Why Aren’t You Getting Anywhere In Couples Therapy?

Whether you’ve been married for 2 years or 20 years, you know that being in a marriage requires a lot of work.

But you aren’t only a married person, you have to be a parent, a friend, an employee, or a boss, and more – all while being loving and patient with this other person, day in and day out.

And you’re probably willing to (yet, maybe, hesitantly) go to therapy, if need be. As long as it works. And fast, right?

A client in a couples session once asked me, “Do you do any other types of couples therapy?” Understandably, this partner had a sense of urgency and wanted things “fixed” fast, things he now realized had been wrong for years.  He was adamant about coming only every other week for a maximum of two months and either to have things fixed or to separate.

What do you say when you are looking at someone who is in so much pain and desperate for real solutions, and you know you have something that could help them, if they would only let you try?

I try to help clients realize that in order have the type of marriage you set out to have, you have to be able to do let go of what you think that therapy should look like – because what works is better than what’s fast. You have to think outside the “therapy” box, and use tools that have proven to create real and lasting change.

So, I wanted to share the unique and very effective type of therapy that I use when working with couples. I’ve seen couples go from the brink of divorce, to amazingly enough, listening and treating each other with respect, even in their arguments, and gaining skills that they can use – right in the middle of those disagreements or struggles.

It’s called Imago Therapy.

Created by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. Imago is the Latin word for “image,” which is the unconscious image of our ideal partner, based on the traits of our childhood caretakers, typically parents. Because we subconsciously choose someone who resembles our caretakers, our partner’s behaviors can trigger our childhood wounds, and we do the same to them, which causes a cycle of re-wounding and disconnection.

With this in mind, Imago therapy helps couple’s slow down and open up communication in a safe and structured way, that helps each person to be fully heard and explores the childhood wounds that are showing up in the relationship.

It’s true that Imago Therapy doesn’t provide quick fixes.  But couples don’t typically achieve lasting change when they sit on the couch and vent, staring at the therapist with maybe occasional sideways glances at one another, awaiting answers from the “authority” who they think knows what’s best for them.

Because when others prescribe solutions for us, we have a hard time implementing and maintaining those changes in the long run. Couples must gain the skills necessary to create their own solutions in the heated moments. True motivation for change requires cutting through the blame and judgment to have a new emotional experience together in order for them to believe that a new story in a relationship is possible.

So, what is it about Imago that makes it so different and powerful?

Couples face each other and the therapist sits to the side

Now, before you have a panic attack – let me tell you why. One of the biggest obstacles that couples face in resolving their differences is that they have stopped communicating.  Somewhere along the way, there has been a disconnection and now they want someone to step in to help “fix” them.

But by taking the hardest step they can think of and facing each other, they learn, over time, that they have the inner resources they need and that they can work together to access them. The therapist is there as a coach through the process, and doing it this wayis what empowers them to be able to do this on their own – which is the ultimate goal.

Couples use “The Imago Dialogue” to re-learn how to express themselves and listen to each other

In arguments, couples talk “at” each other rather that “to” each other. While one person is talking, the other is thinking hard, and certainly not about what their partner is saying, but about what they are going to say next. They’re ducked behind their barricade, frantically searching for the best ammo to use when there’s a break in the barrage of bullets from their perceived “enemy.”

In order to get couples to come out into the open and start to re-build their trust, the first skill taught and practiced in Imago Therapy is “The Imago Dialogue”, which slows everything down and creates structure in which both people feel safe.

Not surprisingly, slowing down can be very frustrating for couples in the beginning because they are used to rapid-fire arguments. But what they don’t realize is just how much they are missing and how much damage is being done when they react without thinking.

Developing patience in this process requires telling themselves that they will each have the opportunity to express themselves in time.

When couples give the dialogue process a chance, it becomes clear to them that arguing the old way wasn’t getting them anywhere fast.  They start to see that this new way allows them to both be heard and understood. They start to “get” each other again, something they haven’t felt in a very long time.

What does the Imago dialogue look like?

