Why Repeated Relationship Problems are So Common and Why We Tend to Find Partners Who Resemble Our Parents

A heart with a puzzle piece missing. Used to depict the way we repeat relationship problems by looking for someone who fits our ideas of love

Have you ever wondered why you seem to have the same repeated relationship problems? Maybe you’ve encountered the same problems over and over in your current relationship. Or maybe you’ve noticed that you’ve had the same, or similar problems come up in different intimate relationships. There are several reasons why this can happen, a few of which are trauma and codependency. But in this blog post I am going to talk about something that you have probably never heard of before; Imago.

What is Imago?

Imago (pronounced im-aw-goh) is a concept central to a particular kind of couples therapy called imago relationship therapy (IRT). The founders of IRT define imago as being an “unconscious image of familiar love”. The central premise of IRT is the idea that as children we learn what love means through our interactions with our caretakers. We then take that internalized image of love (or imago) into adulthood and consciously or unconsciously look for partners who resemble our own imago. In IRT this is called an “imago match”; someone who fits into your conceptions of what it means to love and be loved.

Imago matches bring things up

Through finding an imago match, you’re not just finding someone who will love you in the ways you need, you’re also finding someone who will treat you in some of the negative ways that were modeled to you as a child. In this way, the theory holds that we all seek out, consciously and unconsciously, partners who will replicate the kind of love we were shown as children, both good and bad.

This video captures a lot of what finding an imago match means

Sometimes when explaining this to couples I get some bad looks from people thinking that I’m saying they are terrible like their partner’s parents were. That’s not necessarily what all of this means. In its purest sense, finding an imago match might mean for example, finding someone who drinks and abuses you the way your dad did with your mother. But the more common case is when you are attracted to people who resemble our imago, but don’t completely match it. When this happens we tend to treat our partners as if they do all of the negative things our imago was based on even if they don’t. Sometimes to the point of treating your partner as if they were your parent(s).

In this way, most relationships are a mix of finding someone who resembles your imago and making that person, in your mind, or in reality, more completely match your imago. There is some truth to something I commonly hear in couples therapy: “you’re making me out to be the bad guy”.

I see this in therapy ALL THE TIME. I would honestly say this comes up in at least 80% of my sessions. A person gets into a relationship with someone who resembles some of the positive and negative traits of their parents, and then treats their partner as if they embody all the other negative traits of their parent(s). Eventually over time the two end up taking on roles that more fully fit each other’s imago. This is not to say that we bring out the worst in our partners, or even that we turn each other into monsters. It’s more so that we carry trauma of a sort from our childhood and, just like in PTSD we get triggered by our partners at times and perceive threats where there are none or mistake tiny threats for big ones. Over time, if left unchecked, this can become a self fulfilling prophecy.

imago heart.jpg

This is where therapy helps

Everything I’ve described so far is perfectly normal, and most people, in my experience do these sorts of things. The really hopeful and beautiful part of IRT that I really like is what it has to say about why we seek out imago matches. The theory holds that as children we are exposed to a lot of confusing, mixed up, and sometimes negative stuff. As kids we don’t know what to do with all of this stuff, so we just cope in whatever ways we can and suck up images of love (healthy or otherwise) that are modeled to us. We then look for an imago match in our partners in an attempt to revisit and resolve these conflicts and difficulties as adults.

When you find someone to be in a relationship, you are in some ways choosing that person for their ability to challenge your deep seated wounds, discomforts, and fears. As a child you were powerless, as an adult you are able to better care for yourself and cope with negative emotions. In a sense, the theory behind IRT is that as adults we are all seeking out someone to love so that we can heal our inner wounded child.

This is where therapy helps by working with couples to recognize their core childhood conflicts, how they come up in their relationships, and what pieces of that are trauma vs. what your partner is actually doing or intending. This is where a lot of IRT work revolves around working on communication and differentiating between what your partner said, what you heard, and what they intended to communicate. An imago therapist might point out that when your spouse said “you look pretty today” you heard “you’re usually frumpy, thanks for putting in an effort.” but what they intended to communicate was “I appreciate you and you look good.”.

A personal example

Back in grad school I was in a couples counseling course and my professor was an imago therapist. My wife and I volunteered to be a demo couple and had a session with her while my class watched. This sounds scary but we were all friends and it was a small group.

heart stone.jpg

At one point I talked about my primary love language being gifts and how I often feel rebuffed by my wife when she doesn’t appreciate the things I give her. We came to talking about how when we go to the ocean I often hand her pretty rocks. When this happens she’ll often look them over and then drop them in the sand. At this point my professor stopped me and said “It’s important for you to see that when your wife drops that rock, she’s not dropping you like your mother did.” It was a very small thing to say, but her meaning was really profound.
In that moment she was saying “you have an expectation that a person who loves you should receive your gifts in a particular way. When they don’t you feel like they are rejecting you. In this way you are re-enacting your relationship with your mom and making your wife out to be abandoning/dropping you, when in reality she doesn’t see anything more than a stone and is dropping a stone…not you.”

Some imago tools

One of the most common and well known technique used in IRT is what they call the imago couples dialogue. This technique provides a structured way for couples to talk while making room for empathy and better understanding. The following video demonstrates the dialogue.

I don’t consider myself to be a pure imago therapist, but I often pull on imago as a theory. I could see myself saying something like my professor did to me on that day my wife and I were her demo clients. I use the theories of IRT, but very rarely pull on any of the techniques that an IRT therapist might use. When I do, I like to use the following exercise that is common among therapists who practice IRT. This exercise will require 2 pieces of paper and maybe 10 minutes to complete. It will help you define your imago and get an idea of how it plays a role in your relationship(s).

Finding your imago

Take a piece of paper and draw a line down the center. Then draw a line across the middle. The left side of the paper is going to be for one parent and the right side for the other.

On the top half of the page I want you to write as many positive things as you can think of about that person as they were when you were a child. So for example, if one of your parents was a severe alcoholic as a child, but has been sober now for years, you want to list traits they exhibited when you were young. On the bottom half list all of the negative characteristics.

Now underline the 3 best traits and circle the 3 worst for each person.

At the bottom of the page briefly write what you wanted and needed most as a child.

Now take another page and split it down the center and middle, just like the first one.

In the top left section write down some positive memories from your childhood and in the top right section write the emotions you associate with each memory.

In the bottom left list any frequent or recurring frustrations you had in childhood ie: you weren’t listened to or you got in trouble for something your sibling did. Now in the bottom right list your reactions to those frustrations (what emotions you had and what you did in response).

Ok. All of what you’ve done so far has been a set up for this final part.

Your imago

You are looking for a person who/ sometimes you see your partner as being: ***the six things you circled in bottom half of your first page***

You are trying to get that person to be: ***the six things you underlined on the top of your first page***

so that you can be: ***what you wrote at the bottom of your first page (what you wanted and needed the most as a child)***

and feel: ***everything you wrote in the top right section of your second page***

you stop yourself from getting all of this sometimes by: ***everything in the bottom right section of your second page***

If you did all of this right you should have what basically looks like your current relationship or a pattern you’ve seen in several relationships….this activity can get kind of confusing and I’m not entirely sure if I should have posted it here, but it might be helpful for some readers.

So why did I write about all of this? Despite not being an IRT therapist, I really appreciate the theories it stands on and I use them in therapy all the time. As a therapist I am very attachment oriented. Imago therapy, much like EFT (emotionally focused therapy), recognizes the importance of early childhood relations, and focuses on emotional communication between partners.

If any of what you have read here speaks to you or you would like to talk to someone about something you’re struggling with in your life, give me a call or click the following link to read more about couples therapy with me. If you’ve read this and are thinking imago relationship therapy sounds awesome and you’d like to try it, my professor has a practice in Folsom 😉 . You can find her website here: Imago therapist

Joe Borders, MFT
Couples therapy in Roseville and Sacramento

(530) 448-6602

1722 Professional Drive,
Sacramento, CA 95825
775 Sunrise Ave., suite 110
Roseville, Ca 95661

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