Imago Relationship Therapy

Case Vignette

Catherine and Pete had been married for almost 9 years when they came in to see me for couples therapy. Catherine shared that their relationship had deteriorated over the past few years and that she felt less emotionally connected to her husband and was considering divorce. Pete insisted that divorce was not an option, but that his work and travel commitments had created some distance in the relationship and that Catherine did not seem to appreciate all he was doing to keep the family afloat. When they argued, Catherine yelled and slammed doors while Pete shut down and became inaccessible. This same scene had been recurrent throughout their marriage – the more emotional Catherine became, the more distance Pete put between them; the more Pete worked and travelled, the more lonely and fearful Catherine became. When Catherine finally threatened divorce Pete recognized the path they were on and where it was likely to end up unless they sought help.

In our first few sessions I learned that when they had first met, Catherine had found Pete to be strong and confident, and Pete had felt loved and adored by Catherine’s emotionality. But as their marriage evolved, with children entering the picture and Pete achieving a series of promotions, Catherine began to experience her husband as cold and abandoning, and Pete began to feel smothered by what he perceived to be Catherine’s neediness. They were constantly triggered by each other’s responses and behaviors, and their discord was having a detrimental effect on their children. Despite their conflict, both agreed to commit to Imago therapy for a specific period of time.

A primary goal in working with Catherine and Pete was to help them learn how to relate to each other empathically instead of reactively. In the beginning stages, Pete and Catherine learned an Imago technique designed to help them stop and listen to each other’s concerns, instead of thinking up defensive responses. Over time, Catherine learned how to validate Pete’s perspective, even if she didn’t agree with it. She learned to appreciate that Pete’s differences in thoughts, feelings and behaviors did not mean a lack of love on his part. It simply meant that Pete was a separate human being with separate wants and needs and the more she was able to validate those wants and needs, the more connected she felt to her husband. Pete learned to empathize with his wife’s loneliness and yearning for connection without taking it personally.

In order to get to this stage in their relationship they both had to do a lot of work around their emotional development. Pete recognized that while confidence, drive, ambition and strength had been generously rewarded by his parents growing up, tears and feelings were either ignored or scorned upon with responses like “big boys don’t cry” and “don’t cry over spilt milk.” While initially Pete felt loved and adored by Catherine’s ability to connect so completely to that lost part of himself, eventually he became overwhelmed and resorted to what he had learned while growing up: feelings can be dangerous.

Catherine, on the other hand, had responded to her parent’s disinterest by doing whatever she could to get their attention. She was an unexpected pregnancy and the youngest of eight siblings. Catherine learned at a very young age that in order to get her parents to respond to her needs she had to crank it up several notches. Early in their relationship she had found Pete’s logical personality comforting and energizing, almost as though she had found a missing part of herself that made her feel complete. As their relationship ensued however, she began to find Pete’s logic and rationale threatening when combined with his prolonged absences, and she regressed back to learned behaviors that had served her well in the past.

Catherine and Pete came to recognize through Imago that these defensive, learned behaviors were keeping them from having the relationship they wanted, and they worked hard throughout the process to be vulnerable, empathic and validating with each other. They learned Imago techniques that allowed them to dialogue intentionally, disagree maturely, encourage individual growth, re-romanticize their relationship and create a conscious partnership. Catherine and Pete have been married just over 12 years and look at their time spent in Imago therapy as well worth the effort. I see them occasionally for what they refer to as “tweaking” and feel honored to have facilitated their work.

For more information on whether Imago Relationship Therapy is right for you please explore the Imago Relationship Therapy website.

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