Benefits Of Imago Approach In Therapy And How It Works

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated May 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Support is available 24/7. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

If you’re familiar with couples therapy, you may have heard of a method called imago relationship therapy. Imago couples therapy uses a variety of unique techniques, such as imago dialogue, to help couples form a deeper connection leading to a long and rewarding relationship and a fulfilling journey together. Below, we’ll explore imago therapy and how it may benefit your relationship.

Getty/Halfpoint Images
Change your relationship for the better

What is imago therapy?

Imago relationship therapy sessions are based on the term "imago," or the "unconscious image of a love that's familiar." In other words, according to this approach, people often seek a romantic relationship that mirrors the love they received from their parents or a love they hope will heal their childhood wounds. According to this theory, much of the conflict that occurs in relationships is due to expecting that one’s partner will fulfill one’s needs in a certain way. If these expectations and needs are not met, it can make each partner wonder if they chose the right mate.

For example, suppose a person had a difficult childhood in which they were criticized by their parents often. When their partner criticizes them, they may be sensitive to that criticism, experience intense feelings, and worry about being abandoned. Although they hoped and expected that their partner would not be critical of them, that expectation did not match reality. Therefore, they may wonder if this is the right mate for them. As a result, the relationship may experience more emotional instability, and both partners may experience less relationship satisfaction. These issues that come up are often considered “core issues,” which are the primary focus of healing and growth in the relationship.

Therefore, problems in a person’s early life, as well as their partner’s childhood experiences, can create conflict and emotional problems in the relationship, particularly in early relationships. In fact, much of the conflict found in couples dealing with adult relationships is rooted in painful experiences of the past and early attachments and communication styles. This may be particularly true for anyone who experienced domestic violence or neglect in their childhood.

Furthermore, because people often seek relationships in order to heal, they may be drawn to incompatible people as conflict often brings opportunities for healing and growth between partners.

Through the use of imago relationships therapy, couples may gain a deeper understanding of each other’s feelings and process childhood wounds so that they don’t affect the relationship. A therapist with specialized training in the imago approach knows a safe space invites vulnerability, and in such a space can facilitate discussions that help them to communicate effectively, deepening intimacy. Imago relationship therapy aims to teach couples how to be in a conscious relationship and how to offer each other support and validation for their concerns and vulnerability.

Who developed this methodology?

Imago and the idea of imago relationships were developed by Dr. Harville Hendrix and Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt in 1980. They named it after the Latin word for “image,” as this therapy tends to focus on the unconscious image of familiar love. They helped thousands of couples facilitate the healing of their marriage and were even able to repair their own marriage using their own exercises and theories.

Imago relationship therapy gained popularity after Dr. Hendrix and Dr. Hunt published the New York Times bestselling book Getting The Love You Want. They provide numerous courses on this type of therapy and published more New York Times bestsellers on the subject.

How effective is imago relationship therapy?

Typically, the effectiveness of a type of therapy is determined in a randomized controlled trial and peer-reviewed studies. However, this form of therapy is relatively new. Therefore, scientific research on this therapy exploring statistical and clinical results is not yet robust. There have only been a few peer-reviewed studies and trials of imago relationship therapy.

In 2016, a study trial of imago relationship therapy was published in Family Journal. The results of the study exploring statistical significance in results for the application of this theory showed that imago relationship therapy helped couples experience increased empathy and relationship satisfaction. The statistical and clinical significance of this pilot study showed imago relationship therapy to be a success and positively impact relationships and launched further study in the field. This trial, which was focused on Imago relationship therapy exploring statistical results, is considered highly important in validating the impact of Imago relationship therapy.

If you want to learn more about the effectiveness of imago relationship therapy, you might read reviews of the bestselling book Getting The Love You Want. To date, it has sold millions of copies, with many readers reporting significant improvements in their relationships, even for those who didn’t work with an Imago therapist.

Why choose imago for your relationship?

A trained imago therapist aims to help couples create a conscious relationship by shifting the focus from blaming each other and being reactive to honestly expressing uncertainties, as well as showing support, empathy, and understanding. This can help couples create a deeper connection with one another and gain more understanding of each other’s feelings as therapy sessions go on.

You might consider imago therapy if you are experiencing challenges with your relationship and believe that your childhood experiences or your partner’s childhood experiences are causing unhealthy relationship patterns. Although imago has been primarily used to help with marriages, it can be beneficial to long-term relationships as well as premarital couples, helping to build a healthier relationship regardless of marriage status or the relationship’s existing duration. One of the benefits of Imago relationship therapy exploring childhood experiences is that it may improve general mental health in addition to relationship health.

However, imago relationship therapy is not passive work. Both partners can expect to put effort into the relationship as well as themselves. Many Imago therapists encourage participants to work on their own negative traits in addition to working on the relationship, so you may be guided to try individual counseling in conjunction with imago relationship therapy. This is so that you can work on your “core issues,” as they are the primary factors in your relationship patterns and emotional experiences. If one partner is not willing to put in the work, they may find that it may be much harder for imago therapy to succeed. With any type of relationship therapy, exploring conflicts and challenges from both sides can be crucial.

