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Choosing Intimate Partners: To Repeat or Not to Repeat?

April 7th, 2008 by Howard Ditkoff

Gaining Understanding of A Painful Relationship Pattern

Over the years, I’ve experienced a clear pattern in my romantic relationships, one that has been among the most painful and difficult aspects of my life. Time and again, these relationships have begun with the development of an extreme, intense attraction and chemistry between me and a particular woman. A seemingly very strong attachment builds quickly and we both become inspired by the idea that we may have finally found someone who can help us feel wonderful about ourselves and bring a newfound excitement into our lives.

However, inevitably, this inspired state soon changes drastically. The situation turns unstable as the woman begins to become uncertain, scared or ambivalent and starts to distance from the relationship. Seeing my hopes for a lasting intimate connection threatening to disappear yet again, I tend to become more needy and attached, which only serves to push her away further in a vicious cycle. In the end, the woman eventually runs completely from the relationship, leaving me feeling invisible, abandoned, disposable and very hurt.

After a number of these painful abandonments over the years, I began to seek greater understanding of why the pattern played out over and over and what could be done about it. In the wake of one such relationship with a woman who told me that she had Borderline Personality tendencies, I looked deeper into that subject, reading I Hate You, Don’t Leave Me and other related books about Borderline Personality Disorder. After another such relationship, I followed my instinct that there was an addictive quality to these interactions, and read several books about addictive relationships including Facing Love Addiction, How to Break Your Addiction to a Person (which is the book that then led me to study Inner Child Healing and its role in the pattern), and Finally Getting it Right. After another relationship, I got into therapy which helped me understand even more about how my development had led me to play out this pattern. And yet another such relationship led me to find Harville Hendrix’s Imago Relationship Therapy and its concepts when I read Keeping the Love You Find: A Guide for Singles. I also later went on to read the Imago book for those already in relationships, Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples.

The Repetition Compulsion and Its Role in Intimate Relationships

While all of these books gave me different perspectives and angles on why this pattern kept playing out in my relationships, there was one thing that they all agreed and focused on in one way or another - the fact that there definitely is a well-documented tendency to repeat difficult and painful patterns from our past in our present lives. While not all of these sources named this concept precisely, many of them did, pointing out that it is called the repetition compulsion. This repetition compulsion was first formally named by Sigmund Freud, and while it can be seen in many areas of our lives, almost all of the sources I’ve read agree that it often has its deepest, most powerful impact within our romantic relationships.

All of these books explained, in their own ways, that we tend to unconsciously - seemingly magically - attract and develop the strongest chemistry with people who trigger our deepest issues and wounds from childhood, giving us the opportunity to play out and resolve what Gestalt Therapy founder Fritz Perls and Harville Hendrix have called our “unfinished business.” My own life and relationships - as well as those of many people I have known and worked with - have provided ample and unavoidable evidence to me of the existence of the repetition compulsion, especially for those with significant past wounds, and especially in the area of romantic relationships.

Schema Therapy and Reinventing Your Life: Learning From My Current Repetition

Lately, I’ve been reminded yet again just how powerful this repetition compulsion is. For, despite all of my reading, knowledge and insight, I find myself once again in a relationship that has played out according to the usual script. It began quickly and intensely, led to a feeling of deep connection and partnership, and then - despite many discussions aimed specifically at preempting this outcome - suddenly became unstable and ambivalent in the manner so perfectly captured by the title I Hate You, Don’t Leave Me. After months of push-pull dynamics, the relationship has now reached a pivotal point where, despite my hopes that this could be the relationship that finally turns out differently than the rest, it seems likely to end in the same type of abandonment as in the past.

As is my tendency, I’ve used the recent painful events in the relationship as a spur to continue gaining more insight. Specifically, since this relationship, like many past ones, has been plagued by certain typical Borderline patterns, I spent some time revisiting that issue, especially reading related message boards and websites. While much of this research simply reinforced my knowledge from past experience and readings, I did come across something new. In my past research, I had become familiar with several approaches - Inner Child Healing and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, for example - said to be optimal for improving a situation with a person exhibiting Borderline patterns. However, during this round of research I read claims that a model called Schema Therapy had, in some studies, shown even greater effectiveness. I read a little about Schema Therapy and was intrigued. When I discovered that the founders of the model had written a book called Reinventing Your Life: The Breakthough Program to End Negative Behavior…and Feel Great Again, I immediately went out and got it.

Lifetraps: Systematizing our Repetition Compulsions

Reinventing Your Life discusses how the repetition compulsion, which it names explicitly, makes it difficult to treat chronic, pervasive, unhealthy personality issues in symptomatic fashion and the need to deal with such difficulties more systematically. This idea, of course, appeals to me, Systems Thinker that I am.

The book says:

“That we keep repeating the pain of our childhood is one of the core insights of psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Freud called this the repetition compulsion. The child of an alcoholic grows up to marry an alcoholic. The abused child grows up to marry an abuser, or becomes an abuser himself. The sexually molested child grows up to be a prostitute. The overly controlled child allows others to control her.

This is a baffling phenomenon. Why do we do this? Why do we reenact our pain, prolonging our suffering? Why don’t we build better lives and escape the pattern? Almost everyone repeats negative patterns from childhood in self-defeating ways. This is the strange truth with which therapists contend. Somehow we manage to create, in adult life, conditions remarkably similar to those that were so destructive in childhood. A lifetrap is all the ways in which we recreate these patterns.”

It goes on to say:

“The technical term for a lifetrap is a schema. [Note: This concept obviously interests me due to my fascination with schemes and schemas]. The concept of a schema comes from cognitive psychology. Schemas are deeply entrenched beliefs about ourselves and the world, learned early in life. These schemas are central to our sense of self. To give up our belief in a schema would be to surrender the security of knowing who we are and what the world is like; therefore we cling to it, even when it hurts us. These early beliefs provide us with a sense of predictability and certainty; they are comfortable and familiar. In an odd sense, they make us feel at home. This is why cognitive psychologists believe schemas, or lifetraps, are so difficult to change.”

The authors identify and name eleven major lifetraps. They define lifetraps as constellations of issues with three characteristics.

  1. They are lifelong patterns or themes (ie: they start in childhood and continue throughout life).
  2. They are self-destructive.
  3. They struggle for survival (in other words, they have a tendency to repeat themselves and strongly resist change).

Lifetraps and the Chemistry of Repetitive Self-Destructive Relationships

Reinventing Your Life spends a great deal of time focusing on how these lifetraps powerfully influence our relationships. It talks at length about how each lifetrap leads a person to feel intense chemistry and be drawn into relationships with particular people who trigger the “unfinished business” or unresolved wounds related to that lifetrap.

At one point it says:

“Let us now look at how lifetraps affect the chemistry we feel in romantic relationships.”

It later goes on to add:

“It is one of the most puzzling facts of life that we seem to keep repeating the same self-destructive patterns over and over. This is what Freud called the repetition compulsion. Why would someone who was abused as a child willingly become involved in another abusive relationship? It does not make sense. Yet that is what happens.”

The Repetition Compulsion in Intimate Relationships: Contrasting Recommendations on a Central Phenomenon

This book, discovered by way of yet another unstable Borderline-riddled relationship, and focused significantly on the role of the repetition compulsion in attraction and romance, has led me to review and reconsider all that I know about this crucial phenomenon. All of the most important books that have shaped my view of relationship dynamics agree on the central role of a repetitive mechanism in attraction and intimacy, with many of them explicitly identifying that mechanism as the repetition compulsion. However, where they differ, often greatly, is in how we should respond to this repetition compulsion in our relationships. The sources generally fall into two camps on the subject.

View #1: The Repetition Compulsion in Intimate Relationships as a Self-Destructive Mechanism to Avoid and Overcome by Choosing Partners That Trigger Less Intense Chemistry

On one hand, there are those sources, including Reinventing Your Life, How to Break Your Addiction to a Person and Finally Getting it Right, that see the repetition compulsion in intimate relationships as a self-destructive mechanism to be avoided and overcome. They recommend viewing a quick, intense, often highly sexual attraction to a person as a red flag that they are likely to help you repeat your lifetrap. They advise avoiding that person and instead becoming engaged with people around whom you feel safer and calmer, even if you aren’t as strongly attracted.

For instance, Reinventing Your Life, in explaining how to change the Abandonment lifetrap, offers the recommendation:

Avoid uncommitted, unstable, or ambivalent partners even though they generate high chemistry. Try to form relationships with stable people. Avoid people who are going to take you on a roller coaster ride, even though these are the exact people to whom you are most attracted. Remember that we are not saying that you should go out with people you find unattractive, but an intense sexual attraction may be a sign that your partner is triggering your Abandonment lifetrap. If this is so, the relationship means trouble, and you should probably think twice about pursuing it.”

In explaining how to change the Mistrust and Abuse lifetrap, they suggest:

“Try to recognize the danger signals in choosing future partners. Knowing the danger signals can help you feel confident that you can pick a trustworthy partner. Even if the chemistry is weaker, get involved with men/women who respect your rights and do not want to hurt you.”

In discussing the Emotional Deprivation lifetrap, they advise:

Avoid Cold Partners Who Generate High Chemistry. This is that simple rule that is so hard to follow. Do not get involved with depriving partners. The rule is so hard to follow because these are precisely the partners who attract you most. We often give patients this rule-of-thumb: If you meet someone for whom you feel a high degree of chemistry, rate how much chemistry on a 0 to 10 scale. If you rate the person a 9 or 10, then think twice about becoming involved with this person. Occasionally, such relationships work out, after a great deal of turmoil. But, more often, the strong chemistry you feel will be based on lifetraps that they trigger in you, rather than positive qualities that will make the relationship last.”

When I talk to people about my relationship pattern, I’d say that nearly every one of them, in their feedback to me, reflects this view (though of course some of them fail to take the same advice in their own relationships). And who can blame them, as it seems so obviously sensible to try to avoid partners that are likely to re-trigger a repetitive, self-destructive pattern.

