Imago Relationship Therapy is a couples therapy created by Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt. Imago is a contactful and effective way of working with couples and closely related to Transactional Analysis.
I’ve spent over a decade training in Imago Relationship Therapy, almost as long as I’ve been a practicing TA therapist and supervisor. Imago has had a huge influence on me as a therapist both in the way that I work with couples, and how I work with individuals.
It has changed the way I interact with my partner and given me a mechanism to create a deep, loving relationship with her; a truly healing experience.
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Imago Relationship Therapy And Transactional Analysis
When reflecting on the impact Imago has had on my practice, my TA supervisor questioned why I had not shared my knowledge of Imago with the TA community. He was particularly curious because of the many links between TA and Imago that exist.
Having been involved with the Imago community for many years I was well aware of Harville and Helen’s generosity of spirit.
These are two people who have given monthly online supervision to Imago Therapists for free for several months. That’s like being supervised by Eric Berne if you’re a TA therapist, amazing!
It came as no surprise to me then, that when I asked for an hour with them to talk about Imago Relationship Therapy and Transactional Analysis, they both readily agreed.
We met one Thursday afternoon via Zoom. Them at their office in Dallas, Texas and me at my Practice, The Affinity Centre in Manchester.
To begin, I asked Harville to explain what Imago Relationship Therapy was to those who did not know,
“I think the primary distinction of Imago Relationship Therapy is that it’s a couple’s therapy and therefore we do not think of it as a psychotherapy.
A psychotherapy being the interest in the objective inner world of a person.
Imago therapists specialise with couples and frame the location of the work to be done in the space between the partners rather than in the interior world of each person in the partnership.
[The work is about] transforming the quality of the interactions between partners.”
“We have come to the conclusion that when we change the interactive world we change the intrapsychic world so that we move from the outside in, rather than the old model, the traditional model where you get your interior world all fixed, then you can have a good relationship.
We did not find that to be true, so we finally found the other way into great relationships.”
Harville, Helen and The Gouldings
I asked Harville and Helen to tell me about their background in Transactional Analysis.
Harville explained that he was one of the lecturers in Transactional Analysis at Southern University in Dallas, which is where Harville and Helen met. It was in his role as lecturer that he ended up training with the Gouldings.
“In the early 70s I began to try to do groups for therapy, it was horrible. I didn’t like doing it, it didn’t work well.
“In 1972 I went to The Gouldings for three months. I always cite those months as giving birth to my transformation as a therapist.
When I came home, I sat down in my group and having watched Bob particularly, I realised that therapy was a precise, clean, direct enterprise. It’s not something you sit around mulling over, it’s that you make decisions. Get out what’s going on. You make decisions and you move on.”
Harville remembers his last practice session in Bob’s supervision group, just before leaving the group. This was obviously a very emotive memory for him,
“I finished [the practise] and looked around and I’m looking at Bob, and everybody is looking at Bob to start doing supervision.
Bob said to me, still almost makes me cry, ‘Oh, you just saw a master at work and there’s nothing to say to a master’.
That was the first affirmation in my life by an Alpha male of my own potency as a male. Bob and I were emotionally bonded forever after that.
Even after Bob died, Mary and I would always make it a point to see the other when we were in the same conference or somewhere nearby.”
It’s evident by Harville’s expression just how important the Gouldings were to him, he continues,
“I am forever indebted to both TA and Gestalt that Bob and Mary integrated with TA. I think that’s what made TA less of a cognitive therapy and a more cognitive emotive therapy experience.
What we added to that in Imago was a possible movement into specific behaviour between each other in order to effect whatever awareness’s you have.”
Helen and Transactional Analysis
Helen recalls how exciting it was for her having discovered Transactional Analysis and how different it was to her previous interest in psychoanalysis.
“I had just begun studying psychology at Southern Methodist University when someone told me ‘Listen Helen, if ever you have the chance, go to The Goulding Institute, you immerse yourself there. You just come out a really good therapist and you’ll get cutting edge therapy’.
I sign up for three months training and there were 35 therapists, I was a student-in-training.”
“Before going to the Goulding’s, I had been enamoured by the teachings of Carl Jung. I noted how Jung didn’t have sentence stems, that he would not engage people but focused on ‘let’s see that just comes up from the unconscious, and you just talk’ and ‘let’s see what comes up or see what your dreams are saying’.
That was so different to TA where the therapist is directive with the patient.”
Helen talks to me about how for both of them, those months of training with the Gouldings really influenced their practice and gave their work direction.
