IMAGO & The 3 Stages of Relationship

IMAGO & The 3 Stages of Relationship thumbnail image

A Little on the Imago

There is not one word that creates anxiety in people more than the word “relationships.” Sometimes we desire them, sometimes we detest them. We obsess about not having one, followed by a strategy to get out of one. Extreme and difficult in the most normal of times, Valentine’s Day focuses a spotlight on these ideas and passions, making them even more unbearable and acute.

Happy family having fun outdoorsHistorically, men and women have joined together for tribal, cultural, political, or economic purposes. However, as religious, political, and economic shifts began to occur during the 15th century, so did the purposes for connection in committed relationships. Romantic love began to be the reason for partnership.  As a culture, we’ve become addicted to the love drug. But believe it or not, romantic love is actually just a hollow preview of the possibilities of an intimate, conscious relationship.

The model that I have been trained and operate from both personally and professionally is known as Imago Relationship Therapy. Initially developed by Harville Hendrix, author of many books in the area of relationships including Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples and Keeping the Love You Find: A Guide For Singles, Imago presents an understandable and practical approach to maximizing the potential in all human relationships.

“We are born in relationship, we are wounded in relationship,” says Hendrix. “And we must heal in relationship.” No matter how splendid a childhood we had, everyone acquires psychic wounds that keep us from being happy, fulfilled, and loving adults. However, Imago theory teaches us how we can use our adult relationships to heal these childhood scars. Of course, Imago did not invent the way to have a healthy relationship: It just describes the process and developed some techniques to help people in the places we often get stuck.

According to Imago theory, when we are attracted to a potential love partner, we’re actually picking the perfect person to help us work through our wounds from childhood. Whether gay or straight, female or male, we tend to be drawn to someone who is a reasonable facsimile of the person or people who wounded us in childhood. The combined traits, both negative and positive, of our male and female caretakers from childhood form what is called our Imago. These Caretaker Traits become our “love script” as we begin a search for a partner.

Once we have found our Imago match, the relationship journey continues in fairly predictable stages. First is the “Romantic Love Stage,” which is generally fairly short, lasting three to six months. This stage might be significantly shorter or a little longer depending on factors such as geographic distance, previous relationship history, or level of childhood wounding. An interesting note is that as people cycle through relationships, the romantic love stage seems to become shorter. This stage is followed by the “Power Struggle” phase, which can and often does last for a long time, generally ending in emotional and or physical separation. The third stage is the state of a “Conscious Relationship.” It is in this stage that we can maximize the potential of the relationship that our unconscious has methodically sought out.

The 3 stages of relationship

Romantic Love: An altered state of consciousness

Most of us know too well about the Romantic Love Stage, the much-sought-after state of “falling in love” period. This stage is characterized by a state of euphoria, excitement, and ecstasy. With the injection of “Cupid’s Arrow,” we often slip into a state of unconsciousness, staying up late, wanting to play more and work less, spending money we don’t have, or calling our newfound “love” many times a day. Connection is the prime objective and all other agendas seem insignificant. We will often neglect our physical body, spend less time with family or friends, and have little or no interest in our jobs or careers.

backlit coupleThis Romantic Stage of relationships is in fact an altered state of consciousness. Blinded by love, we enter a state of denial, which is necessary for the process to continue. We deny the negative traits of our new partner while magnifying the positives. Our friends might say things like, “Don’t you think she drinks a bit too much?” “Isn’t he a bit controlling?” or “He sure is mean to you.” You are all the while making excuses: “He’s had a hard week” or “She’s just having a rough day.” We are quite literally drugged by a surge of endorphins and adrenaline. The prime directive of this phase is in fact to get two people who are incompatible to be blinded long enough to make an intimate connection. Once the connection and some form of commitment are established, the couple has the potential to do some incredible healing and growth. There is only one problem. Most of us are unaware of the underlying relationship agenda to heal our wounds and become scared when the shift occurs.

As with all drugs, the effects of the drug of Cupid’s Arrow eventually wear off and we are faced with the realities of the relationship that we have created. It sometimes feels like someone has entered in the middle of the night and stolen the person that we first fell in love with. We often begin to feel that we have “married our parents.” If you have ever been in a relationship where you have thought or said things like, “You treat me just like a child,” “You act just like my mother,” or “You sound just like my father,” then you have successfully accomplished the initial stage of relationships. Congratulations!

The good news: Romantic Love is supposed to happen. The bad news: Romantic Love is supposed to end. Little or no healing or growth is likely to occur within a relationship when the couple is in Romantic Love. After all, how much growth can occur when someone is intoxicated? The drug itself inherently limits our capacities to grow. That is not to say that we don’t experience it as fun. In fact, our culture glorifies it; as a society we have become “addicted to love.” Many people jump from one romantic love relationship to the next; disillusioned when the romance ends, they begin a new search for a new romantic high.

The Power Struggle: Sleeping with the enemy

Once the drug has significantly worn off for one or both partners, the second stage of relationships begins. Say hello to the “Power Struggle.”

During the Romantic Love phase we generally see our partners from a positive perspective. We tend to be blinded to the negatives, or at least discount them enough to remain connected. When the Power Struggle begins there is a tendency to negate the positives and see mainly the negatives. In fact the very traits of our partner that caused us to fall for them in the first place will likely begin to drive us crazy in the Power Struggle Phase. The man I originally admired for his “calmness, stability, and groundedness” during the Romantic Love phase, I might suddenly be wondering what I saw in this boring dork. If you were attracted to that lively, outgoing woman you met at the Rainbow Club, you may be feeling embarrassed by how loud and pushy she suddenly seems.

