Why you married one of your parents: Imago matching and what to do about it

by | Oct 22, 2017 | Communication Tips, Harville Hendrix

Do you often wonder if you picked the wrong partner? You were SO in love, and now you just can’t get what you need from them.

This common experience in relationships is a tribute to the power of the subconscious mind, which–let’s face it–is what chose your partner.

Dr. Harville Hendrix, author of Getting the Love You Want, does a great job of breaking down this phenomenon. He says we are inherently drawn to people we know, deep-down, will not meet our needs.  In fact, he goes so far as to say incompatibility is the very grounds for marriage.  Isn’t that awful? How can that be?

Well, according to him, adults have an unconscious need to re-create experiences familiar to our childhoods. We do this as an attempt to repair old wounds.  Without realizing it, we pick somebody who has the negative traits of our caretakers, because those traits feel familiar. We re-enact the dynamics of childhood by falling in love with people who will frustrate us terribly.  It is as if our psyche is saying “I only want what I need from somebody who can’t give it to me.”

The opportunity:

BUT, here’s the good news. Dr. Harville Hendrix also points out that this apparent paradox provides us an amazing opportunity to heal from the past. He has found great success in helping troubled couples create healthy relationships, and has developed a method from his findings called Imago Therapy.  Your incompatibilities become your opportunities.

For example, if your partner wants something from the part of you that was shut down in childhood, they have identified your strongest growth point. If each person is willing to stretch into a behavior the other person needs to feel met, you grow the underdeveloped parts of yourselves.  If you give your partner the very things you feel you just CAN’T give, you end up getting a piece of yourself you never had before.

This is a mutual growth and healing process: Where you grow, your partner heals, and vice versa. You do not change who you are, but in fact become more of who you are.

Here is the Imago Therapy approach to creating healthy relationships that Harville Hendrix has outlined in his book Getting the Love You Want:

  • Begin with an internal quest. Instead of looking outward to see if you can get your partner to love you the right way, figure out what your childhood wounds and fears are. Own them and see it as an opportunity for growth. What you see in the other that triggers you can be scary but it means you have met your “Imago Match.” (Imago means image, and is used to describe the subconscious imprint of the qualities of your caregivers).
  • Close your “Exits,” ie. things we do to avoid closeness. Exits can be threats of separation or more subtle behaviors like overeating, watching too much television, not being present, surfing the web, etc. Pick some exits you can close and try it for one week, see how it goes.
  • Create a shared relationship vision.   Write positive statements about your ideal relationships in the present tense, even if they aren’t yet true.  For example “We spend peaceful weekends together.”  Write as many as you can think of, share them with each other, and create a shared vision using the overlapping ideals.
  • Re-romanticize your relationship.  Write up a list of things that your partner currently does that makes you feel loved and cared for. Then write another list, fantasy list of what you wished they would do for you.  Share these lists and start executing the fantasy list. Challenge yourself, pick one a day if you can. It may feel forced at first, but do it anyway. It works.
  • Use the “couple’s dialogue.”  This is a technique for communication that creates safety.  When you have an issue or a concern, ask for a couples dialogue. Your partner then should 1) mirror back exactly what you have said, to make sure it is understood and not distorted by subtext, 2) validate your feelings, and 3) empathize.  This doesn’t mean your partner gets railroaded—they might have their own legitimate concerns. But the rule is, if one partner initiates a dialogue, it is the other’s turn to listen.
  • Reap the rewards! You get the fantasy but now it’s reality. It’s a work in progress but you feel expanded. Once your heal yourselves, your relationship becomes the foundation to engage the world in healthy ways.

To see how a real couple applied one of these techniques, check out this video demonstrating the Couple’s Dialogue. It’s a great example of how to avoid defensiveness (see my blog on defensiveness here):

Have you read Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix, or tried Imago Therapy to create healthy relationships? I’d be curious to hear how it went . . .Please comment below.

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