The Theory of Imago Relationship Therapy

The Theory of Imago Relationship Therapy

Imago Relationship Therapy is a form of couples' therapy developed by Harville Hendrix and his wife, Helen LaKelly Hunt, in the mid 1980's. Their book, Getting The Love You Want: A Guide for Couples, became a New York Times best seller in 1988. Harville has been on the Oprah Winfrey Show seventeen times. Oprah calls him "The marriage whisperer," and "My favorite couples' therapist."
This phenomenon gave rise to an explosive interest in Imago Relationship Therapy and led to the development of the organization of Imago Relationships International.

The following is theoretical and may hold none or minimal interest for some of you. This is perfectly alright, and in no way would hinder your capacity to benefit from the practices we recommend in this trilogy.


  1. Healthy babies are born whole and complete. Our natural state as neonates is to feel alive - to experience emphatic connection as well as a state of relaxed joyfulness, especially while in the arms of our mother.
  2. We became wounded by our parents and other caregivers, usually inadvertently, during the early nurturing and socialization stages of our development - primarily the first three years. Our parents did their best and therefore do not deserve to be judged. Nevertheless, they made mistakes and we all suffered some degree of woundedness because of them. We lost our original wholeness, aliveness, and emphatic connection.
  3. We all yearn to heal our childhood wounds in order to restore our aliveness. We also yearn to grow into our full potential and become whole. All animals and plants have the same inner drive: to become the best they can be given the environmental conditions they find themselves in.
  4. Because of these wounds, we developed patterns of defenses - protective mechanisms that we call our character structure - in order to keep us safe during childhood. These protective mechanisms include constricting and pulling back our energy (minimizing) or expanding and pushing forward our energy (maximizing). Some of the maximizing defenses include becoming a clinger or a pursuer, or being diffuse or manipulative. Some of the minimizing defenses involve becoming an isolating or distancing person, or sometimes becoming rigid or competitive.
  5. Our experiences with our parents, from birth on, got imprinted in some primitive, nonverbal parts of our brain and our body. By the time we reach adulthood, we have a rich tapestry of those imprints (both positive and negative experiences). We call this inner, unconscious catalog of our experiences with our parents and significant adults, the Imago. The Imago is an unconscious image of those experiences, imprinted at the deepest level of our being. This imprinting process exists in all mammals, and that includes us humans. It is in the service of survival, and allows the young to know who their parents are and to rush to them for protection in times of danger.
  6. This inner image, the Imago, is the unconscious road-map that leads us to a person we will fall in love with - a person who does, symbolically, represent the negative aspects of both Mom and Dad all wrapped up into one. We call that person an "Imago Match". This Imago Match is just the right person with whom to finish our unfinished business and heal the wounds of our childhoods. Thus, the Imago theory postulates that the primary goal of committed, intimate relationships is healing and growth. A common destructive myth is that the goal of marriage is to be happy. What's beautiful, though, is that the by-product of growth and healing work will indeed, be happiness! We can reach the state of happiness we all yearn for.
  7. As we were growing up, some characteristics in our parents hurt us. In the committed intimate relationship, we are now in the presence of a person who will awaken in us all those negative imprints - a person who will touch our raw nerves - but also a person who can now choose to love us the way we need to be loved and give us what our parents never could. Concurrently, we are called upon to reciprocate and become a healer for our partner. Ah! We feel safe with that person. We feel loved. We experience the healing and wholeness we had been yearning for.
  8. Romantic Love is the door into a committed, intimate relationship (living together or marriage), and it is nature's way of connecting us with just the right person for our eventual healing and growth.
  9. When we make a full commitment to this person, we enter the Power Struggle stage of relationships. The Power Struggle is essential, for embedded in a couple's frustrations lie the information for healing and growth. We have a saying in Imago: "Conflict is growth trying to happen!" We often misinterpret conflict to mean that we are not right for each other. On the contrary, conflict provides the main impetus and opportunity for change and personal development.
  10. We engage in the first two stages of couple-hood - Romantic Love and the Power Struggle - at an unconscious level. Our unconscious mind chooses our partner for the purpose of healing childhood wounds. During the Romantic Love stage, we are re-actively nice. During the Power Struggle stage, we are re-actively unkind and critical.
  11. We will discover, to our consternation, that upon making a full commitment (either in marriage or moving in together), our love partner is incompatible with us, least able to meet our needs, and most able to re-wound us all over again. This is because we are an Imago Match, meaning we are equally wounded but carry complementary energies (minimizers and maximizers couple up). Consequently, we struggle with the other's way of doing things. We are now between a rock and a hard place, and we will be forced to grow up or get out. When we discover this, we feel deeply disillusioned and betrayed, and we wonder if we are with the "wrong" person.
  12. The goal of Imago Relationship Therapy is to assist clients to develop a conscious, intimate and committed relationship that becomes a crucible where healing and growth can happen.
  13. The definition of healing is getting emotional needs met that were not met in childhood. For example, healing can be feeling acknowledged and appreciated instead of ignored and neglected.
  14. The definition of growth is the modification of our character defenses. Character defenses (maximizing or minimizing) protected us from pain in childhood. Now those very same defenses that worked well for us as children, block us from having closeness as adults. The modification of our defenses will allow us to grow into maturity.
  15. The journey toward healing and growth moves us from reactivity (that which we do spontaneously) to intentionality (that which we decide to do to counter our reactivity).
  16. All couples have the same diagnosis: Emotional Symbiosis. This is quite different from biological symbiosis, in which two organisms interact to their mutual advantage. Emotional Symbiosis in couples occurs when one partner wants the other to think, feel and believe just like he or she does: "I want you to see the world my way, and when you don't, I feel threatened." We are all on a journey of letting go of the idea that you need to think, feel and believe the way I do in order for me to love you.
    This transition from symbiosis to differentiation does not take place through insight. We must practice specific skills and processes often and regularly to shift us from having an unconscious relationship (reactive and symbiotic) to having a conscious relationship (intentional and differentiated). Healthy differentiation is what allows us to experience connection. If I can let you be you (differentiation), you will feel safe with me and therefore experience connection with me.
  17. All couples desire passion. A non-negotiable condition for passion is safety. Therefore, Imago practice focuses on keeping each other safe in each other's presence.

