This week, we will explore the 3 characteristics of Imago.
“Why does the Imago have such sway over our lives and, specifically, whom we love and how we love them? To get a handle on this elusive force operating outside our awareness and without our permission, let us review how it evolved and what it looks like.” (p. 126-127)
The authors suggest three important characteristics or elements.
3 Characteristics of the Imago
- Our Imago comprises our childhood experiences.
- Our Imago changes with new experiences.
- Our Imago affects us in the present.
Our Imago Comprises Our Childhood Experiences
“As far as Imago theory is concerned, the events of our childhood are not nearly as important as our internal take on those events, along with the powerful emotional residue they left behind… it is the emotional resonance between our internal Imago and the traits of our selected intimate other that leads us in the direction of an Imago-Match. … Whatever feelings we were left with from our experiences of being loved and cared for during childhood are the same ones that echo back to us when we begin our search for a partner.” (p.127)
Before studying with Harville I trained as an Adlerian psychologist. Alfred Adler was a contemporary of Freud but broke with Freud early on because he disagreed on many key points of this new enterprise called psychology. One of Adler’s key insights was: “It is not what you possess, but how you use it.”
I always use the example of Terry Fox, the young Canadian, some 40 years ago now, who lost a leg to cancer but decided to run across Canada, over 5000 kilometers, to raise money for cancer research. Another young person might have the same affliction but instead conclude that life isn’t fair. They both possess the same thing but use it quite differently. Go back to our childhood experiences; it is always the subjective perception of the child that matters.
Our Imago changes with new experiences
From what we know from present-day neuroscience, the brain is much more malleable than was previously thought. Given that: “the Imago can change if/when the child experiences new and constructive experiences in their social environment.”(p.128) Obviously, the earliest experiences, even as early as in the womb, play a huge role and establish a “tendency to perceive future partners as either available or unavailable, safe or unsafe”(p.128) but, “changes in the social environment, especially the caretaker’s emotional health or the presence of another more available caretaker, creates new memories that alter the original template.” (p.127)
Where they are eventually going with this idea is, in adult intimate relationships, new more positive memories can be created which override the old memories and allow us to re-experience our original state of connection, joy and full aliveness.
Our Imago Affects Us in the Present
Lastly, and I find this is true in the office, “many partners find it difficult, at least initially, to identify and then connect the dots between the contents of their Imago and their experiences in their current romantic relationship (or those of their past).”(p.128) I would have to confess, that I’m probably one of those folks. I really have very few memories of my childhood.
Here is where I resort to being a coach. As a coach I always insisted on the basics; if my players could do the basics well, we would win games. I think the same is true of relationships. Even if couples can’t necessarily connect all the dots, there are basic skills that, if they can master, will give them a much better chance of creating the relationship of their dreams.
What are those basics? Firstly, behind and around everything is the notion of safety. If you don’t feel safe you will defend yourself. Your old brain has a 500 million year history which you are not going to change.
Secondly, the importance of the Space-Between. It is a real energy field and you cannot keep putting negativity into it. Negativity will kill you because it causes disconnect and what you want is to connect. The flip side of that skill is to amplify the positives in the Space-Between. Appreciations and affirmations, which you did automatically in the romantic love stage of the relationship, help recreate connection.
Thirdly, none of us is perfect, so there will be stuff to talk about. The Safe Conversation process gives couples a safe way to communicate. This is the key skill couples must learn. Lastly, from an Imago perspective, even if you can’t connect the dots, don’t be surprised if needs that didn’t get met well during childhood show up in the relationship. Some people are more conscious of this and can connect the dots and get insight and that is great, but for me, it is more important that couples learn to talk to each other in a safe way when issues do arise, because they will, whether they can make the connections back to childhood or not.
The authors conclude:
“Recall, too, that these mechanisms (the memory or not of childhood trauma) operate outside of conscious awareness. This means that when partners become defensive toward each other, as is typical during a power struggle, they are not even aware of what they are defending themselves from, or even that they are defending themselves. They are just telling the truth, as they know it. Humans have this tendency to ‘forget’ or repress the painful memories stored in our Imago and to be blind to their reappearance in their adult relationships.”(p.129)
So, even if you cannot connect all the dots, sticking to those four basic skills will go a long way toward helping you create the relationship of your dreams.
This is not just theory for me, it is very personal. Remembering the past is certainly not my strong suit, but understanding Imago theory helped me to take the blame out of our relationship. There was no sense in me blaming my partner, for things I might not particularly like, because I wouldn’t have been attracted to anyone except like her.
But what we were doing during those first fifteen years wasn’t working as well as we would have liked. Now we could have kept doing what we were doing, or we could buy into the Imago model. If along the way, I made connections between my partner and my childhood, all well and good. Any insight is valuable, and although I wasn’t very good in that department, we followed the basics – safety, the Space-Between and used the Safe Conversation process when issues arose, and here I am, 34 years later, blessed with a great relationship. I wish the same for you.