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Dawn J. Lipthrott, LCSW
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IMAGO PARALLELS WITH OBJECT RELATIONS THEORY
By Dawn J. Lipthrott, LCSW

While Harville Hendrix acknowledges reliance on psychoanalytic theory among other approaches in developing his model of treatment for couples (Imago Relationship Therapy), there are specific parallels with the British school of object-relations theory, particularly with the work of Winnicott and Bion. The following synopsis contains italicized assumptions that are basic to Hendrix's Imago Relationship Therapy followed by a few of the corresponding parallels in object-relations literature (with a few references to Carl Jung):

1. Our original state is one of wholeness, joy, spontaneity, connection with ourselves and one another and a welcoming of life. We are essentially core energy.

While Hendrix's work seems to parallel key concepts presented by D.W. Winnicott, he also appears to echo W.R.D. Fairbairn's view of human motivation and meaning that was fundamentally different from traditional psychoanalytic theory. Traditional theory held that the human infant becomes related to others only secondarily, because of the other's usefulness in reducing tension and providing pleasure. Early models held that we were fundamentally unrelated to others. Fairbairn claimed that traditional theory made an artificial distinction between the activities and the energy allegedly fueling them (Greenberg, 1983). Fairbairn viewed persons as being "energy that operates in directional ways (toward objects)." He further stated that the human infant is related to others from the beginning. (Greenberg, 1983) The search for and maintenance of contact and relationship with others is a fundamental drive, having roots in biological survival. It is the direction of our core energy.

Jung calls that 'core energy' the 'psyche' and says that the psyche functions with purpose and direction toward fuller awareness and toward wholeness. That core energy, the core self with the predisposition to experience wholeness is our 'essence.' Jung states that the persistent push toward wholeness is as instinctual to human beings as is hunger and thirst.

Object-relations theory in general is also concerned "with whole living and loving persons, who from birth desire positive, caring connection with others. The integrity and spontaneity of the self characterizes mental health." (Greenberg, 1983) In the framework of Fairbairn and others, human beings seek to restore direct and full contact with others, and with that spontaneous and authentic self which has been repressed, which is brought forth in a safe relationship with an other.

Hendrix creates a synthesis of these key concepts of human 'essence' and motivation by recognizing that we are 'core energy' and that energy is directional toward others and a basic re-connection. Our 'drive to wholeness' pushes us into relationship, which is necessary for reclaiming those 'lost parts of our authentic self'. In relationship, we have the potential to find our essence and become authentic and whole human beings.


2. We are all wounded at various developmental stages in childhood through over/under-parenting and socialization which are the results of our parents' and society's woundedness and/or external situational stressors. Some of our needs at these stages do not get met.

The basic orientation toward relationship in early infancy continues throughout development and specific relations with a caretaker are essential for a person to function fully and freely in the world. To the extent that they are missing or wounding, the self is imprisoned and subsequently hidden from the world which appears unsafe for authentic and spontaneous living. We become split off from ourselves and create a lost or denied self as well as patterned behavior to protect that self. These developmental relational needs are not simply 'wishes', they are a necessity. According to Winnicott, nothing else can happen until those needs are filled. In addition, where those developmental needs are not met, development stops, and those "needs dominate subsequent living." (Greenberg, 1983) Winnicott saw that interruption and constriction in the expression of the self which involves that basic directional energy, resulted in a wounding that affects the person's life and especially their relationships into adulthood.


3. Development does not occur in a vacuum. It is the product of the dynamic interaction of the system with its environment which is the process of socialization.

Jungian theory also supports the idea that environment, beginning in the family, and subsequent socialization are primary factors in distressing the self. Hendrix uses Mahler's stages of development as a basis for his formulation of the specific needs that the child has in its relationship with its caretakers and peers. Although one or both parents are usually the primary caretakers, other adults in a caretaking role can have similar impact. Families in Western society today tend to be an open system. Teachers, clergy, relatives and friends play important roles in a child's life and are often another significant source of wounding. In addition, societal beliefs and expectations regarding gender roles, child-rearing practice, judgements about 'appropriate and inappropriate' behavior, and numerous other beliefs and values all impact human development.


