When you are searching for a couples therapist, it can be challenging to know if a therapist is good and what modality of couples therapy would be a good fit for you. To find a skilled therapist, I recommend seeing someone who has advanced training in a specific couples therapy method like Imago Therapy, PACT, The Gottman Method, or EFT.
Many therapists say they offer couples therapy or marriage counseling but if they don’t specialize in it, the odds of them being really good are not great. Couples therapy is much more complicated than individual therapy with a lot of moving parts to consider so it truly does take a higher level of training to do it well.
My (Dr. Sarah Schewitz) preferred modality is Imago Couples Therapy and I am a Certified Imago Relationship Therapist. That means I went through extensive training and supervision to learn everything there is to know about using Imago Therapy. The whole process takes about a year and a half (this is in addition to the 7 years spent getting my doctorate in psychology) and is a major investment in time and money. The certification process is no joke but neither are the results this method of couples therapy produces.
Many couples who have participated in Imago Therapy swear by it, Oprah Winfrey being one of them. She credits Imago Therapy for the long-term success of her relationship with Stedman. She has done over 17 shows promoting the modality because she feels so passionate about it. In fact, the first Emmy she ever won for her talk show was for the episode where she interviewed Harville Hendrix, the founder of Imago Therapy.
Ok so, if you have never heard of this type of therapy before you are probably wondering what the heck is it?!
What is Imago Therapy?
Imago Relationship Therapy is a modality designed to help couples go from having an unconscious to a conscious relationship. Created by Harville Hendrix and his wife, Helen LaKelly Hunt in 1980, it’s based on the premise that our unconscious mind is driven to heal childhood wounding and trauma through our romantic relationships.
We all have an “Imago” (meaning “image” in Latin) which is imprinted in our unconscious mind as a conglomeration of the positive and negative traits of our caretakers from childhood. Each one of us is unconsciously searching for a partner with this very particular set of positive and negative personality traits in order to heal the wounding inflicted on us in childhood.
Our unconscious drive is to get our partner, who is similar to our parents, to change and give us love in ways that our parents never did. Most of this occurs behind the scenes in your unconscious mind so it’s not something you are actively aware of unless you’ve been taught to look for the patterns.
Your Imago Match
Consciously, you will probably be aware of and attracted to the positive similarities your partner has with your family of origin when you first fall in love. You might think, “(s)he’s a great provider and hard worker like my dad” or “(s)he is kind and nurturing like my mom.” You know you’ve met your Imago match when you get that feeling you’ve known someone forever when you hardly know each other at all. The comfort can be immediate and the attraction intense. They kind of just feel like home.
What you won’t see in your Imago match (until you’ve gotten past the romantic love stage) are the negative qualities that are also just like your family of origin. Sometimes these even turn out to be the same qualities you loved in the beginning. For example, you might have loved that your partner was outgoing, talkative and confident in the beginning but now you view him/her as an attention hog who never lets anyone else get a word in edgewise (much like your older sibling).
Or, perhaps you were focused on your partner being a hard worker and good provider in the beginning but you missed the fact that (s)he has the ability to be unreasonably irritable just like your father was with you when stressed with work. Or perhaps now you resent the fact that (s)he is never home and you don’t feel like a priority, much like you felt as a child when your dad didn’t come home for dinner.
Note that the childhood “wounding” I mentioned above doesn’t seem like anything major. You don’t have to have had major trauma like abuse or abandonment by a parent to have childhood wounds. We all have them, no matter how great our childhood was. What your adult mind can rationalize away as “no big deal” might have felt like a very big deal to your 4-year-old self.
Part of the process of Imago Relationship Therapy is helping you become aware of these wounds from the past and their impact on your child self so you can understand why you feel triggered with your partner when they do certain things. Your childhood wounds are usually the key to understanding and diffusing your recurring fights with your partner.
Who Does Imago Therapy Work For?
Imago Therapy is great for couples and individuals seeking to have more connected, conscious relationships with a high level of healthy communication. Imago Relationship Therapy helps you gain a deeper understanding of the childhood wounding stored in your unconscious that is often the source of hurt in your romantic relationships. Thus, it is helpful for couples or individuals that keep having the same fights and patterns show up in their relationships over and over again.
Imago counseling is also very helpful for couples who have trouble communicating calmly and kindly when in conflict because it gives you tangible tools for how to communicate respectfully to resolve conflict. It’s excellent for couples who want actual tools and exercises they can use at home to improve their relationship as well as those who want to use therapy to process and create a deeper connection.