View #2: The Repetition Compulsion in Intimate Relationships as a Purposeful and Required Catalyst for Full Healing Through Mastering Resolution Skills with Partners That Initially Trigger Intense Chemistry

However another extremely credible and brilliant source, Harville Hendrix, disagrees with this assessment. In his Imago Relationship Therapy model, as expressed in books like Keeping the Love You Find and Getting the Love You Want, Hendrix says that (all quotes in this section are from Keeping the Love You Find except as otherwise noted):

  • The repetition compulsion in intimate relationships involves selecting partners with some correlation to our original caregivers, has been recognized by others in the past, and occurs for a purpose.

    “The reconstruction of the past by selecting a partner who resembles one’s parents was originally given the name ‘repetition compulsion’ by Freud. The idea was expanded by Fritz Perls, founder of Gestalt Therapy, and given the name ‘unfinished business.’ For Perls, this consists of feelings and memories that are unconscious and avoided but are expressed in behavior. Some view this repetition as an attempt to restore the familiar, thus as a static and nonpurposive process. I side with Freud’s view of the purposive character of repetition as an attempt as resolution.” - Notes from Chapter 3 of Getting the Love You Want

  • This purpose for choosing the mates we do is related to an unconscious agenda.

    “Now we arrive at the heart of the matter. Our ‘free’ choice of a mate is, in the end, a product of our unconscious, which has an agenda of its own.”

  • That unconscious agenda is to heal our childhood wounds and become whole.

    “And what the unconscious wants is to become whole and to heal the wounds of childhood.”

  • In the service of this agenda, our unconscious creates an “image” of its ideal mate, which Hendrix calls the Imago, based on the way the traits of our original caregivers, usually our parents, interacted with our attempts to get our childhood needs met.

    “It [this ‘image’] is forged in the interaction between how we attempted to get our childhood needs met and how our caretakers responded to those needs, and etched on a template in our unconscious.”

    “I call this buried parental image the Imago, after the Latin word for ‘image.’”

  • Our unconscious then compares romantic prospects to that “image” and alerts us that a potential mate closely matches our Imago through the experience of “chemistry.”

    “To this end, it [the unconscious] is carrying around its own detailed picture of a proper match, searching not for the right stats, but for the right chemistry.”

    “When we meet an Imago match, that chemical reaction occurs, and love ignites. All other bets, all other ideas about what we want in a mate, are off. We feel alive and whole, confident that we have met the person who will make everything all right.”

  • This experience of “chemistry” with an Imago match is sparked by our unconscious belief that this is a person who can help us heal from our unmet childhood needs.

    “And what is that chemistry? Nothing more than our unconscious attraction to someone who we feel will meet our particular emotional needs. Specifically, that need is to cover the ‘shortfall’ of childhood by having our mates fill in the psychological gaps left by our imperfect childhood caretakers.”

  • The reason the unconscious is driven to heal from those unmet childhood needs with this particular person is that they possess both the “positive” and “negative” traits of the caretakers who originally failed to meet those needs.

    “How do we go about that? By falling madly in love with someone who has both the positive and the negative traits of our imperfect parents, someone who fits an image that we carry deep inside us and for whose embodiment we are unconsciously searching.”

    “What we unconsciously want is to get what we didn’t get in childhood from someone who is like the people who didn’t give us what we need in the first place.”

  • The “negative” traits that this person shares with our original caregivers unconsciously exert a stronger influence on our Imago, even though we may consciously perceive ourselves being attracted only to the “positive” traits.

    “Though the Imago is a picture of both the positive and negative traits of our caretakers, the negative traits carry the most weight in our attraction. Because incidents of neglect, abuse, criticism, or indifference affect our survival, they are more deeply etched on our Imago template than our memories of caring and attention. They are the aching sores that we want healed. This is frustrating, because we consciously seek only the positive traits in a potential partner, so that we can get our needs gratified. But without the negative traits, we would not be attracted in the first place.”

  • Therefore, our unconscious will only accept complete healing with someone who is, whether we recognize it consciously or not, similar to the person who originally wounded us, especially in sharing their “negative” traits.

    “There is a perverse logic here; the old brain [Hendrix’s term for the more primitive, emotionally-driven part of our brain] is making sure that we find what we need to heal. Inevitably, the person you need in order to heal is similar to the person with whom you were wounded, because that is the only type of person from whom your unconscious will accept what you need.”

  • Because this type of person who is our only hope for fully healing shares the same “negative” traits as the original caretakers that wounded us, they are simultaneously most likely to wound us again in exactly the same ways, rather than to help us heal those wounds we so desperately want healed.

    “Unfortunately, since we’ve almost surely chosen someone with negative traits similar to those of the parents who wounded us in the first place, the chances of a more positive outcome this time around are slim indeed. In fact, most people who have had serial relationships report that despite their best intentions they manage to find the same problems each time around.”

  • Despite these risks, and as much as we may wish it, we cannot and should not try to consciously choose attraction to partners other than those that share these traits of our caretakers and activate our deepest wounds from childhood. For it is exactly these people with whom we must engage to confront those very traits and wounds in order to heal.

    “When I was single after my divorce, I consciously sought the ideal mate, foolishly thinking I was immune from the process to which others, lacking my knowledge, were fated. I made a list of the qualities I wanted: warmth, vitality, intelligence, laughter, emotional stability, sensuality and sexuality. I tracked down several potential mates who had all these qualities, but nothing was stirred in me. They were all interesting people to be with, but I was bored. Each lacked the essential traits that corresponded with the depression of my mother; my abandonment fears were not activated.”

    “There is no way around this. You cannot avoid choosing partners with the devastating problems you had at home. Many times I have had people approach me after my lectures distraught because I’ve said that they are fated to repeat the devastating problems of their childhood. ‘Isn’t there any way I can avoid marrying an alcoholic (or someone who is physically abusive, or emotionally frigid)? Isn’t it enough that I have been in therapy, that I faithfully attend AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] (or ACOA [Adult Children of Alcoholics])?’ It is heartbreaking for me to tell them that the work they are doing is of tremendous benefit, but they cannot avoid the problems, that in fact they need to confront those very problems as adults in order to heal.”

    Hendrix is emphatic that it is only with an Imago match that we can become fully whole and that we do it precisely by revisiting and resolving the old conflicts and wounds that only they can activate.

    “Is there no escape from falling for an Imago match? Unless your mate is chosen by the village elder, or you send away for a mail-order bride, the answer, I’m afraid, is no. To understand the Imago, and its seeming stranglehold on our will, we have to return again to our original thesis: our goal in life is to return to that original state of relaxed joyfulness that we somehow remember, to feel alive and whole. In order to do that, we have to go back to the scene of the crime, to the place where we were wounded, in order to undo the damage and re-find what was lost. From the perspective of our old brain, we must get what we need from the person or persons from which it should have come in the first place - or, failing that, from a reasonable facsimile.

    But childhood is over; we cannot run back to our parents to get what we missed. So we find the next best thing - a relationship that recapitulates in its vital aspects the complex, idiosyncratic pattern of our wounding and loss. The tool that our unconscious uses to perform this feat is the Imago.”

  • As much as we might wish to escape from a troubled relationship with such an Imago partner, in all but the most severely destructive situations, resolving the inevitable conflicts within the relationship is itself the cure and running away will only lead to further repetition in future relationships.

    “I have had clients tell me that they were encouraged at their AlAnon meetings to leave their drinking spouses. This is appallingly ignorant. The idea of the disposability of the troubled spouse is dangerous and destructive. Relationship problems are a dynamic between two people: until you are perfect, there is no perfect partner. Until you correct your codependent behavior, you will choose an abuser partner. While you are an addict, the only partner you find will be codependent.

    Wanting to escape a troubled relationship is an understandable human impulse. There are plenty of times when I’ve wanted to go away myself, just to be alone for a while, to have a break from dealing with the conflict, ill will, and day-to-day hassles that arise in any relationship. But the relationship itself is always a vital part of the cure. It is the ambience in which the early trauma can be experienced, dealt with, and integrated, so that it loses its power to cause pain. Running away solves nothing; eventually the same problems show up further down the road. The criteria for leaving a partner, to my way of thinking, are few, regardless of the severity of the problem. When it is clear that a partner is unaware of his problems or unwilling to do anything about them, there is probably no way to salvage the relationship. Often, I know, this is the case where there is chronic abuse and addiction. However, when the addict or abuser is willing to acknowledge and work on the problems, I feel the attempt to save the relationship should be made.”

  • What we need to heal fully is what Hendrix calls a “conscious relationship” with an Imago match. This is a situation where a partner who has the “positive” and “negative” traits of our caretakers and activates our wounds and unmet needs commits to using new tools, strategies and communication techniques, such as those suggested by Imago Relationship Therapy, to heal with us.

    “All you can hope for,” I have to tell them, “is to find someone who is aware of his or her problems and willing to do, with you, the hard work necessary to heal.”

    Much of Hendrix’s work goes on to describe in great detail the nature of a conscious relationship and the particular work through which we and our Imago partner can heal.

Thus, Hendrix and Imago Relationship Therapy do not suggest that we attempt to engage with partners that fail to provoke intense chemistry. Rather, they advise that we accede to the repetition compulsion in our choice of partner and engage, as we are naturally drawn to do, with a powerfully attractive person who activates our deepest wounds. However, they explain that in order to benefit, rather than simply be re-wounded by such a relationship, we must find such a partner who is also willing, along with us, to become conscious, change and grow. When we and our Imago partner are willing to communicate in new ways that promote beneficial insights and behavioral changes within the relationship, we can avoid experiencing the repetition compulsion in the relationship’s outcome, and instead achieve mutual resolution of our childhood wounds.

To put it in the terms of the authors of Reinventing Your Life, Imago suggests not that we avoid allowing our lifetraps to influence our partner choice, but that we find a partner willing, along with us, to help each other work on and heal the issues that maintain our mutually attractive lifetraps. We should expect and accept repetition in the type of partner we choose, Imago advises. But what we shouldn’t repeat is how we relate to that partner. Rather than relating to different people, Imago tells us to relate to those people to whom we are naturally attracted in different ways - namely through using the tools and techniques of Imago Relationship Therapy.

