Friday, March 14, 2008

Imago Therapy - A Critique & A Proposal

I was registered to do a full-day session with Harville Hendrix on Dialogue and Transformation: Creating a Relational Space, which is based on his Imago Therapy. After the morning session, I decided not to return for the afternoon portion. So, instead, I am critiquing the theory -- and please note that I am not an expert.

Imago Therapy

Hendrix has a very useful premise -- most marriages are not bad (even the ones that end in divorce), but the ones that fail do so as a result of a "ruptured connection" between the partners. In his mind, this is always the root problem, no matter what the precipitating event might have been. And further, this ruptured connection always results from childhood wounding in one or both of the partners.

This is all pretty standard stuff.

I tend to agree with this view of how we end up with the people we (sort of) choose -- in many ways, it's similar to the bonding patterns in the Voice Dialogue model of Hal and Sidra Stone:

Apparently you have found an Imago partner. Someone, I'm afraid, who is uniquely unqualified (at the moment), to give you the love you want.

Furthermore, this is what's supposed to happen!

Let me explain. We all think that we have freedom of choice when it comes to selecting our partners. But regardless of what it is we think we're looking for in a mate, our unconscious has its own agenda.

Our primitive "old" brain has a compelling, non-negotiable drive to restore the feeling of aliveness and wholeness that we came into the world with. To accomplish that, it must repair the damage done in childhood as a result of unmet needs, and the way it does that is to find a partner who can give us what our caretakers failed to provide.

You'd think, then, that we would choose someone who has what our caretakers lacked. If only that were so! But the old brain has a mind of its own, with its own checklist of desired qualities. It is carrying around its own image of the perfect partner, a complex synthesis of qualities formed in reaction to the way our caretakers responded to our needs. Every pleasure or pain, every transaction of childhood, has left its mark on us, and these collective impressions form an unconscious picture we're always trying to replicate as we scan our environment for a suitable mate.

This image of "the person who can make me whole again" I call the Imago.

This view asserts relationship is a spiritual path, which it most certainly is for those who wish to grow in life. With our partner, if we engage in true intimacy, all our vulnerable spots get exposed. Further, we find our wounds and have an opportunity to heal them.

Where I ran into difficulty was with his Imago Dialogue approach. It's a very structured and rigid method for teaching couples to communicate in a non-harmful way. Here is the basic description (I edited this a bit to make it readable):

Imago Dialogue is a unique three step process for connection, developed by Harville Hendrix PhD and Helen LaKelly Hunt PhD. Although it looks simple, the process was formulated through extensive study of psychological theories of relationship and clinical work with couples.

The three steps are Mirroring, Validation, and Empathy, and they are described in detail below. The essence of dialogue is any conversation in which people agree to listen to others without judgment, and accept their views as equally valid as their own. We have found the Imago dialogue to be a particularly effective way to start off on your journey to connection.

You can find directions on how to use the Imago dialogue here. What follows is a description of how to use each step.

The Imago Dialogue is initiated when a partner asks for an appointment and the other partner agrees to participate.

1. Mirroring
Using “I” language, one person sends a “message” to convey his/her thoughts, feelings, or experiences to the Receiver (“I feel,” “I love,” “I need …”). They should avoid shaming, blaming, or criticizing their partner, and instead talk about themselves.

In response, the Receiver echoes the Sender’s message word-for-word or by paraphrasing, using a lead sentence like, “Let me see if I’ve got you. You said ....”

Mirroring helps me to listen to what the other person is actually saying rather than listening to the reactions and responses going on in my heads while my partner is talking.

Then there’s a beautiful question the receiver can ask. “Is There More?” When I ask that question I leave a little time, to show I really mean it and want to hear more. Often my partner might pause, “Well no…er...let me see…maybe there is.” Often as they are given space and time, they will go deeper and share more with me, and that sharing can be the most fascinating part.

Keep on with it. You might be more encouraging -- “Wow. Interesting. Is there more about that?” The more I reassure my partner that I am open to what she is saying, the more I can voyage on a wonderful journey into her world, and experience connection, even if do find the subject area challenging or unfamiliar

When my partner says, “No, that’s all”, then I can try a summary. “So, in summary I heard you say that…." Then check to see if you got it all. My partner might often say “Well you missed this little bit – and it’s quite important to me that you hear it.”

2. Validation
When I mirror my partner well, they will probably already be feeling that I have heard their point of view, and seen that for them it is valid. But it’s nice to say that too.

