What is Imago Relationship Therapy?

Published on: 25 Oct 2021
Clinically Reviewed by Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C
woman sitting on couch with therapist across

Imago relationship therapy (IRT) is a therapy technique that focuses on conflict in relationships. It claims that conflict isn’t the result of a lack of harmony but rather from very specific circumstances stemming from childhood. Couples who go through IRT learn how to deal with conflict in their romantic relationships. Then, they can heal and grow together, strengthening their bond and connecting on a deeper level in a committed relationship. 

Learn more about imago therapy and how people can benefit from this type of relationship counseling online or in person.

What is Imago?

Imago, the Latin word for image, refers to our familiar unconscious image of real love. For example, if we’re repeatedly criticized as children, we may become extremely sensitive to critique in our adult relationships. The basic foundation of imago therapy is that the best form of therapy is when relationships focus on mutual healing.

Imago was developed in the late 1970s. It’s based on interactions you had early in life, generally with your parents or other caretakers. Those early relationships create an individualized understanding of what real love is. Throughout every interaction, you developed patterns ​​— you can think of them as survival patterns — designed to ensure you got the love you needed and that you were safe.

The theory behind imago is that because emotional and psychological experiences with our parents are so impactful, we unconsciously seek out people in our adult life who are similar in order to fulfill our imago. 

We associate both the negative and the positive interactions we had with our parents as things we need in adult relationships. Then, we can fulfill the qualities that we either got or weren’t allowed to express during our childhood.

“How we see ourselves begins with how we understand who we are through others’ eyes. For most of us, we come to understand who we are through our parents. As we grow and develop a sense of our own identity we come to know who we are as individuals outside of our parents. However, as we enter into relationships with intimate partners, we often don’t dedicate enough time to understanding why we want what we want, what we need and expect from our partners. Taking the time to understand how we engage with our partners and why, can help provide an understanding that leads to deeper connection and satisfaction. It helps manage expectations, clarify reactions and engage with intention rather than reactivity.”  

Talkspace therapist Amy Cirbus PhD, LMHC, LPC

5 core principles of imago relationship therapy

  1. Reimagining your partner as a child who is wounded.
  2. Re-romanticizing your marriage or romantic relationship with things like giving gifts, surprising your partner, or through other displays of appreciation for one another.
  3. Restructuring any frustrations you have or disappointments you feel by changing any complaints you have into requests you make.
  4. Resolving your anger.
  5. Re-visioning your relationship as something that gives you intense happiness, offers satisfaction, and provides safety.

Different Types of Imago Relationship Therapy

There are two different types of imago therapy that can be practiced. It’s often used for people in a committed relationship, but it can also be used for individual therapy as well.

Imago therapy for relationships

Imago is a sense of romantic love that’s familiar to you and based on your earliest relationships. So it makes sense that this is where your ideas about love came from. Your sense of identity was fostered through those experiences as you gained an understanding of what love is. It’s also how you learned what you need to do to get love from others so you can feel safe. 

Ultimately, your sense of self-worth was largely developed based on how you were treated by the caretakers in your early life.

A good example of this is if you had to do exceptionally well at a task as a child to get any feelings of love, you may transfer that feeling into your adult life. You may try to do everything exceptionally well so you can feel worthy of getting the love you need and want from your partner. If you don’t receive that love you were looking for, you might begin looking for fault in yourself. You may internalize rejection as something you deserved because you must have done something wrong.

It’s our romantic or intimate relationships as adults that bring our old pain to the surface. This makes sense when you remember that the concept of imago couples therapy is based on the idea that we choose our partners because they’re familiar to us.

Imago therapy offers you a chance to deal with your pain, so you can grow from it in your relationship. 

Imago therapy for individuals

Imago relationship therapy really was developed with the idea that couples in long-term committed relationships would use it. Now, it’s also used for individuals. People who aren’t in serious relationships find that imago therapy can help them look at how their historical behavior patterns might be resulting in repeatedly choosing partners who aren’t giving them what they need.

Imago therapy can teach you about how your past trauma and relationship anxiety can be affecting your current relationships in life. It can help you learn to heal, so you can become more confident and healthy in your next relationship.

