Imago Relationship Therapy: What Is It? And How Can It Help You?

Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT) is a lesser-known but very effective form of therapy.

GoodTherapy.org notes that IRT "aims to equip couples with the tools necessary to relate to each other in healthier ways, and reveal the emotional pathway formed in childhood that led them to their current situation."

What Exactly Does "Imago" Mean?

The term "imago" means, "image." And in IRT, this "image" refers to the "unconscious image of familiar love."

In layman terms, imago relationship therapy is based on the principle that we create an unconscious idea of love in our early developmental stages of childhood. As children, we then take this idea of love and create ways to stay safe, as well as ways to ensure we continue to obtain love and don’t do anything to compromise it.

Children create both positive and negative meanings from their unconscious idea of love. While you can have the "best" parents in the world, you may still have some negative associations with love. There is no way a parent can meet every single one of their child’s emotional needs. Therefore, we all have emotional love baggage.

When we grow into adults, we take these positive and negative meanings of love and project them in our adult relationships. Our unconscious idea of love remains unchanged, as do the behaviors that accompany it.

For example, if we were frequently criticized by our parents, we will take criticism from our spouse especially hard. We might then react in a way that seems "inappropriate" to them. We may also see the criticism as a problem that is 10-times bigger than it actually is, causing us to question the entirety of our relationship.

What Is the Goal of Imago Relationship Therapy?

Imago relationship therapy seeks to move our ideas of love in a relationship from unconscious to conscious.

The ultimate goal of IRT is to stop couples from placing harsh blame and criticism upon each other. It teaches them instead to become more understanding, empathetic and compassionate of their partner’s feelings.

How Does Imago Relationship Therapy Work?

This form of therapy works only by creating something known as "intentional dialogue."

In order to do this, we must utilize the following steps:

Step #1: Mirroring

The first and most important step in creating intentional dialogue is mirroring. You and your partner will alternate between roles as the sender and the receiver. The receiver will listen to their partner and actually hear what is being said. They will then repeat back what their partner said and ask if they captured everything.

This step ensures that the receiver completely GETS IT and hears what their spouse is saying. If not, the sender will use this opportunity to clarify, until it’s officially heard.

Step #2: Validation

The validation step involves MAKING SENSE of the sender’s words. For example, the receiver will state "after hearing what you just told me about how your dad never kept his promises, I now see why you get upset when I don’t keep mine and cancel plans." They understand that their partner’s childhood experiences lead them to react the way they do when they don’t keep their promise.

The receiver can then realize that two realities can be true. They don’t have to agree with the way their partner reacted and, at the same time, they can understand why they did.

Step #3: Empathy

Empathy is the final step as well as the ultimate goal of Imago Relationship Therapy. Once the receiver hears everything as it was indented and understands where their partner is coming from, they can strive to understand the way their partner FEELS. They will relay their own perception of their partner’s feelings and the sender will let them know whether or not this is accurate.

With this, the sender’s defense will be brought down. They can now describe whether or not their spouse perceives their feelings accurately and can even further elaborate on them. By understanding each other’s feelings, they can now realize where the other is coming from and eventually empathize with them.

Certainly, Imago Relationship Therapy can draw you closer as a couple. But, just like many other couples counseling techniques, it requires commitment and willingness to pay attention to your partner.