Imago therapy, also known as Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT), is a form of relationship therapy. It aims to help partners listen deeply to each other’s concerns and needs, develop empathy and understanding, and heal from past experiences together.

Working from the premise that people mirror childhood experiences of love in their adult relationships, the idea is that Imago therapy can help with communication, increase positive feelings between partners, and improve intimacy.

Although couples experiencing conflict were the motivation for developing Imago therapy, people not in relationships may also benefit from trying this therapy.

This article explains what Imago therapy is and the ways in which it can help people. It looks at the types, techniques, benefits, and limitations of the therapy.

A couple stretching out their arms with their fingers linked.Share on Pinterest
Jonathan Knowles/Getty Images

In 1980, Dr. Harville Hendrix and Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt developed Imago therapy after their own experiences of going through a divorce. Imago is Latin for image, and Imago therapy is rooted in the idea that the images that people develop in early childhood play a significant role in the partners they choose and the relationships they create with them.

The theory is that when partners have conflict, experiences in early childhood may sometimes be the cause.

For example, a person may feel as though their parents or caregivers did not listen to their feelings or problems in early childhood. When their partner acts in a way they see as distant or uncaring, it may elicit a strong emotional reaction.

In some cases, a person may not even be aware that these experiences still affect them. Imago therapy aims to make both parties aware of their and each other’s early childhood experiences and how they can relate to conflicts that they experience in their adult lives.

When neither person is aware of the cause or motivation behind the other’s actions, conflict can repeat itself. Imago therapy aims to help people overcome these issues by addressing issues from childhood and encouraging healing and growth within the relationship.

Imago therapy aims to encourage understanding and healing in relationships, and it can help couples in several ways.

A 2021 study found that Imago therapy helped couples improve the quality of their relationship in the following areas:

  • relationship satisfaction
  • trust
  • commitment
  • repeated conflict
  • physical and emotional intimacy
  • relationship burnout

Learn more about what makes a relationship healthy.

Imago therapy is primarily for couples experiencing conflict who are looking to resolve issues in their relationship.

However, it can also be beneficial for other couples, as it can help them understand how their relationships in childhood may have affected their current relationship.

Single people or people in the early stages of dating may also benefit from Imago therapy, which can provide them with tools to create healthy connections with potential partners.

Learn more about how relationships can affect a person’s mental health.

In Imago therapy sessions, a therapist guides couples through a structured conversation to help them gain understanding and empathy and minimize hurtful comments and judgment.

The couple will take turns acting as the “sender” and the “receiver” and work through three steps:

  1. Mirroring: The first step of the conversation is mirroring. The sender will express a feeling or concern, and the receiver will paraphrase the concern back to them in the same tone, without judgment.
  2. Validating: The following step is validating, which involves the receiver putting themselves in their partner’s position and explaining why their feelings make sense, even if the receiver does not necessarily agree.
  3. Empathizing: After mirroring and validating their partner’s concerns, the receiver then empathizes and tells the sender how they imagine that must make them feel. For example, a receiver may say, “When I don’t text you when I’m coming home late, I hear that it makes you feel like I don’t care about how you’re feeling. I imagine that must make you feel very worried and alone.”

This technique, known as the couple’s dialogue, aims to create a feeling of safety even in times of conflict.

Other Imago therapy techniques include:

  • Parent-child dialogue: This involves the sender telling the receiver about their early childhood and identifying their feelings toward their caregiver. This then allows the receiver to better understand what needs were unmet in the sender’s childhood and how that may affect their current relationship.
  • Behavior change request: The sender expresses a frustration they have in the relationship and explains how it relates to their previously unmet needs. The sender then suggests three small changes, and the receiver chooses one to try. This encourages conflict resolution with an atmosphere of empathy and goal-oriented problem solving.
  • The Imago workup: This workup involves each partner identifying positive and negative traits that their partner shares with a caregiver from their childhood. This educational exercise can help shed light on potential causes of friction in the relationship.

Imago therapy aims to use conflict as an opportunity for a person to learn about their partner and gain a level of understanding about their feelings and life experiences. It can help couples grow together.

Imago therapy involves a therapist, but their role is not to give advice or control the conversation. Instead, they aim to help structure the conversation and create a collaborative environment where all members of the session work together. This can allow couples to feel like their conversations are more authentic to their own dynamic, making them feel more in control.

A 2022 study found that Imago therapy was more effective than cognitive behavioral couples therapy in increasing failure tolerance and positive feelings between partners and in reducing marital boredom.

Research also shows that Imago therapy is effective in improving a person’s attitude toward love by, for example, helping them address and manage expectations that past experiences may have created.

A 2017 study found that, after eight sessions of Imago therapy, couples reported improvement in their intimacy and lower levels of marital burnout compared with a control group. While some research has found that marital satisfaction scores can drop once the Imago therapy sessions have ended, the authors note that these scores remain higher than they were before the sessions took place.

A 2018 study found that Imago therapy helped improve couples’ mental health by providing them with the tools to help meet their emotional, physical, and intellectual needs together.

Further research shows that Imago therapy can help with communication patterns among couples.

While research shows that Imago therapy can help couples in several ways, it may not be suitable for everyone.

Imago therapy follows a very structured conversation and may not be the best therapy for someone who wants a more fluid conversation style.

In some situations, such as those involving substance misuse or severe mental health issues, individual therapy may be more suitable than relationship therapy.

In cases of abusive relationships, couples therapy may be inappropriate. If a person knows or suspects that they are in an abusive relationship, the National Domestic Violence Hotline offers anonymous help by phone, text, or online chat to people in the United States.

Learn how to find other types of relationship therapy online.

Imago therapy aims to explore the roots of conflict within a relationship and create a dialogue that can help the partners heal from early childhood experiences together.

Evidence suggests that Imago therapy techniques can help improve many aspects of a relationship and lead to higher levels of empathy.

Although Imago therapy has great potential to improve relationships, some situations may require individual therapy or other forms of support instead.