4. The selection of a relationship partner is only partially based on conscious choice, and is primarily the result of the unconscious desire to complete or correct what was unfinished in childhood. We select a partner who carries both the positive and negative characteristics of our caretakers and who was wounded in the same areas, but adapted in a complementary way.

This composite picture of caretakers is called the "Imago" by Hendrix, a term used by both Freud and Jung.

Here, the parallels with object-relations theory are especially clear. Theorists of that model affirm that marital choice is primarily based on unconscious choice. A child reproduces and organizes memory traces that include caretakers, the self interacting with them, and the associated affect, which makes it a subjective experience. We continually search for a type of experience that comes closest to the pattern of interaction created in early experience in order to finally get what we needed or missed. (Greenberg, 1983, Nichols, 1991, Scharff, 1991) Freud referred in a similar way to a 'repetition compulsion', which Hendrix credits as the stimulus for his own thinking.

According to Scharff (1991), Dicks (1967) was the first in the United States to note that in marriage one's self was the other's object and resulted in a mutual projective identification. He had based his work on Fairbairn's discussions of the internalization of the good, "ideal object" and the 'bad' "rejecting object." Greenberg (1983) stated that Fairbairn saw that love objects are selected for or made into withholders or deprivers in order to personify the exciting object. While Fairbairn seemed to maintain a defeating and pathological view to this process, Hendrix combined that concept of mate selection with Jung's drive to wholeness to describe marriage (or another form of committed relationship) as an attempt for the individual and for humanity to heal itself. What is often termed 'incompatibility' and viewed as a reason for terminating a relationship becomes a positive force in the development of each partner in the relationship.


5. The sections and functions of the brain are designed to insure physical survival. The brain reacts to perceived threats in its environment.

Because the drive to relate to others is rooted in biological survival, interferences with those relations are terrifying and are perceived as a matter of life and death for a totally dependent child. The brain's unconscious is atemporal and continues to remain alert for anything in it's environment which bears even slight resemblance to those earlier perceived or threats. In terms of one's partner, the brain is hypervigilant for any facial expression, gesture, tone, words, or behavior that is in any way similar to those early experiences.


6. The adaptation patterns of one partner to the childhood wounds trigger the wounds and adaptation patterns of the other. It becomes pattern relating to pattern, rather than person relating to person.

Object relations theory also describes that our perceptions, attitudes, reactions, and behaviors are significantly shaped by those early images and the sense of danger or safety associated with them. As adults, we react, not just to the person in front of us, but to an internal 'other(s)'. Dicks (1967) and others go on to say that marriage, or a committed, intimate relationship, is most similar to those early experiences and more often and most intensely triggers reactions to those experiences. The process thereby generates unconscious communication about primitive, repressed parts of self and experience. We repress the painful and seemingly life-threatening experiences and what we have come to perceive as unacceptable aspects of the self. As a result, we continue to resort to defensive patterned behavior to protect ourselves. Much of the communication (or lack of communication) in a committed relationship emerges out of the unconscious and is reactive.

However, while Freud, Jung and others would also say that all of our behavior is both consciously and unconsciously motivated , Jung believed that we act not only because of the past, but for the sake of the future, for wholeness. Hendrix uses Jung's instinctual drive for wholeness, and the object relations approach belief that we look for experience that will help us get what we needed and did not get, to imbue both his therapeutic approach with a sense of hope and possibility for change that encourages couples to do the work of repair. Choosing our partner in order to regain our wholeness is a key element of the paradigm shift which describes marriage (or a committed relationship) as the opportunity to help each partner heal the wounds of childhood and reclaim their full potential for the relationship and for the expression of their lives.

7. Developmentally specific nurturing of the other by each partner repairs the wound from childhood both for the partner and for the self. Each partner is able to reclaim repressed or lost parts of their original wholeness which leads to a vibrant, alive, passionate relationship.