She explains how the Redecision aspect of Bob and Mary’s work influenced Imago Relationship Therapy,
“[Redecision] is very Imago-like. Couples come in and they’re ready to talk about their problems and a good Imago therapist stops them before they start talking about their problems.
After teaching them dialogue they ask “What was the dream that died? Tell me, what do you wish you had?”. Then direct them to share what their vision would be if that happened.
This redirection of the clients focus is similar to helping a client consider making a redecision.”
The Imago Dialogue Process
In Imago Relationship Therapy the focus is on the couple talking to each other using dialogue and the therapist supporting them in the process.
The therapist may offer the beginning of a sentence (a sentence stem) to support the process and deepen the work.
Helen credits the formation of sentence stems to the time Harville and Helen spent with the Gouldings.
“In 1977 Helen and I began our conversation about couples, and at the time there was no theory, it was just like ‘why do couples fight?’
It was a question coming up in me whilst doing therapy, coming up with this idea, that idea.
What theoreticians do is throw mud at the wall and then after a while you see a pattern. There’s a theory here, but for a long time all the mud just falls down the wall and nothing happens.
When it began to shape it began to echo the precision and the interactivity, the directedness that I learned with Bob and Mary.”
That foundation in TA is one of the reasons Harville and Helen believe TA psychotherapists can easily move into Imago Relationship Therapy.
Harville confirms “Just a few tweaks and a TA person can become an Imago person.” Helen reinforces this and suggests another way to describe Imago is as an outgrowth of TA.
How Imago Dialogue Was Born
As we were discussing the formation of Imago Relationship Therapy from its TA roots, I wanted to know more about the Imago dialogue process and how that came about.
The dialogue process is central to the work in Imago Relationship Therapy. Dialogue encourages Adult to Adult transactions and moves the couples away from Games and Rackets.
Instead it steers the couple into a place of curiosity, where they are better able to explore the transference and countertransference.
Harville recounts “One day we were having a fight. Helen sort of yells at me and says ‘Stop! One of us talk and the other one listen and take turns.’ That regulated us.
“I noticed that changed our energy and we then practised that together. I took it to the clinic, again experimenting with couples and that’s what led to the creation of dialogue.
It’s how people talk to each other that makes a difference. It’s not what they say when they talk that’s important, yet no matter what they say, if they don’t talk to each other in such a way they feel safe with each other, they only activate each other.
“It took years for us to move dialogue into the central place as the therapeutic intervention for Imago.
I remember being in Vienna and people were revelling about Imago. I said, ‘what about Imago is so interesting to you?’ And they said ‘dialogue!’. I thought it was the theory about the partner selection process that made Imago.
They said, “Oh that’s interesting, but what matters is the dialogue process”. We learnt from the therapists we’ve trained that the dialogue process is the transformational process.”
“When you [use dialogue] people will walk away connecting and they will think that you’re a brilliant therapist. Sometimes couples hate it, but when they engage in it, they change.
It’s a paradox that structure creates connecting. If you think about it, it’s not really very mysterious.
Just like gasoline put in a tank of a car drives the engine. If the gas is on the ground and you light it, you don’t get any movement. You have to hold the energy and focus the energy, and then things shift.”
As I listen to Harville talk, Berne’s theory of psychological hungers comes to mind.
The need for all of us to have structure, stimulation and recognition. The dialogue process provides all three in abundance.
How Are Imago Relationship Therapy and Transactional Analysis Different?
Having covered how TA became part of the Imago process I was also interested in the differences between the two modalities. Helen takes the lead,
“My view is that TA took the Freudian model and dissected the ego so that was very much about focusing on the individual. It says you need to change the within to have a happier without.
We have a concept called the space between.
We say if two people want a healthy relationship it’s not about one partner developing better mental health for their partner, or both of you developing better mental health.
Instead, if both of you will treat the space between you in a certain way, you’ll have a great relationship. In learning to make it safe to connect, your brain changes. Everything about you changes when you create a safe between.
“Basically anxiety, this kind of simplicity is an example of Harville’s brilliance as a theoretician, anxiety ruptures safety and ruptures connecting. If two people can restore safety to ameliorate anxiety, connecting happens. The focus of Imago Relationship Therapy is on the between, not the within.”
Walking The Talk
I was interested in how Helen gave positive strokes to Harville throughout the interview. It was evident that she truly does see him as a brilliant man and lets him know it.
They both modelled safe conversation and the content of the interview was very much demonstrated in the process between them.
Harville, visibly used to the warmth emanating towards him from Helen, continues,
“I think the discovery of that nuance took a long time. It’s interesting that really powerful things are subtle, so therefore they apparently are not seen for a long time. It was more than an insight: it was more like a luminosity.”