This part of the process can be quite hard too, if my partner has a very different perspective on things from me. But to be connected, it’s important for me to recognize that what my partner says makes sense for her. Sometimes her view might be so different from mine that I am tempted to think that she must be wrong. But in dialogue, creating the connection is paramount. Who is right and who is wrong doesn’t matter. Harville Hendrix likes to say: “You can be right, or you can be married!” With this process, you might even discover that you can find a solution together where it doesn’t matter whether either of you are right or wrong over this issue, because the underlying pain is what really needs to be addressed. Precisely because you are in relationship with another person, it is healthy to be able to accept that you hold different viewpoints.

After I have summarized my partner, I can validate her by simply saying, “That makes sense to me.” I don’t have to agree with her, but show that I respect her reality. If I can, I might go on, “That makes sense to me because….”

Sometimes as I watch my partner, I can see a physical sign of relief. It’s a lovely thing to have your views validated by another.

3. Empathy
The third and final step of the Imago Dialogue is empathy.

In the empathy step, I imagine what my partner might be feeling. Feelings are simple words such as “Angry, Sad, Lonely, Afraid, Happy, Joyful etc.”

I would just ask my partner, “I imagine you might be feeling afraid, and perhaps a little sad too. Is that what you are feeling?” Then I check in with my partner, and if she shares other feelings then I mirror them to show I heard. “Ah, a little excited too.”

As you can see, there are very prescriptive phrases that he uses and insists should be used. Here is some more, where he gives some suggested phrases:

Here are some specific phrases you can use as you practice dialogue

I would like to dialogue about . . .
Is now okay?
I feel . . .
I love . . .
I need . . .
What’s bothering me is . . .

1. Mirroring
Let me see if I’ve got you.
I heard you say . . . or You said . . .
Am I getting you? or Did I get that?
Is there more about that?
Summary mirror
Let me see if I got it all . . .?
Am I getting you? Did I get all of that?
or Is that a good summary?

2. Validation
You make sense to me, and what makes sense is . . .
I can understand that . . .given that . . .
I can see how you would see it that way because sometimes I do . . .

3. Empathy

I imagine you might be feeling . . .
Is that what you’re feeling?

There's nothing inherently wrong with this system on the surface. If both partners are comfortable with the rather rigid approach to communicating and being heard, then it may well be a very useful tool for helping people learn to communicate. I have no doubt that a great many couples would welcome the opportunity to be heard and mirrored in a safe space, and that they'll use any tool given them to get that experience.

But, and it's a big BUT, one then gets to the theory behind the system.

Critiquing the Theory

Hendrix rightfully criticizes traditional communication styles as monological -- one person speaks and the other person listens passively (or often, doesn't listen at all). He refers to this as a vertical hierarchy of experience -- superior speaker and inferior listener. He sees this structure as inherently oppressive and abusive. In relationships, I can agree that this is destructive, but abusive is questionable to me (although I certainly know of instances where it is abusive).

He posits in its place a horizontal, relational model, which is more egalitarian and balanced. He referred to this as an I-Thou relationship, in reference Martin Buber:

Ich-Du ("I-Thou" or "I-You") is a relationship that stresses the mutual, holistic existence of two beings. It is a concrete encounter, because these beings meet one another in their authentic existence, without any qualification or objectification of one another. Even imagination and ideas do not play a role in this relation. In an I-Thou encounter, infinity and universality are made actual (rather than being merely concepts).

Buber stressed that an Ich-Du relationship lacks any composition (e.g. structure) and communicates no content (e.g. information). Despite the fact that Ich-Du cannot be proven to happen as an event (e.g. it cannot be measured), Buber stressed that it is real and perceivable. A variety of examples are used to illustrate Ich-Du relationships in daily life - two lovers, an observer and a cat, the author and a tree, and two strangers on a train. Common English words used to describe the Ich-Du relationship include encounter, meeting, dialogue, mutuality, and exchange.

What Buber had in mind and what Hendrix has in mind seem to be very different things. Hendrix would like to evoke that content-less experience in his process, but it is far too structured to allow for that openness. In order for individuals to feel that openness with their partner, the relational space must be more fluid and safe than a rigid system can allow. It is more likely to happen in silent gazing into each other's eyes, or while making love -- but these things require a safe space that couples seeking therapy are not able to achieve (or they wouldn't be in therapy).

The real issue, however, lies in the rejection of vertical hierarchy in favor of horizontal communion. This is the shadow side of the relativistic, relational stage of development. "All hierarchies are bad" is itself a hierarchy (as Ken Wilber likes to point out), so we have a problem.

