This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Getting the Love You Want" by Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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What is the Imago Dialogue? How do you use it to improve relationships?
According to Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt in Getting the Love You Want, the Imago Dialogue is a communication tool to down emotional walls. This tool is especially useful for couples who have trouble communicating relationship problems.
Read below to learn more about the Imago Dialogue.
Using the Imago Dialogue
Unconscious needs bring couples together, while unconscious reactions drive couples apart. To bridge the rift, you both have to bring your needs and reactions to the forefront of your conscious, rational minds. To enable this, Hendrix and Hunt created a structured way for couples to communicate, called the “Imago Dialogue.” As a scripted format, this dialogue embodies mirroring your partner’s statements to ensure that you’ve understood them correctly, validating their point of view, and responding with empathy for their emotions.
Beginning to Communicate
To demonstrate how the Imago Dialogue works, we’ll turn to the example of Patty and David. Patty wants to discuss an important issue, one that would normally trigger a conflict. Using the structure, she first checks with David and asks whether he’s available to talk. If he is, the conversation may proceed. If he isn’t, he needs to suggest a better time to talk. By initiating the dialogue, Patty is empowered by knowing she’ll be able to speak safely and be heard. David is empowered because he can ensure that the conversation takes place when he’s emotionally ready.
According to Hendrix and Hunt, the need to create a “safe space” in the relationship is paramount. Although it’s contrary to the way couples normally have conversations, scheduling an appointment to discuss a sensitive subject creates an atmosphere of safety and cooperation.
Having the Dialogue
Patty discusses the issue on her mind (which might be a frustration, a childhood experience, or even something positive). David mirrors by repeating and rephrasing, checking in with Patty until both agree that he’s fully understood what she said.
David then talks through Patty’s thought process rationally, to understand and validate why she thinks the way she does. As before, David checks in with Patty as many times as needed to make sure he understands her experience.
In the next step, David imagines how Patty must feel, then acknowledges and empathizes with her emotions. Throughout, he confirms with Patty that he’s correctly understood her feelings.
Once David has mirrored what Patty told him, validated her thought process, and empathized with her emotions, their roles reverse. David may now speak safely about the thoughts and feelings the discussion brought up for him. Patty engages by repeating David’s statements, validating his thoughts, and responding with empathy. This back-and-forth can go on as many times as needed until they both feel the topic has been fully explored.
Incorporating the Script Into Your Life
This structure through which partners can communicate safely is the central tool around which Hendrix and Hunt designed Imago Relationship Therapy. It’s meant to be used often as a couple works to rebuild their relationship.
The scripted nature of the dialogue will feel awkward and artificial—but the authors say that’s the point. By forcing you to engage your conscious mind within a predetermined format for having a conversation, the dialogue short-circuits the unconscious reactions that activate your childhood fears and prevent true understanding.
When used regularly, this method for addressing difficult issues creates a safe space within the relationship. Within this space, say Hendrix and Hunt, couples who previously treated each other as adversaries can now become true partners on the path to healing each other’s old scars.
Make It a Habit
Ideally, using the scripted dialogue to address relationship issues can be turned into a habitual process. In The Power of Habit, Journalist Charles Duhigg identified the criteria needed to make a habit automatic:
- A cue to trigger the behavior (This could be a feeling you want to express or a request you’d like to make of your partner)
- A routine of actions to follow (This is provided by the dialogue’s script)
- A reward from performing the behavior (This is received when your partner validates your feelings)
Taken together, and repeated often enough, these elements create a craving to enact the new behavior (the dialogue) more and more.
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- Why rifts often open between your romantic partner and yourself
- How your childhood defines your future relationships
- How a struggling couple can learn to talk to each other, heal, and grow