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Dawn J. Lipthrott, LCSW
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Similarities & Differences Between
Marriage Encounter and Imago Relationship Therapy

By Dawn J. Lipthrott, LCSW

My assessment of the following is based on team training tapes and information from Marriage Encounter. This list is not meant to be a point by point analysis. Both methods are important avenues to help couples strengthen their relationship. Rather, this information is meant to help you discern which may be the best avenue for a particular couple at a particular time.

How Marriage Encounter and IRT are SIMILAR:
  • The family is the foundation of the world. The relationship between the couple is the foundation of the family.
  • The way to change society is to change couples' relationships, which also changes what their children experience and learn about relationship. The work of repairing relationship is essential for creating a better world for all people.
  • When the 'power struggle' begins, is when the work of relationship begins. (The power struggle may be characterized by one or more of the following: stagnation, conflict, wanting to escape, wondering if marrying this person was 'right', concern about 'incompatibility', feeling distress in the relationship, etc.)
  • Self-awareness is necessary for change to take place. Blaming the other person will not improve the relationship.
  • Within their relationship, couples have the strength and power to create a loving and fulfilling relationship. The seeds of love, intimacy, understanding, compassion are present, even if they seem hidden.
  • Part of the challenge is learning to live in relationship without losing either one's unique individuality or one's ability to be in connection.
  • Profound loving communication between partners helps reveal the path to wholeness (holiness).
  • No matter what difficulties a couple has experienced, they can re-affirm the value of one's self, one's partner, and the relationship. Distress and love in relationship are not mutually exclusive. However, you can transform the climate of distress into one of love and intimacy -- not by pretending the conflict isn't there or doesn't matter, but by walking through it together.
  • Both IRT and Marriage Encounter recognize the need for an 'artificial' structure to help revive the life in the relationship. Both use a form of dialogue, although the specifics of the structure differ.

How Imago Relationship Therapy DIFFERS:
  • Although IRT was created for married couples, any couple in a committed relationship, whether or not they are married, are welcomed to the process and can benefit immensely. This includes relationships such as friends, adult siblings, adult children and a parent, religious men and women living together, etc..
  • IRT is designed to be therapeutic -- to empower couples to do the work of mutual healing. While communicating is essential, it is only part of the work.
  • IRT holds that it is essential to gradually uncover the roots that fuel the distress in the relationship. It also holds that those roots go back into each individual's childhood development.
  • Couples learn that the behavior that contributes to the distress is primarily reactive, a way of protecting themselves from earlier pain and fear, and tends to be outside their usual awareness. Becoming aware of their reactivity helps them learn how to become more conscious and intentional in the relationship.
  • Awareness includes discovering the wounding in oneself and one's partner that leads to reactive behavior. Couples re-image themselves, their partner, the behavior in light of what they learn about each other. They begin to see the distress in their relationship as a path to healing and wholeness for both.
  • Changes in behavior are made as partner's learn to create a corrective experience for their partner's past wounding. And, paradoxically, the very thing the partner needs for healing brings forth the denied or disowned part of one's self that needs to be reclaimed.
  • IRT emphasizes the need and to create emotional 'safety' for each other. Couples tend to be completely unaware of how their speech and behavior trigger the childhood pain and fear of their partner, and make them 'unsafe' for their partner.
  • IRT is a two-pronged approach. Through becoming conscious and intentional in the relationship, couples do the work of:
    • healing the childhood wound and reclaiming the denied parts of the self,
    • bringing caring behaviors back into the relationship
  • The Dialogue process in IRT is designed not only for improving communication about volatile issues, but also for creating emotional 'safety' and assisting the healing process. The basic tool is used in a variety of processes to access the roots of pain and fear in the relationship and to facilitate behavioral change.
  • IRT was developed by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., an ordained Methodist minister, and licensed marriage therapist. While he presents his model primarily in psychological language rather than the religious language of Marriage Encounter, his theological foundations clearly influence his thinking.

Couples with any religious background will recognize the sacredness of their work in this process. They become more conscious that we all have the capacity to be 'wounded healers' for one another, and that the journey to wholeness in relationship is the journey of holiness.

DISCLAIMER  Disclaimer: Information, observations, and opinions are offered for general reference only and should not be misconstrued as counseling advice, diagnosis or psychotherapy. Base your treatment or decisions solely upon the recommendations of your your own psychotherapist, counselor or physician or your own choices. By using this site, you signify full acceptance of our Terms of Use.   


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, 1995 Renewed 2008

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