Reviewing the Dilemma

So here we have several very credible sources in agreement about the existence and importance of the repetition compulsion in intimate relationships, but in serious contrast with each other regarding how we should respond to it.

One group of sources sees danger in our being attracted to and staying with partners that engage our lifetraps and urges us to intervene at this point in the process by avoiding or disengaging from such situations. This sounds highly sensible in many ways.

Yet, on the other hand, we have Harville Hendrix who takes a somewhat opposite view. He worries that the greater danger lies, in this day of broken marriages and homes, in the suggestion that highly intense relationships, once they encounter difficult challenges, be treated as disposable. He proclaims that we need instead to learn to stay in these relationships and intervene in the repetition process at a point within the relationship itself.

“They say that breaking up is hard to do, but that is wrong. It’s easy to walk away before the going gets tough, to find another dreamboat - until the ship starts to sink again. It’s waking up that’s hard to do.”

By working with our partner to practice and master previously unlearned resolution skills, he explains, we channel the energy of the predictable conflicts in such relationships - the very conflicts from which the other sources advise us to run - using them as mutual catalysts for growth and healing.

This Imago approach also seems highly sensible, has a certain poetic and symmetric beauty to it, and, in some ways, provides a more satisfying framework. For, while the authors of Reinventing Your Life, for example, see the repetition compulsion as a “baffling phenomenon” and a “puzzling fact of life” that “does not make sense,” Imago explains very clearly why we carry out this repetition and how to harness it constructively.

Contrasting Views of Compatibility: Another Way of Framing the Dilemma

In a way, these two contrasting approaches illustrate a dilemma revolving around the issue of compatibility. Both approaches agree that we tend to perceive compatibility when we first become infatuated with a person due to the chemistry between our respective wounds, unresolved issues and lifetraps. They also agree that if we then engage deeply with that person, we will, at some point, encounter serious challenges within the relationship.

One approach, espoused by the authors of Reinventing Your Life, How to Break Your Addiction to a Person and others, sees these inevitable challenges as proof that we are, in a sense, incompatible with this person after all - that we have simply attracted another person who will re-wound us, and so should avoid or leave the relationship. Again, this view is understandable and is the one expressed by almost everyone that I talk to each time I find myself once again in such a situation. They say that I should leave the relationship and find someone more compatible. Often, when challenges arise, my partner in the relationship also echoes these same thoughts, claiming that they have simply realized we are incompatible as justification just before abandoning me.

Hendrix, on the other hand, says that this apparent switch in compatibility is temporary and is simply part of the natural course of events in an optimal relationship between two wounded people. He states that the initial infatuation between compatible Imago partners is representative of the “romantic love phase” - the first phase of such a relationship. When the inevitable conflicts between Imago partners arise, creating a perception of incompatibility, Hendrix says that we have simply entered the second stage of the relationship, which he calls the “power struggle,” in which just such challenges arise for the purpose of being resolved. If, rather than assuming we are suddenly incompatible and leaving, we resolve these temporary, though difficult conflicts, we then grow out of the “power struggle” and achieve the third and final stage of the relationship, the “real love” stage.

The particular wording that Hendrix uses to explain this process captures well the paradoxical relationship between compatibility and incompatibility in an Imago relationship.

Romantic love is supposed to end. It is nature’s glue, which brings two incompatible people together for the purpose of mutual growth, and enables them to survive the disillusionment that they did not marry perfect people.”

“When you meet your incompatible partner, nature has arranged for a biochemical reaction to occur, which transmutes the chemistry of attraction into the chemistry of growth.”

Notice how Hendrix uses the term incompatible to describe the type of person we should be involved with in order to provoke and resolve the “power struggle.” He believes that it is precisely someone with whom we initially feel compatible and then encounter certain archetypal incompatibilities that offers us the opportunity to achieve mutual growth and wholeness. In his view, paradoxically, a person with whom we experience this drastic shift in apparent compatibility, leading to a temporary phase of seeming incompatibility, is the only person with whom we really are ideally compatible.

Pursuing Wholeness Alone and Through Relationships: A Clarification of the Various Views

Let us be clear. None of these fields are suggesting that we can’t grow at all on our own or that personal development work done by ourselves is meaningless. Far from it. All agree that we can do much healing on our own and that the healthier we become, the healthier will be those people that we attract to us. This, for example, is part of why Harville Hendrix wrote Keeping the Love You Find - to help singles improve themselves as much as they can before entering a committed relationship, even as they learn and prepare to better negotiate those relationships when they do come along. In essence, to the extent that we heal some of our wounds on our own, we can partially change our Imago, becoming less dependent on a partner to meet our needs and making ourselves more attractive to a partner who is similarly less dependent on us.

However, where these various fields differ is in their views of how much growth we can accomplish on our own, what the necessary conditions are for us to reach wholeness, and just how feasible it is to expect humans to unconsciously settle for anything less than wholeness.

Some fields believe that we can become relatively whole completely on our own - an idea that appeals to many, but seems to me to ignore the deeply social and relational nature both of human beings and of the most fundamental wounds that stand between us and wholeness.

As Hendrix says:

“In short, we need relationships, and in particular we need the kind of committed long-term love relationships that allow us to heal and grow. To my way of thinking, perpetual singleness stunts growth, for it denies the fundamental needs of the unconscious. I believe that singleness is meant to be a stage, not a permanent way of life. There are certain things that we can only accomplish, spiritually and psychologically, in a committed dyadic relationship.”

“This preparation - your awareness and your willingness to educate and change yourself - is all you can do as a single person. You can begin the process of becoming whole while you are single, but you cannot fully heal your wounds or fully recover your wholeness without a partner.”

Other fields seem to believe that you can become whole through a combination of your own work and work in a safe relationship of the type promoted by Reinventing Your Life or Finally Getting it Right with a partner who doesn’t fully trigger your most sensitive buttons. Still others advise that since we can only become whole with a highly triggering partner, and such a partner poses too great a risk of re-wounding, we should instead give up on our dreams of wholeness and settle for something less.

Imago goes further than any of these other fields. It claims that our quest for wholeness is “nonnegotiable,” despite any attempts to repress or suppress it, and that its success depends not just on any relationship, but specifically on a conscious relationship with an Imago match who triggers our lifetraps and unresolved issues.

“Although our unconscious selection process doesn’t bode well for marriage as a way of life, I am convinced that the negative Imago traits of our partners are the catalyst for personal transformation at the deepest levels. A conscious relationship, in which partners call on each other to change those aspects of themselves, and in so doing unleash repressed potential, is in fact the most effective path to psychological and spiritual wholeness. Our other options - denying our unmet childhood needs, trying to fill them on our own, or through friendships, ‘live-in’ relationships, or serial lovers - will never heal us. The love that is essential to our healing must come from an Imago match, and a partnership - committed, continuous, consistent - is the process through which we heal and regain our original wholeness and full aliveness.”

Declaring our drive for wholeness compulsory, while simultaneously viewing its achievement as dependent on such a specific partner and such a challenging process, Imago sets the bar very high, raising both the probability that many of us will never achieve it and the emotional and psychological stakes of that failure. Hendrix realizes that this can make accepting his theory somewhat unpalatable. In a section of Keeping the Love You Find entitled ‘We Can’t do it Alone’ he says:

“People disappointed in love don’t want to hear that they need a relationship to heal. They want to feel that they can be autonomous, and restore their spiritual wholeness on their own, if their caretakers, or their mates, aren’t up to the task. But this is a delusion. While there is much you can accomplish on your own, especially with regard to modifying your character defenses, you can’t go the whole way to healing without a partner.

The idea that we need the help of others for our fulfillment is unpopular because it challenges the primacy of the individual. The sovereignty of the individual is, rightly, a cornerstone of democracy. The tension between the individual and the collective, the individual and the dyad, the family and society, produces the chemistry of the evolutionary process, in terms of growth as well as in the development of new social and political systems. But there is no individual not in a context, not in a relationship of some sort, and not in a dependent relationship.”

I have known some people to find this notion that our dreams of wholeness rest on interacting with a highly risky and challenging romantic partner so distasteful that they attempt to discredit it based solely on their disdain for it. They may offer no evidence or rationale to back up their view, or even take the time to consider the research supporting Imago’s claims, but simply assert that the very idea is so unpleasant to them that it must be false. However, obviously, whether we happen to like Hendrix’s conclusion is irrelevant to the facts of the situation. The question is not which of these models we like better, but, simply, which is true for us. It is a dilemma that I continue to struggle with, as my relationships repeatedly bring it back to the forefront in my life.

Should We Stay or Should We Go?: Facing the Dilemma in My Current Repetitious Relationship

As mentioned, the pivotal situation in my current relationship, combined with the accumulated insight that I have gained in the wake of similar past relationships, has placed this dilemma at the center of my life once more. True to form, the relationship started quickly and intensely, before - despite an unprecedented level of conscious attempts to anticipate and prevent them - conflicts began to arise. My partner, just as Harville Hendrix describes in the “power struggle” stage, has taken to mentioning how, despite the initial intensity, she feels that we are incompatible after all. It is a textbook example of my repetition compulsion (and as far as I know, of hers as well).

What should I and this person - or anyone in a similar situation - do, ideally, given that both models in their ways make so much sense? Should we stay in the relationship and continue trying to heal, using Imago type techniques to resolve the “power struggle” (if this person is even willing to do so with me, of course)? Should we disengage and seek safer partners who fail to trigger our lifetraps and with whom we feel less attraction than we did initially in this relationship (assuming this is even an option, given that our Imago not only dictates a pattern in the people to whom we are attracted, but also in which people are attracted to us)? Or is there some third hand solution that can reconcile these two options?

I still can’t claim to be sure of the answer to the dilemma. Perhaps that will become even clearer later in this relationship or in future relationships. But I do have some tentative ideas on its resolution.

