- What is Imago Relationship Therapy?


Imago Relationship Therapy was developed by Harville Hendrix, PhD, and Helen LaKelly Hunt, PhD. They took many ideas from a broad range of psychological theory and therapeutic practice, and put them together in a unique way that emphasizes the mutuality of intimate relationships.

Imago (rhymes with embargo) teaches a way of communicating with your partner about what really matters in your intimate relationships — what you need to feel loved, cared for, connected, and safe. It can help you and your partner to ask for what you need from each other, and to give what you need to each other, to bring you into compassionate and empathic connection.

In 2002 Harville and Helen established Imago Relationships International (IRI) to help fulfill their mission of transforming the world one relationship at a time. IRI is a non-profit organization that supports a network of thousands of certified Imago therapists. The IRI website also provides a worldwide directory of Imago workshops.

The Association of Imago Relationship Therapists Australia (AIRTA), an affiliate of IRI, was formed in 2006 and is the official home of Imago in Australia. The AIRTA website lists local Imago therapists and educators and Imago-related workshops and training.

You can also find independent certified Imago practitioners, such as Cynthia Egerton-Warburton (therapist in Perth, Western Australia and workshop presenter in Perth and Brisbane, Queensland -, +61 409 100 788).

Keeping the Love You Find: A Single Person’s Guide to Achieving Lasting Love Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples The following description of Imago therapy is primarily based on Harville Hendrix’s seminal books, Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples, and Keeping the Love You Find: A Single Person’s Guide to Achieving Lasting Love. (IRI recommend these Imago-related products).


According to Imago theory, you are created in a state of connection and joy, whole and complete. It is inevitable that your childhood carers will fail to perfectly meet your needs, and you will adapt to those experiences.

"As One" © Pam Millar

For instance, during roughly the first year and a half of your life (the "attachment" stage), your developmental task was to establish a sense of safety and belonging as a foundation for your further development. If your carers were reliably warm and available (sufficiently responsive to your physical and emotional needs), you would have tended to feel safe, and you would probably have exhibited secure attachment to your carers (responded to separation from an attachment figure with some distress, but able to be calmed, and sought comfort from the attachment figure when reunited).

On the other hand, if your carers were cold and rejecting (unresponsive to your needs), you may have felt unwanted and rejected, and may have tended to withdraw from contact, not just from your carers, but from others as well. This interactional pattern is given the name "avoider".

If your carers were inconsistently available to meet your needs, you may have felt abandoned, and may have been clingy to try to remain in contact with your attachment figures. This interactional pattern is called "clinger".

Similarly for the later stages of development and carer’s behaviour, various adaptations could have become integrated into your personality. This sets you up for a lifetime of what I call malatropism (turning the wrong way in response to a stimulus), so that you act in ways that get you the opposite of what you consciously desire.

Patterns of adaptation tend to take these forms —

Attachment Stage If Your Carers Are... You May Feel... And Tend to Exhibit...
0-1½ years

"safety and belonging"
reliably available and warm safe secure attachment
cold and rejecting — "don't be" unwanted, rejected — "I have no right to exist" withdrawal — "avoider"
inconsistently available — "don’t need me" abandoned — "I can’t get my needs met" holding on — "clinger"
Exploration Stage If Your Carers Are... You May Feel... And Tend to Exhibit...
1½-3 years

"connected separateness"
providing protective limits and encouraging exploration free to investigate curiosity
smothering, overprotective — "don’t be separate" smothered — "I can’t say no and be loved" distancing — "isolator"
neglectful — "don’t be dependent" neglected — "I can’t count on anyone" pursuit — "pursuer"
Identity Stage If Your Carers Are... You May Feel... And Tend to Exhibit...
3-4 years

"sense of self"
mirroring identifications and supporting assertions accepted for who you are an integrated self
selectively mirroring, controlling — "be what we want you to be" shamed, dominated — "I can’t be me and be accepted and loved" rigid, punishing — "controller"
deflecting and invasive — "don’t assert yourself" invisible, used — "I’ll never be seen, valued, and accepted" yielding, self-effacing — "diffuser"
Competence Stage If Your Carers Are... You May Feel... And Tend to Exhibit...
4-7 years

"personal power"
giving clear instructions and supporting efforts self-confident empowerment, positive risk taking
selectively praising and demanding excellence — "don’t make mistakes" punished, guilty — "I have to be perfect" competitiveness, limited praising — "competitor"
ignoring achievements and offering no guidance — "don’t be powerful" achievements are devalued — "I can’t be aggressive or express anger" manipulation — "compromiser"
Concern Stage If Your Carers Are... You May Feel... And Tend to Exhibit...
7-13 years

modelling and encouraging good friendships comfortable in relationships with peers healthy friendships, including a "best" friend
overprotective, disapproving of friends — "don’t be close" rejected, lonely — "I’m not lovable" lack of connection — "loner"
disapproving of autonomy and self-care — "don’t have any needs of your own" own needs are not legitimate — "others need me" taking care of others — "caretaker"
Intimacy Stage If Your Carers Are... You May Feel... And Tend to Exhibit...

