Does Imago Relationship Therapy Work?

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 Imago Relationship Therapy? How does it help fix relationships?

In Getting the Love You Want, Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt talk about their Imago Relationship Therapy. They created the therapy as a response to the failure of the models of marriage counseling prevalent at the time.

Below we’ll see how couples can use Imago Relationship Therapy for a lifetime.

The End Result of Imago Relationship Therapy

Though Hendrix and Hunt’s process begins with a couple in crisis making a time-limited commitment, if you’re able to bridge the divide that’s grown between you and your partner, then the cycle of growth and change will never stop. The endgame of Imago Relationship Therapy is not to produce a perfect “happily ever after,” but to change the way you and your partner interact so that you may continue to evolve and support each other over years to come.

To implement this change, they suggest that you strive to eliminate your negative reactions to each other, push through the inevitable periods of back-pedaling, and apply conscious, thoughtful communication in every aspect of your relationship.

Do Away With Negativity

Negativity, such as put-downs, hurtful criticisms, and worst of all, outright contempt, is the death of many loving relationships. In its rawest form, “negativity” is the denial of another person’s right to exist as they are. Hendrix and Hunt don’t suggest that you repress your negative thoughts and feelings, but when they occur you should bring them out into the open so that you can consciously examine them and determine what issues lie beneath.

(Shortform note: Psychologist John Gottman determined the hallmarks of negativity as a predictor of divorce in his Love Lab studies in the 1980s. The principle behaviors Gottman identified as “tells” of a relationship in crisis are criticism, contempt, being defensive, and stonewalling. These, in conjunction with other negative conversational tactics, led Gottman to claim a 94% success rate in determining whether a couple would split up.)

Partners for Life

The process to create a successful, supporting relationship entails a lot of hard work and incremental change. You can expect that sometimes the changes will be clear, while at other times you’ll slip back into old, destructive habits. Hendrix and Hunt offer reassurance that so long as there is commitment to the process, then even at times when it feels like you’re backsliding, there will still be gradual progress. The lows won’t be as low as before, and with practice the way forward will be easier.

(Shortform note: The cycle of incremental progress and backsliding is common to human nature and has been the focus of much work in the field of overcoming addictions. One tool that’s helpful for getting back on track is Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), developed by psychiatrist Albert Ellis. Unlike the psychoanalytic approach, REBT is a way of dealing with your emotional reactions in the present, not the past. This form of therapy can help identify the events that triggered a regression and build a new thought process to help you move forward.)

Over time, the stilted, artificial nature of the communication tools in Imago Relationship Therapy will start to become ingrained and habitual. In time, you may find that you no longer need to follow the full script to address a touchy subject or request a change in behavior. You may also discover that the tools of conscious communication—mirroring, validation, and empathy—carry over into other parts of your life.

Our unconscious drives will always be with us, but Hendrix and Hunt insist that by bringing our unspoken needs into the open within the safety of a conscious, loving relationship, we can empower ourselves to at last grow beyond them.

Does Imago Relationship Therapy Work?

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Here's what you'll find in our full Getting the Love You Want summary :

  • 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

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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