My Current Approach to the Dilemma

At present, my best assessment of the dilemma is this:

Seeking and engaging in a healing-oriented relationship with an Imago match is like an investment that has a high risk, but offers the possibility of the highest reward. If you can find an Imago match or have one and they are willing to do the work of a conscious relationship with you, this is the ideal situation and will provide the most healing each of you can possibly get, as well as having the greatest constructive ripple effect on the world around you. As you and your partner become more whole, growing in ways that you can only do within such a relationship, you will have even more to share with others, helping them to become more whole as well.

However, such relationships involve serious risks. Imago partners that are not willing to become conscious and work cooperatively threaten to take us to the opposite extreme, re-wounding us over and over again, rather than healing us. This is especially true in relationships where the Imago partners bear serious wounds from childhood. These situations tend to be especially volatile and to feature at least one partner whose personality is specifically constructed around a deep lack of trust in oneself, others, and the possibility of change so as to fiercely resist any commitment to becoming conscious and growing. This creates a vexing catch-22 for those of us most wounded - and thus furthest from and most desperately yearning for greater wholeness - in which the only partners with whom we can heal are those whose very personality structure is antithetical to doing so. In such a situation, where either partner is absolutely unwilling to resolve conflicts, even Hendrix admits that the relationship probably cannot be saved.

In circumstances that match us with such an unwilling Imago partner and/or render us ultimately unable to find one willing to consciously heal with us, then I believe we may eventually have to give up actively seeking complete wholeness and settle for the next best thing. We can achieve a certain measure of growth through processing the pain brought to the surface by our previous re-woundings and salvaging valuable lessons and practice even from ultimately failed relationship attempts, while seeking a safe relationship in which we can heal some, if not all, of our remaining wounds, without being constantly re-wounded.

How Long Should We Hold Out Hope for Wholeness?

If my assessment is correct, however, this leaves many of us faced with an extremely difficult question: How long should we struggle to find a willing Imago match or to convince our current Imago match to commit to mutual healing before we give up actively hoping for the ideal of wholeness and settle for something less? After all, finally abandoning our conscious and unconscious hopes for a relationship in which we can revive all of the wounded parts of our being is akin to accepting partial death and requires a profound existential sacrifice. For the drive to attain the type of wholeness that Imago is designed to achieve is, according to Hendrix, core to our humanity. As he says in Keeping the Love You Find, “Which brings us back to our innate human yearning. Our search for wholeness is compulsive and nonnegotiable. We are hooked on life and will do whatever is necessary to feel fully alive.”

And Hendrix is far from the first to recognize the deeply fundamental nature of our drive for wholeness. For example, the brilliant psychologist and student of Carl Jung, Erich Neumann, even gave it a name in his book Depth Psychology and a New Ethic:

“The structure of wholeness which is achieved by the integration of the psychic components is the fulfillment of a basic tendency in the personality - centroversion… Centroversion…arises out of the principle of wholeness in the personality, and…aims at the achievement and maintenance of this wholeness”

This centroversion does not yield easily and it is likely that even if we manage to consciously accept its ultimate failure, resigning ourselves to something less than a conscious relationship with a full Imago match, our unconscious will long continue to yearn for more.

In a way, the question of whether and when to abandon the quest for wholeness is similar to that facing a seriously ill patient who must decide how long to hold out for an ideal, but potentially unavailable cure - for instance, a transplant that can restore full functioning - before resigning him or herself to palliative care and management. It is a decision that challenges our deepest fundamental hopes and dreams for fully experiencing life.

What do you Think?

So, in light of all of these various theories, models, concepts and ideas, what are your thoughts on these issues?

  • How whole can we become on our own, especially if we harbor deep relational wounds from our past?
  • If we need relationships in which to achieve certain levels of healing, what kinds of relationships do we need at each level?
  • Is the repetition compulsion in our choice of intimate partners a necessary, though risky, catalyst, driving us toward situations that challenge us to achieve mastery on the path to wholeness? Or is it something of which to be wary and to avoid?
  • How does one ideally resolve the paradoxical situation in which the only partners that can heal one’s deepest wounds are those whose own wounds make them the least likely people of all to be willing to change and grow?
  • If we do avoid the repetition compulsion in our choice of partners, are we giving up our chance for complete wholeness and settling for something safer, but ultimately less complete? Or can we have both safety and wholeness, with attraction growing for someone who wouldn’t initially activate our deepest chemistry?

And what about questions that go even further in challenging deep cultural assumptions? For example, must our healing come within what Hendrix calls “dyadic relationships” or can we heal through a variety of short and/or long-term relationships with partners that each carry pieces of our Imago?

The Profound Implications of Resolving the Dilemma of the Repetition Compulsion in Intimate Relationships

I believe that these questions have profound implications not only on the level of individual relationships, but even on the family, social and global levels. As Richard Schwartz makes clear in his Internal Family Systems model, these various levels parallel each other. So healing in our individual relationships is bound to emerge into greater health on the family, social and global levels and vice-versa - a point Hendrix makes in his work. As we learn the skills to engage and work to resolution with our most challenging intimate partners, we will also improve our ability to do the same with parents, children, co-workers, neighbors and even those billions of other people - and creatures - around the world with whom we share this earth.

At the same time, widespread failure to engage with and resolve unfinished business in our personal relationships will surely play out in increasing conflict and destruction on those higher levels and vice-versa. For example, consider how the current American approach to nations whose policies we find disturbing mirrors the avoidance strategy that many advise to those with extremely challenging intimate partners. Rather than persistently engaging and negotiating with leaders that provoke our deepest fears and anxieties, we often instead avoid interaction as a form of punishment or illusory self-protection, allowing polarizations to increase and drive the proliferation of greater threats and dangers to all of us.

While we may have the luxury of simply disengaging from problematic relationships and repetitious destructive patterns in our individual relationships, increasing globalization and interconnectedness have all but eliminated this option on those higher social levels. If we do not learn to practice resolution of unfinished business, even with those who press our most challenging and repetitive buttons on the individual level, how will we carry out those skills among social groups or nations on this finite planet that we share? Nearly all of humanity’s most pressing challenges involve familiar patterns of destructive acts or staunch resistance on the part of fearful, wounded, borderline-ish and/or narcissistic people and leaders. The paradox of global sustainability, much like that of the highly wounded Imago partner, is that the quality of all of our lives depends on motivating change in those most unlikely to embrace it.

This is why, when someone advises me to simply dispose of a relationship in which my partner repeatedly accesses my lifetraps, I often feel it is a bit of a copout. For, if we all choose to live that way, what will be the implications? While we can label people as “problematic” and simply avoid them in our personal lives, they and many others similar to them, of whom they were simply one representative, will surely continue to affect our interdependent world in a more insidious and indirect fashion.

And yet despite understanding this, there remain times when relationships fraught with mutual lifetrap issues - such as Borderline patterns - begin to feel hopeless indeed and even I wonder if it isn’t necessary to put aside the Imago ideal and seek the safer interactions recommended by How to Break Your Addiction to a Person, Reinventing Your Life and others. Either way, one thing is certain: In every role I play, from friend to lover to activist to intellectual, life persistently reminds me of the central importance of an improved understanding of the dynamics of the repetition compulsion in healing intimate relationships. And that is a pattern that I definitely expect will continue to repeat.

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    102 Responses to “Choosing Intimate Partners: To Repeat or Not to Repeat?”

    1. crelf Says:

      Another insightful article Howard - thanks for your thoughts.

    2. an online dating carnival - April 8, 2008 : SuccessPart2.Com Says:

      […] Ditkoff presents Choosing Intimate Partners: To Repeat or Not to Repeat? posted at Blog, saying, “Why do we repeatedly attract similarly unhealthy […]

    3. Jaimi Says:

      Hi there, you left a comment on my blog earlier and i must say i’m very glad you did. You’ve certainly done a lot more reading than I have and it was really interesting to hear about the similarities and differences you’ve found. I’ll have to put some of those books on my list! :)

      The ideas of the Imago match and the conscious relationship are interesting ones and certainly do seem as though they might help an individual to attain growth. I think it’s in our nature to seek resolution of problems and i like that this therapy doesn’t encourage mere avoidance of the problem. As someone who believes that Schema theory best helps to explain (and has in the last six months definitely enabled me to improve my life by a considerable amount) the many difficulties that have arisen in my everyday functioning and especially interpersonal relationships, i think it’s quite likely that my lifetraps keep being triggered because i haven’t adequately resolved the issues in my childhood that caused them to be created in the first place. As to whether those can be resolved on my own… i know i can somewhat lessen the extent to which i let lifetraps have control over me… but I also think that Imago therapy might be right in suggesting that we need to find a way to work through the unmet needs of our childhood through a conscious relationship with an Imago match. It seems like it would be an incredibly difficult thing to find though. I know from my past relationships that there’s certainly the point at which my partners have decided that the relationship was no longer worth persuing anymore… i cannot possibly image somebody choosing to stick with me to work through the difficulties.. I mean, i know it’s possible… but it seems unlikely for me personally. Then again, i can’t entirely be trusted when it comes to perceptions of hope for myself, as i do have a defectiveness lifetrap. It’s possible, i think it’s possible, is what i’m trying to say.

      Anyway, i sympathize with your current situation, i really hope that you can find a way to work it out. Thankyou for commenting on my blog, there’s such a wealth of information you have here, i’ll be sure to read along.

    4. SystemsThinker Says:

      Hi Jaimi, thanks for writing. I’m glad I was able to direct you to some more books on the subject. You might enjoy looking through my Bookstore where I list all of the most important books I’ve come across, only some of which are mentioned in this article.

      I am glad to hear Schema Therapy is helping you. I definitely think the inner child issues are key, though, and need to be addressed in these situations. In reading Reinventing Your Life, I was really pleased that they do address this directly. They have specific inner child types of exercises right in the book. I haven’t actually read the specific Schema Therapy books for therapists, so I’m not sure to what extent that is involved still. But at least in Reinventing Your Life, it’s directly involved.

      You might want to check out my page on Inner Child Healing as well. There are resources there that might help you focus directly on that aspect, as well as a link to a fantastic article about inner child and its role in BPD.

