Does New Research Contradict Imago Relationship Therapy?

Does New Research Contradict Imago Relationship Therapy?

What is Imago Relationship Therapy?

revised 8/16/20

Imago Relationship Therapy is a couples therapy model that was created by  Harville Hendrix and his wife, Helen LaKelly Hunt in 1980. Their most important book, “Getting the Love You Want a Guide for Couples” was published in 1988.

Imago, Gottman, and Emotion-Focused Therapy are the 3 most popular couples therapy models currently in use today.

Imago  Relationship Therapy is based on the notion that we unconsciously choose our romantic partners as a means to heal our childhood wounds.

According to Imago, committed relationships provide an opportunity to heal childhood attachment injuries by enhanced communication, and increased empathy.

This hopefully results in better communication with your spouse.

In healing childhood wounds, IRT emphasizes growth within a focus on the “self-in-relation” rather than the “self-as-independent.” Growth is seen as occurring through relationship, as opposed to through individuation and separateness, or differentiation.

A Popular Model

Many couples therapists who are trained in Gottman or EFT are also trained in Imago Relationship Therapy. Some have described Imago fondly as an “early enthusiasm.”

There are more than 1100 certified Imago therapists practicing in more than 37 countries.

Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT) integrates a variety of approaches including attachment theory, cognitive-behavioral approaches, transactional analysis, ego psychology, and object-relations psychology.

An “Imago” (the word means “image” in Latin) is a unique combination of negative and positive qualities imprinted unconsciously on our nervous system.

Imago refers to the unconscious image of love that we developed in childhood. When we get married or have a significant other, we project that image. And usually, that image is incorporating both the positive and the negative behaviors that we associate with love we received from our primary caregivers as children.”These traits are directly connected to our experiences, both good and bad, from our parents and childhood experience.

The fundamental premise of Imago Relationship Therapy is that we are all searching for a specific constellation of personality traits in our future romantic partner so we can complete the unfinished business from our family of origin.

In other words, according to Imago, we may unconsciously see our spouse as a parental stand-in.  We seek a partner, who is similar enough to our parents or family of origin caregivers.  We project that childhood “Imago” onto our adult partner so that we can be loved in such a way that our childhood wounds will be healed.

Imago Relationship Therapy Attempts to Describe an Unconscious Process

Imago Therapy tells us that we are often unaware of the scope of this specific, unconscious criteria in choosing a life partner.

As your conscious awareness is focused on and attracted to, any similar positive traits shared by your future partner and your family of origin. This deep resonance between your unconscious criteria and possible future spouse can create an immediate and powerful bond.

But, according to Imago, when these negative traits emerge, we are confronted with our childhood “wounds” and unfinished business.

Trauma With a Small “t”

Let’s not get too carried away with the word “wound.” Imago Relationship Therapy says that we all carry these “wounds” no matter how ideal our family of origin may have been. In many cases, we’re talking about Trauma with a small “t”.

Imago Relationship Therapy offers an “Imago Dialogue” which helps you become more aware of your childhood wounds.

This dialogue may help you understand how you are triggered by your spouse’s behavior, and how that behavior connects back to your formative childhood experience.

Your childhood wounds are seen as the key to understanding and de-escalating your marital conflicts.
Imago assumes a direct connection between the frustrations of marriage and early childhood experiences.

If you felt abandoned or neglected in childhood, these unresolved issues will often erupt in your marriage. When such “core issues” persist and intensify, they can drive a spouse into negative sentiment override.

Through Imago Relationship Therapy’s “dialogue,” a couple can achieve a deeper understanding and process their “childhood wounds” with more empathy.

The Imago Relationship Therapy Paradigm of DPA

Both the Imago and Gottman Method both emphasize the importance of physiology in couples therapy. But the similarity seems to stop there. As couples enter a conflict, consider how specific Gottman’s explanation is of the science of diffuse physiological arousal (DPA):

“ When danger is perceived, a. series of alterations is immediately initiated, ………When the heart speeds up beyond 100 beats per minute….the body starts secreting epinephrine…..the limbic system particularly the amygdala, hypothalamus, cingulate gyrus, hippocampus, and prefrontal lobes, has been activated….Fight or flight reactions become more likely as the cortex is engaged to evaluate the stimulus conditions….The attentional system becomes a vigilance system detecting only cues of danger, and is severely limited in its ability to process information…..all these extreme physiological alterations happen in marital conflict….that is why fight or flight responses become more accessible, and creative problem solving goes out the window” John Gottman.

Science vs. Poetry?

Contrast that with Imago’s more poetic musings on our old reptilian brain;

“it is where our survival mechanisms are located, which explains why – when danger strikes – we fight, flight, flee, freeze, hide, or submit. The reptilian brain is also concerned with safety…” Harville Hendrix.

Clearly, Imago and Gottman both emphasize how the body’s natural defense mechanisms play a decisive role in both marital conflict and good couples therapy.