The problem is further complicated by Hendrix's sense that he is master of the therapy room -- a paraphrase: "couples can be dysfunctional on their own time, with me they will communicate the way I ask them to." Where is the relational element in that? I see the value in setting clear boundaries for clients, especially when doing couples work where the old, destructive patterns can derail anything good that is happening. But there must also be some fluidity here as well.

I am forced to wonder if there might be a better, more integrated way of approaching couples counseling.

An Integrated Model

While creating the horizontal, relational space Hendrix advocates is crucial to relationships, it seems to me that there must also be some room for vertical differentiation, as long as it is done within that relational space. Otherwise all we hear is what the other person feels without situating the problem in its proper context within the relationship and (more importantly) within our own differentiation process.

Rather than using a rigid model such as Imago Therapy, I would much rather see couples learn mindfulness techniques so that they can communicate in a more fluid way without resorting to demeaning language and attacks. The goal is to recreate the intimacy that most couples shared at the beginning of their relationships.

Here is David Schnarch on the traditional approach to marriage counseling, which generally begins with issues of sexual frustration:

Donald and Betty had tried marital therapy before, but their therapist had taken the usual approach of dealing with each complaint individually--job demands, parenting responsibilities, housework division and sexual difficulties--as if they were all separate but equal situational problems. Typically, the clinician had tried to help Donald and Betty resolve their difficulties through a skill-building course on compromise, setting priorities, time management and "mirroring" each other for mutual validation, acceptance and, of course, better communication. The net result of all this work was that they felt even worse than before, even more incompetent, inadequate and neurotic, when sex didn't improve.

[Emphasis added.]

According to Schnarch, who I think is among the best authors on relationships, all couples at some point enter into conflict -- whether to maintain an autonomous and whole self, or to give in to the other person and lose one's integrity as a person. But if we can be mindful of what is happening, and not lose ourselves in the process, then we can actually grow from these conflicts and become more whole individuals.

Like grains of sand inexorably funneling toward the "narrows" of an hourglass, marriage predictably forces couples into a vortex of emotional struggle, where each dares to hold onto himself or herself in the context of each other, in order to grow up. At the narrowest, most constricting part of the funnel--where alienation, stagnation, infidelity, separation and divorce typically occur--couples can begin not only to find their individual selves, but in the process acquire a far greater capacity for love, passion and intimacy with each other than they ever thought possible.

At this excruciating point in a marriage, every couple has four options: each partner can try to control the other (Donald's initial ploy, which did not succeed), accommodate even more (Betty had done so to the limits of her tolerance), withdraw physically or emotionally (Betty's job helped her to do this), or learn to soothe his or her own anxiety and not get hijacked by the anxiety of the other. In other words, they could work on growing up, using their marriage as a kind of differentiation fitness center par excellence.

Differentiation is a lifelong process by which we become more uniquely ourselves by maintaining ourselves in relationship with those we love. It allows us to have our cake and eat it too, to experience fully our biologically based drives for both emotional connection and individual self-direction. The more differentiated we are--the stronger our sense of self-definition and the better we can hold ourselves together during conflicts with our partners--the more intimacy we can tolerate with someone we love without fear of losing our sense of who we are as separate beings.

Where Imago Therapy seeks to create safety through sharing -- a horizontal process -- Snarch seeks to create growth (differentiation) through intimacy -- a vertical process.

If we can fuse the idea with the Imago that our partner represents (bonding patterns) with the differentiation model of Schnarch, using mindfulness as a primary tool, we might have a more integrated approach to working with couples. And obviously, for a lot of couples, the dialogue approach Hendrix advocates will be useful.

Just my two cents.


Anonymous said...


I've been very impressed with your thinking and writing. You talk about many topics of great interest to me and clearly have a breadth of background and knowledge to discuss their pros and cons.

I just so happen to have written a post which focuses greatly on Imago and contrasts it with some other views. I would be very happy to talk about it all sometime.

This post is called Choosing Intimate Partners: To Repeat or Not to Repeat?. I take a deep look at Imago and others approaches to the role of relationships in healing.

Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

IMO, Imago dialogue does promote differentiation.

I think one reason for the structure is to allow the one speaking to move to deeper levels of their own emotional experience by staying with their feelings for an extended time without needing to respond to the other. This helps the one speaking access deeper levels of experience and voice more of their authentic self than usually happens in a more fluid give and take.

