By Jeff Dwarshuis LMSW ACSW
Imago Therapy was developed by Harville Hendrix as a type of Marital Therapy. It is recognized as a highly effective relational intervention because of its unique approach to understanding the nature of human attraction as well as its practical methods of relational change. Imago Therapy maintains that people are attracted to individuals who have both the negative and positive qualities of their own parents, that people try to get in their relationships the things they didn’t receive as children and that people attempt to repeat the joys of youth by reliving the same events that brought pleasing emotions as children.
Childhood Disappointments and Behavioral Reactions
Imago Therapy also asserts that people negatively impact their relationships by repeating the same reactive behaviors they did as children in response to parental disappointment. For example, if a child’s parents were not available to them and they reacted with aggression to this disappointment they will most likely repeat the behavior of aggression in their marriage during times of conflict. Another example is if a child is abused physically and as a child they responded to this aggression with avoidance and self blame they then will continue this reaction in their marriage in a more adult form such as using substances and self denigrating language.
The Imago Setup
In Imago Therapy the word Imago means “Image” and represents the type of person to whom we are attracted. An individual can find their “Imago” by completing an Imago worksheet that elicits information about one’s childhood family. This worksheet is shown below. Completing sections A- E provides information that can be applied to the frame sentence found at the end of the setup and this gives a description of unconscious attraction. The form is as follows –
- List the bad qualities of your mother and father.
- List the good qualities of your mother and father
- Complete the sentence – “What I wanted and needed most as a child was…”
- List good memories of your childhood and how you responded emotionally.
- List the disappointments of your childhood and how you responded behaviorally.
After sections A- E are completed the client uses the corresponding answers from the statements above to fill in the blanks below get a complete description of their relational tendencies.
I am trying to find a person who is (A) to always be (B) so I can get (C) and feel (D). I stop myself from getting this sometimes by (E).
Completing this worksheet allows one to understand the type of person to whom they are attracted as well as the things they are hoping to resolve, repeat and enjoy in their adult relationship(s). For the purpose of Integrated EMDR, the primary interest is the last section (Section E) which states the person’s behavioral responses in reaction to disappointments. These behavioral responses are a description of the counterproductive and reactive behaviors which continue into adult relationships.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a treatment method that dramatically reduces or eliminates the negative impacts of traumatic memory leading to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Therapists have expanded the use of EMDR to include other presenting concerns besides PTSD such as depression, anxiety and relational hardship by addressing the underlying negative experience leading to the problem. EMDR, when combined with Imago Therapy, is a type of Integrated EMDR since it is a combination of approaches to meet the needs of the client.
EMDR for Reactive Reduction
As stated in prior articles, EMDR eliminates the negative impacts of traumatic or negative memories that lead to negative emotions, self concept, body reactions and related behaviors. (See “What Is EMDR’ and “What Is Integrated EMDR?”) The client seeking help with their relationship can refer to the Imago worksheet section E on childhood disappointments and create a list of specific memories of disappointment leading to reactive behavior. These memories can be used as EMDR targets and reprocessed using EMDR. The reprocessing of these memories takes away any negative emotions, self concept or behavior reaction in response to repeated themes of childhood disappointment happening in their adult relationship. This allows the client to remain objective rather than reactive during times of emotional conflict. A client can then respond in their relationship with problem solving or listening or being in a better position to use treatment objectives such as communication skills.