      Ultimately, I think we need to find a partner who realizes and agrees that there is no escape. As long as someone thinks they can simply run from the relationship and their problems will be cured, they aren’t going to stick around for the “power struggle” stage and resolve it. But some of us have realized it’s often just an endless cycle until we finally resolve the issues within a relationship instead of moving on to the next.

      I hope you find more things that can help you throughout my site and thanks for your own writing which I found interesting.

    5. Al Turtle Says:

      Very well written and excellently thought provoking. I like your style. I am personally much more in congruence with the “Imago” thinking than the other approach. Personally, I have followed the third path in my own life, after many fits and starts. Thanks for sharing so fully and so well.


    6. Debra Says:

      Thank you for your comment earlier on my blog. Although “repetition compulsion” is seen in many areas of our lives ( as I wrote about); you are correct in saying that it is most apparent in our intimate relationships.

      I have enjoyed the work of Harville Hendrix and I feel his approach to couples work to be very beneficial. I think the difficulty with his approach is that both partners need to be very emotionally available and psychologically aware in a way that many people have not experienced and kind find threatening.

      Gottman (at has a more mechanistic and mathematical approach that (many couples find less threatening. His theory answers your question of when is enough enough. I believe it is 5 to 1. Five connecting experiences to one conflict. I’m over simplifying here, but he does take into account different relating styles and gender differences. As a therapist, I have used his model with couples.

      The book ” A General Theory of Love” by Dr.’s Thomas Lewis and Richard Lannon is a fascinating book on the psychobiology of love. I really loved it but it can make you feel a little like we are even more doomed to chose incorrectly.

      Lastly, since you mentioned many of the women you have had relationships with have Borderline features you might be interested in the book ” The Narcissistic Borderline Couple.” by Joan Lachkar, Phd. In this theory, the narcissist is looking for attention (because of childhood unmet needs and abandonment) and the borderline needs rescuing ( also because of childhood abandonment and childhood abuse) Many people have traits of these personality types and these unmet needs clash when the two try to form a relationship.

      In the end there are no guarantees. Relationships are messy and there are no tried and true formulas. However, the work you ,or anyone does on understanding themselves brings greater insight into ones relationships. It takes determination and courage to go there and you are doing that; because of that the relationship you want can’t be too far behind.

    7. SystemsThinker Says:


      I agree the challenge is that a conscious relationship is the furthest thing from what most couples are comfortable with in the wake of either the romantic or power struggle phases. Gottman sounds interesting, I will check it out. It sounds like he is answering one of the questions - how long to give a particular relationship before leaving. My larger question is how many relationships to try and reach the Imago ideal before giving up on that. Both are very important questions.

      I like that Gottman is based on a lot of research. I think Imago needs a lot more of that kind of thing to further test some of its claims.

      The “General Theory of Love” book is also new to me. Thanks for the reference. I am familiar with the Narcissistic/Borderline relationship dynamic and I will look into it more. I’m sure I’ll find nothing since I’m superior to all possible authors and….ok just kidding :)

      Thanks for your comments and for your work on your blog. Keep in touch!

    8. Lance Says:

      Brilliant essay. This is at a level much higher than I’m used to thinking about in the context of relationships, so it’ll probably take me several days to process. There’s some profound insight here.

      A few reactions and bullets:
      1. Would you mind describing your lifetraps and their effect on your relationships? I’m looking for a real life example of how this plays out.

      2. Much of pickup is predicated on creating choice, and much of that choice comes from the disposability of partners and the ease of replacing relationships. Obviously, this clashes with the model presented here…at least on one level.

      3. The model of using two conscious imago partners to heal each other is profound and beautifully symmetrically, but it seems to be highly improbable and near impractical. Very few people will even be aware of the theory or the application, and it’s a highly unattractive prospect to be used to help heal someone. Plus, the dogma in dating lit is that if it doesn’t work, move on, there’s plenty of fish in the sea.

      3. Healing yourself by using many parts, ie having tons of partners, is the way to go. It’s too impractical to find, educate, and use just one partner to resolve all of your issues. She’s just not going to relish that role, and men aren’t designed for monogamy (subject for a another post).

      The obvious question, which deserves a lengthy followup, is what effect your healing process has on those “parts,” ie blowing through a bunch of partners in order to resolve your issues.

      4. It seems like it’s possible for unconsciousness imago partners to get together and resolve their issues, and that the mechanisms of attraction are set up for this.

      5. What do you think about attraction towards partners who are NOT imago partners? I think it’s totally possible and brings people together all the time.

      Thanks for point me to this,

    9. Dodgeblogium » COTV…spring is here? Says:

      […] Ditkoff presents Choosing Intimate Partners: To Repeat or Not to Repeat? posted at Blog, saying, “Why do we repeatedly attract similarly unhealthy […]

    10. Says:

      Fourth Edition of the Carnival of Improving Life…

    11. SystemsThinker Says:


      Thanks for the compliments on the post. It’s taken me years and a lot of difficult situations and reading and thinking to start looking at things from this level. Along the way I’ve looked at relationships from every angle I know of from more traditional approaches to the pickup artist community’s approaches to all the fields listed in the post. I think they all have a lot of insight, but none are complete in themselves.

      Your questions are very insightful and it would take entire whole separate posts to do some of them justice. I’ll just address them each briefly here. If you want to talk more about them, we can do that.

      1. As far as a lifetrap example, a big one for me is the abandonment lifetrap. As I mentioned at the start of the post, there is a long pattern of abandonments for me of various types. So this leads to a tendency to attract people who themselves have a pattern of abandoning (often due to their reverse style of coping with their own abandonment). Of course this happens unconsciously. It isn’t as if I am attracted to someone because they seem like an abandoner. Just as Hendrix explains, there must be something in their vibe that reminds me of the “positive” side of what makes abandoners attractive early on.

      So we attract each other and at first, it seems great. Usually these abandoners start off wanting attachment and working to create it and they are very good at doing so. It’s only after things get close that the fears kick in. And once they kick in, both people’s lifetraps get activated in a vicious cycle. The abandoner themselves may have the mistrust lifetrap, so as things get closer, they may start to get scared and suspicious and project that out and start backing away. For someone with the abandonment lifetrap, this of course is scary and they may then work to get the person back. At this point, you have the “power struggle” Hendrix talks about.

      The only way out of that type of clash of lifetraps is using very intentional and conscious communication with people willing to consider that their fears are not really stemming from the present but from the past, and to be willing to calm their partner’s fears. Unfortunately, the abandoners rarely are the type to stick around and do that. And so they move on, often abandoning others, or else sometimes ending up in a relationship with someone less threatening to them.

      This whole type of pattern is really central to all of Hendrix’s books so plenty on this stuff is in there.

      2. Having studied the pickup artist material for many years, and grown disillusioned with some aspects of it (while also finding much of value in it), I definitely have some thoughts on this point. I could write pages upon pages about this point alone, but my biggest issue with the community is that it teaches how to initiate relationships, but it does little to help a person understand who is a wise partner to select and how to maintain healthy relationships. It really doesn’t focus much on the health of relationships, it often focuses simply on the ability to create numbers of relationships. Thus, you can end up with people who can engage in countless relationships, yet never really have deep intimacy with anyone and as a result not really grow authentically. And it also teaches people how to put on a persona that can attract a partner, but nobody can sustain a false persona forever. If you haven’t really done the inner growth to truly be that persona, your vulnerabilities will eventually crack through and then you will need a whole other set of skills to deal with that which the pickup community doesn’t really teach.

      The very first thing Hendrix does in Imago is close exits because it’s only when you can’t just dispose of the person that you are forced to actually face your issues within the relationship and channel them toward growth. So this definitely contrasts with the issue of creating endless relationship choice. I think this has to be seen in a balance. I think as a single person, it is good to have choice and experience and learn about yourself and others that way. But if you never allow yourself to commit and become vulnerable - and you can have these things even in a non-monogamous relationship - then I definitely think you limit your growth and risk ending up in nothing more than an addictive cycle of using relationships.

      You have two 3’s so I’ll start with the first and then the second.

      First 3. First of all, I don’t think Imago is improbable and impractical inherently in a lot of cases. To the contrary, I think there are many thousands of people using it and benefiting from it. In situations where it isn’t happening or working, I think it’s often due to either lack of education about how relationships really work or having wounds so deep that they keep people from having even the minimal trust to commit to trying it for long enough to see benefits.

      As far as the education aspect, look at it as a public health issue. We could say it’s impractical to expect people to do any of a number of things that aren’t exactly natural, from getting mammograms to getting their children vaccinated. But as we understand these issues more and people become more aware, it becomes more and more standard practice to do these things. I believe the relationship situation in our culture is as dysfunctional as any physical epidemic we could have. Not only do we have an incredibly high divorce rate, but the maturity and communication level within even many lasting relationships is appallingly low from what I can tell. This is a public emotional health crisis. And so it becomes an issue of educating people about it and giving them the knowledge and tools – like those of Imago and many of the fields I touch on in the post – to improve the situation. It may take time, as it always does, for the knowledge to spread and become second nature, but hopefully people will become educated about issues of conflict and dysfunction in relationships and learn some basic standard practices and mindsets that can help improve them.

      It may be an unattractive prospect to be “used to heal someone.” I talk in the article about how the very reason many people don’t do what Imago talks about is precisely because they don’t like what it says. But it’s not very attractive to become aware of a lot of challenging situations, such as environmental crises, and change our behavior to deal with it rather than avoid it and instead delude ourselves with what we prefer to believe. Eventually, you hope that when things get bad enough, people will be open to considering a new way, which is exactly how Imago was created and how it usually reaches people. Beyond that, I would frame it more as two people mutually healing each other, rather than being “used to heal someone.” It isn’t using if you are doing it with each other. It’s more of a sharing process than a using process.