We start with one person as the “sender” and the other as the “receiver” from start to finish. If it feels strange, I ask couples to imagine that they live on two different islands on which they are surrounded by their own individual stories. The receiver at the time must leave their island behind temporarily and take a boat to the sender’s island to really check it out with an open mind and learn more about it. Then, they can return to their own island with a new awareness and perhaps a slightly different story.

Once we have those roles in place, we start with mirroring.  So, if the sender starts with “I don’t think you care about my feelings” then the receiver would say something like “Let me see if I got that right. You don’t think I care about your feelings…” and then checks in with, “Did I get that right?”

When they reflect the sender’s thoughts or feelings, as accurately as possible, it allows two great things to happen. First, the receiver has a chance to focus on and actually consider the message. Also, the sender gets to hear their own words and reflected back, either confirming the message or realizing that it really wasn’t accurate. After all, so often we are unaware of what we say in arguments because we are in “fight or flight” mode.

When the sender has finished expressing themselves fully, the receiver then provides validation. This doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with the message, but they would talk about why it makes sense from the sender’s perspective, given their experiences in childhood, life in general, and the relationship.

Finally, the receiver expresses empathy by trying to imagine how they think their partner might feel and checking in with them to see if that might be the case. After having expressed empathy, the receiver thanks the sender for sharing knowing that it will help heal their love and deepen their connection, even if the message is hard to hear.

Couples help move away from re-wounding and move toward helping each other heal

Imago stands for the image of our ideal partner, which is based on an image of our caretakers, made up from a combination of their positive and negative traits. And the negative traits tend to carry more weight because they have created our childhood wounds.

What? You might think, I don’t have childhood wounds. I wasn’t abused or traumatized as a kid.

The truth is that none of us come out of childhood unscathed. Wounds are all relative, but they all accompany us into our adult relationships. People will tell me, “I would never choose someone like my mother. I’d run in the opposite direction!” But, as I point out, it’s good that they chose each other, because they have the potential to react in a different way and to heal, rather than wound, their partner. The key is the two people being flexible enough to make some changes.

So, in our first step of moving away from doing damage and moving toward healing, I will use a dialogue that begins with “Something I appreciate about you is…” When we are in distress, we are hyper-focused on the negative traits and behaviors of others. When we shift the focus to something we appreciate, no matter how small, it sets the stage for more healing to take place.

Couples bring childhood wounds to light to help shift from blame to empathy

There’s always more going on behind the scenes than meets the eye. And while, we are ultimately responsible for our actions and reactions, there is often more happening under the surface that can be very important for couples to become aware of.

In order to become more aware, we use another Imago dialogue called the Parent-Child Dialogue, where one partner stands in for one of the other’s parents as the “receiver.” The sender then gets to speak with their parent and express their feelings about the wounds they received.

Although this might sound unpleasant, by this time, couples are very aware of the benefits of these dialogues, and how empowering they truly are for their relationship.

In doing this, the receiver is able to see that there is something going on beneath their partner’s distress and reactions, something that stems from a childhood wound that’s being triggered by their partner’s behavior.

And although this does not absolve anyone of the responsibility to change negative behavior, it does motivate the receiver to be more empathetic and to change in order to avoid hurting their partner.

So, is Imago right for you?

Whenever you find yourself looking for a quick fix for your marriage, you can take it as a sign that you need to slow down and allow space for the work. Most problems don’t appear overnight, but instead develop over time, and sometimes fester for years. This means that they cannot simply be fixed overnight either, because it will take time to re-write the story of your relationship that has been writing itself on the neural pathways of your brain, forming deep ruts and creating habitual reactions.

In order for a couple to rewrite their story, they need to hear each other’s individualstories about the relationship. They need to hear what their partner learned about relationships, in general, from their caregivers. Then, as they develop a shared vision, they need to forge a partnership that brings about healing rather than constantly re-wounding each other.

Only then is a new story possible, in which they re-discover their love and appreciation for each other.

Marriage counseling doesn’t have to be an endless argument. With Imago Therapy, you can achieve a renewed, lasting connection that will help you and your partner have the marriage you dreamed about when you first said “I do.”

Thinking of marriage counseling? Which of these aspects of Imago sounds the most helpful you?