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From Zdravi život (Healthy Life) magazine, no. 79/2010

Imago Therapy for the Improvement of Married Couple Relationships

Written by: Ljiljana Bastaic, psychiatrist, psychotherapist, Director of the Centre for the Improvement of the Quality of Life and Communication, Zagreb

“Dear Ljiljana,
We are writing to let you know that everything is fine with us. In the past few months that we haven’t seen you there have been several situations which, by using the Imago Dialogue that you taught us, we managed to resolve the issue successfully on our own. This has encouraged us to rely on ourselves much more. We are aware that the key is in our will to improve our communication and with it our relationship. We thank you for your patience and lessons on how to be together in a quality way and how to make the quarrels creative.”

This is a message I received a few months ago. The married couple who sent this letter has shown that therapy does not need to be completed in order to have a happy ending.

In marriage counselling happy ending is measured by the acquired ability to “rely on ourselves more”, to practice the skills of creating brighter moments as well as skills of swimming through the darker moments of their lives together. It is also important to remember that not one particular moment is final and that “rain is always followed by the sun”.

Most couples who come to the  Centre come with the hope that they can re-obtain the elation they felt at the beginning of their relationships. A small number of them need an alibi for their opinion that they have done everything in their power, that the relationship is moribund and that no expert can save it. To the first meeting or the first day of the educational couples’ weekend couples most frequently bring quite an amount of disappointment. Both of the partners think that the “other” contributes with his/her behaviour to the nightmare of their relationship, and at the same time they find it difficult to take responsibility for their part of the bitter cake.

We all contribute to the lives we lead, even when it seems that things happen without our participation or our will.

For a long time in my professional practice I have focused on the family dynamic, and gradually I realized that work on couples’ relationship has priority in the stabilizing the family. In this sense I find it very helpful the ideas and work of a famous American family therapist Harville Hendrix. Harville Hendrix formulated his theoretical thoughts into a therapy practice called Imago Relationship Therapy. In Imago we perceive marriage or couple relationship as part of a life-long process. The foundations of this process are laid in childhood. Depending on how and to what extent our parents were synchronized with our needs in the first few years of our lives, we will in growing up, to a lesser or greater extent, develop our character structure and defence mechanisms around those childhood experiences of being satisfied and seen.

Once we grow up and step away from the family nest in “search” of the love of our lives, we take with us all of our non-satisfied needs, survival strategies and a feeling that we are missing something in our life (that we are not whole). With it we also carry a deeply impressed image – Imago. It is the image which directs us, without us knowing it, to look for a person that our unconscious part of self “knows” can satisfy our hidden desires. How many times, in love, have we felt that we are finally getting what we have never gotten before, that we are giving what we never thought we could give and that together with our love we are finally complete and perfect.

Therefore, in searching for the human being with whom we will experience this perfect ethereal feeling of love we are guided by Imago. Imago is an unconscious sensory impression in our brain and in our mind which consists of positive and negative traits from both of our parents, as well as of the image of the love relationship we observed in our childhood. By choosing the person who possesses the qualities of our Imago, we put ourselves into a situation in which, in a way, we repeat the story of our childhood, this time however with a partner who has the potential to treat us in a different way than our parents did. Thus we fall in love with a person who, through their traits, guarantees at least a partial repetition of the atmosphere and characteristics from our childhood relationship, but is, due to their personal experiences and their own defence mechanisms, the least qualified to give us what we need.

Since similar relationships cause the emergence of long hidden needs, it is first necessary, through a sequence of processes, to raise awareness of their existence and reasons for them staying not-satisfied; second, then, to enable the partner to look into him/herself and to recognize what prevents him/her to satisfy those needs, and what effort is necessary to activate that part of his/her personality which, due to his/her childhood experience, he/she needed to suppress. Change in behaviour thus opens the door to finding and adopting that hidden part of the self which all of us needed to hide to be accepted in childhood by persons close to us. Simultaneously, this change in behaviour satisfies the unconscious and non-satisfied need of the partner, while to the partner who is changing his/her behaviour in the name of love it gives new strength and creates a sense of completeness. Imago therapy processes enable acceptance and harmonization of the unintelligible parts of the relationship in the name of love which has brought the couple together in the first place.