      Of course much of this goes against the dating lit, partly because the dating lit is written often from a very cynical perspective. It’s often accurate to how the situation is right now, though it also is part of the self-fulfilling prophecy that keeps it that way. Most of the lit is written from a perspective that sees dating as almost a war between the genders, like spy vs. spy, constantly having to trick each other and maintain the upper hand. Fields like Imago are built on the belief that that entire mindset is destructive and can be changed. Cynics will say it can’t be changed. But I think many of the people benefiting from Imago are proof otherwise. The challenge is for any given person to find someone who is willing to do their half of changing from that power struggle to something more authentic and deep. And that takes trust and a mutual recognition that everyone benefits if we find a way to build trust and partnership in relationships instead of them being endless power struggles full of mistrust and constant scheming about how to maintain the upper hand.

      Second 3. The impracticality issue I already addressed. There are plenty of people out there proving it isn’t impractical and that, with education and motivation, it can be done. And you again use the term “use.” Of course, nobody will relish the role of being “used.” But Imago has nothing to do with being used. In fact, I’d say the standard relationships are all about using far more than Imago. Imago is about becoming conscious and owning your own issues, learning to communicate them in a healthy way, rather than project them onto your partner. I would say the deeper issue is that people are actually more used to relationships in which they use each other than ones in which they see each other as full-fledged human beings of their own.

      The issue of men and monogamy is a worthwhile one, but I still believe that even in a non-monogamous relationship, most of what Hendrix says holds. To me the issue isn’t monogamy vs. non-monogamy. It’s commitment and consciousness vs. lack of commitment and consciousness. In my mind, it isn’t necessarily having other people that you love that reduces growth in a relationship, but not being fully present in whatever relationships you are in. The real issue is, in each relationship, are you committed to consciously understanding, working through and resolving issues, rather than just escaping and seeking comfort elsewhere so you can avoid the difficult emotions of growth in any of the relationships. In other words, however many relationships you’re in, are you truly relating within them or are you just using them as addictive pills, each drowning out any concerns from the others.

      So I believe if you want to really have healthy growth-oriented relationships, you certainly don’t go “blowing through” partners. I think that phrase, just like the “using” phrase, reveals this fearful, power-based mindset that is itself the very problem with so many of our relationships and with dating in general. I ask in the post whether we can only heal in one relationship or in several, but at no point do I have in mind “blowing through” relationships. I think regardless how many relationships you involve yourself in, the issue is how you relate to the people and whether you are willing to be present and conscious in both pleasant and unpleasant circumstances.

      4. I’m not sure I understand this point. Attraction certainly seems set up for unconscious Imago partners to attract each other, but once their issues surface, it would seem difficult for them to resolve the issues without becoming conscious at least of the fact that there is more going on than is apparent at the surface and learning new ways of communicating about those issues.

      5. Hendrix talks about people who attract each other and aren’t Imago matches. He says that the relationships usually just have much less intensity. They can be fun and playful, but are more superficial and often when the people break up, they hardly even are that upset by it. I think that if your goal is simply to have a fun and caring relationship, without the intensity and growth-orientation, it’s certainly possible to end up with someone who isn’t an Imago match. But for those whose personalities make them really driven for wholeness, and especially those who have deeper wounds or abuses, they may always long for something more, even if they can’t put their finger on what it is.

      Thanks for the questions and comments. This is a topic that could be discussed for hours, so if you want to talk more about it, let me know.

    12. Honey Says:

      My best friend had a number of very sexually intense, dysfunctional relationships and ended up choosing a husband that lacks both the passion and the dysfunction of those earlier relationships (which I believe was her first option). Her opinion is that it’s much easier to create sexual passion than it is to resolve other serious issues. I obviously can’t speak to her experience, but they’ve been together four years and are quite happy.

      I think that one of the biggest reasons that the divorce rate (and the failed relationship rate in general) is so high is because as a society we are extremely reluctant to consider the intellectual component necessary to have a healthy relationship. As I prepare to graduate with my PhD I’ve started doing some research into personal finances, and in Rich Dad, Poor Dad the author talks about how in high school we take math classes, but not household budgeting classes. It’s the same thing for relationships–we might take an intro to psych course in college, but where is the class that shows us how to improve ourselves and to be a true partner to someone? Why is our society so reluctant to teach us the most fundamental and arguably important activities we will engage in? How can we possibly leave them to “trial and error”?

      But then I’m reminded of my college freshmen–I tried theming one of my Composition courses one year with popular culture and experienced MAJOR resistence–much more than when I themed a course around the potentially more divisive 2004 presidential election. When something’s supposed to be “fun,” no one wants to ruin it by intellectualizing it. IMO, intellectualizing something not only make it more “fun,” but also more likely to succeed and to add value to your life. My BF and I have entire step-by-step strategies for dealing with conflict that we’ve hashed out in order to accommodate both of our preferred communication styles. Of course, he’s an engineer and I’m a PhD student in rhetoric, so the idea of creating a detailed plan appeals to both our predilections in larger ways.

      As far as practical advice, I’m not sure that you need to seek out different people (though I am with Lance as far as the idea of dating many people casually–perhaps if you exposed yourself to different types of people, you’d find that what triggers an attraction-reaction is more diverse than you’re currently assuming). Instead, you might try changing how frequently you see someone when you start dating them, or the types of dates that you go on–some sort of concrete action that will have an effect on the way you’re able to relate to the person. My BF moved to another city a week after I met him for the first time–we were long distance for the first three months we dated and saw each other maybe every two weeks. This was definitely a different relationship dynamic, and since I had a tendency to do the very-intense-thing followed by absolute-revulsion-thing in my own relationships, the fact that we were forced by distance to maintain a very gradual pace for awhile got me past my own issues, and by the time he moved back to Flagstaff I was ready to date someone I saw every day. I look forward to reading more!

    13. SystemsThinker Says:


      I can’t speak to your friend’s experience either as only she really can. There are many possibilities. I could theorize many potential explanations for that scenario, but I won’t speculate.

      When you mention the reason for the failed relationship rate being reluctance to consider the intellectual component necessary to have a healthy relationship, are you talking about Emotional Intelligence – the application of logic and strategic thinking to emotional issues? If so, I’d agree with that. I think we have an epidemic of lack of EQ, and it shows up all over in parenting, romantic relationships, and even in workplaces and elsewhere (check out the article from Business Week linked on my Inner Child page). As you said, we will teach theory at a very abstract level on these subjects, but practical application is lacking. That’s why I’m a huge fan of the spread of Social and Emotional Learning programs.

      Now with the question of why our society is reluctant, this gets deeper. I don’t believe our culture could survive as it is if populated by a mass of emotionally healthy people. On one hand, we complain about the devastating effects of poor emotional health - domestic abuse, divorce, etc. Yet at the same time, if we were to greatly improve that level of emotional health, I believe people would start becoming more empowered and challenge even more fundamental cultural issues such as the extreme level of hierarchy in our culture. So our culture is very ambivalent on whether or not to truly empower people or not.

      I do think there is also something to be said for the point you raise about intellectualizing things that are “supposed to be fun.” When it comes to relationships, where do people get this notion that relationships are “supposed to be fun” rather than that they are supposed to be partly fun, partly challenging and very profound experiences? This is where I start to bash the Disney mentality that builds up a very unhealthy and unrealistic model of relationships as some quick-fix enchanted rescue. Once people come to believe that is what healthy relationships look like, conflict and attempts to become conscious and resolve them no longer look like the signs of a healthy relationship, but of an unhealthy one and so people run looking for that fantasy again. It’s great that you are able to create more conscious and strategic methods to address conflict in your relationship and still make it fun. The irony is that if the goal isn’t just fun, but sustainable fun, then it is by using tools like Imago that you are much more likely to build that capability. Instead it seems like people often aim for fun without worrying about sustainability. And that also is a pattern that goes to the heart of our culture.

      Your story of being forced into a new way of relating early on is very interesting. In fact, the longest lasting relationship I had in a while, a few years back, had an interesting start. Shortly after meeting the person, my computer was broken for quite a while. I usually talk to someone I’m involved with online a lot, but with this person I wasn’t able to do that. So we talked less often and more on the phone, where there is less miscommunication, and this seemed to really change the dynamic. I think you are definitely onto something with the idea of trying to switch up the way you relate. It isn’t the whole solution, as I could explain in depth, but it is certainly one part of a strategy to still be able to attract an Imago partner, but not play out the exact same script again.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

    14. Kim Rosenberg Says:

      Thank you for this wonderful exploration of the issue of choosing a partner. I am an Imago therapist and am a firm believer in Imago theory and practice. I’ve found it to be the best model I’ve found in working with couples.

      Having said that, I continue to struggle with and feel the need to explore the “choice point” at which committment is made (or broken) in both my personal life and when working with my clients.

      A few points regarding my current thinking in regard to making the choice of partner and committment to our partner:

      1. I’ve found that even when I consciously choose to not go with intense attraction and instead “use my head” to choose a partner, the same “Imago match” traits pop up over time. I really think our unconscious is at work no matter what we do to overrice it.

      2. I think that while in relationship it’s tremendously important to focus on YOUR own response to the Imago trait that’s disturbing you. That’s a great deal of where the healing is.
      In addition, developing the positive traits you “go” for in a partner within yourself and understanding the how the negative traits live within you also is very important. And coming from a place of compassion for your partner and how they came to hold those traits that you find difficult.

      3. I find I have the same pattern in my life as you do, systems thinker. It’s somehow comforting to “meet” a fellow traveler. I swear, anything is possible with 2 committed people, willing to do the work. But, gees, that’s hard to find!! And what to do about staying or leaving when the other simply won’t engage in the work and exploration?

      My theoretical answer is this: go for the intense attraction (I totally agree with Hendrix) and if over time the other shows themselves to not be willing to become conscious, explore and do the work, move on and keep trying.

      Yet here I am in a relationship in which the other sure was willing for awhile. We became committed, and now they are not. So now what? Best I can do is keep doing MY work and hang in until and if it is clear to me that my wellbeing is compromised consistently and over time.

      That all sounds so clear - but my experience is quite muddy much of the time!

      Thanks for the opportunity to vent and share. And again, thank you for your exploration into this human puzzle.