Couples want to be in touch with the life force they were born with. They want to feel the excitement that "you and I make a great team!" They want to feel effective and energized in the world. They want to feel sexually alive. Passion is a function of safety. As we do "the work" safety increases and passion emerges.

The safety we are trying to achieve is the safety to be ourselves without the fear of judgment or retaliation from our partner. In Imago, we believe that safety is achieved through the use of structure. The main structure we teach couples is embedded in Dialogues in various forms. The Formal Dialogue forces us to listen to each other, therefore slowly ushering in a greater disclosure of the self and a sense that indeed we are connected.

It often takes several years of regular work together to get to that place and achieve the relationship of your dreams


We recommend that you attend a "Getting The Love You Want Couples Workshop" (which was designed by Harville Hendrix and his wife Helen LaKelly Hunt in the 70s and 80s) to get a full introduction to the various Dialogues and exercises.

When Harville got divorced in the early 70's, he was a professor of Marriage and Family at Southern Methodist University in Texas - and the irony of it hit him very hard. After he and Helen got married they dedicated their lives to figuring out why being an intimate couple in today's world is so difficult. Harville and Helen's 1988 New York Times Best-Selling book, Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples came out of the workshops they had developed for couples over the previous decade. They saw the intimate couple as the foundation of society, and determined that the childhood wounding that results in all the ills of society starts in the home of origin. They came to the conclusion that the best way to heal society is to bring healing to intimate couples. The analogy they use is, "Stop the pollution upstream and then we won't need to spend all the billions of dollars trying to clean up the pollution downstream" - jails, child abuse, teen pregnancies, broken homes, robberies, murders, war and on and on.

The workshop has stood the test of time. Scores of these same workshops are put on every weekend all over the world by Certified Imago Workshop Presenters who have been trained at the Imago International Institute. As a result, there are several hundred thousand couples who have taken the workshop not only in the United States but in over thirty-five countries around the world.

The workshop is a seminar, NOT group therapy. You and your partner may remain as private as you choose. All the work is done between you as a couple. You get a comprehensive manual. There are lectures, demonstrations, workbook exercises, and periods of Dialogue with your partner using the processes that have just been modeled. Coaching is available throughout the two days. Couples often find this intensive workshop to have the same value as six months of couples counseling.

To find out more about Imago and the Couples Workshops, go to: