You know the pattern: you feel this magnetic pull towards a person, which you label ‘love’. Then follows an often unsatisfactory — or sometimes even toxic — relationship with them and an inevitably split… and then the same pattern gets repeated again and again.
It’s like we’re locked into a self-destructive romantic habit that we can’t break. Sound familiar?
There’s an interesting explanation for such amorous attraction, called ‘Imago’ theory. Developed by Drs. Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt, it says that most of us have some unresolved damage or wound from childhood. It’s something we couldn’t fix back then because we were young and powerless. So, we seek to symbolically resolve this issue later in life by choosing a particular type of person to fall in love with. Our love interest represents an opportunity to work on our issue, to try and fix it in a way that we weren’t able to when we were younger.
So, let’s say you grew up in a family where your father abused your mother, both physically and emotionally. As a child, you were helpless to do anything about it. So, you carry around with you this image, an ‘imago’, of an aggressive person. This is the sort of person you are attracted to and tend to fall in love with. The reason? As an adult with power, you now want to tame this aggressive person, you want to change them in the same way you wanted to when you were a kid, but couldn’t.
But we all know that a leopard doesn’t change its spots. It’s very hard to alter someone’s basic character.
So, does ‘imago’ theory mean all relationships are doomed? Are we destined to keep falling in love with the same inappropriate type again and again? Are we doomed to keep trying to change our partner, to fix our old wounds?
Fortunately, the answer is ‘no’. But we need to do some hard work to get out of this spiral.
Become Aware of Your Pattern
The first step is to become aware of the pattern. I’ve found, from my own experiences, and that of others, that when the penny drops and one realises the same old pattern happening again, it can be a major life-changer. Developing self-understanding (also known as ‘insight’) allows you to make more conscious, informed choices. It helps you hear the alarm bell ring when you are feeling that initial burst of attraction and avoid falling down the romantic black hole.
Ask yourself, what is the issue from my past that I am still carrying around with me, that I still need to resolve? Do the people I tend to be attracted to have something in common? Can I see a pattern? If you can’t answer this question yourself, ask your close friends for their opinion. Often they can see things about you that you can’t see in yourself.
If You’re Already in a Relationship, Communicate Your ‘Imagos’
And what if you are already in a relationship and you realise that unresolved issues from your earlier life are driving the attraction? All is not lost. You need to talk with each other about your respective pasts and share your insights about your ‘imagos’, and how they have influenced you. Honest, open conversation, no matter how painful or uncomfortable it may be, is the key to moving to a newer, higher, better level of intimacy and connection. But are there any guidelines for these discussions? Fortunately, yes!
Avoid Relationship-Busting Behaviours
John Gottman, a psychologist from the University of Washington, found there are 4 communication behaviours between couples that, if present, predict that the relationship is doomed to failure. So, when interacting with your partner/spouse, try to avoid them.
This means seeing your partner as beneath you, as less than you. Telltale signs: telling the other person you are smarter, more sensitive, better organised; being unwilling to hear their views or opinions
This is turning a description of a behaviour into a statement about the other’s personality (“you’re so messy”), always focusing on the negative, nitpicking.
We all need to be open to hearing valid feedback about our behaviour, but if we routinely reject it, blame others and/or play the victim, we shut off a vital topic of conversation.
This behaviour involves ignoring or walking away from your partner when they have something they want to discuss about the relationship; blocking a conversation that could lead to a constructive breakthrough is a love–buster!
Peter Quarry is a multi-award-winning psychologist, whose book, If I Were You – A Psychologist Puts Himself On The Couch is available in all good bookstores and online.