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An Orientation to Imago Relationship Therapy

By Harville Hendrix, PhD & Robert Elliott, PhD


From the earliest times to the present, the testimony is consistent: men and women have trouble with their most important relationships. The divorce rate nears fifty percent, and for second marriages is even higher. Of people in intact marriages, eighty percent report varying degrees of dissatisfaction. In earlier days, the divorce rate was lower, but there is no reason to believe that marriages then were more successful, if we measure in terms of satisfaction and happiness. Of all human enterprises, marriage shows the starkest contrast between beginnings and outcome, between the enthusiasm and hopefulness of the launching, and the pain and distress of the storm-tossed passage.

We think that contrast is not accidental or just pervasive bad luck. We believe that there is something in the nature of primary love relationships that moves almost inexorably from what could be called the stage of romantic illusion to the subsequent stage of disillusionment and power struggle.

We believe that the natural history of relationships can be diagrammed as follows:

Disappointment Disillusionment Coercion Information Options DecisionNo-Exit Decision Stretching Principle
Effective strategies and skills
--Caring Behaviors
--Behavior Change Requests

RECOMMENDED READING: (Book or audio Tape) Harville Hendrix, PhD


Romantic love is powerful and important, and can be glorious, but we believe that it contains within it the seeds of its own decay. Our thesis is that a Primary Love Relationship emotionally recapitulates important aspects of the early life situation of each of the lovers. Experiences in infancy and childhood with significant caretakers leave all of us with important residues that we unconsciously carry into our life with our present partner. That pattern of unfinished relational business is attached to what we call the Imago.

How the Imago is formed and how it functions will be described in greater detail below. For the moment we propose that the Imago unconsciously guides our selection of a romantic partner. The Imago is the key to that mysterious spark that draws two lovers together "across a crowded room," out of a myriad of other possible choices. What we bring to that romantic encounter is not only our present needs for companionship and love, but also our unconscious hope that the partner will meet, touch and heal the hurts and unmet longings we bring from the past. Ironically, the old hurts are likely to be reactivated and exacerbated with this partner, as will be explained later. As that happens, the disappointments, frustration, hurt and rage can be profound.


The romantic or honeymoon stage of marriage, as long as it lasts, is sustained by idealization of the partner, and the hope that at last one has found the partner who will meet one's deepest needs. It seems almost inevitable for that stage to decay ("the honeymoon is over when ..."). The breakdown may occur quickly or over a long period of time, but few couples escape it. In ways that partners often have trouble understanding, frustrations and disappointments appear: "This is not turning out the way it was supposed to." Each has a deep image of the way the other is "supposed" to be, and the natural process seems to be that partners begin trying to maneuver each other into fulfilling that image. Forms of maneuvering may be open or hidden, loud or quiet, active or passive. For example, one partner may yell, and the other retreat in silence, Each is trying to get his or her needs met, but the coercive process is counter-productive. It can reach a tug-of-war or impasse state in which each is feeling enormous frustration and hurt. The more intractable and repetitive the arguments ("We go round and round on this issue, over and over again."), the more likely it is that they are rooted in unfinished business and unhealed hurts in each partner from past relationships in childhood.

As the impasse deepens, partners may:
1. Give up and leave the relationship. This usually means carrying their problems with them, to be re-enacted in new relationships.
2. Sink into some kind of disappointed or despairing or hostile co-existence.
3. Take a new look at the relationship and work together to understand and transform it.


For a couple at this critical stage Imago Therapy has unique and important forms of help. It offers a theory of how the uncompleted emotional agendas of childhood are likely to be re-enacted in present marital conflict. Imago Therapy offers ways to access and bring into awareness that material so that it can be used by the partners to re-create the healing and caring relationship which each seeks.


Imago Therapy employs a number of other specific procedures for helping couples transform their relationship. Among these are the "No-exit Decision" and the "Stretching Principle," which are described in greater detail below. In addition we teach skills in basic communication, empathic communication, target caring behaviors and restructuring frustrations. A most potent strategy is "The Container", a process for the safe and constructive expression and resolution of anger.


