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Imago couples therapy

“When we were babies, we didn’t smile sweetly at our mothers to get them to take care of us. We didn’t pinpoint our discomfort by putting it into words. We simply opened our mouths and screamed. And it didn’t take us long to learn that, the louder we screamed, the quicker they came. The success of this tactic was turned into an “imprint,” a part of our stored memory about how to get the world to respond to our needs: “When you are frustrated, provoke the people around you.”

Harville Hendrix

Imago couples therapy is a theory co-created by therapist couple Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt.   It is widely practiced by couples therapists around the world.

Harville and Helen wrote a wonderful book for couples called Getting The Love You Want that is based on Imago therapy.  It is in my top two books for couples that I recommended to clients who are wanting to understand and improve their marriage or intimate relationship.

What follows is my explanation of the basic assumptions, concepts, and interventions of Imago couples therapy.

The Imago

Imago is a Latin word that means “image.”  The imago is a collection of all of the positive and negative characteristics of our early caregivers who raised us as children.  

The mystery of romantic attraction

In this theory, it is assumed that the primary and real reason that we fall deeply in love with one person or the other is not the other person’s looks, status, money, or even the quality of their character.  It is that they are an imago match for us, which means that they possess many of the traits – positive and negative – of our early caregivers in our family of origin.

It is also assumed that this reason for falling in love operates powerfully and subconsciously when we are courting and choosing a life partner.

According to imago theory, the reason that we fall in love with a particular person who resembles many of our own familiar, family traits, is that we are subconsciously seeking someone who can give us a better, different outcome than the ways we were hurt when we were children.  We want to be given what we didn’t get as kids – whether that was some type of affection or attunement or autonomy – not from just anyone, but from a specific type of person who fits our imago (image) of family.

This is a possible explanation for why we can be attracted on a physical level or even intellectual level to many people, but only a select few are able to make us fall head over heels in love beyond reason or logic.

One possible explanation for this seemingly curious and subconscious need may be found in neuroscience.  The “old brain” (more ancient brain structures) do not know the difference between our past, present, and future, and lives in an “eternal now”.  It therefore never stops looking for our original nurturers (those who took care of us), and tries to “find” them by finding someone else (a romantic partner) who has similar psychological traits to what we experienced as kids.

Our “new brain” (newer brain structures such as the prefrontal cortex) may consciously know that our early caregivers are no longer in our lives and that our partner is in no way responsible for any unmet needs we had in childhood.  Meanwhile, our “old brain” has a few basic categories in which it places individuals, such as nurturer, someone to nurture, potential mate, potential threat, and authority figure.  When we meet a new person with whom we feel very strong attraction and chemistry, we are (according to Imago theory) actually mistaking this person for our parents who we want to nurture us.  Our “old brain” is simultaneously placing this person in the “mate” and “nurturer” categories and hoping that, this time around, we will have more of our needs met that weren’t met the first time around in childhood.  In Imago theory this is called the “unfinished business of childhood” or the “hidden agenda” that each person brings – without even knowing it – into their marriage or relationship from the beginning.

“The unconscious trying to resurrect the past is not a matter of habit or blind compulsion but of a compelling need to heal old childhood wounds.”

Harville Hendrix

Childhood attachment wounds

Imago therapy assumes that problems in intimate and marital relationships stem largely from childhood attachment wounds that we are expecting to have healed by our partners.  Childhood wounds do not only refer to obvious psychological scars resulting from physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or neglect.  All of us had imperfect parents and therefore all of us carry around some degree of psychological wounding from childhood.  We also carry a set of personality defenses that we learned along the way to hide parts of ourselves and avoid further wounding.  Because our parents were imperfect human beings who had their own wounds, there were times when they were not able to be there for us, accept difficult parts of us, give us enough space and autonomy, etc.  In this way it borrows heavily from psychodynamic theory.

Emotional needs vs surface needs

Like most effective theories of therapy, imago therapy focuses on the basic, emotional, attachment needs of the heart, rather than more surface level needs.  The fundamental needs include feeling loved and cherished, respect, admiration, affection, autonomy, and healthy separation to be an individual.  Examples of surface level needs (not the focus) would include things like chores, cooking, nights out, money issues, or other day-to-day arguments that couples often believe is the problem but are really a symptom of emotional disharmony between them.  The assumption in imago theory is that if the deeper, core attachment needs are met, then the other quotidian everyday mechanics of life will fall into place.

