Why You Fight With Your Boyfriend/Girlfriend: An Exploration Of Imago Relationship Therapy

I recently came across the idea of Imago Therapy. It’s a relational counseling process for couples to use their conflicts for healing and development. Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt created the technique. Harville stumbled upon it as a therapist and professor when contemplating the question “why do men and women have so much trouble being together?”. He used intuition to explore the question and thought maybe childhood issues had to do with it. After developing his idea further, he told his class his hypothesis “It appears that we tend to marry people who are similar to our parents, with whom we struggle over issues that were unfinished in childhood”. He continued to think about his hypothesis and at a talk a few weeks later, Harville told the audience what he discovered. The idea caused them discomfort, but it aligned with many of their experiences. 

As the months progressed, many organizations asked him to give his lecture. The reactions to his idea were so strong, he felt he came upon something important. Hence the origin of Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT).  

The logic behind IRT is rooted in childhood. For the first moments of life including in the womb, babies are whole. They are enveloped in love, all their needs are met, and they have no concept of self/other. Babies are enlightened until they slowly develop a self. As a self it’s now separate from the original state of oneness. It’s autonomous, slowly beginning to navigate reality from behind the eyes. Welcome to dukkha, little one. 

The baby begins to explore. It touches, bites, licks whatever it seems to find interesting, including its own body. But this doesn’t go uninterrupted. If the baby is doing something deemed inappropriate by the caregivers they will intervene. All their cultural and societal do’s and don’t’s passed down for generations will become ingrained in the child’s mind, along with their fears. If the parents hold the attitude “boys don’t play with girly things” and their baby boy plays with “girly” things, they’d intervene. As a result their constructs of how things should be shape the child’s mind. Beginning the origin of the superego.

This begins to shape the psychology of the child, as well as how much attention it gets and how its needs are responded to. The negative experiences a child has throughout these stages will form its defense mechanisms. A child raised by a distant mother may cope by being a “tough guy”. He rejects the idea of affection and leads himself to believe it’s a weakness. Another, out of desperation, may cling to every little piece of love they can get. Both are attempts to cope with the unfulfilled need for their mother’s love. 

Our coping mechanisms lead us to people who were treated oppositely by their parents, similar to the way poles in a magnet behave, opposites attract. Someone coddled by their parents will attract someone who had a lot of freedom because their parents didn’t pay them much attention. The coddled one copes by being distant and closing off, desiring freedom, due to the restriction they felt. The partner who had too much freedom copes by being clingy, desiring attention. Their attraction to each other is rooted in the converse relationships they had with their parents. 

This dynamic is exactly what Harville observed. We gravitate towards partners with the negative aspects of our caregivers during our formative years. This unconscious yearning is a drive for the opportunity to heal (maybe it’s just a yearning for the familiar). Whether it’s rooted in familiarity or a drive for healing, we get the opportunity to confront these old wounds. To explore what stains our minds and scrub them clean. 

An important idea Harville expressed is since our psychological damage was caused in relation to others the only way to heal is in a relational setting. We are different people depending on who surrounds us, this switching of contexts opens pathways to different selves within you that act and react differently than when you’re alone. Thus to really explore yourself it’s necessary to do so by observing your behavior with others.

Given the logic behind our mate choices, the greatest opportunity for development is with your partner. Since what bothers you about them is a reflection of psychic wounds that haven’t been resolved. Also how you respond in your conflicts is how you coped with the stress of not having certain needs met as a child, whether it be attention, compassion, being allowed to express emotion, etc. 

In an example from Harville’s book, one man named John was deeply in love with a woman named Sarah. Later on in their relationship, he starts to see a therapist. He tells Harville he hates how she’s overly critical and emotional. Who tells him that at a subconscious level, he’s identifying with her. As a boy, his mother was overly critical of him. He also wasn’t allowed to freely express his emotions. When Sarah is overly emotional, a part of John is projecting himself onto her which lets him finally achieves the emotional expression he desires. Since the initial stages of the relationship are over, he can’t overlook her negative traits any longer.

You can see the ideas of IRT clearly here. John as a boy wasn’t allowed to freely express his emotions, and because of his subconscious yearning to heal, he’s drawn to his opposite. At first, Sarah’s emotional nature allows him to feel whole through association. But this wholeness is shallow. After the honeymoon phase of the relationship, the traits he initially ignored bubble to the surface of his mind. The temporary wholeness evaporates and conflicts begin to arise around these issues. 

He needs to be able to express his emotions on his own. It’s not enough to experience emotional expression through his partner. This eventually catches up to him when he no longer feels complete. Thus giving rise to conflict between John and Sarah. 

IRT exists to address these conflicts by bringing the coping mechanisms and traits of our caregivers to the forefront of our consciousness so we can alter our behavior. Despite how John feels if he examines his problems he can fix them. 

Our childhood leaves wounds in our subconscious. These drive us toward a partner with the same negative traits as our caregivers. These conflicts will inflict the same pain we felt then, but with the light of consciousness, we can bring awareness to the patterns we recreate with our partners and revisit our pasts to amend the psychic scars.

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