You know that thing in your partner that you first loved, now hate (or something in between)? You’ve probably suspected if not known that the love/hate dynamic is very common and real. Relationship expert Harville Hendrix describes this phenomenon as the imago.
Imago refers to our tendency to seek partners that reproduce our childhood wounds. On some level, we find comfort in the familiar, even if the familiar is the behavior we find hurtful. We seem to be experts in using our Spidey Sense (we usually call it ‘chemistry’) to know who will be able to reproduce those wounds for us. That person makes us feel complete and whole because we yearn to be with someone who has learned to curb their wounding tendencies.
That is, until we discover that they haven’t curbed their wounding tendencies. They still open those same wounds, but maybe in a different or somewhat improved way. In addition, these are old wounds they’re opening up, and so we continue to have a visceral response to them.
The good news is that you can ditch that partner that causes you to curl up into a fetal position. The bad news is that you’re going to keep being attracted to the same type of person after you’ve sent your old partner packing. Then you’re back to square one, just several years and maybe several partners later. The good news (#2) is that nature intends for you to learn how to deal with these issues (thus the multiple chances). The good news (#3) is that your partner is the perfect foil for you to rise to the challenge of dealing with those wounds because as you rise to meet the needs of your partner, you simultaneously heal yourself. That’s pretty amazing, don’t you think?
For example, if my wound has to do with me feeling unlovable, I will be very sensitive and reactive when someone is not affirming. Maybe they don’t notice I went to a lot of trouble to cook dinner or plan a vacation, but oddly I will be attracted to that type of person. But I may have a tendency to not put forth effort to avoid the risk of being rejected or criticized. Notice this is a self-fulfilling prophecy because I am unlikely to be loved if I am not exerting myself in the relationship
On the other hand, he may have his own issues – he is used to feeling deprived, so will tend to notice deprivation not generosity, and thus tends to be critical rather than complimentary. I can help him heal his wounds but being proactive and calm about meeting his needs instead of withdrawing even if I am not complimented or thanked. By being able to take the risk of giving without expectation heals my own unlovability while helping him manage his deprivation. His job would be to see the love and contribution without criticism and allow himself to be vulnerable enough to be cared for. In so doing, he would be healing his wounds and also helping me to do better with my unlovability. Thus, the imago is potentially a healing partnership where both parties collaborate to heal themselves and each other.
More good news (#4) is that by finally dealing with these issues, you’re likely to give your kids a better chance of dealing with their own childhood wounds.
The bad news (#2) is that this is not easy work. As discussed in many previous blogs, that self-awareness and inner work is scary and hard. We have to be willing to accept responsibility for our unhealthy perspectives and behaviors and be willing to make changes. Those of us who are (recovering) perfectionists, this means accepting our humanity and flaws. Those who are considering embarking on this path of self-discovery might be comforted to know that they are not alone with regard to their flaws. I felt an odd sort of comfort knowing that these books that were written describe thousands of people just like me. We’re all on the same path of discovery; we’re just in different places of the journey.
The alternative is living for years with strained relationships where we are constantly in a love/hate, blame/self-justifying cycle. When I’m in blame/self-justifying—mode, I just feel like I’m building a wall around my heart and it’s difficult to let anyone in. As Dr. Phil says, “would you rather be right, or happy?” I would go so far as to say, “would you rather be right/alone or happy/healed/nurturing/loving/supportive?” You have nothing to lose (though it may feel like you do) and everything to gain by opening your heart up to love, acceptance and forgiveness. Be brave. You’re not alone.