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Dawn J. Lipthrott, LCSW
Relationship Learning Ctr.
1177 Louisiana Ave. Ste. 109
Winter Park, FL 32789

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Imago Relationship Therapy: Theoretical Foundation & Support
By Dawn J. Lipthrott, LCSW

The following is a summary of the working hypotheses of Imago Relationship Therapy as formulated by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D.:

  1. Marriage is a developmental process that recapitulates in an adult form the developmental process of individuals.
  2. Stress between marital partners is a recapitulation of the developmental arrests of each partner. The developmental arrest in each partner is similar or identical to that in the other. Adaptations are complementary.
  3. Stress between partners is an externalization of internal stress and conflict in each partner, played out in the interpersonal arena of the relationship.
  4. Adaptation to stress in childhood form character defenses which function as a person’s personality in adult life. Since these character formations are rigid and complementary, they must be changed if permanent improvement is to exist in the relationship.
  5. Responding to the need deficits in one’s partner requires characterological change in oneself. The response effects that change.
  6. Therapy must be developmentally specific to be effective, and its focus must be repairing the developmental arrests of each partner. To reverse developmental arrest, each partner must supply the nurturing missed at the stage in his or her partner’s childhood. Paradoxically, supplying missed nurturing in one’s partner effects one’s own characterological change and accesses the similar or identical nurturing deficit in oneself.
  7. The Imago Therapist’s role is to facilitate this interaction between partners. (Hendrix, 1979)

Hendrix states that the approach he developed and calls Imago Relationship Therapy is eclectic, growing out of psychoanalytic theory, depth psychology, the behavioral sciences as well as elements of systems theory, Gestalt, transactional analysis and cognitive therapy. In addition, Hendrix also draws on the work of Dr. Paul MacLean who pioneered work in the concept of the triune brain while at the National Institute of Mental Health.

While Hendrix acknowledges strong ties to psychoanalytic theory, it appears that many of his formulations are specifically related to the British school of object-relations theory, and particularly to the work of D.W. Winnicott, M.D. and W.R. Bion.

More and more theorists are now recognizing that the practice of psychotherapy must be rooted in a more general theory of human behavior that takes into consideration basic developmental stages. (Bagarozzi & Anderson, 1989) While integrated into many treatment models for individuals, many forms of marital treatment ignore this important factor. Clinical researchers Bergin and Garfield (1971) in their Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change: An Empirical Analysis, put forth that:

The practice of psychotherapy must be rooted in a more general theory of human behavior and human development.

Theoretical statements are needed to account for how unwanted behavior or undesirable behavior patterns develop and are maintained.

A theory of therapy (which is internally consistent with this theory of human behavior and dysfunction) should specifically identify reliable procedures designed to correct those interactional or developmental processes that have gone awry.

Bagarozzi and others recognize that the practice of marital and family therapy as well as individual therapy should be guided by these principles.

Hendrix uses an adaptation of Margaret Mahler's stages of development to explore the impact of parenting and developmental needs on adult relationships. The meeting of developmental needs and the possible ways we are wounded at each developmental stage are key concepts in Imago Relationship Therapy. The wounding at various stages of development is the cause of reactive and defensive patterns that are maintained throughout adult relationships. These reactive patterns are perpetuated throughout generations and impact not only the family system, but the societal system as a whole. The process is circular in nature and leads to societal and familial attitudes which re-inforce and perpetuate the wounding. Imago Relationship Therapy teaches couples specific skills designed to help create a climate in their relationship that is conducive to meeting developmental deficiencies of both partners and to healing childhood wounds without fostering a co-dependent relationship.