The exercise of learning to listen empathically, and understand the other person when your own point of view is radically different builds differentiation. A highly differentiated person is able to hang on to their own reality, while remaining in contact with another whose reality is quite different. A person with low differentiation will find it very difficult to do this.

Unknown said...

Its all a certain degree! Imago and mindfulness can be beneficial in terms of communication, but the real work is up to the clients. A therapist can only assist in this process but for so long. I recommend Gottman's 'Marriage Clinic' if your interested in the latest and most researched based Couple's Tx.

Anonymous said...

I have no doubt that Imago Therapy has worked for SOME couples. But it has a dogma. I don't mean dogma in the religious sense, I mean dogma in the sense that there are particular steps to take. I live life in my subconscious AND my conscious, and to say that a dogma will always lead me to a result is not always true. It's a useful framework, but a framework nonetheless, and can be a supplement to the ACTUAL motions in relationships.

Anonymous said...

My imago therapist irritated the blue willies out of me.

Me: I would like to talk about this type of therapy.

Him: Tell me about your thoughts

Me: I do not think its premises are consistent with my worldview.

Him: You are saying that Imago is not consistent with your worldview.

Me: That, what I said (Thinking: Dumbass.)

Me: I would like to hear your opinion on XYZ of Imago therapy in relation to my worldview.

Him: I understand that you feel that Imago is not consistent with your worldview. How does it make you feel?

Me: I feel frustrated because I just asked your F-n opinion about something and you just mirrored and validated me.

Him: Yea, I can see you feel really crap about Imago not being consistent with your worldview. I have empathy with you.


Him: Do I understand you correctly: You feel frustrated because you feel I am responding like a talking robot?


Unknown said...

This is certainly a necropost, but hopefully someone put there reads me.

I've just gone through an imago workshop and I am fairly logical and rational and similarly sceptical of a dogmatic approach to dealing with life/issues. My viewpoint is that life and relationships are way too complicated and that a simple template that dictates dialogueas a cure all is certainly not enough to appreciate and be an answer to those complexities. However I did find the tools useful in that they allowed me to understand that there is more than one form of communicating with someone. Sure, I found the mirroring and validating irritating, but it proposed an alternative. I don't feel I have to use it as dogmatically as presented, it's something I can work with and make my own and that's fine with me. I think all our rejection of the techniques are perhaps systematic of not being willing to adapt current lifestyles that are potentially damaging to your relationship. No one is forcing you to be a slave to the system. If something resonated, use it. If not, try something else. The insistence of criticising the process is, to me, a bit of insecurity that ironically, if you allowed some of the process in, would be addressed

Tina K said...

I personally found Imago therapy intriguing and hopeful. And, the dialogueing turned out to be amazing. My husband and I were in therapy and 12 step recovery for some pretty intense stuff. We went to an Imago workshop, and I think it turned out to be my favorite, most transformational form of therapy. Certainly, the scripted instructions felt pretty rigid at first. I probably wondered what silly thing we were embarking upon. But as we actually used the dialogue turned out to be almost magical. For instance, the mirroring instructions had us repeating verbatum what our partner had said. As frustrating as this might sound, it proved its powerfulness almost immediately. As we repeated each others words...guess what..? We often, repeated a wrong word, a wrong verb...that completely changed the meaning. We found out that we were not as good as we thought, at listening carefully. Another thing that happened often, was as we repeated the words, the speaking partner was able to hear their own words, realize that they were not quite right, and then actually correct them. To have my partner listen to me...THAT carefully, was in itself incredibly healing. A by product of this careful listening was that I never had to over emphasize a feeling or point. No repeating, or raising of my voice..because there is no push back. So then, as my partner went further...sumarizing, and!!! He would actually talk the time and mental energy to imagine how this thing...made me feel. We almost didn't need to even seek solutions..just being so thoroughly heard, was most often all I needed. Curiously, I had thought that I was a very good listener previously. But my husband was as relieved and happy with this new process, as I was. In other words...he was finally feeling heard also. There is something incredibly powerful in being able to; take turns, truly, carefully listen, and take the effort to empathize. I had never experienced anything like this. Well yes, my therapist listens this well..but of course I am not married to her! Ultimately my husband and I were able to use this process on our own, and we could talk about the most amazingly difficult subjects one could imagine. And the other would...listen. Empathize. With practice, this was anything but stilted or scripted. It was the safe structure we could share anything and everything. Perhaps if you had gone back the second day, you might have had a similar experience..?? Understanding Imago theory, as a theory, again, is interesting. But dialogueing as an experience is where the rubber meets the to speak.