Imago Relationship Therapy
What is Imago Relationship Therapy?
Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT) is a type of couples therapy used to help improve relationships. IRT was developed in 1980 by Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt, based on their observation of a connection between conflict in adult relationships and early childhood experiences.
The IRT approach integrates elements of other modalities such as psychodynamics and cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) to help partners to solve problems and connect, as they move from conflict towards healing and growth.
Read on for more information to help you decide if IRT is a good fit for you and your partner.
What Imago Relationship Therapy can help with
IRT aims to help any couple in a committed relationship experiencing distress or relationship issues, regardless of sexual orientation. Some examples of relationship issues include:
- Communication problems
- Transition to parenthood
- Other individual challenges that affect the relationship, such as anxiety and depression
Does Imago Relationship Therapy work?
Although it is widely practiced, IRT requires further research comparing it to other evidence-based couples therapies (such as emotion-focused couples therapy) and examining its long-term effects before any firm conclusions can be made.
Imago Relationships International is currently sponsoring research, and the results of a prior study funded by the organization were suggestive of the possible validity of IRT (1).
How Imago Relationship Therapy works
IRT is based on the theory that:
- People carry unconscious mental images of their main childhood caretakers, and,
- These images affect how individuals relate to other people throughout adulthood
For example, a person who was frequently criticized as a child by a parent is likely to be more sensitive to criticism from their partner.
This unconscious mental image is referred to as an imago, a term originally used by Freud and other early psychoanalysts. The imago is thought to influence people to select certain partners and to behave in ways that are meant to heal emotional wounds but that end up creating relationship problems.
In IRT, structured exercises, either in groups or couples therapy, aim to help people become aware of the imago, understand each other’s feelings, and become less defensive and more compassionate toward partners as well as themselves. The aim is to move towards a more “Conscious Relationship”.
Length and frequency of Imago Relationship Therapy sessions
Research has not yet established the most effective way of delivering IRT, so the frequency and duration of sessions are decided between the couple and therapist based on individual needs. As a guide, IRT therapists and researchers examining IRT have, in the past, tended to deliver 12 sessions of IRT, of around 90 minutes in length (1).
Structure of Imago Relationship Therapy sessions
Although IRT does not follow a set schedule, therapy starts with an initial assessment. Here, the therapist gathers information about both partners and the relationship. The therapist will also typically explain the principles of Imago and how it works.
The therapist then actively teaches skills, as described below, acting as a coach as you communicate with each other. At the close of a session, the therapist might check in with you both about what you’ve learned. You might discuss how to integrate these skills and continue to interact in this way outside of sessions.
Further sessions are spent continuing to learn the skills described below through exercises, information, and practice.
What happens in a typical Imago Relationship Therapy session?
The content of a session depends on the needs of each couple and point of progress through therapy. Typically, however, the therapist teaches connection-building skills through various interventions, such as (1):
- The couples dialogue: The couple learns to communicate effectively through a three-step process of mirroring (repeating back to be sure each understands what the other is saying), validating the others’ concerns, and expressing empathy. This process is practiced with the couple taking turns as the sender or receiver.
- The parent-child dialogue: Through an exploration of the childhood experience, each partner identifies the thoughts and feelings (the imago) associated with an important childhood caregiver. This is then directed towards the partner, to develop empathy for the unmet childhood needs of the other partner and to understand how this relates to their current relationship needs.
- The behavior change request dialogue: One partner explains an unmet childhood need and its connection to the present relationship and receives empathy from their partner. Then, the partner makes a request to the other for specific changes in behavior that relate to this. The other partner chooses one behavior change to work on and sets goals around this.
- The imago workup: Each person identifies positive and negative traits in their partner that relate to those of their childhood caretaker. The aim is to help the couple understand these similarities and how they contribute to conflict and frustrations in their current relationship.
Typically, sessions are focussed on the dialogue between you and your partner, and the aim is for all conversation to be held using the Imago Dialogue. Unlike some other therapies, you and your partner face each other rather than facing the therapist.
What to look for in a therapist for Imago Relationship Therapy
There are several factors to keep in mind when selecting an Imago practitioner, including:
Specialization: Look for a couples therapist who has completed training in IRT and is a member of Imago Relationships. Look for the term “Certified Imago Therapist” in your prospective therapist’s biography on their website or online profile.
Qualifications: With so many different provider types available, it can be difficult to decide which type of mental health professional to see. The most important thing is to look for a currently licensed couples therapist. This ensures that your therapist has completed the appropriate level of education to practice. All therapists on Zencare have already been vetted for this purpose.
Personal fit: It’s important to make sure that both the therapist and therapy modality are good fits for you.
IRT might be a good fit if you and your partner if you both:
- Are experiencing distress in your relationship
- Want to focus on healing and connection
- Want to take into account the impact of earlier life experiences
The trusting relationship between you and your therapist, known as the “therapeutic alliance” can also have a huge impact on the efficacy of therapy. It’s important to work with someone both you and your partner trust and feel understood by. Therapy is more likely to be successful when you both feel that the therapist is unbiased and non-judgemental.
The best way to judge how you might feel about a therapist is to ask for a preliminary phone call. This also allows you to ask about their Imago training, experience, and what therapy will be like. Try to speak to a few different therapists before deciding.
Find therapists specializing in Imago Relationship Therapy
Find therapists who specialize in Imago Relationship Therapy on Zencare. Search by insurance, fees, and location; watch therapist introductory videos; and book free initial calls to find the right therapist for you!
Sources and references
- (1) Gehlert, N.C., et al., 2016, “Randomized Controlled Trial of Imago Relationship Therapy: Exploring Statistical and Clinical Significance”. PDF accessed online February 2020 at https://www.brehms.eu/imago-paartherapie/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Randomized-Controlled-Trial-of-Imago-Relationship.pdf
- Harville & Helen, https://harvilleandhelen.com/initiatives/what-is-imago/
- Imago Relationships, https://imagorelationships.org
- Imago Relationships UK FAQ, https://gettingtheloveyouwant.co.uk/frequently-asked-questions/
- American Psychological Association, APA Dictionary of Psychology, https://dictionary.apa.org/imago-therapy