Workshops for this method

Instead of talking to an imago therapist, some people prefer to try out imago approaches through a workshop setting. Couples can go to group settings outside of their home to learn some of the exercises and techniques of imago relationship therapy. These include learning different dialogue activities to have better, more meaningful conversations, exploring emotions, and reconnecting on a deeper level. However, many couples decide to continue their work by seeking imago therapy after finishing these workshops. Any type of couples therapy, Imago therapy included, can be helpful for couples who are struggling with conflict and other difficulties.

How does this method work to improve relationships?

One of the basic theories of imago therapy is those childhood feelings born out of our earliest relationships can impact our adult life. Imago therapy tends to focus on creating a unique system that improves imago relationships. According to this approach, we are all born complete and whole. However, in the early nurturing and socializing stages, we get hurt, most of the time by our caretakers. For example, you may have experienced difficulties in childhood. An imago therapist will likely focus on the positive and the negative aspects you've unconsciously associated with your primary caretakers, leading to positive imago relationships. This is the image, and in essence, that's the blueprint that someone needs to put forward and have in front of their partner in an intimate imago relationship.

Understanding imago-based therapy: development, method, and benefits

Imago relationship therapy utilizes a few techniques in a safe environment to help couples develop a more loving connection. These include:

  • Imago dialogue: This is an intentional dialogue that aims to mirror, validate, and empathize. Imago dialogue is structured to prevent conversations from becoming judgmental or hurtful and instead is geared toward better understanding and empathy. Tackling frustrations constructively can go far in conquering obstacles in the dialogue process. 
  • Closing the exits: This is the act of creating boundaries with people or hobbies that are used as unhealthy outlets to distract you from your relationship problems. After closing, you likely have more time and energy to devote to healthier solutions to your relationship concerns.
  • Imago workup: This is the initial assessment in imago relationship therapy that aims to help you explore similarities between your partner and your caregivers.
  • Behavior change request: During this stage, you may learn to stop complaining to your partner about their behavior and find healthier ways to change it or compromise. Imago therapists often suggest providing three behavior change options that your partner can choose from.

The exact methods you will use in therapy may be tailored specifically to you and your partner. Your imago therapist may come up with techniques that make sense for both your needs.

By conducting this work, you and your partner are likely to see many benefits in your intimate relationships and your own behavior. Some of these benefits may include:

  • Healing core issues and that may have led to wounded child feelings
  • Being more conscious and present in the relationship
  • Increasing empathy and understanding, leading to improved communication
  • Approaching each other with compassion instead of judgment
  • Reducing negative behaviors, such as the act of blaming, extreme emotional experiences, mood swings, or addictive behaviors
  • Feeling like true loving partners again who support and care for one another
  • Experiencing fewer power struggles or conflicts within the relationship
Getty/AnnaStills

Developing goals for counseling

One of the goals of imago therapy is to align the conscious mind with the agenda in the unconscious mind. According to this approach, our conscious mind usually has the good feelings that we experience, and the unconscious mind usually wants healing and growth. We want to build intimate, committed relationships in a conscious sense. However, the transition to a healthy, committed relationship can't usually be done without insight into childhood issues, and the relationships we’ve built in the past. While we may be able to identify some of these negative aspects, we likely need to build the skills to do so.

For example, you may be able to figure out that you've been looking for your partner to always be there for you because you fear abandonment. Engaging in healing so that you can shift from an unconscious to a conscious, committed relationship may provide you with more safety and passion within your relationship.

However, every couple is different. Each set of partners experiences unique conflicts or within their relationship. Furthermore, each of the partners within the relationship may have their own traits to work through, such as emotional instability, or even more serious concerns like substance use or other addictive behaviors. An imago therapist may help you and your partner develop a therapy goal that makes sense for your situation.

Imago relationship therapy can take some time. Unlike some other types of therapy, imago therapy can take an average of two to five years of regular work to help you develop the relationship that you deserve. 

If couples blame, criticize, or react negatively to their partners, it may be because they have an unfulfilled goal of healing. That's where imago relationship therapy comes in. Through techniques like imago dialogue (and others) that help foster better communication, you may find that you can transform the negative feelings of being unfulfilled into feelings that are much more empathetic. Imago relationship therapy (IRT) can help with the short-term success of a relationship.

However, if you're in a relationship where you feel unfulfilled by your partner, such as if you feel like everything is kind of just at a standstill, then imago therapy may work for you. It can touch on some inner problems and allow you to move forward in your relationship. 

Trying imago-based therapy

If you’d like to learn more about imago therapy, and whether it could be an effective therapy for your own relationship, you can talk to an imago relationship therapist near you. Alternatively, if you or your partner feels hesitant about going to a therapist’s office, you might try online therapy, which research has demonstrated with clinical significance to be just as effective as in-person therapy. With online therapy platforms like BetterHelp, you can talk to a therapist from the comfort of your own home via phone or videoconferencing, which may be more comfortable if you and your partner are just starting couples counseling. Also, you can contact your therapist via in-app messaging at any time, and they’ll get back to you as soon as they can.

Getty/AnnaStills
Change your relationship for the better

Takeaway

Regardless of the specific relationship challenges you’re experiencing, you don’t have to face them alone. Imago therapy can help couples understand some of the challenging aspects of their past in order to forge a deeper and loving connection and create a more fulfilling future together. Take the first step toward a happier and more rewarding relationship by reaching out to BetterHelp today.
Explore mental health and healing in therapy
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started