"closeness and loving"
supporting intimate relationships and sexuality comfortable with adult intimacy positive sexual and emotional partnerships
overly restrictive — "don’t grow up" controlled — "I am not trusted" rebellion, suspicion — "rebel"
conservative, rigid — "don’t be different" disapproval — "I have to do what’s right" self-righteousness — "conformist"

It is important to note that these characterizations are not cast in stone. You could act like an avoider in one particular situation and feel safe and securely attached in many other situations and relationships. And patterns can change over time. I am talking more about tendencies that emerge during times of conflict or fear.

The Purpose Of Romantic Love

Why do you fall in love with particular people? According to Imago theory, you seek to recreate the conditions of your childhood so that you can use your adult competance to complete your developmental tasks and grow up — in other words, to finish your childhood. As Ben Hecht said, "Love is the magician that pulls a man out of his own hat."

Three things make you fall in love:

  1. You are driven to recreate the relational conditions of your childhood by bonding with someone who is sufficiently similar to your childhood carers — an "Imago match". You will tend to fall in love with someone who matches an unconscious profile made up of positive and negative characteristics of your childhood carers. This profile is the "imago" (Latin for image, in the sense of likeness or resemblance).
  2. You tend to fall in love with someone who has the same wound but a different defence — the fundamental need is the same, but one will openly acknowledge it while the other will deny it. Imago therapists often find couples who are in some significant way complementary — introversion and extroversion, blame and guilt, anger and sadness, control and submission, anxiety and stoicism, or logic and intuition.
  3. You tend to be attracted to partners who exhibit aspects of your lost selves, the innate aspects of your personality of which you are not conscious. If you have a partner who carries the lost parts of your self, you are effectively reclaiming your lost parts by proxy.
"Interwoven" © Pam Millar

Generally, one partner will be a "minimizer", holding their energy in to deal with anxiety by themselves (predominantly using the avoider, isolator, compulsive controller, or competitor adaptations), and the other will be a "maximizer", directing their energy outwards to deal with anxiety through contact with others (predominantly using the clinger, pursuer, diffuser, or compromiser adaptations). With adaptations from the latter stages of development (concern and intimacy), things are more fluid. For instance, it is not uncommon to find a couple in which the rebel is the maximiser and the conformist is the minimiser. Within such a relationship, the partners may frequently swap those roles between them — if the rebel conforms the conformist may rebel.

If you are a maximizer, you need to learn to be able to do something that minimizers can do (turn your energy inward to deal with anxiety by yourself), and vice versa.

For instance, a girl reacted to her parents’ arbitrary and unjust authority by protesting and rebelling (maximizer), and a boy reacted to his parents’ similar authority by withdrawing into himself and containing his resentment (minimizer). When they fell in love with each other as adults, they each offered the other an example of a different adaptation, which if integrated, could offer them both choice in how to deal with anxiety and disappointment, and therefore may bring liberation from rigid adaptations. If you and your partner can do this, you can each complete a developmental stage.

Typically, you and your partner will be seeking to complete the same stage (or adjacent stages), so you may be an avoider holding off a clinger, a distancer running from a pursuer, a controller dominating a diffuser, or a competitor trying to outdo a compromiser.

If you and your partner drive each other nuts, you are probably made for each other! (Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?)

How Does Romantic Love Go Wrong?

Your romantic relationships will typically progress through two distinct phases —

  1. The "romantic phase": you have an expectation of need fulfilment and a euphoric feeling of completeness when your partner supplies the lost parts of your self. Cupid shoots a dose of Phenylethylalamine directly into your brain. You feel like the darling child in an ideal family.
  2. The "power struggle": you come to hate what you fell in love with — "You’re so exuberant and alive!" becomes, "Can’t we have a rational conversation without you getting hysterical?!" Your powerful expectations of need fulfilment are inevitably not met. The shift from romance to power struggle tends to begin when you make a firm commitment to the relationship. Your unarticulated expectation is — "now my partner will magically meet all of my needs and love me like my parents never did!" When this doesn’t happen, it seems as if your partner is deliberately withholding gratification, so you may have a natural impulse to retaliate.

