Imago Therapy, developed by Harville Hendrix, is a theory about why people select the life partners they do, why issues develop, and what to do to heal them.
He believes that we all begin life in a state of relaxed and joyful bliss. If our caretakers are attuned to our wants and needs, ready and able to provide warmth, safety, and sustenance, our feelings of aliveness and well-being are sustained. We remain whole. But even in the best of circumstances, no parents are able to be available every minute, to always understand exactly what is needed, or to meet every demand, and therefore they fail to sustain our original feelings of security and comfort.
Over time, and through observation and socialization, we learn what to do to gain the love and acceptance we need for survival: we repress or disown parts of ourselves that society and our parents find unacceptable or unlovable. Our sense of "allrightness" diminishes, and we end up shadows of our whole, true selves. As adults, therefore, we are all walking around wounded, unconsciously hoping to somehow restore the sense of joyful aliveness we began with.
Enter romantic love. Suddenly, we feel whole, safe, joyfully alive, and hopeful that the pain of childhood is behind us. But inevitably things start to go wrong, and it seems our partners are different people than we thought they were. Old hurts are reactivated as we realize that our partners cannot or will not love and care for us as they promised. We enter a power struggle to try to maneuver our partners into caring — through anger, crying, withdrawal, shame, intimidation, criticism — whatever works. But none of it works.
Imago holds that we all partner with someone uniquely unqualified (at the moment) to give us the love we want, so that as a couple, we can help each other heal old wounds. Regardless of what it is we think we're looking for in a mate, our unconscious has its own agenda: to look for someone a) with the same deficits of care and attention that hurt us in the first place, and b) someone with qualities repressed or missing in ourselves. At first we don't see their deficits, and we admire their outgoingness, for example (in contrast to our shyness). Eventually, though, we criticize our partners for hurting us just like our parents did, and for having the very qualities that drew us to them in the first place (we criticize them for being "too outgoing").
But once we understand that we have chosen our partners to heal certain painful experiences, and that the healing of those experiences is the key to the end of longing, we can create a Conscious Relationship, and take the first steps on the journey to what he regards as real, mature love.
The Imago Dialogue is the core skill of Imago practice. It utilizes mirroring, validation, and empathy to foster safe, honest communication — the agent of change and transformation in this theory. Through using the dialogue, we can give our partners what they need, and we can ask for — and receive — what we need. The healing begins.