In the Preface to Doing Imago Relationship Therapy in the Space-Between, Harville, and Helen share a brief intellectual autobiography explaining how Imago Relationship Therapy came about. They say:
“Although we come from opposite ends of the social and economic spectrum, we have similar childhood experiences which contributed, from the beginning to a very complex and conflicted relationship that provided the perfect (though unplanned) laboratory within which we incubated ideas, invented new processes, and practiced new behaviors.” (xi)
Imago Theory & Practice
In other words, Imago theory and practice developed from putting their own relationship in order. For example, the Imago dialogue, now Safe Conversations, came about when at a certain point early in their relationship, Helen insisted: “Stop! One of us talk and the other listen” which eventually became the three-step process: mirroring, validating, and empathizing, which has become Imago’s central intervention.
The Power of Zero Negativity
Their second discovery was the necessity and power of Zero Negativity – of removing all negativity from the relationship. This came about well into their relationship when they were actually moving toward divorce. They had gone on a date (they were separated at the time) to a bookstore and discovered a book of essays on relationships between persons with different astrological signs. “The description of the intense negativity of couples with our astrological signs accurately described our relationship.” (p.xiii)
Again it was Helen who proposed they eliminate all negativity cold turkey and on a calendar record the days when either or both engaged in negative exchanges and if there was a negative interaction to then quickly restore connection. They found the positive effects pretty dramatic and again incorporated this into Imago practice.
The Affirmations process developed when they realized that couples often made significant progress by eliminating negativity, but then seemed to fall back into old behaviours. Brain science informed them that the brain needed something to fill the gap left by the elimination of the negative in order not to feel anxious, to feel that something was missing.
“With repeated practice, couples learned that positive energy expressed as appreciations, acknowledging caring behaviours, and engaging in surprises and spontaneous play equipped the brain with the tools it needed to create the safe environment required by the survival directive.”(p.xiv)
Safety in a Relationship
The bottom line of these three discoveries was the importance of Safety in a relationship. The Safe Conversation process ensures safety as it takes things out of the power struggle. The power struggle tends to be I am right and you are wrong. The validation step in the Safe Conversation process allows me to see reality from my partner’s point of view – it can be quite different from my view, but it doesn’t make one right and the other wrong.
Eliminating negativity is essential because negativity causes disconnect and what we want is connection, and I’ll explain this more as we get into the Space-Between. The Affirmation process replaces any negativity with affirmations. They concluded that with these three elements in place, a near-total reduction in anxiety and defensive behaviours took place, which led to their conviction that “safety was the non-negotiable quality of a thriving relationship”. (p.xiv) You can survive without safety but you cannot thrive.
Next week I will explore, what I think, is the revolutionary shift in their thinking, the importance of the Space-Between, and the shift from an individual paradigm to the relational paradigm and from the relational paradigm to the quantum field.