Harville explains how his insight developed when working with a couple he was feeling particularly stuck with,
“I’d been following the traditional model for 20 years and focusing with them on what was going on the inside and getting nowhere.
One day I noticed something in an interaction, and I language it as, he changed the way he looked at her and softened his voice.
I saw her body relax and her breathing deepen, and I had never seen them in a nondefensive place before. I picked up on that and saw the major distinction.
It is the quality of the interaction, not the content of the history, nor of their relationship or of their childhood, that makes a difference.
“I amplified that and experimented with it, and found over and over again, if couples can be helped to create safety, they can move toward each other and connect.
We discovered that’s all they want. They don’t need any epiphanies or great deep insight on how the world works, they just want to be able to walk in the room with their partner and not be scared.
They have to learn how to look at each other with their eyes, gaze versus the glare, the tone of voice. They do need to select what they say because you can you can blow it up by looking like you’re safe and then saying, ‘look that sucks’.”
A TA therapist may language this as picking up the ulterior transactions between the couple and supporting them to soften and cathect their energy from the Child ego state to a more attuned Adult ego state.
By doing so both partners feel emotionally safer and connection is possible.
It also highlights that in Imago Relationship Therapy the therapist concentrates on the process more than the content, they help keep the space between the couple sacred.
How Can TA Therapists Benefit From Learning Imago Relationship Therapy?
I asked Harville and Helen what they thought Imago Relationship Therapy could offer TA therapists who didn’t work with couples. Harville replied,
“Our response to that question starts with a philosophical position that relationship is reality and that individuals are derivatives of relationships.
Everybody arises out of a field called relationality.
If you move away from the individual as fundamental and you see that as a derivative of a deeper thing called relationality or relationship, then you have to think differently about the use of any therapy.
“At the practical level, we would simply say that what people are interested in, and what they will talk about, are their relationships. You can use Imago to help people understand their relationship history.
“[Imago] moved from understanding to action. This is where we went beyond insight which doesn’t necessarily change you.
What changes you is when you behave differently in the next interaction with your partner. That’s what changes you, and you can understand all you want to about [your past], but unless you change what you’re doing, then you don’t change because your memory needs an experience to record.
“When you add to your memories, you add to your neuronal pathways, then you begin to change your brain by changing the outside.
You know, there’s a lot of conversation going on now about ‘change your brain change your life’ and we think that’s a replication of the individual paradigm, that people are inside, and they live in their brains.
You change a relationship, that would change your brain, that would change your life. You’ve got to change relationship first, there’s a sequence to it.
“I think for an individual therapist, Imago is no longer throwing mud against the wall and seeing if it helps couples. If you do it, you will help couples.”
I round the interview off and thank Harville and Helen for their generosity of time and sharing. I notice throughout our time together how they model the theory and philosophy behind Imago Relationship Therapy.
Helen is praising of Harville’s brilliance and he in turn gives her credit for beginning the dialogue process, for introducing to Harville the idea of the Space Between and other contributions to the theory she has made throughout the years.
They are tactile, warm and appreciative of each other. To think that without TA they may never have met, and the world would be a much poorer place.
My Experience As An Imago Therapist
I have found my work with couples using Imago Relationship Therapy to be impactful, deep and profound.
I have seen warring couples soften and open up to each other, and couples who have lost interest in each other reconnect and start to have fun again.
Being able to witness that awakening in my therapy room is an honour and a delight.
The structure of the sessions, created by the dialogue process, provides containment for the couple and the therapist.
I think one of the reasons why many great TA therapists don’t work with couples is because they don’t feel confident. I believe therapists who don’t work with couples are missing out!
Imago provides a bridge between working with individuals and couples, and a door to an amazing journey of connection and joy.
The demand for couple’s therapists has increased dramatically within my business over recent years, it seems a good couples therapist is hard to find.
Training in Imago Relationship Therapy will make you a great couples therapist.
Imago Relationship Therapy training is available across the world. The Imago clinical training offers a robust, professional and personal journey of growth and learning over twelve days.
What I notice about trainees who take part is the personal transformation in becoming confident couples therapists, who feel competent enough to deal with any situation presented to them.
The Imago supervision process supports and nurtures this transformation.
For me as a facilitator and supervisor it is a joy to see, both watching therapists grow and knowing that any couple who works with this therapist is going to have a positive, relationship-changing experience.
You can find out about trainings In Imago Relationship Therapy in the rest of the UK by clicking here.
Read The Book
The best book to read about Imago Relationship Therapy is ‘Getting The Love You Want‘ written by Harville and Helen and recently updated! (affiliate link).