Over the past 15 years, research has consistently shown that the effectiveness of therapy is more closely related to the relational qualities between therapist and client, particularly effective empathy, than to any particular technique. (Truax & Carkhuff(1969), Guntrip (1973), Gurman(1977), Orlinsky & Howard(1978) and others.) Kaplan (1991) stresses the need for both affective and cognitive empathy in which we take in and contain the feelings of the other and also recognize and act from the perspective of a separate, unique, yet connected self. The role of empathy in accessing the unconscious is discussed extensively in Margulies (1989). He refers to psychiatrist Elvin Semrad's treatment strategies using empathy. Seward states that the unconscious is kept unconscious because of a person's inability to stay with that part of the self that feels intolerable and is subsequently split off from consciousness. Empathy on both the cognitive and affective level validates a part of the self that has long ago been invalidated, rejected, or abandoned by an other and in the resulting pain, by the self. Through empathy one can enter and validate that intolerable area. Through continued empathic holding and communication, the person is able to stay for a period in a previously inaccessible area with the help of the other. The person is then 'held' empathetically long enough to incorporate it into a transforming world view and a new possibility. One gains access through the seemingly intolerable to a 'potential' self that has not yet been realized.

Traditionally, the therapeutic relationship containing these qualities, has been the exclusive experience of this kind of safety. Therapy has been the only environment that is created for the primitive part of the brain that only understands experience.

The basic tool of Imago Relationship Therapy is a specific form of couple’s dialogue that teaches couples to contain their partner, to mirror precisely, and to use structured processes with the dialogue to access childhood wounding that has occurred to all of us throughout our development. Through various processes using the structure of the dialogue, couples are able to assist each other in accessing and recognizing the wounds of childhood and in finding specific ways they can assist their partner and themselves in repairing those wounds. The image of the partner is transformed from “someone who won’t give me what I want or need, etc.” to a person who was deeply wounded as a child, and who can recover their inherent self with ‘my’ assistance. The partner can then provide the corrective experience that is needed for healing. The attitude toward the partner shifts from criticism and blame to compassion, hope, and a commitment to assist the partner in the healing of that child/adult.

In this way, emotional safety is created and deepened. Far from being just another communication tool, the skills taught in the workshop and in therapy provide a structure for safe, effective, healing and lasting change. In a revolutionary way, Dr. Hendrix has shifted the power of the healing relationship traditionally reserved for the therapist/client relationship into the hands of the couple. Imago Relationship Therapy assists couples in stepping out of the power struggle into a more conscious and intentional relationship.

The Young Family Project, a well-known longitudinal study on healthy family functioning, and other studies have found that the most important factor in creating psychologically healthy children is a strong, equal, and well-functioning relationship between the parents. The family is not a closed system and is not only impacted by society, but acts upon it and shapes it through family members. We replicate in society what we experience in our own families. Creating healthy families is imperative for our world. And strengthening and healing the spousal sub-system is key. Minuchin (1974) and others have written extensively about the importance of strengthening and protecting boundaries around the spousal system for healthy family functioning.

Common presenting problems in family therapy often reveal rigid triads of transactional patterns that involve triangulating a child (or other household member), detouring through a 'problem' child, or the creation of coalitions of one parent and a child against the other parent. Such patterned interactions serve as "exits" in the spousal sub-system to avoid the distress and lack of safety experienced with one's partner. Communication patterns, degrees of emotional and physical contact and intimacy, boundary clarity and flexibility are all governed by unconscious wounding in childhood experience. Dysfunctional family structures related to boundaries, such as enmeshment or disengagement, also emerge from those unconscious wounds and unmet developmental needs. The spousal system and family life re-stimulate reactive behavior that further hardens into more rigid patterns and structure that are traditionally resistant to change. The reactive and protective behavior of the marriage partners carries over into parent-child relationships and thus perpetuates the same wounding and defensive behavior patterns in the children that they will subsequently carry into every relationship inside and outside their family system.

Hendrix's treatment model assists couples in identifying and healing their own wounds, in creating emotional safety and strong, loving, relationships. Thus, it is a powerful resource in transforming generational and societal dysfunction into opportunities for healing that will not only lead to a more fulfilling relationship for marriage partner, but will also produce healthier families and a safer world.


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Chicago: Aldine Publishing.

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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 2013

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