    15. Al Turtle Says:

      Great article and comments. I passed the link to this article on into the Imago professional community. So far it has gathered kudos, even from Harville Hendrix.

      I want to share something from a different perspective - mine. I am a person who was looking for the right partner, who found her two times (lost her once), and who still has her after 25 years. I am ancient at 66 - at least it feels that way some days. I have also spent the last 15 years visiting with couples who are trying to evolve their relationship into “something” that comes “close enough’ to their dreams. I have visited extensively (15 hours or so with each couple) with well over 2000 couples. I salute their courage and treasure all the experiences I have had and witnessed.

      From this perspective, I think that “finding the right person” is vastly less important than what you do next. I rejected the Imago formulae for quite some time until the weight of my experience with couples persuaded me that it provided the best model for approaching committed long-term relationships. Being at heart a skeptic, to this day I look for some evidence to challenge the value of the Imago formulae, and have yet to find any. I encourage anyone to keep looking for a better way to understand that process of partner selection.

      With that said, I want to offer a thought that probably differs from Howard’s. He speaks of his challenge of finding someone who is committed to work, instead of running away. It seems to me that a thinking trap we all get into is the idea that “we need to achieve something before we start.” Examples: “I need to heal my wounds before I get into a relationship.” “I need to find someone equally committed to work, before we start.” I don’t find this thinking trap worth much. As I experience reality, certainly that of couples, it is very often that one person makes the move first and the other follows later.

      I think the primary issue is one of initiative. If I start doing my part well, my partner will eventually have to follow. I have to learn lots of things over time. I have to learn “what are the right things to do” when my partner does that I think is the wrong thing. The question for me is to find out what is “my part.”

      In your situation, Howard, I would look for the practical things you do that tend to encourage all those partners to run. Find out what parts of those things you can change without loosing your self, and practice changing them. I can language this trick in one phrase. “Give your partner the benefits of being away from you, while they are with you.”

      I wrote two articles that might be relevant: “It Only Takes One to Make a Marriage, but TWO to Make a Divorce”, and “The Testicle Principle”. Drop these quotes in Google if you are interested.

      Anyway, I really enjoy this kind of getting together and sharing approaches.

      Good luck, all.

    16. SystemsThinker Says:


      Thanks so much for your comments. It’s very interesting that even when you do choose to use your head, you still find the traits popping up. I have had situations where I used my head and, like Dr. Hendrix described, there just wasn’t any spark. But it doesn’t surprise me at all that many times, even when you think you’re choosing someone different using wiser criteria, the traits still pop up. Another possibility is that these particular traits are just so common in the population that they pop up repeatedly very often regardless of who you choose. In those cases, you may be tapping into a wider cultural issue, which is how I often feel, and why I so often link these personal issues to broader cultural patterns in my writing, as I did in the last section here. For example, I think we as a culture often take an avoidant stance to challenges that seem threatening (ie: global warming) and this mirrors the minimizer pattern. It isn’t surprising then that there are a lot of minimizers out there who don’t want to become conscious in relationships, which makes it tough for us maximizers.

      I agree with you that the main leverage points an individual does have are focusing on how you respond to the Imago trait and developing the traits within yourself, both so that it builds compassion and so that you project them out less and less. These are the types of things that are guaranteed constructive behaviors, regardless of anything else that may go on in relationships. Even if you do all of this, you still may end up attracting people who are just so resistant to becoming conscious that there is almost nothing you can do. But your best bet is always to do those things you mentioned. I think this is what Keeping the Love You Find is really about.

      It’s comforting to meet a fellow traveler too, Kim. That’s part of why I started this site, hoping to hear from people who understood and maybe find some partners on this road.

      I certainly agree that you should go for the intense and try to make it work, that’s the ideal. And if it doesn’t, move on and try again. The real question is how many times should you try before you stop, if that’s even possible to really do without losing parts of your potential?

      I obviously relate greatly to your situation in your relationship now.

      By the way, I think one thing that would be great, that hasn’t been done, is a dating pool/website made up of people who already are familiar with Imago. The tricky thing is, would many minimizers ever end up in that pool? It’s a project I’d love to work on though.

      Thanks, Kim. Keep in touch and feel free to email or contact me if you want to talk more.


    17. SystemsThinker Says:


      First of all, thanks so much for passing this article on to people in the Imago community. Especially, thanks for passing it on to Dr. Hendrix. He sent me a nice note yesterday, which really made my day and was a huge honor for me to receive. I appreciate it very much.

      Having read a lot of your work on your website and talked to you personally, your views are very valuable and respected. And it really says something to me that after so much consideration, personally and professionally, and coming from a skeptical mindset, you still find Imago the most valuable model. Like you, I haven’t found much to challenge the model as the ideal. I simply have found a lot of obstacles to how to put it into practice, especially when minimizers or severely wounded people often are set up in every way to resist consciousness at all costs. That isn’t so much a challenge to Imago’s veracity as it is a challenge to any method for constructive change. No matter how accurate your model, the issue of resistance will always be central. Imago contains some great approaches to handle and overcome resistance, but I think that the therapist plays an important role in setting the boundaries that allow for that. Using Imago without a third-party to do that makes it a lot harder to overcome deep fundamental resistance.

      Al, you may have misunderstood somewhat my story, however. By no means do I expect to find someone who comes into the relationship willing to work. I don’t even expect my partners to know much about personal development or relationship skills early on. I’d sure appreciate if they did, but I hardly hold my breath for that. I am more than happy to spend time discussing those things and patiently building understanding on them. When I say that they end up unwilling to work and abandon, I mean despite every attempt – including often very patient and compassionate attempts – to bring the important patterns to consciousness and to use effective communication, etc. I have no problem being the person to make the first move, or even the second, third and fourth. But eventually, there comes a point where the other person must finally do their part.

      I completely agree with you that the optimal thing anyone can do is simply learn their part and do it to the best of their ability. But when we get into more serious issues like Borderline patterns, we are talking about a personality structure set up to resist consciousness and growth at almost any cost. In such a situation, where a person actually prefers to do things like derailing rather than improve the relationship, it becomes almost impossible. Stories of relationships with Borderlines, both personal and professional, from family members to therapists alike, are ripe with such conclusions. It’s because they represent this seemingly ultimate brain teaser of potential recovery combined with resistance mechanisms as fascinating and vexing as the HIV virus, that I am so interested in the Borderline archetype.

      I learned long ago that the abandoners value space and learned to give them it more and more. In this last relationship, it got to a point where often two weeks would go by without speaking before I’d finally initiate contact again. At points we didn’t see each other for many months in person. There was not any shortage of space I can assure you. I’ve tried every balance of closeness and space.

      So in conclusion, all you’re saying is absolutely accurate, Al. I just believe that there are some partners, those with Borderline structures as a prime example, where there may simply be nothing you can do until they get to a point in their own life where they want out of their pattern. Sometimes you can play your part optimally and still the other person simply refuses. I guess that is the result when you have human beings that have free will. And if that type of person is your Imago, you have a real dilemma on your hands.

      I’ll definitely read your articles that you mentioned. In fact, I think I may have already. All of your writings are wonderful. I recommend anyone looking to improve relationships get in touch with Al, which is why I linked to him on my Imago page.

      I always like these kinds of discussions too, Al. Get in touch and we can talk some more.


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    21. EOTP Says:

      Al Turtle pointed me to your article, and I’m a great fan of Al’s, and once again, I think he turned me on to a great resource for me. Thanks for this article. It brought up some questions for me and I thought you might have some insight I could find useful. My wife and I divorced a few months ago despite having strong feelings for each other. At this point, I won’t go into all of the specifics, however I think the two main culprits were a breakdown in communications, and her strong fears of abandonment. For years, I have believed that her life is ruled by a fear of abandonment. About a month ago, through this article, I was exposed to BPD. Until then I did not know it existed. While my ex has not yet been diagnosed, I would be quite surprised at this point if she does not have the disorder. I believe she nails most of the criteria, and on the ones where I am not as sure, its mostly because I don’t have the mental health background to make what I think would be a competent judgment. At any rate, so much of her behavior makes sense to me now. I am learning a lot about BPD now for two reasons. One, I would still like to reconcile with my ex, despite her suspected BPD, and two, my Imago matches seem likely to have BPD or similar issues. Keeping the Love You Find is one down on my reading list (I have one more BPD book ahead of it) as I want to do “better” the next time around, whether its with her or someone else.

      I believe my ex and I are an Imago match. We were together 9 years, and as I learn more, I recognize the wounds on both ends that I believe we both have and why that created our initial attraction. While she is with someone else now, I suspect that won’t last long. She ran to another state, and I believe that because she is terrified of being alone, she grasped onto this guy who has been pursuing her for a long time (yes, he was pursuing her while we were married, although I don’t believe they went past the emotional affair stage, and at this point, that’s irrelevant to me…its the past). I don’t believe this guy has any clue about her “true” personality, and she has already told me she doesn’t think its working with him. How long will it last? Nobody knows. With her abandonment issues she may cling to him because he is one of the few people she knows in the area where she is living now. When it breaks up, will she come running back to me? I suspect so, and again, this is the future and unknown. I think I am the closest thing to stability she has had in her life and I think that is very attractive to her.

      After all that intro, on to the crux of things. I am aware that BPD is a very serious disorder, and seems to require a lot of therapy, something to which my ex is resistant, for treatment and improvement (I hesitate to use the word ‘recovery’). That being said, for 9 years I did not “know my enemy” and now I believe I do. I am learning coping strategies from my end, and I am hopeful I can lead by example and my improvement will influence her to choose therapy for herself. In your experience, is revisiting an old relationship a good idea? Certainly I believe the ground rules would have to be difference. However, I would like to have my old wounds healed, and at this point, think she would be a great partner for that, if she is willing to do the work. I am very committed to this, and yet I believe my ties to her hold me back a bit at this point. Let us call this time apart “a separation”, although we are divorced and she is seeing someone. Do you think it is in my best interest to seek out other partners during this time, perhaps finding another Imago match, or to spend a few months just focusing on myself, and then giving her a chance to make a decision about revisiting the relationship, or perhaps a combination of both. I don’t believe I’m ready for another serious relationship at this point, I’m still somewhat reeling from the divorce. However, I also don’t believe I want to sit home night after night, hoping she’ll “wake up” and want to come back.