Young couple in their kitchenElation and excitement have flip-flopped to frustration and often despair. The experience of people in the Power Struggle stage is often reported as like walking in a mine field–or being a mine field Our triggers and buttons are being pushed every which way. Issues that we overlooked in the Romantic Love stage become frighteningly apparent.

These land mines feel very real. What couples don’t yet realize is that the mines were planted many years ago and are a result of those unmet needs and childhood wounds. The potential in intimate love relationships is to locate these land mines and disarm them. To locate them, however, it is generally necessary to trip over them first. If unaddressed, the Power Struggle becomes a continual bombardment of exploding mines, often resulting in some missing arms and legs–or at least some further wounding of all those hurt parts of our psyche.

If the Power Struggle continues unchecked, there are fairly predictable outcomes. Many couples adapt by living a parallel relationship. On the surface these relationships may appear non-conflictual and fairly peaceful. They are sometimes the couples that are in long-term relationships but rarely connecting. In reality, the couple has adapted with an “I do my thing, you do yours” attitude, an unspoken agreement of “don’t stir the pot.” They may live in the same house and sleep in the same bed, but true connection rarely occurs. The communication is generally limited to the essentials of day-to-day living. Problems are not addressed, conflict is avoided.

A second outcome is what we call the hot relationship, with an endless cycle of explosive fighting and reconciling. These relationships have the potential of being very intense, both in the conflict of separation and the passion of reconciliation. Unconsciously, one or both partners may be picking fights so that the reconnecting energy might occur. Although this results in at least momentary closeness (and sometimes great sex), the intimacy proves a transitory illusion as the cycle continues once again.

A final way to adapt to the Power Struggle is to end the relationship. Many couples go through years of ongoing, low-level conflict, pain, and distance, which they never address on a conscious level. This ongoing negative energy creates a variety of defensive postures which further separation. Usually, one partner reaches a threshold and terminates the relationship.

We may have unconsciously picked our partners to recreate the hurtful patterns and damage of our original caretaker, so that we may heal these old bruises. But, being unconscious, when the pain and land mines start in, the most common response is … defense! Different people defend themselves either by fight, flight, freezing, or submission (roll over and play dead). Although these forms of defense are attempts to gain safety within the relationship, they don’t address the origin of the pain, and generally just produce distance.

There are certainly times of real danger when distance is necessary to secure one’s safety. But most of our defensive reactions are out of proportion to the real threat. In general these defense postures were learned many years ago in our childhood when they were actually effective. Unfortunately these same postures now limit and sabotage our adult relationships. We create what we defend against; defensiveness always creates more defensiveness unless the other party has the consciousness to stop the attack. If we see our partner as the enemy we will likely treat them that way, and be treated that way in return. This cycle must cease if the relationship is to move in a healing healthy direction.

The Conscious Relationship: Break up or breakthrough?

Unfortunately most couples break up just before the breakthrough. Like a good workout at the gym, the most growth occurs at the final repetitions of the exercise. This is also the point that most people want to quit, exhausted. There is, however, another option: Take the relationship to the next level, the stage of Conscious Relationship. What a tremendous innate potential is possible when two people come together with mutual dignity, respect, and commitment to healing and growth.

couple shoppingTo create a Conscious Relationship, Imago teaches a process of dialogue and stretching. Lovers must first and foremost establish safety. Easier said than done. To help keep partners from squaring off into their accustomed defensive positions, the Imago method teaches a technique called an “intentional dialogue,” which is really just solid compassionate listening. When discussing a conflict or trauma, each partner expresses what they feel, and then tries to repeat back what the other says, validating the other’s reality, although not necessarily agreeing with them. As the partners discuss each other’s feelings, each should remember that their partner is just reacting from patterns they learned as children that kept them safe and alive. As we better understand and empathize with our partner, we find that self-knowledge follows. The two partners start to see how each contributes to the collective drama: the drama that is their relationship, the psychic drama of each person’s journey to awareness and well-being.

But even with open, safe dialogue, change is still almost stubbornly difficult. There is generally a myth in relationships that partners don’t change or meet each other’s needs because they don’t want to. Although this is sometimes the case, it is the rare exception. Instead, in Imago therapy we’ve seen that one person’s greatest need within the relationship is always met with the other person’s greatest defense. Usually we’ve specifically picked someone who has trouble meeting our needs because of their own childhood wounds. And, it is in these situations that the true potential of a relationship exists, as we “stretch” beyond our learned defensive patterns.

In moving from talking to doing, the Imago method next teaches partners a process for “stretching.” Through the intentional dialogue, you ask your partner for several “behavior changes,” ways you’d like to see him or her change within the relationship to meet your needs–knowing that it’s going to be difficult because of their past wounding. Choosing one of your requests, your partner then slowly stretches through their resistance against giving it. Like the gym analogy, muscle growth must occur slowly. If someone tries to lift too much too fast, the body will resist and collapse. Likewise, if emotional change is attempted too fast, the emotional body will resist. And slowly and methodically, the one having the need begins to get it met, while the partner who has the resistance begins to grow through their defensive posture.

Amazingly, as couples experience this win/win exuberance of healing and growth, they stop seeing conflict as a burden, and shift to the viewpoint that “conflict is growth trying to happen.” Our genius selves picked those partners with which we’ll find conflict, and now our compassionate and wise selves can use that conflict to heal the places where we’re stuck and hurt and not living a full and loving life.

The safety and dropping of defenses only builds. Contrary to much of our childhood learning, defenselessness in a “conscious relationship” contributes to more vulnerability and honesty, which leads to increased safety. “In my defenselessness my safety lies.” Once safety is established, joy and connectedness follow. Instead of a blind romance doomed to speedy failure, or a violent and numb destructive marriage, we can create an intimacy that is physically, emotionally, sexually, spiritually, playfully, and intellectually alive, and use our brilliant relationship to reframe our lives and our journey to self-actualization.