A typical power struggle cycle might go like this —

Connection, Rupture, and Repair...

The problem is not the rupture but the failure to reconnect. The conflict is not a fundamental threat to your relationship, the threat is your inability to repair the rupture and get back to intimate connection.

What usually happens in the absence of vulnerability and empathy is you try to control your partner to get what you want. Have you ever used behaviours like threatening, withholding affection, being sarcastic, cold, criticising, attacking, moping, blaming, or shaming to punish and hurt your partner into loving you right? That can succeed in intimidating your partner into complying with your wishes (although it generally doesn’t work very well), but it’s hardly a loving and compassionate way to be.

You may be trying to get your partner to understand your pain by inflicting something similar on them. This dramatically increases the amount of pain in your relationship, guaranteeing that you will get the opposite of what you want and need.

What Can A Couple Do To Have
A Loving And Fulfilling Relationship?

The alternative to a power struggle is to compassionately ask for what you need and to empathically give what your partner needs, in other words, to consciously collaborate with your unconscious purpose to overcome your childhood adaptations. Imago therapy teaches you how to do this, in safety, and with respect.

This may bring you to the third stage of an intimate relationship. The first stage (romantic love), is when you want the other person. The second (the power struggle), is when you want the other person to satisfy you. The third, "real love", is when you want what is best for the other person.

For every negative interaction, you need five positive interactions to restore balance. In other words, if your relationship is 80% good, the 20% that is not good will tend to dominate your experience. Often the hardest part of addressing this balance is accepting the gifts that your partner has to offer.

"Peaceful Sleep" © Pam Millar

There are five basic tasks in Imago relationship therapy —

The Imago Dialogue

The fundamental technique of Imago therapy is a structured dialogue. Your therapist takes you and your partner through a process of speaking and listening that creates what psychologists call contingent communication.

Contingent communication happens when disclosure of vulnerability is met with expressed empathy. For instance, if I tell my partner that I feel lonely when she leaves me alone to go to work for a night shift, I am being honest about how vulnerable I feel in that situation. If she chooses to respond by letting me know that she understands what I have said, and that she gets how it affects me, we have had an instance of contingent communication. The Imago dialogue firstly allows and encourages this to happen, and teaches you how to do this for yourselves, so that eventually it becomes habitual, and deep intimacy is possible between you.

"Loving" © Pam Millar

The more vulnerable you can be with your partner, the safer your relationship will be for both of you. You may be thinking that you could be vulnerable if it was safe, but paradoxically it works the other way around — if you can lower your defences to allow your partner to feel tender and caring towards you, you should not get the negative reaction you anticipate. A certified Imago therapist can help you to experience this in safety.

There is a magical aspect to Imago. If you can ask for what you need from your partner, in the giving of what is needed, your partner can heal and grow at least as much as you do.

You fell in love with your partner because your imagos match. (In other words, your unconscious composite images of the characteristics of your childhood carers are sufficiently complementary.) You also fell in love with each other because you both experienced a similar kind of distress in childhood, but adapted to it in opposite ways ("same wound, different defence"). This means that what you each need the most may be the hardest for the other to give. In granting you partner’s request for a particular behaviour, you may have to reclaim a lost part of yourself.

The thing that you want the most may also be very difficult for you to receive, since you have adapted so well to its absence that its presence may feel like a powerful taboo has been violated.

What Happens In Imago Therapy?

An Imago therapist acts more like a coach than a traditional psychotherapist. The objective is to get you and your partner intimately connected with each other, rather than getting each of you into a deep therapeutic relationship with the therapist.

"Don’t Go" © Pam Millar

Like a coach, an Imago therapist will get you to develop some skills and understanding of the game of love, and will help you to play the game for real so that you and your partner both win. This means you need to commit to a number of sessions (typically six to eight), to doing the homework, to attending a workshop, and to being as fully available to your partner as you can be.

An Imago therapist will have a repertoire of different dialogues and exercises, but will adapt them to fit what you need in the moment. So, no two therapists or sessions will be quite the same. You always have the choice of the content you deal with, and how far you are willing to go with it.

In a dialogue, you will sit opposite your partner, with the therapist sitting to the side. The therapist will direct you through the structure of the dialogue with your partner, first one speaks while the other mirrors what they say, and then the other gets to speak while the first mirrors. Mirroring is saying what you heard, like, he says, "Something I really appreciate about you is the way you ask me if you can get me anything when you’re heading for the kitchen", and she mirrors with, "Something you really appreciate about me is that I ask you if I can get you anything when I’m going to the kitchen".

