Have you ever felt misunderstood in a relationship, or felt that you and your partner are speaking completely different languages? Do you find yourself avoiding conflict at all costs, or alternately find yourself in arguments that never seem to solve anything? Imago therapy might be able to help. Founded by Dr. Harville Hendrix and Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt in 1980, Imago teaches us to look at conflicts as opportunities to deepen our understanding of each other and look at our pasts to understand the impact they’re still having on our present.
We’re Always Growing
Deborah J. Fox, MSW, a licensed clinical social worker and couples counselor who is certified in Imago therapy, says that when Hendrix and Hunt created Imago, “they took a lot of the accepted psychological theory and applied it to marital relationships.” She says it emphasizes that we’re not done growing when we reach adulthood, and that serious relationships are yet another stage of development for us. “We’re still growing, we’re still changing and in a committed relationship we can really grow into our potential.” The dynamics we have with out partners can do a lot to impact this growth, for better or worse, and being mindful of this can already put us ahead.
Nobody comes into a relationship as a blank slate; we’re all bringing a life full of memories and coping mechanisms into any given relationship. This is why unpacking our past can help to build a better future with the ones we care about. “We’ve started to understand that nobody had a perfect life,” Fox says. “We’ve all had hurts, we’ve all had disappointments in our life, some more, some less… As adults, we’re still seeking to heal some of those hurts and disappointments.”
Two Sides to Everything
Fox says that in her thirty years as a marriage counselor, she’s seen that there’s truth in the adage “opposites attract,” even if it’s not exactly what people think. She says we often look for a partner that brings us an opportunity to grow in some way or offers a different perspective from our own; for example, someone who’s very fun loving, free wheeling and indecisive might find themselves attracted to someone more stable, dependable and organized. What they don’t realize, Fox says, is that this attraction to differences is what can so often cause friction. “Imago helps us understand that why we might want to fire our partner is really the flip side of why we hired them in the first place.” For instance, the fun loving person who marries a stable partner might, a few years later, want to “fire” their partner for not being spontaneous enough. Or, alternately, the stable person might have found themselves attracted to the spontaneous person because of how fun and exciting they are, only to find themselves wishing they had a partner who was more organized or responsible. These contradictions can be hard to understand at first, but they can also give us huge opportunities to grow. “These complaints they have about each other are really zeroing in on exactly where each partner really needs to grow if they’re gonna be their fullest person.” The stable person might realize they can learn to be less rigid or stop to smell the roses, and the spontaneous person can examine their own indecisiveness. These conflicts can be a great space to find “growth pieces,” as Fox calls them: areas where we can develop more fully or fill in blind spots in our perspectives.
Bring Intentionality to Your Arguments
You never plan on having an argument, which by definition makes them an unpredictable scenario. Fox says it can make a world of difference to plan ahead and set a few rules for what to do when you experience conflict or tempers flare. She says it’s always helpful to stop and take a beat— there’s no use trying to problem solve if one or both of you is feeling heated. “We know now that when you’re highly emotional the logic centers in your brain get dummer so they’re not as active, so that statement of ‘I’m so upset I can’t think straight’ is actually psychologically true.” In heated situations, it’s easy for your brain to go into fight-or-flight mode and start focusing on trying to protect you from danger, which means it’s not in the best state for clear, empathetic conversation. If an argument is getting emotional, the best course of action is to separate and regroup once you’ve had a chance to calm down.
The second thing that’s useful to remember in any conflict is that only one person should be speaking at a time. “What Imago teaches,” Fox says, “is how important it is that one person has the floor and the other person agrees ahead of time to listen until they finish.” Fox says she personally has her patients set a time limit of five minutes, because this is usually enough time to get your point across clearly and fully. She says the next step is to take another pause so that the listener can have time to absorb what was said without getting reactive. “It gives each of you the time to think about what you’ve heard, be reflective, and think about what you’d like to contribute to the problem.” Then the listener can take the floor to respond in their own time.
She says another tool she uses with her patients is mirroring, a more intense version of active listening. “If you do it right, it’s not only reflecting back the words you’ve heard but it really is an effort to step into the other person’s world and really understand what they’re saying and why they’re saying what they’re saying.” She says that in our everyday communications we can miss so much of what the other person is saying because we’re feeling defensive or trying to think about what we’re going to say next. When you listen to someone with the intent to mirror, you’re more likely to understand what they’re saying because you’re summarizing their perspective in your own words after they speak. Fox says that, for many of her patients, mirroring is when they finally understand their partner’s perspective on something, even if it’s a topic that’s come up a thousand times. “When you’re actually asked to mirror something you listen in a different way.” She says mirroring is even more powerful because it lets the speaker know they’ve really been heard, and lets them clarify anything they’ve said after the fact.
The Power of Understanding
Fox says creating this kind of space where both people are really listening and working to understand can revolutionize our relationships. “That understanding can lead to a greater feeling of connection between two people, because a lot of what creates tensions is when people feel disconnected, misunderstood and isolated.” When there’s room to share without judgement or fear of a snappy reaction, it gives us time to get to the bottom of what we’re really trying to say. Fox says we often know where we’re starting when we speak up about something but we’re not always sure where we’re going to end up. Talking things over with an empathetic partner who’s focused on listening can help us find the deeper causes to our conflicts. “It can really help the person who’s speaking to access a more vulnerable place in themselves, which is probably where the source of the problem is.”
In this way, Imago can be an amazing tool for bringing us closer together while drawing attention to the places where we experience misunderstandings. The ultimate goal is to see conflict not as inherently bad but rather as an opportunity to learn more about our partners and ourselves.
If you think the principles of Imago therapy would have something to offer you in your relationships, there are several ways to pursue it further. The tools it teaches, like mirroring, are easier to incorporate when you’re working with an Imago certified therapist in a dedicated space. Fox says that Imago workshops can also be a great resource for couples; many are now offered virtually online or socially distanced for safety. To learn more about the basics of Imago or get more insight into its teachings, you can also read Hendrix’s and Hunt’s original book, Getting The Love You Want, as well as its companion workbook.