Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt, creators of Imago Relationship Therapy, help couples make sense of the conflict that can show up in their relationship. They posit that we unconsciously tend to be attracted to someone who has both the positive but also the negative traits of our original caretakers, our family of origin. Some people really resist that notion: “I would never choose someone who is like my dad or mom or whomever I didn’t like very much in the first place.” I would agree. No one would consciously choose someone who couldn’t meet their needs, but our unconscious, which is often driving the bus, has a different agenda.
A metaphor might help. Think of the filing system you have on your computer. Most of the knowledge a small child, say ages 1, 2, or 3, inputs is right brain – it is non-verbal. They take in, and we know how observant a young child is, sounds, inflections, facial expressions, touch, and the tone of words spoken as well as the words themselves. This information gets filed in the folder “the person who meets all of my needs… the person who takes care of me.”
Now, our parents weren’t perfect just as we are not perfect. But everything our parents did goes into that file folder – the good, the bad and the ugly. This is not about blaming parents – all parents do the best they can do. No one stays up at night thinking, how can I screw up my kids? Yet at the same time, they weren’t perfect.
Looking for a Mate
Then, when we go out looking for a mate, the file folder – “the person who meets all of my needs. The person who takes care of me” is front and center. Like a merchandise bar code, we scan potential partners. If there is a close enough match, we are more likely to take a second or third or fourth look. And, you guessed it, the good, the bad and the ugly are all contained in that file. In the relationship’s Romantic Love stage, “the good” bits tend to stand out. Yet, from an Imago point of view, don’t be surprised if “the bad and the ugly” eventually show their face as well. This leads to the inevitable conflict in intimate relationships.
Think about it; I replay that same scenario with my partner if certain needs of mine weren’t met growing up. It seems like a sure fire recipe for disaster and statistics on divorce tend to back that up. But, as I become more conscious and if I can reframe the reality of what has in fact happened, I have really married my healer.
Using Myself as an Example
I can use myself and my partner as an example. My wife felt her emotional needs were not well met, as her father was an alcoholic when she was young. Whom was she attracted to? Someone who didn’t learn how to deal with feelings very well growing up in a military boarding school. A bit of a recipe for disaster. My exposure to Imago Relationship Therapy taught me to stretch and grow my feeling function to meet her legitimate needs. I met her needs and became more whole, healing a piece of me that was stunted growing up. A win-win, but both of us needed to become aware, to become conscious.