The irony of the imago match

“Romantic Love delivers us into the passionate arms of someone who will ultimately trigger the same frustrations we had with our parents, but for the best possible reason! Doing so brings our childhood wounds to the surface so they can be healed.”

Harville Hendrix

Since partners are often attracted to each other based on their resemblance to each other’s childhood caregivers, it is often the case that we choose a partner who is largely “unqualified” to give us a different outcome than we had in childhood.  For example, imago theory would predict that someone who had emotionally distant parents might fall in love with someone who also tends to be emotionally distant.  The same would apply for caregivers/partners who tended to be intrusive or smothering.  That’s where the challenge of couples therapy lies.  Both partners tend to want something from the other that is especially difficult for the other to give.  This has been called a “return to the scene” of our early childhood attachment wounding.

The relational nature of individual healing

“The outside shapes the inside.”

Harville Hendrix

An important assumption of imago theory is an emphasis that healing occurs at the level of the bond between partners, rather than on each person’s individual healing.  Some other theories would aim to help each individual provide themselves with their emotional needs (such as attunement, compassion, attention) and not look so much to a romantic partner to fill an emotional hole.  But imago theory takes the opposite approach and posits that we need our partners to provide to us what was not provided in childhood.  In fact, it assumes that romantic/intimate love relationships are uniquely purposed to heal us, because of the degree to which they resemble the early parent-child relationship in a way that other relationships (friendships, extended family, mentorships, etc) do not.  The intimate relationship involves physically and emotionally intimate contact on a daily basis, and imago theory assumes that that level of intimacy is needed to heal and repair the ruptures of attachment that happened in childhood, because those too took place on a daily basis for many years.

Because of this position, it is important that both individuals in the partnership see the overall big picture and cooperate with generosity.  Both need to have the mindset that they are wounded and, by committing to their partner, have taken it upon themselves to heal their partner and themselves by recovering and gaining lost and new abilities that their partner needs, and that the relationship will only get better if both parties are willing to do this for each other.  If only one side gives and tries to stretch themselves to be more whole and loving in the ways that the other partner needs, it eventually becomes unsustainable.  The good news is that if someone starts with a sincere attempt, the other is more likely to follow suit and reciprocate by giving what their partner needs from them.

Three stages of love

Imago theory delineates three different stages of love relationships:

  1. Romantic love
  2. The power struggle
  3. Mature (real) love

Romantic love

“Romantic Love delivers us into the passionate arms of someone who will ultimately trigger the same frustrations we had with our parents, but for the best possible reason! Doing so brings our childhood wounds to the surface so they can be healed.”

Harville Hendrix

Romantic love is the beginning phase of a relationship that feels wonderful, and in which we are able to effortlessly nurture and give to our partners.  In this phase of love, our unconscious brains are elated that we have found the person who we believe (subconsciously) can finally restore our wholeness and meet the needs that we were unable to have met in our childhoods.  Imago therapy assumes that the fuel and energy of the intense connection we feel in this stage is the expectation of need fulfillment.  In other words, we are subconsciously investing in someone who we believe will provide us with a payoff later (making us whole again and healing us).

The power struggle

“The power struggle is growth trying to happen.”

Harville Hendrix

The power struggle begins when there is a serious commitment in the relationship.  A psychological shift takes place in which both partners simultaneously desire to shift to some extent from the nurturer to the one being nurtured.  The unconscious mind seeks compensation for all the courting sacrifice made in the romantic love stage.

This leads to an unpleasant surprise and conflict on both sides, as each correctly sees their partner settling into a comfort zone in which they give less and expect more.  

The response tends to be difficult emotions (disappointment, hurt, anger, anxiety) and attempts to extract more of what each wants from the other, which tends to backfire and lead to a negative cycle.  The more we feel demanded of us and withheld from, the harder it is to give out of generosity and love.

The power struggle can last for only a few months or for a few decades.  It is a fork in the road that eventually leads to the final, truly satisfying stage of love (mature love) or to the end of the relationship.  A third path, sadly, is staying together for life despite an absence of love.