Imago Therapy is recommended for couples at any stage in the relationship – from those that have been dating a few months to married for decades. You don’t have to be having huge problems in your relationship to see an Imago Therapist (though you can be) because it can also be used to improve romance, connection, and knowledge/understanding of each other’s world. A key component of Imago Relationship Therapy is developing empathy so it’s very helpful for couples that have a hard time seeing each other’s perspectives.
Imago Therapy for Individuals
Though it was developed as a couples therapy modality, Imago Therapy can also be adapted for individuals. In fact, there is a book called “Keeping The Love You Find” by Harville and Helen that is written for singles interested in using Imago Theory to improve their love lives. Imago Therapy for individuals can help you recognize the source of unhealthy relationship patterns such as dating unavailable or abusive partners and change your love template to start choosing healthier partners.
Imago Theory is based on several different psychological theories, one of which is attachment theory. Understanding your attachment style can be very helpful and enlightening as an individual looking for love and Imago helps you do that and more.
Imago Therapy for individuals can also help you understand and become conscious about parts of yourself you may have repressed in childhood due to the way you were socialized by your family and society. This is important because we tend to be attracted to partners that bring out our repressed or lost self but this later triggers us as the relationship progresses. Uncovering and loving those parts of yourself will allow you to attract a partner from a more whole and conscious place.
What to Expect in an Imago Therapy Session
Every Imago Therapy session will follow the same structure but have different content. For starters, you will be placed in chairs facing each other, not the therapist. In Imago Relationship Therapy, the goal is to foster communication and connection between the two of you not between you and the therapist.
An Imago Therapist acts as more of a guide to facilitate communication rather than someone you communicate with directly. An Imago relationship therapist will be present as a coach and guide but will not actually be part of the conversation between you two.
Each Imago session will open with both partners sharing something they love and appreciate about their partner. Next, you will have an Imago Dialogue. The dialogue is the only way couples will communicate in a session and it is honestly pure magic.
Imago Dialogue: How it Works
The dialogue is a very structured way your Imago Therapist will teach you to communicate that allows you to get to the deeper layers of what is underneath the conflict you are processing. It requires that one of you be the sender and the other the receiver. Then you’ll switch once you’ve completed all the steps.
The Imago Dialogue consists of 3 steps:
- Mirroring. Mirroring involves repeating back what you heard your partner say.
- Validating. Validation requires putting yourself in your partner’s shoes and explaining why their point of view makes sense. You don’t have to agree with it but you do have to stretch to understand why it makes sense to them.
- Empathy. Empathy in the dialogue means guessing what your partner might be feeling based on what they just shared with you.
Most Imago sessions are 80-90 minutes long and will allow you enough time to communicate about one topic or conflict in-depth using the Imago Dialogue. You will begin with appreciations and end with appreciations and/or a hug.
There are many components that an Imago Relationship Therapist will help you work on in your relationship using the dialogue as well as homework assignments for you to work on together and independently.
The 5 Processes of Imago Therapy are:
- Re-Imaging: Starting to see your partner in a positive light again.
- Re-committing: Many Imago Therapists will request that you commit to 12 weeks without any threat of breakup or divorce because it is so de-stabilizing to the safety of a relationship to threaten to leave. It’s hard to truly connect without safety and commitment.
- Re-visioning: You’ll create a shared vision of your ideal relationship so you know what you are working towards.
- Restructuring Frustrations: In order to have healthy love, you have to heal the wounds from your past. You’ll use the dialogue to reprocess some of the major wounds inflicted by your partner as needed. You’ll also use it to process current conflicts as they arise.
- Re-romanticizing: You’ll discover what makes each other feel loved and cared about and start focusing on more fun and romance in your relationship.
Finding an Imago Therapist
If this all resonates with you so far, you’re probably wondering how to find an Imago Therapist to work with. As I mentioned earlier, I am a Certified Imago Relationship Therapist. As an online couples therapist, I provide online couples therapy for couples all over the world using Imago Relationship Therapy. I’ve found that Imago Therapy translates really well in the online format and my clients love being able to meet with me from the comfort of their own homes.
Unfortunately, I’m not always accepting new clients so you’ll need to check our scheduling page to see if I have any available consultation times. All new clients are required to book a free 30-minute consultation before booking a full session just to make sure working together is a good fit. If you don’t see any available consultation times with me on the schedule, it means I’m full.
There are also Imago Therapy weekend workshops for couples called “Getting The Love You Want” and Imago workshops for individuals called “Keeping the Love You Find.” Both are excellent ways to get introduced to Imago Therapy and to deepen your understanding of yourself and your partner.
Lastly, reading Harville and Helen’s book Getting The Love You Want and working through the exercises in the accompanying workbook is a great way to learn more about Imago Therapy and work on your relationship without the help of a therapist or workshop.