Imago Relationship Therapy Dialogue: How it Works

The Imago dialogue is very structured. Your Imago Therapist will teach you to communicate that allows you to get to the deeper layers of what is underneath the conflict you are processing.

It requires that one of you be the sender and the other the receiver. Then you’ll switch once you’ve completed all the steps. Both of you experience both roles.

The Imago Dialogue Consists of 3 Steps:

  1. Mirroring. Mirroring involves repeating back what you heard your partner say.
  2. Validating. Validation requires putting yourself in your partner’s shoes and explaining why their point of view makes sense. You don’t have to agree with it but you may have to stretch to understand why it makes sense to them.
  3. Empathy. Empathy in the dialogue means guessing what your partner might be feeling based on what they just shared with you.

Imago emphasizes deep listening skills and emotional regulation. An Imago therapist is very active, there’s a lot of back and forth in each session.

Not that this isn’t important, it’s very important. Many “general practitioners” in couples therapy just sit there passively…but it was John Gottman who took it much further.

He emphasized a “triad of balance” which also focused on perception (the partner in our head) and how a couple dialogues about their conflicts.

Where Imago and Gottman differ is in clinical clarity and scientific rigor.

Unlike Imago Relationship Therapy, Gottman Couples therapy rests on a bedrock of data gathered from three spheres of human experience; perception (what we think), physiology (what we feel in our bodies), and interactive behavior (what we communicate to our spouse).

These three spheres are systemic. They are continuously impacting and impacted by one another.

Does New Research Challenge the Notion of an “Imago?”

While it’s common knowledge that we desire positive traits in a partner, new research suggests that not only do we end to ignore our stated 3 top trait preferences, it also probably doesn’t matter exactly which positive traits our new partner actually possesses.

When selecting a life partner, new research describes how we tend to ignore our declared preferences and are equally happy with a spouse who possesses a completely different set of virtues.

For example, you might make a point of saying “I want someone who is thoughtful, kind and has a sense of humor”…but you’ll fall in love with a seriously intelligent, hard-charging, ambitious spouse with ADD.
Now was that your Imago…or, as this study suggests…a random choice?

How the Study Was Conducted

The study asked over 700 people to list their ideal traits in a spouse. The researchers then compared these traits to people they actually knew. They were also asked to rate and how attractive they were. The results showed that people did prefer others who had the traits they had listed as most attractive.

So far, so Good. That’s exactly what Imago Relationship Therapy said would happen…

Professor Paul Eastwick, the study co-author, said:

“On the surface, this looks promising. You say you want these three attributes, and you like the people who possess those attributes. But the story doesn’t end there.”

Is It Possible That Your Imago Doesn’t Matter at All?

Dr. Jehan Sparks, the study’s first author, said that the study subjects could very easily list their top three attributes in an ideal partner.

Jehan’s research uses laboratory, online, and field experiments to understand the dynamics of both positive and negative thinking.

Her work intersects with research on framing, counterfactual thinking, and ambivalence. Dr. Jehan aspires to advance our understanding of how we apply positive and negative information to our daily decision-making.

The researchers wanted to see whether those top three attributes really mattered for the study subject who listed them. As it turns out, they didn’t matter at all…

The researchers confidently concluded that we are also equally attracted to potential partners who had completely different positive traits than our top 3 traits.

Why Your Stated Preferences Have No Special Predictive Power

Dr. Sparks explained:

“So in the end, we want partners who have positive qualities, but the qualities you specifically list do not actually have special predictive power for you.”

Research co-author Paul Eastwick is a professor at the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Davis.

His research investigates how we start romantic relationships. Along with one of my favorite researchers Eli Finkel, Paul also studies the specific interventions that help committed couples remain committed and securely attached.

Paul is curious about how the traits that we claim are critically important for us in a life-partner—our ideal partner preferences—influence who we choose to spend our life with.

Paul is also in the tradition of thought leaders such as Helen Fisher. Evolutionary Biology offers yet another welcome scientific lens.

Paul is also interested in exploring how research on intimate relationships can inform evolutionary psychological approaches (and vice versa), particularly exploring how relationships grow and develop over time.

Ordering Off the Menu…

Professor Eastwick put it even more bluntly:

“Why do we order off the menu for ourselves? Because it seems obvious that I will like what I get to pick. Our findings suggest that, in the romantic domain, you might as well let a random stranger order for you—you’re just as likely to end up liking what you get.”

Searching for someone who exactly matches your ideals may be a waste of time, says Dr. Sparks:

“It’s really easy to spend time hunting around online for someone who seems to match your ideals. But our research suggests an alternative approach: Don’t be too picky ahead of time about whether a partner matches your ideals on paper. Or, even better, let your friends pick your dates for you.”

That’s where I felt that this study was directly challenging Imago Relationship Therapy.

It’s not that the study subjects failed to stick their stated preferences…Imago certainly allows, and even predicts that will happen. It was the researcher’s belief that the study subjects were responding to random traits.