Mature love

“Do you want to be right, or do you want to be in relationship?” Because you can’t always have both. You can’t cuddle up and relax with “being right” after a long day.”

Harville Hendrix

Mature love is the ideal end stage of imago therapy.  In this stage, partners accept each other (including their “hidden agendas” and “unfinished business” from childhood), and both sincerely desire to help heal each other by provide that which their parents could not.  The motivation for this desire to heal each other does not come from an expectation of getting anything in return, but from trust and empathy for the childhood wounds that each carries.  Mature love is sometimes called “reality love” because the partners no longer see each other as surrogate parents who should have an easy time giving each other what each needs, but instead see the true, actual, individual human being they have chosen to work on healing with, despite the difficulties and disappointments that inevitably occur along the journey.

Imago therapy interventions


This is the Imago term for what is done in most couples therapies, which is to identify the behaviors and words that each partner wants and to intentionally plan to bring more of these into the relationship.  It is a effort to bring back some of the energy and juice from the romantic love stage of the relationship in order to resolve the power struggle from a firmer foundation.  It capitalizes on what the couple knew and learned from the beginning when they were both courting and falling in love with each other.  Whether it is more touch, backrubs, help with chores, date nights, sex, intimate conversations, etc, the relationship heals as both partners begin to feel more loved and safe and care for, which helps instill motivation to examine and resolve their power struggle by stepping out of their comfort zones.  Re-romanticizing sometimes needs to be initiated with the logical reason that it will help, and the emotional motivation tends to come later as the couple practices behaviors of caring.

Sharing about each other’s childhoods

When partners talk with each other partner about their childhoods and the unmet needs they had, they help each other to not take each other’s behavior personally and have more empathy for the times when they both feel triggered.  Understanding that our partner was neglected or smothered as a child, for example, can help us empathize why they might become anxious or angry when we are absent or seek closeness beyond their therapeutic range.  Our interpretation can shift from “my partner is cold and doesn’t love me” to “my partner was injured as a child and my doing ___ abrades that injury and overwhelms them.”  If both partners can have such an empathetic understanding for each other, they can often feel better about their relationship and themselves, and are more likely to stretch themselves by attuning to what the other needs (giving the partner more affection or more space, for example).

Imago dialogue

The imago dialogue is a structured listening exercise in which partners take turns in roles (either the listener or the speaker) and make sure that the speaker’s message is received accurately.  This slows down the conversation and ensures that progress is being made in communicating.  

  1. The speaker shares
  2. The listener reflects back what he/she heard
  3. If the speaker is satisfied, the speaker agrees.  
  4. The listeners then asks, “is there more?”
  5. If the speaker is not satisfied, they share again with some different words and the listener tries reflecting again
  6. This is repeated until the speaker feels that their message was heard and understood
  7. They switch roles and repeat so the listener becomes the speaker

This exercise is a practice of showing attunement and empathy, which is ultimately what partners were missing (in various forms) as children and what they seek from each other.

Imago-informed therapy with individual clients

Couples therapy tools can, and are, used in individual therapy, quite well.  When a client’s partner is not present in session, we can still explore their imago, speculations about their partner’s imago, how they both struggle to meet the unmet needs of each other’s childhoods, the behaviors and thoughts that keep eachother stuck in a power struggle, and how to re-romanticise the relationship and practice the imago dialogue.

It is ideal with both partners are present, but often change in one partner’s behavior automatically creates some change in the other’s behavior and in the relationship, since it all functions as an interdependent system.

Sometimes the other partner will become more motivated to participate in couples therapy once they see positive changes their partner is making and new insights they are bringing into the relationship.

It is best if each person focuses mostly on themselves and what they can change.  If each person focuses on the deficits and problems of the other person, it tends to just deepen the problems.  If each focuses on what they can do to “clean up their own side of the street”, it tends to lead to improvement in the relationship, and the other person reciprocating the self-ownership.

Learning Imago principles can also help us understand the relationship struggles of other loved ones in our lives (e.g. parents, relatives, friends, etc) so we can accept the complexity and empathize with the struggle they are facing, which goes far back into the past.


  1. Hendrix, H., LaKelly Hunt, H.  Getting The Love You Want: A Guide For Couples

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