People always ask me, “what is the #1 reason couples seek out your help?” Without a doubt, the answer is problems with communication. So how much of an impact does being bad at communication actually have on a relationship? As it turns out, quite a lot.

We’ve all heard that the key to a healthy relationship is good, honest communication, right? That sounds simple enough…until you actually try it. 

The truth is that when two people come together to form a bond, they aren’t just bringing themselves to the table. They are also bringing all of their past hurts, traumas, and negative experiences as well. 

It’s these latent explosives that can wreak havoc on an otherwise easy conversation and cause communication issues in a relationship. When it comes to things that ruin relationships, bad communication is definitely at the top of the list.

That’s why one of the first things I work on with all couples in session is communication. Because if you’re bad at communication, then we need to tackle that first before we can start to examine other relationship challenges.

Bad At Communication? Here’s A Way Out

So, how can you improve communication issues in a relationship? There are many different techniques that can be used in couples therapy, but at Couples Learn we use a communication technique called the Imago Dialogue.

The Imago Dialogue is from Dr. Harville Hendrix’s best-selling book “Getting The Love You Want.” Much of our work with couples is based on techniques from Dr. Hendrix’s therapeutic framework called Imago Therapy

Imago therapy really helps us to get to the core of communication issues right away, so that couples who feel they are bad at communication can start making real progress in healing their relationship. By now, you’re probably saying, “Imago…what the heck is that?”

Two women who are bad at communication talk to each other after an argument

What Is Imago Therapy for Couples?

The term “Imago,” refers to an internalized, yet, unconscious image of your ideal mate. Your “Imago” is a conglomeration of traits (good and bad) from individuals that played important roles in your childhood (i.e. parents, siblings, grandparents, babysitters, etc.).

The idea behind Imago Therapy for couples is that we have all been deeply affected by our upbringing, and that most of us have internalized this “perfect” vision of who we want for our partner without even realizing it. You go through life unconsciously searching for your Imago…the person that feels like home.

When you meet that special someone, you are ecstatic. Your conscious and unconscious minds are singing with joy at having found someone that truly makes you feel safe and complete. But after a while, you start to project your own unconscious wishes and past hurts from childhood onto your lover and that’s where your communication troubles begin. 

So, to prevent your unconscious needs from becoming one of the things that ruin relationships, you have to practice talking to your partner on a conscious level, where you can keep your intentions clear and differentiate between your past and present needs.

If you feel like you’re already bad at communication, then the practices of Imago Therapy probably sound complicated. And the truth is, this is deep work. 

That’s why it’s great to have a skilled couples therapist guide you through this process and help you really tease out what unconscious hurts and needs are affecting your relationship. 

How The Imago Dialogue Can Help if You’re Bad at Communication

While the best step toward learning how to communicate effectively in relationships is to work with a couples therapist, you can start this work at home. 

If you feel like you and your partner are bad at communication, then the best place to start is with a specific three-step communication technique called the “Imago Dialogue Process.”

Click here to watch a video of a real couple using the Imago Dialogue to talk about an issue.
A couple who thinks they are bad at communication talks using an imago therapy script

Here’s how it works.

The Imago Dialogue

Before you start, decide who will be the sender and who will be the receiver. After completing all three steps in this imago dialogue script, you will switch roles and take the opposite stance.

It’s best to choose an issue that is not very emotional to practice with at first so you can focus more on learning the process than what you are talking about. It’s easy to get off track fast if you begin with a heated debate. 

The steps proceed as follows:

Imago Dialogue Step One: Mirroring

The sender tells the receiver how she feels about something using “I statements,” which focus on how she feels, without shaming or blaming anyone. Try to keep your communication short – 30 seconds to a minute at the most. 

The receiver then paraphrases the sender’s statements by saying something like, “Let me see if I understand what you are saying. You said that you feel hurt when I interrupt your sentences. Is that right?” 

The sender can then correct the receiver if necessary, and the receiver can ask, “Is there more to that?” until the entire message is understood. 

Do not move onto step 2 until the receiver has correctly paraphrased and understood everything the sender said.

Imago Dialogue Step Two: Validation

In this part of the process, the receiver lets the sender know that she is making sense to him. He can use phrases like, “What you said makes sense,” or “I can understand what you are saying, given that you were interrupted so often as a child.” 

In this way, the receiver is conveying his comprehension of the sender’s message and validating that what she says makes sense and is valid. 

Note: It’s not necessary for the receiver to agree with the sender here! All that is required is a sense of understanding and validation. 

You can agree that a point makes sense without sharing the same point of view (many times when a couple feels they are bad at communication, this is actually one of the core issues at play!).

Imago Dialogue Step Three: Empathy

This is where the receiver gets the opportunity to show the sender that he gets what she is feeling. He might say something like, “I imagine that you must be feeling hurt. Is that right?” And the sender can agree or correct the feeling offered.

Click here to watch a video of a real couple using the Imago Dialogue to talk about an issue.
A couple who thought they were bad at communication sips coffee together and has a good conversation

Why Imago Therapy Helps When You’re Bad at Communication

While these imago dialogue exercises might feel a little formal, especially for people who have likely seen each other pee, they are incredibly helpful. 

In the beginning it’s helpful to have the imago dialogue script and a structure to follow because these skills are not in most couples normal repertoire. If you’re feeling like you’re bad at communication, then chances are this kind of conversation is going to feel a little challenging at first.

The goal, through practice, is to make validation and empathy a natural part of your everyday dialogue to the point where you don’t need the script anymore.

Remember, when talking to your partner, you are dealing with a host of unseen forces that can affect your behavior. Putting structure and direction around sticky topics can be just the buffer you and your loved one need in order to hear each other more effectively and fix ineffective communication in your relationship.

Once you’ve figured out how to communicate effectively in relationships, then you can focus on the really important things, like who gets to use the bathroom first!

If you try this exercise at home and decide you would like more information on how to improve you and your partner’s communication skills, contact Couples Learn to set up a free consultation today!

Our Imago therapists would love to help you overcome ineffective communication through couples therapy so you can stop feeling like you’re bad at communication and start feeling confident when managing conflict with your partner.

Click here to watch a video of a real couple using the Imago Dialogue to talk about an issue.