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IMAGO Relationship Therapy

  • 22 Apr 2011
  • 9:00 AM - 11:00 AM
  • LLU Behavioral Health Institute, 1686 Barton Rd., Redlands, CA. 92373

IMAGO Relationship Therapy

Doreen Van Leeuwen, LMFT

A Look at Imago Relationship Theory for Emotional Healing

Written by Gray Brainerd, Ph.D.

Adapted by Doreen Van Leeuwen, M.A.

Imago Relationship Theory maintains that when two people fall in love, something profound happens that goes far beyond a desire for companionship, physical attraction and compatibility. An unconscious agenda is activated, an agenda rooted in childhood hurts and unmet needs. That agenda, simply stated, is this: We are all unconsciously looking for a particular someone who will help us finish (or repeat) childhood, so that we can become whole, happy adults, capable of loving relationships. Imago Relationship Therapists believe this to be nature’s plan for emotional healing.

It appears that nature consistently tries to heal itself. When there is a forest fire, nature immediately begins healing the scar by re-growing the forest. When there is an oil spill, nature begins a process to “clean up” that spill, although it may take 50 years or more. Imago theory suggests that where there are emotional wounds, nature begins a process of healing. Just as surely as when you scratch your arm, a scab forms and eventually new skin is created, when there are emotional wounds, nature sets into motion a drive to heal those wounds, too. But since emotional wounds are invariably relationship wounds, they can only be healed in relationship - and only in a particular kind of relationship.

Imago Theory holds that:

We can only be healed by the one who wounds us, or a very reasonable facsimile.

We seem to be created so that the human psyche will only accept emotional healing from someone similar to the one who does (or did) the wounding. Inside each one of us is a striving for wholeness and completeness. To accomplish this, nature steers us to choose a mate that has a high potential for healing our past hurts, and satisfying any unmet childhood needs. We have to be with someone who activates our deepest needs and who is similar enough to our childhood caretakers that such healing becomes possible. To put it another way, we choose someone like Mom and Dad, in good ways and bad, to get the healing we want and need.

You may reasonably ask: Who in their right mind would ever choose someone that has negative traits similar to their parents? Who would consciously look for a life partner that is depressed, unavailable, distant or critical? Didn’t we leave home just to get away from those characteristics? Of course, no one would consciously sign up for this! As a solution, romantic love evolved. It’s as though nature has to trick us into falling in love with someone who eventually also turns out to be painfully incompatible in ways specific to our hurts and needs.

Romantic love puts us temporarily on a “drug,” which suppresses our awareness of our partner’s negative traits and raises our expectation of being loved “perfectly” - finally I have found someone that will fill all my past, present and future needs and that will soothe all my wounds. Some of us even stay in this blissful state until we are committed or married.

However, after we have been together for a while, the “drug” wears off, and we see more plainly our partner’s shortcomings, just as they begin to detect ours. Instead of experiencing our mate’s perfection, we now notice that they are critical, loud, absent-minded, irritating, or irresponsible....resembling our parents’ negative qualities more and more. We wonder, “What happened to the person that I committed to?” and conclude that we must have “picked the wrong partner.” We simply don’t know that this is part of a natural plan for emotional healing. This is where a lot of people bail out. Nearly half of all couples split up between seven to sixteen years after “setting up house.” About 75% of these people move on to other committed relationships, but, tragically, six out of ten second partnerships end for the same reasons the first ones ended. This is an unnecessary consequence of misunderstanding the purpose of relationship. Often, the problem is not that we have picked the wrong partner. The issue is that neither of us knows how to be the right partner, that is, the partner that my mate needs for his or her healing. What you need the most for your healing, I, your partner, am least able to give you.

This leads us to a remarkable feature of nature’s selection process. Not only are we attracted to someone who could be a very powerful healer for us, but we are also attracted to someone for whom we can become a very powerful healer. How? By inviting or challenging us to grow and change specifically in those areas where we are now deficient, in order that we can heal them.

So, how do we as, a committed couple, get out of this seemingly hopeless trap, where I have attracted you, someone who is perfectly unsuited to heal me, and you have attracted me, equally unable to meet your needs?

The good news of Imago Theory is that there is a way out. When a couple recognizes what is happening when they select a mate, and why they choose the partner they choose, they start on the path toward appreciation, acceptance and forgiveness. When they decide to cooperate with the healing agenda, by stretching and changing to heal the other, each one becomes more complete in the process. As the receiving partner experiences those gifts of healing, they feel safer, and safer...and become more and more willing to stretch, grow and change in response. Consequently they enter into a process where wonderful things start happening. Happily married ever after?? Maybe that’s the stuff of fairy tales...but a genuine, joyful, love-filled relationship is entirely possible.

Recommended reading for couples is Dr. Harville Hendrix’s Getting The Love You Want. Visit http://www.imagotherapy.comwww.gettingtheloveyouwant.com for information on Imago Relationship Therapy training and workshops.


Doreen Van Leeuwen M.A. has been licensed as a marriage and family therapist since 1986. She is a certified Imago Relationship Therapist , serving the Inland Empire at her office in Corona, CA. She has helped numerous couples achieve satisfying, committed relationships. 951-847-7742

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