The goal of the transformation process is to help a couple develop their capacity for what might be called "Reality Love", in contrast to the illusory quality of romantic love. Reality Love is based on knowledge, care, respect and valuing of the other. We know from observation and experience that that kind of love is a possibility for couples. Although we speak of it as the last stage in the process of transformation, it is probably more correct to think of it as a journey in which couples can learn how to travel well together, rather than as a final destination.


We turn now to a more detailed description of the Imago and how it functions. A basic assumption of Imago Relationship Therapy is that deep in the mind of each person is an unconscious image of the opposite sex. This image began to form in earliest infancy and became fairly complete in later childhood. We call this image the Imago. A second assumption is that the Imago greatly influences the type of person we select as a primary love partner in adult life, as well as how we will relate to that person.

How does the Imago come into being? And what determines its content?
What seems to happen is something like this: In the normal childhood situation, each of us spent our first years in a social environment with our parents and other adults who were responsible for our care and upon whom we were dependent for our basic needs. We will call these persons "primary caretakers".

Our early needs were simple but compelling. We can summarize them as: 1) instinctual needs (food, touch, attention, etc.); 2) safety needs (not being left alone, knowing the parents would protect us from danger, etc.); 3) intimacy/closeness needs (comfortable openness with feelings and thoughts); 4) distance/freedom needs (have own space, come and go as one pleases). These needs are natural and universal. We cannot choose not to have them. Our desire for them to be met is human. Our frustration when they are not met is logical. In childhood, the gratification of these needs is our right. In adulthood, it becomes our responsibility.

In infancy and childhood, each of us tried the best we knew to get our caretakers to meet our needs. And our caretakers tried the best they knew to meet our needs. However, no matter how adequate our caretakers were, they could not and did not meet all of our needs all of the time, and that left us frustrated some of the time.

In addition, some of us had caretakers who had their own problems. Sometimes they were depressed or preoccupied, busy or angry. At other times we were left alone because of their sickness, work, divorce or death. Others of us had parents who were cold and detached some or most of the time. Whenever our caretakers' needs made them physically and emotionally unable to meet our needs, we experienced pain and intense frustration.

Each transaction with our caretakers left an impression in our minds. In some transactions our needs were satisfied and we experienced pleasure. When we were frustrated, we experienced pain. Each pain left an "imprint"; each imprint became part of a "picture" in the deep part of our mind. That picture we call the Imago, the deeply embedded imago of the "other", the opposite sex.

The Imago is a synthesis of the positive and negative traits of all our primary caretakers as they were related to the satisfaction or frustration of our needs.


A fundamental concept of Imago Relationship Therapy is the assumption that frustration in a primary love relationship can be resolved only by redesigning the relationship so that your unfinished business from childhood can be completed. The previously unconscious aim of your relationship must become its conscious intention; your very source of frustration can become a resource for pleasure and gratification.

Among other things, this redesigning process involves your learning certain relating and communicating skills. With these, you and your partner can help each other to satisfy your longings from your past and to rejuvenate your hopes for the future. If you learn and use these skills to resolve childhood issues, you will create a high-quality, positive, working relationship that will serve you both in the achievement of your life potential, both separately and together.

If you are considering therapy now, you are probably having difficulties with one or more of the three major issues of a primary relationship, issues which are the same as those of childhood: to feel secure, to satisfy wants, and to attain a mutually agreed upon level of intimacy. You may not now have the skills to solve these problems, but be assured that the goal of resolving these difficulties can be attained through this learning process. Your therapist will assist you in the process.

In each therapy session you will be asked to carry out certain procedures that will help you understand and resolve the troubling issues in your relationship. Some of these procedures will be easy for you; others will be new and difficult. The work of relationship therapy often requires radical changes in both partners. Change can arouse feelings of anxiety, and the prospect of change is often threatening. At times you may feel that you are being asked to do something which is not natural to you and that to accomplish it would mean that you would no longer be "yourself". Such feelings are quite common and, indeed, they indicate that the process is working. The procedures are doing what they are intended to do!

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