Therefore, while insight is important and helpful, lasting change involves healing of the specific wounds which requires actual and repeated corrective experience of target-specific safety and behavior. Insight is a sophisticated, reflective, higher brain function. The level at which the wounding occurs in childhood is much more primitive and only new, safe, and therefore healing experience related to the specific wound can allow lasting change. While Hendrix approaches this concept from what we have learned in recent years about brain function, Jung and Freud both clearly and insistently stated that you must gain access to the unconscious to heal. True and lasting transformation must involve the unconscious as well as the conscious and therefore insight or intellectual understanding is not enough. Assimilation of new experience is what heals. Echoing the object relations theorists, Hendrix states that, "We are born in relationship. We are wounded in relationship. We are healed in relationship." Traditionally that healing relationship has been between therapist and client. Now, couples can learn skills to both access the childhood wounding and to create the safe, healing, and target specific behaviors each needs in their own relationship.


Containment: Creating a Holding Environment

Greenberg (1983) in discussing Winnicott's method of treatment, stated that, "Only if an appropriate facilitating environment is provided can the true self be reached and allowed to continue its growth." Bion (1967), another British object relations theorist, developed concepts of the container and the contained both in therapy and in parenting. In terms of parenting, infants often become overwhelmed by affect because they lack internal controls. The mothering caretaker pays attention, listens, takes in these communicated feelings whether they be cries, coos, laughter or facial expressions, transforms them, gives them meaning and returns them to the child resulting not only in necessary physical care for the child, but also an empathic soothing. As the child grows he needs to be held in the attention of the parent even in play. Winnicott speaks of a 'holding' environment in which the infant is contained and experienced. The mother assists the child in the task of self-integration by reflecting back the child expression of him or herself. In his later writing, Winnicott describes mother functions as a mirror which provides the infant with "a precise reflection of his own experience and gestures, despite their fragmented and formless qualities. 'When I look I am seen, so I exist.' (Greenberg, 1983).

Traditionally, the therapeutic relationship has provided a 'holding' and 'containing' environment. Hendrix uses this concept as the basis for his model of treatment and rather than fostering dependency on a therapist, Hendrix, teaches couples skills to create that environment with one another. The concepts of containment and holding are used throughout Hendrix process. The entire dialogue skill is a challenge for the receiving partner in learning to become a safe container, without projecting their own perceptions onto the other. Holding the partner both in terms of attention and in terms of a physical holding to help deepen access to the childhood wound are fostered. The partner, when using these particular skills becomes Winnicott's "good enough mother" and an experience of "good enough holding." While therapy has often provided the attentional holding by the therapist, the added element of the physical holding by the partner gives an added dimension and corrective experience to the partner.

In addition, creating a containing and holding climate provides a safe and welcoming space for the partners to fully experience themselves and each other's feelings, thoughts, desires, longings, and behaviors in the relationship. For all of us, this welcoming of all of our self is a novel experience and a healing one. Part of ourselves, or expression of certain feelings that were not welcomed or that were criticized and shamed in childhood and subsequently repressed, are called forth, allowed to exist, and are welcomed as important and valuable aspects of the self. The energy that has been used to maintain the repression is released and shows up in a more passionate relationship and a more passionate participation in life. What emerges is more of the 'spontaneous, authentic self'. Rollo May stated that, "A point the phenomenologists make consistently, namely, that to know fully what we are doing, to feel it, to experience it through all our being, is much more important than to know why. For, they hold, if we fully know the what, the why will come along by itself." Imago Relationship Therapy teaches couples how to create a structured environment to fully experience their frustration, pain, rage, sadness, fear, anger, longing with their partner in a physically and emotionally safe manner for both. The structure, the attention, the validation and empathy encourages and welcomes full expression. In so doing, the 'why' that is the childhood wounding connected to the behavior, feeling or patterned thinking, emerges and provides the path for healing.

I welcome your constructive comments and suggestions about the material on this website and how we can all be most effective in co-creating the kind of relationships and world that is honoring and respectful for all people.
© Dawn Lipthrott, The Relationship Learning Center, 1994 Renewed 2008 www.relationshipjourney.com

(May be copied and distributed as long as this identifying information is retained on copies. Reproduction for financial gain is prohibited.)

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