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Does Imago Relationship Therapy Really Work?

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Does Imago Relationship Therapy Really Work?

Imago relationship therapy is a form of couples counseling that aims to help partners better understand each other and improve communication. But does it actually work in achieving long-lasting changes and resolving relationship issues? In this post, we’ll take a deep dive into the research and effectiveness of Imago therapy.

What is Imago Relationship Therapy?

Imago relationship therapy was developed in the 1970s by psychologist Harville Hendrix and his wife Helen LaKelly Hunt. At its core, Imago therapy is based on the belief that unmet childhood needs influence how we interact with romantic partners as adults.

Specifically, Imago therapy proposes that in our romantic relationships we unconsciously look for partners who can help us complete or “replay” uncomfortable childhood experiences in a more positive way. This often results in triggering old wounds from the past.

The goal of Imago therapy is to make the unconscious conscious by helping partners recognize how past experiences impact their current relationship behaviors and expectations.

Through guided dialogue, partners learn new ways of communicating without triggering each other’s “attachment wounds.” They work to meet each other’s unmet childhood needs using “intimate inquiry,” empathy, and compassion.

What Does the Research Say About Imago Therapy Effectiveness?

Now let’s examine what research studies have found about whether Imago relationship therapy indeed helps improve relationships in the long run:

Positive Short-Term Outcomes

Several small studies have found Imago therapy to be linked with improvements in communication, intimacy, and relationship satisfaction after completing a course of 8-20 therapy sessions over 3-6 months. In particular:

  • A 2001 study of 40 couples found significant reductions in hostile and dysfunctional communication patterns post-therapy.
  • A 2009 study of 110 couples observed growth in empathy, trust and understanding of partners’ needs following Imago therapy.
  • A 2019 meta-analysis reviewed 7 studies and concluded Imago therapy had a significant positive effect on relationship adjustment in the short-term.
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So initial research suggests Imago therapy yields benefits for couples in the short-run of several months during and right after active therapy sessions.

Longer-Term Maintenance is Unclear

However, most studies have not evaluated effects beyond 6-12 months after therapy ends. The limited longitudinal research produces mixed results on maintenance of gains:

  • A 2001 follow-up to one study found benefits generally sustained at 1-year follow-up for about half of couples.
  • Conversely, a 2016 follow-up to two other studies observed improvements diminished and relationship distress increased again by 2-year follow-up for many couples.

So while Imago therapy may temporarily improve relationships, its ability to create lasting, transformative change that withstands life’s challenges over many years is still unclear based on current research. Larger, higher-quality longitudinal studies are needed.

Criticisms and Limitations of Existing Research

It’s also important to note limitations and potential biases in the existing research on Imago therapy:

Sample sizes have generally been small (often under 100 couples) which reduces statistical power and generalizability. Studies have largely involved self-report measures, which are subjective.

There is a lack of comparison groups or randomized controlled trials – without these it’s difficult to attribute outcomes solely to the therapy itself. Research has come primarily from therapy developers and supporters which raises conflict of interest concerns.

Publication bias may prevail – studies finding no effect may be unpublished. So while initial evidence is promising, more rigorous research is still warranted before strong claims can be made about Imago therapy’s effectiveness, especially long-term.

Does Client Fit or Therapist Skill Matter?

Beyond the therapy itself, two other factors could impact outcomes:

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Client Fit

Imago therapy places high demands on partners to be open, vulnerable and patient. It may simply not be a good fit for couples with severe issues like domestic abuse or addiction problems. The introspection required also isn’t for everyone. A good therapist screening couples is important.

Therapist Skill and Training

Imago therapy is complex to administer skillfully. Masters-level certification requires 60+ hours of intensive training, yet not all therapists will attain this. Outcomes could vary widely depending on a therapist’s abilities. Poorly delivered Imago risks doing more harm than good for some couples.

Partner selection and therapist skill may be as important as the underlying Imago principles and techniques themselves in predicting success. More research is needed comparing certified vs. non-certified therapists.

Does Imago Therapy Work?

Initial evidence and small studies indicate Imago relationship therapy may yield improvements in communication, empathy, and relationship adjustment in the short-term for appropriately screened couples.

However, larger and higher-quality longitudinal research is still needed to determine if these benefits are maintained long-term or if Imago therapy truly results in deep, transformative changes for relationships over many years. Therapist certification, skill level, and the fit of the particular couple likely also strongly impact outcomes in either direction.

So while promising, the research to date is not strong enough to definitively claim Imago therapy “works” in creating lifelong improvement for all or even most couples. But for the right client-therapist pairing, it may offer meaningful benefits albeit requiring long-term maintenance efforts.

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