The therapist may use sentence stems to deepen the process. For instance, they may get you to start a sentence with something like, "What this reminds me of from my childhood is...", and you finish it with your own words.

Who Can Benefit From Imago Therapy?

You and your partner are ideal Imago clients if you are both committed to your relationship, you want to improve it, and you take responsibility for your own growth and happiness. If you are willing to honestly explore your individual vulnerability and mutual compassion and intimacy, Imago can be a simple and profoundly effective way for you to be in relationship with your partner.

"Longing" © Pam Millar

Imago is also remarkably effective in the context of other relationships, for instance parents and children, siblings... between any two people who value open communication.

Your age, sexual orientation, race, and religous beliefs don’t matter — all are compatible with Imago therapy.

If you are thinking of separating from your partner, you can also benefit greatly from Imago therapy. The safety of an Imago session provides you with a space in which you can explore your deeper truth and compassionate alternatives.

One thing we have learnt — you can separate from your partner, but unless you grow and change you will go on to recreate the same kind of relationship trouble with someone else. Divorce is not the cure, but Imago therapy can be an antidote.

You have a brilliant relationship? That’s fantastic, but could you use some insurance? Imago can help you to build a depth of connection to make your relationship even more resilient and fulfilling.

Things You Might Hear An Imago Therapist Say

"99% of couple trouble comes from not being 100% present." You need to really listen to your partner, so that it is safe for them to tell you what they need. In being 100% present to them, and in meeting their needs, you benefit at least as much as they do.

"You can be right, or you can be in relationship — take your pick." Being right will not get you or your partner what you both want and need.

"Conflict is growth trying to happen." If it’s not uncomfortable and unfamiliar, you are not growing.

"Criticism is self-abuse." When you criticise your partner you are criticising a disowned or lost part of yourself.

"The trick is not to find the right partner, but to be the right partner." There is not one Mr or Ms Right, there are many, and your success will overwhelmingly depend on your own state of mind and actions.

"Love is blind and marriage is the cure." Romantic love gets you together with someone with whom you can grow. The real work starts when the romance turns to a power struggle.

"You would rather live in a predictable hell than have a taste of heaven and lose it." It feels safer to stay with what you know rather than risk getting what you want.

"In a patriarchal society, the good relationships are the ones in which the men allow themselves to be influenced by their partners." This is not so much about which car to buy, or what to wear... but how to be intimate, loving, and caring.

"For a healthy relationship, touch and laugh together every day." Share actions that jiggle your innards, like laughing, high-energy fun, and orgasm, to bring you closer to your partner.

"Any behaviour that you judge to be crazy is just a child trying to tell you how they feel." Listen to the child. What do they need to feel safe, accepted, and appreciated by you?

"Both partners in a relationship are the problem, and both are the solution." You are each 100% responsible for the system you have created through your unconscious collusion.

"You are wounded in relationship so you need to heal in relationship (with an Imago match)." You fall in love with people who give you the greatest chances to give up your unproductive adaptations and reclaim your true self.

"What you have now is what you are committed to." Ask yourself what you get out of remaining in conflict and disconnection.

"Lower your defences so that your partner can become an ally rather than an enemy." Disclose your vulnerability and invoke your partner’s cuteness receptors. This works so much better than trying to punish them into compliance.

"Most of your partner’s complaints about you have some basis in reality." They aren’t necessarily crazy or always trying to hurt you! They can help you to see how your responses are frozen in the past.

"Most of your complaints about your partner are statements about your unmet needs." You chose your partner because they can’t naturally meet your deeper needs.

"The only legitimate powers you have in a relationship are to ask your partner for what you need, and to change your own behaviour to meet their needs." You have no right to punish them for not loving you right (they are doing the best they can with who they are).

"The best way for you to take care of yourself is to take care of your partner." Selfishness might get you what you want, but it won’t get you what you need.

"You can’t walk in another’s shoes if yours are still on." Kick off your shoes, relax, listen... it’s not all about you, and you don’t have to fight back.

"Conflict only exists when one or both partners are feeling misunderstood." If you want your partner to understand you, first do everything you can to understand them and let them know that you do.

"To find a person who will love you for no reason, and to shower that person with reasons, that is the ultimate happiness." [Robert Brault] - Imago Relationship Therapy FAQs

How do you pronounce Imago?

"Im" is like important, and "ago" is like cargo.

How many sessions of Imago therapy will we need?

