then, several books and research studies have been published on IRT, and the non-profit organization Imago Relationships International has been established and has trained over 2,000 therapists in over 50 countries around the world.

What Does the Name Mean?

Imago is the Latin word for “image.” Imago therapy was given its name because it is based on the idea that the image that we form of our parents or caregivers during childhood will unconsciously influence who we consider to be an attractive partner in adulthood. A key theory behind Imago therapy is that we become unconsciously attracted to a person who has similar traits as the parent or caregiver with whom we had the most challenging relationship with as a child, forming what is called an “Imago-Match.” We may try to heal our childhood wounds through committed relationships as an adult that resemble our unconscious image of familiar love, which can cause further hurt and frustration. IRT techniques aim to address these relational dynamics in a healthy way. 

Imago therapy is an approach most used with couples therapy to help with couples with their conflicts, communication, or intimacy. It’s based on the principle that we develop an ‘image’ of love and relationships from our early childhoods and this ‘image’ carries forth into our adulthood relationships.

- Courtney Sonntag, LMFT

What are the Goals of Imago Therapy?

The goal of Imago therapy is to promote intimacy in four key ways:

  1. Being more present with your partner by recognizing that they are a separate person from you.
  2. Creating dialogue in a way that is equal, safe, and fosters connection.
  3. Replacing negativity and judgment with curiosity, safety, and connection.
  4. Increasing positivity, such as through verbal expression techniques.

According to Courtney Sonntag, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) with Grow Therapy: “Imago therapy is an approach most used with couples therapy to help with couples with their conflicts, communication, or intimacy. It’s based on the principle that we develop an ‘image’ of love and relationships from our early childhoods and this ‘image’ carries forth into our adulthood relationships. The ultimate goal of Imago therapy is to help heal old childhood wounds by interrupting unhealthy patterns in order to develop healthier patterns. This allows those in the couple to be more aware of their relationship as a whole, increasing intentionality with emotion and action.”

How Does Imago Therapy Work?

Imago therapy is usually done with a trained Imago relationship therapist, either in-person or through online therapy. There are also workshops, books, and videos available to learn more about the Imago process. Imago therapy sessions with a therapist are usually done over the course of several sessions or weeks, ranging from 12-20 sessions, or less or more, depending on the needs, complexity, and other factors related to you, your partner, and your therapist. Below are some of the main steps and skills that are part of the Imago therapy process.2,6

The Couples Dialogue

The Couples Dialogue is the main aspect of the Imago therapy process. It involves creating a safe space for you and your partner to speak, be heard, feel understood, and respond rather than react to each other’s words. There are three core principles that will be practiced during an Imago dialogue:

  1. Mirroring: Repeating what you heard your partner say back to them, to ensure the message has been fully heard.
  2. Validation: Affirming that you understand your partner’s point of view.
  3. Empathizing: Seeking to understand what your partner may be feeling.

Exploring Childhood Experiences

Your therapist may work with you and your partner to reflect on your early childhood experiences, and to think about how your childhood wounds may be influencing the type of relationship that you are currently in. 

Reimagining Your Partner

Often in relationships, partners begin to work against each other rather than with each other. The Imago process helps partners to see each other through loving eyes once again, and to empathize with the other person’s hurt and pain. 

Re-romanticizing the Relationship

Research has found that couples in happy and stable relationships tend to have a ratio of five positive interactions for every one negative interaction with each other. During Imago therapy, you may work with your partner to identify and enact more positive and caring behaviors toward each other, and to explore ways to make your relationship fun and enjoyable.

Restructuring Frustrations

Another exercise in Imago therapy is the “Behavior Change Request.” You and your partner will learn to express your frustrations and desires in a way that feels safe and can lead to specific and achievable behavior changes. You will learn to communicate in a way that fosters logical reasoning rather than defensive emotional responses.

Resolving Rage

If anger and rage are problems in your relationship, your therapist may try to help you and your partner to explore these feelings through structured exercises. 

Revisioning the Relationship

Just like businesses and companies will often decide upon and work toward a vision or mission that everyone involved can work toward, your relationship can benefit from the same process. Your therapist may help you and your partner find common values and goals for building your ideal relationship together.

Is Imago Therapy Effective?

Studies of Imago therapy have found that it may improve marital satisfaction and empathy, and decrease relationship distress. Some research also suggests that Imago therapy may be appealing to diverse populations such as certain racial, ethnic, cultural, LGBTQIA, or neurodiverse couples. At the same time, it is important to consider that this type of therapy may require effort, patience, openness, and commitment from both partners in order for it to be most effective.

Sonntag says: “Imago therapy can help with a slew of relational issues, such as communication, issues with intimacy, and trust. I think it can be a good resource for couples to use, as long as both parties are willing to be open about discussing their childhood wounds. Once that vulnerability is there, they can more easily lean into empathy and validation, allowing for old patterns to shift.”

Take the Next Step

Loving relationships are an important part of taking care of your mental health. If you are looking for a more conscious relationship that fosters safety, communication, positivity, and understanding, you may be interested in trying relationship counseling with a trained Imago therapist. At Grow Therapy, we make it easy to find a therapist who’s right for you. Check out our search tool to find a therapist near you who specializes in Imago therapy.

FAQs

  • Imago therapy is an educational and counseling approach that aims to help people better understand and find greater connection in their relationships. It is based on the idea that someone’s relationship with their parent or caregiver during childhood will influence their relationships as adults.

  • Imago relationship therapy has several aspects such as the Couples Dialogue, exploring childhood experiences, reimagining your partner, re-romanticizing the relationship, restructuring frustrations, resolving rage, and revisioning the relationship.

  • Imago therapy may improve satisfaction and empathy in a relationship and reduce conflict and distress. It may help couples communicate, understand, and connect with each other. Imago therapy may also be useful for couples from diverse backgrounds.

About the author
Alan Deibel, LPCP

Alan Deibel is a licensed clinical professional counselor with over 12 years of experience who specializes in ADHD, addiction, anxiety, trauma, and PTSD.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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