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Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT) is a form of couples therapy that focuses on relational counseling that transforms a conflict into an opportunity to grow and heal. IRT is accessible for all partners in romantic relationships, no matter the sexual orientation. IRT has the goal of allowing couples to understand each other's feelings, childhood trauma, and wounds on a more empathetic level. Using a deeper level of empathy to understand someone will allow couples to better understand their relationship on a personal level and romantic level. Doing this will allow the couple to better consciously understand their relationship.
IRT was developed by Dr. Harville Hendrix and Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt. Hendrix is the author of "Getting the Love You Want" A Guide for Couples (1988)', a best-selling book. The word imago is Latin for "image" - in this sense it is referring to the "unconscious image of similar love." Hendrix found that there is a connection between the frustrations experienced in adult relationships and the experiences people have during early childhood. Hendrix was hoping to establish the "imago dialogue" within couples' relationships so they could move from blame and reactivity to understanding and empathy so that the couple could create a deeper bond and loving connection. Experiences like frequent criticism or neglect as a child can come up when people are married or in a committed relationship. It is hard for people to conquer these problems in individual therapy sessions but they will typically arise again in partnerships. Dr. Hendrix says that when people can understand their partners feelings, and childhood experiences, they can begin to "heal their relationship and move toward a more conscious relationship".
Imago relationship therapy was developed by Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt. After Hendrix signed his divorce papers he started to develop the theory. A student in his class at the university questioned Hendrix on how men and women have a hard time relating to one another. Hendrix was not sure why this was an issue but he was dedicated to finding the solution. This student's question is what piqued his interest in starting imago relationship therapy. A lot of the IRT content and dynamics relate to Hendrix and Hunt's relationship; their relationship lead to the co-creation of imago relationship therapy.
Imago Relationship Therapy focuses on collaboratively healing childhood wounds couples share. According to Hendrix and Hunt, the human brain has a compelling non-negotiable drive to restore feelings of aliveness and wholeness with which people came into the world. It is believed by imago therapists that a person's brain constructs an image of characteristics from their primary caretakers; including both their best and worst traits. The brain's unconscious drive is to repair the damage done in childhood, and the needs that were not met by finding a partner who can give us what our caretakers failed to provide. This is why people often form relationships with partners who reflect traits of their own parents. A person's unconscious self drives them towards this, to seek healing, and to resolve unresolved childhood wounds in order to grow. In this way, wounds received from their parents, tend to be re-stimulated by new adult partners and potential future partners. The re-stimulation triggers old, unresolved emotions.
Both people in the relationship can learn how to heal one another, and appreciate each other for the person they are. Couples must engage in a specific type of dialogue for IRT to work. The conscious self may not be able to see and understand clearly the reflection of unresolved parental issues in his or her significant other. Nonetheless, a person's unconscious self connects with their partner's in its best (unconscious) effort to heal old wounds and allow love into their lives again. There are four principles that are used in the clinical setting for IRT. These four are thought to be the most essential ingredients to bring intimacy back into the relationship.
- Becoming present to your partner - This requires a transformation of consciousness in which one discovers the “otherness” of the partner, in which we get that “my partner is not me,” which promotes progress toward the important developmental leap known as differentiation.
- Learning a new way to talk - that is, turning the conversation from an exchange of parallel monologues into a dialogue. Dialogue creates equality, safety, and connection.
- Replacing judgment—the destroyer of intimacy—with curiosity, which ensures safety and deepens connection - This requires eliminating all negativity since negativity stimulates anxiety, signals danger, and thus activates defensiveness, perhaps the major barrier to intimacy.
- Infusing the relationship with positive feelings - such as liking, appreciation, admiration, acceptance, and similar emotions. These deliberate positive verbal expressions (appreciations) are among the building blocks of authentic love, which is, for Imago, the consummation of intimate partnership and the epitome of a relationship that is both safe and passionate, comfortable and exciting.
The methods of IRT evolved from a one-stage process to a three-stage process. These stages consisted of mirroring, validation, and empathy. Mirroring refers to sending back the message the other person is asking. The validation stage is being able to summarize the other person's message and then articulate back the partner's point of view. Empathy is the last stage, this stage allows the partner to feel what the other is feeling by imagining the other's emotions. These stages allow a relationship to move from an ontology of separation to an ontology of connection. Thus meaning, that the couple is intrinsically connected.
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