What is Imago?
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What is Imago Relationship Therapy?This is a great place to start, especially since the word “Imago” could mean anything from a Swedish musical group to a dental procedure. Imago is classical Latin for “image”. This word was chosen because of the fundamental idea that within each of our brains is an unconscious picture or an imprint of the partner we seek. We will tend to unconsciously select a person who is uniquely qualified to frustrate us. So, if you experience intense frustration in your relationship, you are probably hooked up with the right partner!
In our Western culture, the whole idea of marriage or the committed relationship has been misrepresented. We are led to believe that we will live happily ever after in Romantic Love for the rest of our lives. In reality, we are inevitably faced with frustration and disappointment in our relationships. This is the way it’s supposed to happen in our culture, because we believe that we should have absolute autonomy and freedom in who we select as our partners. Imago relationship therapy helps us see how frustrations and conflicts with our romantic partners can lead to healing and ultimately a closer relationship.
What is the point of Romantic Love?When we fall in love, suddenly we see life in Technicolor. We nibble each other’s ears and tell each other everything. We’re sexier, smarter, funnier, more giving than at any other time. With our beloved, life is good. We call this “nature’s trick”. When we are “in love”, we tend to ignore differences and focus only on the good stuff, like how much we laugh together, we both like the same movies, music, or food. It’s all a simple but effective trick. Let me provide a personal example. When my mate Wendy and I got together, she thought I was carefree, and never worried. She saw me as calm, spiritual and adventurous. Then after a few years of marriage I turned into someone who was depressed, worried all the time and was constantly hassled and overwhelmed. She describes this as “bait and switch”. Well, where do I turn myself in; I was guilty as charged. What happened to the carefree, confident and attentive person she thought that I was?
Romantic love is wonderful and one of the most powerful drives in the universe, but we have misrepresented what it really is. Besides keeping many mediocre playwrights and songwriters employed, Romantic Love is the glue that initially bonds two incompatible people together so that they will do what needs to be done to heal themselves, and in the process maybe help our society. Romantic Love is supposed to happen and supposed to end. It is the end of Romantic Love that we seldom idealize, or if we do write songs about it, we are only trying to get over ourselves so we can move on to the next incompatible person and try again there.
What happens when Romantic Love fades and the Power Struggle begins?As romantic love fades, the veil of illusion falls away and we begin to see qualities in our partners that we can’t bear. Even qualities we once admired, grate on us. We used to see our partner as independent and strong, now they seem distant and withdrawn. We used to see our partner as attentive and affectionate, now they are invasive and “in our business” all the time. Actually, they didn’t change that much. The Power Struggle has begun, and may go on for many years until we split up, settle, or sometimes if we’re lucky seek help. In the mean time, we drive each other crazy and negotiate for time, love, chores, space, measuring our success like some emotional scoreboard, hoping for a better second half.
For most of us, the most primitive parts of our wonderful brains have a compelling, nonnegotiable drive to restore ourselves, to heal ourselves and become emotionally and psychologically whole. Growing up, most of us had good experiences and bad experiences. If the bad experiences were bad enough, we developed a way of psychologically defending ourselves. We still carry that imprint into the committed relationship. That’s right, your childhood defenses show up in your romantic relationships.
When we meet our special someone and have behaved ourselves long enough, we start to feel safe. You know what I’m talking about. When the relationship is young, we might clean up the place when the beloved is coming over, or we might monitor little nasty habits we have (nose picking, burping in public, strutting, politically incorrect comments). We might look more organized than we are, or cleaner, or thrifty, or attentive. At this point, usually when the commitment between a couple deepens, we will, without being aware of our actions, recreate situations and experiences in which our needs and emotional desires are unmet. We do this in the service of our “old brain”, in order to have another chance to “get it right” this time.
But that’s not all the bad news, we also tend to select partners who have qualities that are missing in ourselves. So if I am attracted to Wendy’s fun loving, friendly way of life, it is probable that I admire those qualities because I am too serious and aloof myself. Once in the power struggle, what once looked like “fun loving” and “friendly”, now appears “irresponsible” and “insincere”. Did Wendy really change? Not really, but as our relationship matures, the real work of learning how to love another incompatible human being begins. It is not easy, and it is not for sissies.
If we are incompatible, why not just face the truth and move on?Our culture would have us do just that. Incompatibility is grounds for divorce, but this idea counters nature’s intention. Divorce is societies’ institutionalized response to the childish wish for idealized, conflict-free relationships that never change. Incompatibility is the natural state. Learning how to grow up and manage the incompatibility and love someone different from yourself is the true challenge of nature and our societies’ next evolutionary challenge. Divorce does not solve marriage problems. You can get rid of the partner, but you keep your own problems, pulling them along into the next relationship.
Are we doomed to repeat this awful dance forever?No, of course not. Romantic Love is supposed to happen and supposed to end. The Power Struggle within a couple is supposed to happen and supposed to end, or better said: change. However, the key to managing your Power Struggle is the willingness and the ability to change your defenses, give your partner what they really want and to ask for what you really want. Most of the time when we get frustrated, we respond with criticizing, ridiculing or demands, ultimatums, threats, blackmail, depression and moping (one of my personal favorites). The goal is to have a conscious relationship, and to end all criticism. Criticizing can be entertaining and let off a little pressure, but it has little to do with real change.
How do we get out of this mess?
A tall order, no doubt. We have to re-engineer our relationships so we can complete the unfinished business of childhood and become fully whole functioning adults. This is the process of Imago Relationship Therapy. The vision is “Reality Love”, which is not based on the childhood notions of Hollywood, but on knowledge, compassion, respect, power and valuing the other person.
Don’t forget: Getting into a committed relationship is like throwing Miracle Grow on your character defects. The idea is that in your relationships you will begin to experience something like neglect or nagging or you will feel unappreciated, perhaps taken for granted. Typically, we meet this situation using childhood defenses to help us. Criticism, belittling, quiet treatment, nagging, righteousness, are just a few of the ways we attempt to get our needs met. Change is difficult for all of us, yet personal change is the beginning of love. In changing our behaviors to give our partners what they need, we heal ourselves.
So, we get out of this mess by changing our personal behaviors. Our defenses were born out of our particular deprivations, our adaptations to the losses we experienced along the developmental pathway. By facing the truth about what our partner needs and by facing the truth about our own needs, we bring ourselves into the light, owning traits we’ve repressed (instead of projecting them onto our partners) and energizing atrophied parts of ourselves.
The first step is to find a Certified Imago Relationship Therapist in your area. This site is electronically linked to Imago Relationships International, where you can locate a trained Imago Therapist world wide. Imago Relationships International has lots of information that can assist you in finding help if you want it.
If you are in the Atlanta area, you can schedule an appointment with Bob, Wendy, or Jesica by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or giving us a call at 404-584-7500.