Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT), developed by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. of the Institute for Relationship Therapy in New York, is a paradigm shift in the understanding of marriage and marital therapy.

Imago relationship therapy is a short term therapy that combines insight and practical skills. Couples learn to become safe and intentional, to recognize and repair the wounds of the past, and to restructure frustration and 'incompatibility' as opportunities to reclaim their whole self.

Some of Imago relationship therapy's basic assumptions are the following:

  • Our original state is one of wholeness, joy, connection, curiosity, spontaneity, and passion.
  • Over/under-parenting and the process of socialization, creates wounding at various stages of childhood develop ment as essential developmental impulses are blocked. The child unconsciously determines the impulse, rather than the parent, to be 'unacceptable' and creates patterned behavior to adapt to the wounding. This is our 'character structure.'
  • Partner selection is the result of the unconscious desire to complete or correct what was unfinished in childhood. We select a partner who carries both the positive and negative characteristics of our caretakers (the 'Imago'), and who was wounded in the same area, but adapted in a complementary way.
  • The adaptation patterns of one partner triggers the wound and survival pattern of the other, creating a cycle of reactivity. Pattern relates to pattern, rather than person relating to person.
  • Developmentally specific nurturing of each partner helps heal the childhood wound. And paradoxically, our partner will need the very thing that will stretch us out of our own pattern and help us reclaim aspects of our self.
  • The more primitive part of the brain stores emotion and memory related to perceived threats to survival. It is atemporal and ignores our rational explanations about its fear. While insight is important, consistent corrective experience is need to change survival patterns.


This therapy helps couples access and integrate those unconscious developmental needs triggered in relational conflict, and become increasingly conscious and intentional in their own behavior in order to create safety for their partner. Frustration and hurt become pathways to create a 'conscious relationship' that is characterized by real love, intimacy, passion, connection, joy and other inherent qualities of our original self.

Healing in Therapy Related to Quality of Relationship

Research has consistently shown that the effectiveness of therapy is more closely related to the relational qualities between therapist and client, particularly affective and cognitive empathy, than to any particular technique. We take in and contain the experience and feelings of the other, and at the same time, act as a differentiated, yet connected self. Cognitive and affective empathy validates a part of the person's self that has long ago been invalidated, rejected, or abandoned by childhood caretakers, and in the resulting pain, by the self. It is kept unconscious because it is locked in self hatred. However, through continued empathic holding and communication, a person can stay for a period in a previously inaccessible area with the help of the other. As the person is 'held' empathetically, s/he gains access to and can begin to incorporate the 'intolerable' part of the self, discovering within it the 'potential' self that has not yet been realized. Traditionally, the therapeutic relationship has been the primary experience of this kind of empathy and safety. IRT empowers couples to learn and use these skills to create safety and healing in their own relationship, and to foster the process of differentiation while remaining deeply connected.

Basic Tool is Imago Couple's Dialogue

The basic tool of Imago Relationship Therapy is a specific form of couple's dialogue that teaches couples to contain their partner, to mirror precisely, to validate (cognitive empathy) the other's experience, and to empathize affectively. Through various processes based on that structure, couples can access childhood wounding and hold the seemingly 'intolerable' aspects of the partner so that s/he can begin to reclaim the imprisoned 'potential' self .

Re-Imaging the Partner

Just as importantly, couples use their knowledge of the childhood wounds to both empower them to become increasingly intentional in the relationship and to discover very specific ways to nurture and reverse the developmental arrest. The image of the partner is transformed from "someone who won't give me what I want or need, etc." to "a person who was wounded, and who can recover their inherent self as I, the partner, create the necessary safety. " The partner can then provide the corrective experience that is needed for healing, and in doing that, stretch out of his/her own character structure. The attitude toward the partner shifts from criticism and blame to compassion, hope, and a commitment to assist the partner in healing, and to reclaim one's fullest self. In this way, emotional safety is created and deepened. Far from being just another communication tool, the skills provide a structure for safe, effective, healing and lasting change. In a revolutionary way, Imago relationship therapy shifts the power of the healing relationship traditionally reserved for the therapist/client relationship into the hands of the couple.
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Copyright 1996, Hedy Schleifer, MA, LMHC. Winter Park, Florida Copies of this article or parts thereof may be reproduced for personal use but must contain copyright information. Reproduction for financial gain is prohibited