But An Imago Can Contradict a Stated Preference

Lily Jackson is a highly trained Science-based couples therapist with training in Gottman, Emotion-Focused Therapy, and Imago. She offered me a very thoughtful comment:

 Imago Relationship therapy in no way says you consciously choose your partners based on your desired preferences. In fact, it says quite the opposite.

Imago theory states that one chooses partners unconsciously that have BOTH the positive and negative characteristics of our early caretakers.

The theory is that We most likely will throw out All of our stated preferences when we meet someone who has the characteristics that our unconscious is drawn to.

Of course, we don’t see the negatives at first but then they start to emerge as we get more and more involved. The study you presented does not refute Imago Theory’s ideas about mate selection…it simply doesn’t apply here.

I think it’s important to clarify that because I see Imago Theory being criticized frequently and the criticisms are often based on a misinterpreting of the theory and model.

I by no means think Imago is a perfect model and have many criticisms of it myself but my criticisms come from a place of knowing the Theory practice thoroughly.

I appreciate all of the work you put into educating about the different couples therapy models. Lily Jackson.

Unconscious Imago Might Still Be Operating

Lily has an important point. Although the subjects in this study abandoned their stated preferences, they may still have responded to an underlying set of Imago characteristics.

However, these researchers seemed persuaded that the patterns of attraction were random. I know that, in research, randomness is something that can be ascertained with certainty.

To be fair, this was not an Imago study, it was a study on attraction and mate selection. And, how could they discover an intrapsychic pattern that they were clearly not looking for? As we learn more about the science of attraction, could the idea of an “Imago” become more quantifiable for future research on this popular couples therapy model?

Final Thoughts about Imago Relationship Therapy

John Gottman once famously said that social science was the only discipline where outmoded interventions and obsolete ideas can safely exist alongside the new discoveries which refuted them.

The reasons are often economic.

Let’s face it, 1100 practitioners of  Imago Relationship Therapy are not going to fold up their tents just because research is emerging which may or may not challenge the foundation of their couple therapy model…nor should they.

This study is breaking research, about to be published. It will be mercilessly scrutinized and picked apart… as well it should be.

After all, the notion that we’re often just as happy with partners with random traits who are nothing like our ideal may be seen as both insulting and confusing.

But are they truly random?

It’s actually comforting to believe that we are responding to some hidden longing which is satisfied when we find our Imago.

The question is are the traits that attract us to future partners truly random or conforming to an intrapsychic ideal?

And it’s also important to remember that this is a new area of research and many questions about these provocative findings are still being explored.

The Science Just Wasn’t In Quite Yet…

I suspect that one of the reasons for the success of Imago Relationship Therapy was that the boomer generation in the 1980s was hungry for good couples therapy…but the science wasn’t in quite yet.

Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT) came on the scene just prior to Gottman and EFT getting traction.

And IRT, through intuition and observation, anticipated many of the important ideas which were more fully elaborated by science-based couples therapy. Ideas like an actively engaged therapist, structured dialogue, emotional regulation, state-dependent learning, and deep listening name just a few.

For 40 years, Imago Relationship Therapy has stubbornly survived, despite an ongoing lack of convincing empirical validation.

However, the Imago Board of Directors has a deep respect for clinical research and has made a commitment to establishing ongoing research efforts.

Imago Relationship Therapy may not be evidence-based practice…but it’s moved the field of couples therapy forward with practice-based evidence.



Fletcher, G. J., Kerr, P. S., Li, N. P., & Valentine, K. A. (2014). Predicting romantic interest and decisions in the very early stages of mate selection standards, accuracy, and sex differences. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40.

Hendrix, H. (1988). Getting the love you want a guide for couples. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

Hendrix, H., & Hunt, H. L. (2005). Getting the love you want: Couples workshop manual (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Imago Relationships International.

Hendrix, H., Hunt, H. L., Hannah, M. T., & Luquet, W. (2005). Imago relationship therapy perspectives on theory (Eds.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Li, N. P., Yong, J. C., Tov, W., Sng, O., Fletcher, G. J., Valentine, K. A., … & Balliet, D. (2013). Mate preferences do predict attraction and choices in the early stages of mate selection. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105, 

Meltzer, A. L., McNulty, J. K., Jackson, G. L., & Karney, B. R. (2014). Sex differences in the implications of partner physical attractiveness for the trajectory of marital satisfaction. Journal of personality and social psychology, 106.

Sparks, J., Daly, C., Wilkey, B., Molden, D. C., Finkel, E. J., & Eastwick, P. W. (in press). Negligible evidence that people desire partners who uniquely fit their ideals. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Schmitt, D. P. (2014). On the proper functions of human mate preference adaptations: comment on Eastwick, Luchies, Finkel, and Hunt (2014). Psychological Bulletin, 140, p. 666-672.

About the Author Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He is the Blog Editor. He currently works online seeing couples from Massachusetts at Couples Therapy Inc. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.

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