What Is Imago? The Psychology of Dating Your Parents

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What does Imago mean in psychology? Do you have your own Imago?

According to Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt in Getting the Love You Want, an Imago figure is an idealized image that resembles the people who raised you. This image is sometimes used to find romantic partners to fill the void that your caretakers couldn’t fill.

Read more to discover your own Imago, psychology’s history of Imago figures, and an example.

The Imago and the Founders of Psychology

In psychology, Imago was coined by Carl Jung to describe an unconscious mental archetype, especially that of a parental figure. In Jung’s work, you evoke this archetype when a present-day event makes your emotions regress to those you felt in childhood. Jung believed that many archetypes are universal and not based on individual upbringing.

Freud used the Imago concept to explain children’s subjective perceptions of their parents. For Freud, the Imago comes into play when a person projects certain parental traits onto another person (for example, their psychiatrist).

The Idealized Caregiver

Hendrix and Hunt state that during childhood, your subconscious creates a blended image of all the people responsible for your care—parents, grandparents, foster parents, older siblings, and so on. The authors call this imaginary gestalt “the Imago.” Your own Imago is an idealized image that closely resembles the people who raised you, with all their positive and negative traits, while also making up for your repressed desires and feelings.

Consider the example of a woman we’ll call “Patty.” She was raised by thoughtful, intelligent parents who nevertheless fell short in some ways of nurturing her fully as a child. Patty’s father was an investment adviser who worked long hours and was rarely at home. He encouraged Patty to excel in school, but couldn’t acknowledge her feelings. He would get angry if she was openly sad or anxious at home.

Patty’s mother was more available, a painter who worked from a studio in their house. Since she spent most days alone, she relied on Patty to provide much of the emotional support she didn’t receive from Patty’s father. As such, she monopolized Patty’s time whenever she could, micromanaging her daughter as if she was an extension of herself.

As a result, Patty’s “idealized parental image” is of a person who is intelligent, hard-working, and creative, while also being controlling, dismissive, and in need of their emotional care.

Hendrix and Hunt suggest that whether we know it or not, this parental image is the template we use when evaluating potential romantic partners—and the more closely a potential mate matches your unconscious parental image, the more you feel attracted to them. While we may think we know why we find certain people attractive, this process is entirely unconscious and can take place very quickly. 

(Shortform note: In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell spotlights the concept of “thin-slicing,” the process by which our mind can make very fast judgments based on limited data. While quick, unconscious decision-making is an evolutionary advantage, it can be problematic when unconscious biases creep into our decision-making.)

If two people match each other’s parental image, the mutual attraction can be irresistible. In the case of close “perfect partner” matches, love at first sight can be very real. (Shortform note: Sparking love at first sight is the premise behind “speed dating,” in which people have a limited time frame to determine their level of romantic interest. Studies on speed dating show that the characteristics people consciously state they’re looking for bear little resemblance to the partners they select. However, some studies show that certain stated preferences, particularly those made along gender lines, do conform to stereotypical trends, such as men preferring physically attractive women, and women preferring men with higher social status.)

What Is Imago? The Psychology of Dating Your Parents

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Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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