And just when we begin to believe that nature has taken perfect care to bring to our path the perfect partner who will satisfy all of our non-satisfied needs, treating us like a precious jewel, we are greatly surprised and disappointed when there appear misunderstandings in the relationship. Naturally, we wonder: “Where is the person I fell in love with? This is not the person I fell in love with. He/she is not The One after all.” This is quickly followed by an inarticulate, but in our behaviour clearly evident new thought: “I will make him/her behave in the same way he/she did at the beginning”. And then the vicious circle of criticizing begins, having as a result the effect opposite to the one which caused the criticisms.  Unfortunately, closeness cannot be established by criticizing. Criticized partner feels criticism as a hurt, develops a fear that he/she is not good enough, that he/she will be abandoned, which in turn reactivates all of his/her old fears and consequently he/she reacts by alienation, shutting down or aggression, and we find ourselves in a vicious circle in no time at all.

When we are in love, all of our dreams are fulfilled. The person we are in love with can read our every thought, as if we were one. He/she does it in the same way in which a parent who is well attuned to his/her child reads its every, even smallest need from the sound of its voice or a movement of its body. We feel as if we were in heaven, floating on a surreal feathery cushion of romantic infatuation. We feel united with our love, we feel we are one. And no matter how strongly we need to be united and to be one, we feel an equally strong need to be apart, to have our space around us, freedom to express our individuality and aliveness. Expressing the need for our own space, especially in the phase of romantic infatuation is usually perceived as betrayal and death of eternal love. This ingrains the first seed of suspicion about whether the partner represents the “right” choice for us. Whereas in fact this is a natural process in the development of a relationship, following the stage of romance, unity and unconditional agreement. It is the process in which there begin to emerge specific needs which are not recognized as such but are instead perceived as a threat and crystallized as quarrels and confrontations building to the fight for “who is right” about everything.

The appearance of conflict in a relationship is a sign that the relationship is trying to make a quality leap. Conflict in fact carries in itself a hidden message necessary for growth and development of both partners. In the HEAVEN of romantic love there is no progress and development because everything is as it should be. Progress is possible only when we are dissatisfied, and that happens with the emergence of individual needs which disturbs the idea of absolute harmony. The problem with conflicts is that we do not know how to read their hidden meaning or, as we like to say in Imago, we do not recognize the gold hidden in the conflict. And the gold within the conflict is the frustration or dissatisfaction that in a large number of cases hides the code to an ancient childhood hurt. The partner, precisely because of his/her personality traits, and due to the situation which reminds of old relationships, triggers the old hurt and is at the same time best equipped to heal it with his/her behaviour. But not only does he not know what is at issue here when the yelling begins, e.g. about taking out the trash or squeezing the toothpaste, not even the one yelling knows what is behind that frustration.

In therapy situation we use processes which help couples to understand which old hurts have emerged, in what way their behaviour evokes them and, also, to understand what it is in the persons themselves which prevents them to hear the other partner’s pleadings.

Married couples come to counselling and therapy with a longer or shorter history of dissatisfaction. They can be young couples on the verge of marriage or with barely a few years of living together, or married couples who have lived in this kind of relationship for a long number of years. The hope of improving their relationship is not limited by age, but neither are fear and unwillingness to allow themselves to find out about a whole new territory and to learn the new language of love. A large dose of despair is needed for this, but also courage, as in David White’s poem:

Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take

Facing the fact that not everything is as it seems at first sight and that there exist pretty clear explanations why some things happen in married life motivates the couple to start a very unusual journey together. This journey usually starts when the fear of breakup is strong enough to motivate the couple to take steps which they would not normally take.

The beauty of the journey is that it is its own goal and purpose. During the journey partners begin to see each other in a way in which they have never seen each other before no matter how long they have been married. The processes they go through and the dialogues they have are part of therapy procedure. In time this becomes their daily procedure and it helps them to pass through crises more easily than before, as the couple from the beginning of this article wrote.

At the very beginning, during the specifically guided interview, both partners become aware that I am there to help them to hear each other, and to help them express their needs and dissatisfaction in a more constructive ways. I try to stimulate dialogue between the partners so that they speak out about the things they are silent about at home and to state clearly what they need. Frequently at the end of the first session I hear them exclaim that this was the first time they could say what they wanted to say without interruptions and that they had a feeling that their partner heard them. They want to talk in the same way at home. After a while the unusual way of dialoguing which they learn during sessions becomes part of their new nature, gradually turning them to persons ready to observe their partner in a new light, to see a point in his/her opinions, behaviour and reactions, and to simultaneously evaluate themselves and those things that they bring into the relationship. Gradually they learn that two truths can coexist one next to the other, which marks the beginning of a new, deep relationship of appreciation.