That’s impossible to say, since it depends on how far you want to go and how willing you are to do the work to get there. Rather than X sessions being a standard treatment, I recommend that you commit to a number of sessions, say six to eight, and see for yourself if it works for you. People often find that after three or four sessions some stuff comes up that makes them want to quit. It’s important to keep going at that point, so the commitment to six or eight sessions should get you through that.

Are there workshops based on Imago Therapy?

Yes, workshops are considered extremely valuable, if not essential, to successful Imago work. You can find a list of Australian workshops at AIRTA, and a global workshop directory at IRI.

Cynthia Egerton-Warburton presents Getting The Love You Want couples workshop in Perth, Western Australia, and Brisbane, Queensland. Contact Cynthia for more information -, +61 409 100 788.

How can I know if a workshop is the real thing?

If someone offers you an "Imago workshop", use the IRI therapist directory to check that they are a certified Couple’s Workshop Presenter, Single’s Workshop Presenter, Imago Therapist, or Imago Educator. There are some therapists who have no training in Imago and think that reading Getting The Love You Want qualifies them to deliver an "Imago workshop". Make sure you are getting the real thing from a certified Imago therapist or educator.

I can’t afford the time or money to attend therapy or a workshop...
what’s one thing I can do to improve my relationships?

Many people come to counselling expecting the counsellor to magically fix their partner. They expect the counsellor will go, "Of course! You are absolutely right!" They hope the counsellor will cast a behaviour change spell on their partner, and all their troubles will disappear without them needing to question or change their own behaviour.

Where I see most clients going wrong is they try to punish their partner into giving them what they want (they are in the power struggle). You have two legitimate rights in a non-abusive intimate relationship. One is to change your own behaviour to meet your partner’s needs. The other is to ask your partner if they are willing to give you what you need. Did you get that? The only one of whom you can demand change is yourself.

The truth is, if you keep on doing what you’re doing, you’re going to keep on getting what you’re getting. Here’s the only thing you really need to know — you have to do something different for your relationship to change.

So what can you actually do to make a difference? A good first objective is to make your relationship safe enough for you both to ask for what you need.

Begin by listening without needing to change your partner, win an argument, or protect yourself by avoiding contact. Get curious. Make it safe enough for your partner to want to share with you the truth about how they feel. Try things like, "what was that like for you?", "how did that make you feel?", and "how would you like that to be different?"

The next thing is to come from a position of vulnerability, rather than blaming and controlling. For instance, instead of, "where have you been?", try something like, "I was worried when you weren’t home at the usual time." Instead of, "you useless, lazy, stupid...", try something like, "I feel frustrated and ashamed when this happens. Can we talk about how else we could deal with this?" Rather than, "why won’t you... exercise the dog / look after the kids / get a decent job?", try something like, "I’m worried about... the dog / the kids / what your job is doing to your health. Are you willing to talk about it now?"

Your next objective should be to make your relationship one in which you both feel loved and cared for. All you have to do is stop criticising and start expressing your appreciation for each other. That is easy to say, but it could be very hard to achieve without the help of a relationship therapist.

We have problems with violence / gambling / drugs / alcohol... Would Imago work for us?

Probably not, and I wouldn’t recommend it. Imago is about intimate connection and feeling loved and cared for. Where there is physical violence or systematic domination it is unlikely that such objectives can be reached. The same goes for things like problem gambling and substance abuse. These problems need to be sorted out before intimate relationships can be addressed. Once you and your partner as individuals have dealt with these sort of issues (with the help of a specialist agency or therapist), it may be appropriate to try some Imago work to address your relationship.

I asked a psychologist what they thought about Imago, and they said, "It’s just psychodynamics with a veneer of behavourism." What the heck does that mean?

A core idea of many psychodynamic approaches is that maladaptive functions ("defence mechanisms") emerge early in life in the individual psyche, and remain largely unconscious until their effects cause trouble for the individual. This is certainly true of Imago theory, but Imago theory is also equally compatible with many other schools of thought, such as Systemic Family Therapy, and Attachment Theory. Behavourist therapies are about consciously changing behaviour, and Imago therapy certainly does this, but in a way that focusses on the relational and developmental aspects of the human psyche through meaningful shared emotional experience. It is in its unique compatibility with multiple approaches, with a focus on the mutuality of intimate relationships, that makes Imago more than just pastiche.

Harville Hendrix... is he the bloke on Oprah?

Yes, Harville has appeared on the Oprah show many times. You can learn more about him at IRI.

Can you refer me to an Imago therapist in my area?

You can try the AIRTA directory. You can also find Certified Imago Therapists around the world on the IRI directory.

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