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An Interview with the Co-creators of Imago Therapy

In this article published on February 1, 2015 in Chronogram magazine, Wendy Kagan interviews Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt on the theoretical and practical foundations of Imago Therapy.
The Love Doctors
When a Relationship Needs CPR, It’s Hendrix and Hunt to the Rescue
By Wendy Kagan
Some relationships hum along happily -- or unhappily -- like reliable cars. Others sputter, stall, or come to their end in a spectacular collision of broken hearts. Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt have seen it all. Perhaps the two best-known couples’ therapists in the country, Hendrix and Hunt have helped to repair, tune up, and preserve many a relationship over their 30 years of passionate partnership in both work and marriage. Twice a year, they bring their “Getting the Love You Want” workshop to both the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck and the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in the Berkshires. The co-creators of Imago Relationship Therapy and co-authors of 10 books, they’ve been to hell and back in their own marriage. Now they live as if Valentine’s Day is every day—and tell us how we can too. I spoke with the couple while they were on the road in Dallas.
There’s a disconnect in our culture: We’re fed a steady diet of love stories through movies and books, yet the divorce rate is near 50 percent. What can we do about it?
Hunt: Yes, there’s this myth that if you’re married to a person, you’ll live happily ever after. The couples that come to us aren’t living happily ever after, but they’ve heard that maybe there’s help. John Gottman, the top marriage researcher, says that when someone has a sudden pain in their heart, the average time it takes to call 911 is four hours. If you have a terrible pain in your marriage and something is terribly wrong and your heart’s about to break, the average time it takes to pick up a phone and call a doctor is seven years. Marriage therapy is a relatively new thing. We always tell the couples who come to our workshops, ‘Wow, why did you all show up?’ They’re vanguard couples for getting it.
What are they looking for?
Hendrix: They’re coming for two reasons. Some are wondering if they can improve their relationship. And many couples are coming to see if they can stay in their relationship—those are the ones who experience the most breakthroughs. We’ve had couples who’ve said at the end of the workshop to the whole group, “We came here with divorce papers, and we’re not going to divorce.” One couple said, “I came here with my enemy and I’m leaving with my best friend.”
Your Imago theory demystifies love. Can you explain it?
Hendrix: Imago is the Latin word for “image.” It’s the word we use to describe a memory that everyone creates—a cluster or collage of memories about their interaction with their caretakers. The child creates a movie of them that includes the parents’ good qualities and positive interactions, and it also includes the interactions with parents that leave the child anxious or feeling that their needs are not met. The interesting thing about this Imago, this unconscious collage of memories, is that’s the filter in adulthood through which we select the person who will become our intimate partner. Which means that you will fall in love with someone whose traits and behaviors will trigger those memories of your interaction with your caretakers in childhood. So you’ll move toward that person because there’s this unconscious expectation that you’ll get your needs met. You might go into couplehood and maybe marriage with this person, and there will be great sex and powerful emotions. And then, of course, the process is that you will get frustrated with this person, because they are similar to the parents with whom you were frustrated in childhood. We think that’s normative; this is what’s supposed to happen. You can’t change it, unless you decide to marry someone that you don’t really like or that’s neutral to you as an attractor.
All of this happens at such a primitive level in our brains. How can we make it more conscious?
Hendrix: Unfortunately, there’s a cultural ignorance of this process. Romantic love is romanticized, rather than understood to be an on-ramp to healing and wholeness. Couples need to normalize their conflict because everyone who falls in love is going to go through a disillusionment—that’s the nature of the beast. Then couples need to understand what needs they have that didn’t get met in childhood. These are the complaints that you have [in your relationship] that are expressed over and over with emotion. I need to get clear on what my need is and what your need is. My marriage agenda, or partnership agenda, is to stretch into meeting that need for you and for you to stretch into meeting that need for me.
Hunt: In fact, the need Harville has is actually very hard for me to meet, and vice versa. The point of a relationship is to grow, so you can meet your beloved’s needs. We often say that incompatibility is the grounds for a relationship. Conflict isn’t a bad thing: It’s growth trying to happen. It’s a beautiful transformational process. The Imago [relationship therapy] process is based on dialogue—the whole idea of taking turns talking. The three steps of Imago Dialogue [mirroring, validating, and empathizing] enable an individual to become curious about their partner so they can eventually be motivated to make a change to meet their needs.
