By Ellen Snortland
Pasadena Weekly Columnist
I stride 2 1/2 miles from my home to where I will be taking Imago training for therapists and mental health professionals.
It’s 2004, and I am a journalist on a mission. I’m excited. Will this be the basis for the next book I write? It’s in the home of two top Imago trainers, a married couple who also work as colleagues. I walk into their waiting room, which is kind of musty and a little on the dark side. I see another person signing the registration log and recognize them as a well-known rock star whom I love. (I have a confidentiality agreement, so I’m not saying who they are.) This is surreal.
The last time I’d seen this person was on “Saturday Night Live.” “I love your work,” I say, “My name is Ellen Snortland.” They say, “I love your work, too!” I’m a bit stunned. “Really? How could that be?” They reply, “Gavin de Becker insisted that I read ‘Beauty Bites Beast’ so I did.” OK then!
Because I’m not a mental health professional, why would I take a 12-day training meant for them? I sweet-talked my way in because I was considering writing about Imago from the client’s perspective and felt it essential to also see how their therapists are trained.
I discovered Imago when one of my intimate relationships was in a coma; not dead, but not alive either. I stumbled upon a book first published in 1988 by Imago founders Dr. Harville Hendrix and Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt, “Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples.” In its third edition, this book is a classic in its field. Dr. Hendrix was Oprah’s go-to relationship guest, and I knew Dr. Hunt because she’s a prominent feminist philanthropist and a fan of my book.
I eventually pulled the plug on that brain-dead relationship. Even though Imago couldn’t revive it, I got so much from the training. I did practice sessions and even role-played as a therapist with volunteer couples under supervision. The experience gave me a template I now use to listen to my husband, which is nurturing, and, yes, therapeutic. (More on that later.)
With typical couples therapy techniques, by the time people get to the doctor’s office, it’s often too late. Some therapists unconsciously take the side of one of the partners, despite great efforts to not do that. Everyone in the room knows the bias that’s happening. It pushes the partners even further into deadly “right” and “wrong” relating.
Imago-trained therapists take the “side” of the relationship itself, which is a character in its own right. Unless it’s declared kaput by both in the relationship, the Imago therapist will assume that the relationship is worth saving.
Knowing the foundational premise of Imago can be jarring, albeit in a good way. Did you ever wonder why you kept having the same bad relationship over and over, yet with different people? I certainly did. I found out that we all have the uncanny ability — radar, if you want to call it that — to find those who will hurt us in the same way as the original wounds we got from our upbringing. When we’re in a new relationship, for the first two years or so when oxytocin is flowing, we bathe our loved ones in the light of love and adoration. Then we start the process of wounding each other.
Why would we do that? Believe it or not, to better ourselves. Simply put, the theory is that you can only heal a wound when it’s active. Imago posits that the best person to help you heal is your partner! Who else sees you at your best and worst?
Here’s a real-life example. One of my primary wounds from my immediate family was being ignored and feeling invisible. I’m a classic example of a needy person who becomes an actor so I can be seen. I admit it: I’m a stereotype. I had partners who would berate me when I felt ignored; but my Imago-savvy hubby sees what is going on and gives me room to talk about it. That makes for a healthier Ellen and a healthy relationship.
Another critical component of Imago is discerning in a relationship which person is a Minimizer and a Maximizer. Is there one that gets louder and bigger when upset? If so, the other often gets emotionally smaller. They retreat and get even quieter because they don’t feel safe when the Maximizer gets bigger and louder, to be seen or heard. This can cause the Maximizer to get even louder! It’s not all black-and-white: I can be a Maximizer about some things and a Minimizer about others.
Have I written the book about Imago yet? No… but I did write this column! If your love has been severely tested over the last 15 months, read “Getting the Love You Want,” or get free books by visiting harvilleandhelen.com. Happy Imago-ing!
Ellen Snortland has written “Consider This…” for a heckuva long time, and she also coaches first-time book authors! Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.