What Techniques Are Involved in Imago Relationship Therapy?

There are some very specific techniques used in imago therapy: dialogue, mirroring, validation, and empathy.

Dialogue 

First, imago dialogue plays an important role. It’s a very structured process that allows two people to better understand one another, resulting in empathy. Imago dialogue is conducted by a therapist who’s been specially trained in imago therapy techniques. The goals are:

  • To remove hurtful negative language from communication patterns 
  • To create a safe place that both people can share
  • To allow two people the space they need to create an equal partnership and do away with an imbalance of power, providing a safe environment to share freely

Mirroring

Mirroring involves repeating back to your partner what you just heard them say. This technique gives you clarification. It also ensures that you understand what was said. Mirroring should be done without judgment or criticism. There also shouldn’t be any response. Rather, you just repeat back what you heard your partner say. You can preface your statement with “So I heard you say…” and then paraphrase what you heard.

Validation

Validation is key when it comes to imago relationship therapy. By validating what your partner has shared or said, you let them know that you understand where they’re coming from. If you don’t truly understand, validation can let them know that you’re at least trying. You can ask for more information if you aren’t grasping what they’re saying. In that case, they could respond with something like “I understand why you might feel that way…”

Empathy

Empathy is the final part of the process. You now can share what you think your partner might be feeling. This lets them know you have a very clear, in-depth understanding of the emotional experience they might be going through. This might sound something like “I can imagine that you must be very upset right now…”

Benefits of Imago Therapy

There are a number of benefits that IRT can offer you. Whether you might seek it for your relationship, or for your own personal individual growth, imago therapy can be beneficial for:

  • Learning how to communicate with each other
  • Letting go of feelings of disconnect
  • Navigating conflict or disagreement that has happened over and over
  • Infidelity
  • Trust issues
  • Commitment issues
  • Lack of intimacy in a relationship
  • Understanding early attachments 
  • Learning to use conflict as a way to grow
  • A collaborative treatment style

“Imago therapy is an opportunity to gain deeper awareness of ourselves and what has shaped who we are at this moment. Our values, habits, sensitivities, desires. This deep understanding of ourselves results in a genuine understanding of how and why we choose our partner and what we value and want out of our intimate relationships. With this knowledge as a foundation we can truly nurture and grow the relationship in a healthy way.” 

Talkspace therapist Amy Cirbus PhD, LMHC, LPC

It’s important to note that IRT isn’t only for couples who are struggling. The truth is, imago therapy can be very beneficial even for two people who already feel like they have a satisfying and healthy relationship. Learning about each other’s past can help you build a stronger relationship that can withstand the test of time.

Who can benefit most?

While imago relationship therapy can help anyone in a long term or committed relationship, it can also help:

  • Individuals
  • Couples at any stage of their relationship
  • Couples that have relationship goals they want to achieve
  • People who are just dating
  • Anyone who’s interested in learning about why they choose the partners they do 
  • Anyone who wants to explore their relationship patterns
  • Anyone who wants to establish a healthy relationship

How to Get Started With Imago Relationship Therapy

You can get started with imago therapy either in direct therapy sessions, online couples therapy, or workshops. Workshops can be tailored specifically to your situation and can be targeted toward couples who have children, couples who are in distress, individuals, premarital couples, and more.

Working with a licensed therapist is another possibility, and this looks very similar to traditional therapy. You’d generally have one-hour sessions where you work through relationship issues or any other challenges you’re trying to overcome. 

Imago therapy might be exactly what you’ve been looking for if you want to understand why you behave the way you do or why you attract the partners you tend to. 

Sources:

1. Gehlert N, Schmidt C, Giegerich V, Luquet W. Randomized Controlled Trial of Imago Relationship Therapy: Exploring Statistical and Clinical Significance. J Couple Relatsh Ther. 2017;16(3):188-209. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15332691.2016.1253518?journalCode=wcrt20.

2. Schmidt C, Gelhert N. Couples Therapy and Empathy. The Family Journal. 2016;25(1):23-30. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1066480716678621

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