Is it possible to ask for change without sounding critical?
Hunt: We invite couples to use what we call a behavior change request. Instead of describing to your partner what you don’t like, you can flag an issue and say, “You and I see this differently. You want x and I want y. I wonder if we can both get what we want?” You can become good at asking for what you want and need. Most people are great at critiquing their relationship for what’s missing—they’re brilliant for knowing what’s wrong with their partner. They’re not great at asking for the little, incremental changes that will meet their needs. We put the onus on the person with the problem to really become artful at making requests of their partner for what they want. They need to make a request for something their partner can actually do. If you say, “I wish I felt more loved by you,” they won’t know what to do. But if you approach your partner and say, “I remember that when we were dating you used to rub my shoulders. Maybe you could give me a little massage like that every now and then?” That they can do. The most important ingredient in a relationship is safety. If your partner feels attacked, then they can’t do the growth that they want to do.
You once found yourselves—the marriage experts—on the verge of divorce.
Hunt: We woke up about 15 or 18 years ago and realized we had failed to put into our personal life what we were so wanting other people to do. We went to therapy and the therapist threw up his hands and called us the couple from hell. We had four therapists tell us that we were untreatable, so we were talking to divorce lawyers. Harville said, “Gee, I feel like we’ve laid out a banquet table for so many other couples, and we just get the crumbs.” At the Imago conference, we announced to [our community of] therapists that we couldn’t do our own system. We were pretty clear that it was hopeless. For me, the change came from reading the neuroscience at the time and realizing how empowering it was to take control of your own thoughts: You can’t change your first thought but you can change your second thought. The second thing was recognizing negativity in our relationship. I didn’t think I was being negative; I thought I was helping Harville improve. Out of the charitable nature of my heart, I was offering counsel. Harville was miserable, and I was miserable.
Hendrix: So we developed, with Helen as the leader, the idea of a zero-negativity process. Helen suggested we have a calendar and each day we monitor our relationship to see if it got a put-down during the day. And we started to identify, monitor, and remove negativity from our interactions. When we succeeded, we’d get a smiley face on the calendar. We’ve done that every day now for about 15 years. Every day we also offer each other three appreciations. We do that no matter how tired we are or where we are. I think that’s what has grown us into a feeling of safety that we can count on. Now we can both say we have the marriage of our dreams.
We have couples that have taken the [zero-negativity] pledge who are in contact with us, signing it and practicing it, and all of them report that after about three months they were back in love with each other. That’s because they felt safe enough to be vulnerable and to engage on a very authentic level. They were giving each other positive strokes and having fun together.
Hunt: This stuff can be taught in school. Our little motto here is there should be four Rs—reading, writing, ‘rithmetic, and relationships. Harville and I have recently begun to take this workshop in a condensed form to populations that don’t go to therapy. What we’ve done is extract the essence of the workshop and made it into an educational process. We’re disseminating information free of charge to financially stressed cities—we’ve picked Dallas, where we both have some roots. We’re seeing, can we bring relationship skills to a whole city? We’ve done that with about 1,000 couples so far.
How can we keep passion alive?
Hendrix: The media assumes that all relationships that are great are romantic. We struggle with what is realistic. Here’s what Helen and I have concluded: Our basic human nature is that we are social creatures and connecting is not what we do—it’s what we are. We can lose awareness that we’re connecting and interconnected, but we cannot not connect. When we’re aware that we’re doing it, that awareness is joyful. We’re feeling safe, experiencing connecting. We think that’s the original relational experience between the baby and the caretaker. The place where this connected reality returns is in romantic love—that feeling of joyful aliveness. It’s not an illusion but in fact a retasting of being, a retasting of connecting that was originally lost and now we have it again.
What sustains joy is safety. If we don’t feel safe, joy turns into anxiety. Internally, we pull down a shade. Safety is the nonnegotiable on-ramp to a passionate romantic relationship that’s an everyday experience. The way to maintain it is zero-negativity, and the second thing Helen and I learned is you have to do something—interactions that trigger endorphins in your bloodstream. That can be being playful, giving backrubs, giving appreciations, caring behaviors, anything that says you’re safe with me and I affirm your value. I do that by getting Helen a cup of coffee, picking her up from a meeting. I could say I’m busy, but Helen is my priority. When we’re holding hands, just chatting, relaxing—for us, that’s living a passionate life.