ImagoRelationships Therapy for Couples
Sally Kennedy MA, LMHC, LMFT
“He doesn’t want to listen to me; he just wants to give me advice.”
“Now she says she loves me, but all she does is criticize me”
Sound familiar? These are common complaints in romantic relationships. When people come to therapy they often wonder, Did I choose the "right" person?
According to Harville Hedrix author of “Getting the Love You Want”, we tend to fall in love and then are surprised when our passion turns to what looks like a power struggle. The paradox is that when you enter the power struggle, it doesn't mean you should call it quits. Instead, the power struggle is even more evidence that you belong together! He says that we tend to fall in love with an "Imago". Your Imago is a person you are romantically attracted to who has similar characteristics or qualities to the people who raised you or were raised with you. That is why when you are in love it feels like you have always known this person. One of the paradoxes of romantic love is that the more intense the attraction, the more likely it is that one you love has characteristics of a parent or family member you were the most frustrated by. When you enter the power struggle, the same frustrations you had with that family member resurface with the love of your life .
Maybe dad didn’t listen to you and mom was hypercritical. Now you find yourself saying your spouse is too critical or doesn’t listen. Maybe dad worked all the time and mom was depressed and felt abandoned. Now as an adult you also work a lot, or you are the one left alone with the kids. Children tend to idealize their parents; so even if you were frustrated with your parent, you will identify with one of them, and may choose someone that is like the other parent. Later you discover that you have repeated patterns of relationship that you were hoping to avoid. So, when you meet the person of your dreams, they are likely to communicate to the love map in your brain that they are like an early caregiver. That is why when you fall in love you feel like you have always known them.
Your love, like your parents, will not be able to fulfill all of your needs. So, the young part of you that thinks your parent can do anything, but won’t, conflicts with the adult part of you that knows people are limited and can't give you everything you need. In the power struggle, the young part often wins for a time. You feel like the person you are with is withholding something they could give you all the time . Later as you understand more you realize that the wonderful husband who gave you a back rub on Monday, is the same person who walked out in the middle of a fight on Friday. Like your dad and mom, he is limited in what he can do for you.
If you are determined to get the love you want , you will have to do a little work. Having a therapist work with you and your partner will help you make more progress than working on your own. It isn’t easy, but therapy increases the likelihood that you will work through the power struggle together and find the love you want. Divorcing or breaking up will only give you another opportunity to repeat the cycle.
To see an entertaining synopsis of this theory of romantic love follow this link to a clip from the movie Crimes and Misdemeanors