      Any feedback you have on my situation, and especially on how it might compare to some of your experiences would be appreciated.

    22. SystemsThinker Says:


      Thanks for the kudos. I’m also a big fan of Al’s writing and ideas.

      I relate greatly to your story. And while I can’t say whether your ex has BPD, it sounds like regardless of specific diagnosis, you are well aware of many troubling signs including a strong fear of abandonment, the willingness to engage with someone else while you were married, the willingness and ability to quickly disengage from you and just as quickly engage elsewhere, the ability to engage with someone while hiding from him her “true” personality, all combined with a resistance to becoming conscious of her issues or committing to recovery.

      Having been in similar painful situations, I know well the deep longing and hope that we can have that this person will come back to us, become conscious and finally work toward mutual healing. I will never say this is impossible. But I will say that so far I have not had any person with that amount of wounding and defensiveness come back and be willing to heal. And that includes my last relationship in which we discussed Imago explicitly many times and I even received written assurances that she would, in fact, commit to such healing. For someone with BPD or BPD-like patterns to heal, they must be willing to face painful early traumas and commit to tolerating very uncomfortable periods as healing occurs. I personally have not yet been involved with someone with that level of issues who has done it. However, there are people out there, for example A.J. Mahari (I link to her site at the bottom of my main Borderline page) and Rachel Reiland, who have done it.

      The point is, if this person really is at that level of wounding and defenses, it becomes crucial to begin to become realistic about the odds of their recovery in making your choices. While they may be willing to heal, it seems very rare, and can take years of hard work, and I would require very strong signs of commitment to healing to re-engage. Beyond that, be aware that due to the fragmented personality of a person with BPD, they tend to commit to things and then disengage, often repeatedly, so that even a commitment to healing may not be adhered to in the long run. There are people who have gone through many painful cycles of having their hopes raised and dashed yet again when BPD is in the picture.

      My best advice to you is to get active on the message boards. Here you can talk to literally hundreds of people that have been and/or are in your position. You’ll find great understanding and insight and feel a great sense of support there. Spend some time reading the posts, for instance in the Staying or Leaving section, and you’ll find many stories you relate to. You’ll find stories from some who did get back together and their trials and tribulations. You’ll find stories from others who got back together only to be hurt again and again. You’ll find stories of people learning to heal themselves more on their own. And everything in between.

      Finally, I recommend all of the books that I linked to on this post. How to Break Your Addiction to a Person was particularly helpful during the early stages of going through situations like yours. In the long run, Inner Child concepts were also crucial in helping me understand these situations.

      I hope this helps. If not, feel free to contact me further.

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    24. Frank Walsh Says:


      I just wanted to say how insightful your article was. I recently found myself in a relationship that was so similar to a past failed relationship that it could be considered “text book”. Characterized by the intense emotional connection and then later leading into the power struggle, I believed the inevitable outcome would be similar to that of the first relationship. Considering the damage the way that relationship ended inflicted on my already poor ability to trust others, I decided in this case to bring the relationship to an end before it got there. In the end, my partner believed what we had learned was that we were fundamentally incompatible and seemed ok with the split.

      The similarities between the relationships are so uncanny it is unbelievable. In the second relationship, my partner had similar family ethnicity being a Irish father/Italian mother…a similar name, 2 syllable first name 1 syllable last name with a first name ending in an phonetic (uhh) sound, similar in looks (short burnet), similar in personality (more of a free spirit then me), similar in addictions and social characteristics, very similar prior relationship history (5-6 year long term relationship bridging childhood into adulthood), very similar educational background…the similarities were countless. I’m quite disturbed I didn’t recognize them all objectively and raise a warning flag.

      Toward the end of the relationship, the topic of fights, the pattern by which they would occur, the way make ups would occur, everything was so similar it is mind boggling. Even who each partner ran to after the relationship ended was exactly the same as in each occurrence.

      Reading your message was both settling and somewhat disturbing. First, settling, because I felt like my question was answered. How could I have unknowingly been so drawn to someone who not only displayed such similar physical characteristics, but also the similar personality characteristics. The theory’s you helped it all make sense.

      However, the disturbing part is that, I left the relationship because what I started to believe was I could not trust my partner. Realizing that I’m most attracted to individuals who possess an unwillingness to provide me reassurance that will assist me in fully trusting them, is extremely disturbing. Reaching the realization that I am most attracted to individuals who display characteristics the scream untrustworthy to me, is really upsetting.

      While, I appreciate the idea of finding a 7 or 8 on my scale of attraction, I’m uncertain my nature would allow me to feel full emotional/physical satisfaction in that solution. I now am considering I need to identify the issues that attracted my mates that I possess, to onboard my next partner with this whole repair process to make it through the power struggle.

      As for my last partner, it’s very disappointing, because I do believe she showed more willingness to work through the power struggle then my first partner, but I’m just unsure she was intellectually capable to grasping or would desire to grasp such complex emotional theory. Our effort never seemed to hit the mark no matter how we tried.

      Any advice or thoughts are appreciated…

    25. SystemsThinker Says:


      Thanks. I’m glad you found the article helpful.

      It sounds like you’re grappling with the central paradox of Imago theory - that we’re drawn for an important purpose to exactly those individuals most likely to “push our buttons” and provoke our deepest fears. The keys to Imago are both understanding the deeper dynamics that drive the surface struggles and engaging quite consciously in new techniques quite designed to address them.

      I highly recommend Harville Hendrix’s books, which are linked to throughout the article. Getting the Love You Want is great for couples. But you can also begin to work on yourself so that you heal more while still by yourself and can attract someone a little bit healthier the next time. The ideas and exercises for singles are captured in Keeping the Love You Find.

      Feel free to write more if you have other questions.

    26. Neena Koekemoer Says:

      Hi Howard

      When is enough enough?!

      I do not seem to know that. When is a relationship no longer serving you? When do you decide that no amount of work on your part is going to heal your marriage? When do you decide that you alone cannot fix things (contrary to Al’s advice)?

      You see, I work hard to heal my relationships…I feel that we attract the exact right partner as a projection of unrecognized parts of ourselves that our consciousness has hidden from us. I also believe that I tried to acquire, through marriage, qualities that I did not think I had. Realisations as I stand in a position making ready for Divorce (2nd marriage).

      Because I believe that no relationship is random but an attraction of one’s Imago right fit, I bend myself backward to stay and fix and heal and work.

      I found in my search today that if the other is not willing to look, to become conscious–necessary first step to healing, there is nothing one can do but walk away.

      I also found the references to differentiation most helpful (from integral options).

      I salute your courage. It gives me courage to soldier on.


    27. SystemsThinker Says:


      You hit on perhaps the central dilemma that led me to write the piece - when is enough enough in general or in any given relationship? I can’t claim to have a solid answer on that as a rule and certainly can’t claim to know for any particular relationship between other people, especially without knowing about it in great detail.

      What I can say is that if your partner, after a variety of wisely informed attempts to communicate your needs, is still unwilling to grow and change then there does come a point where that decision has to be made. We end up having to decide whether to continue seeking greater wholeness elsewhere or to sacrifice those parts of us that remain unhealed in order to salvage the situation in whatever form it is. These are some of the most difficult decisions in life.

      Ultimately, the only consolation I’ve found is that if you really put in the time to understand the relevant dynamics and healthy communication methods and try to apply them the absolute best you can within your relationship, then, even if it doesn’t work out, you know you tried your best and you’ll be more prepared for later relationships.

    28. Alona D Says:

      Please Help,
      I have been married to a wonderful man for 20 years but have recently become attracted to someone else. It did’nt happen until the after the third time I saw him and it was on the phone after a specific comment he made. That is how the subconcious piece really comes into play for me. I have fought depression throughout my whole marriage and have been basically “numb” and this other man really woke me up and it all started with a silly comment and escellated from there. When we are in a room together there is a weird “energy” and we joke and it seems like I have known him a long time and its like looking at myself. We have stuff in common and when I explained how he helped me (he is a doctor but not psych) he gave me a hug that was interesting to say the least. Not inappropriate but I felt like he had what I was missing it was so weird! I am leaving out many other details of things that happened on other visits, but what do you do when your married and find another strong Imago match,(my intuition tells me he felt it too but nothing will ever happen) I have read Dr. Hendrix’ books and others on addictions and stuff but I can’t find anything that kind of fits my dilemma.

    29. SystemsThinker Says:


      I don’t think there is any one-size-fits-all answer to a situation like yours. It has to be worked out individually between you and your husband or you and a counselor or therapist. As you know from reading Hendrix’s books there is a lot of deep psychology involved in why such deep attractions can form as we project a great deal of our unconscious onto that person. Working through those issues is something that takes time and insight. I would think that your first decision is whether or not to discuss these feelings with your husband. Possibly you could find a good therapist, perhaps even an Imago-trained therapist, to explain your situation to and decide what steps to take. I’m sorry I can’t give you a more specific answer, but without knowing you and your situation in far greater depth, I can’t know what would be your best course. But I do think it is an opportunity to learn a great deal about yourself and possibly even strengthen your marriage if you use this experience to delve deeper into your understanding.

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    31. Chris Rothwell Says:

      I really like the idea of a dating pool consisting of people who are already familiar with Imago. Please keep me posted on that. Thank you for your article. It’s opened my eyes and helps erase part of the guilt I carry for being in serial monogamous relationships.


    32. SystemsThinker Says:


      I love that idea too and actually once called the Imago Institute to see if they had any such resource for singles into Imago to find each other. They said they didn’t. I have often thought about creating that if I found others wanting to work on it.

      Glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks.

    33. Chris Rothwell Says:

      Hello Howard:

      A dear friend of mine happens to be an imago therapist and we are exploring the idea of starting a singles group in San Diego that would combine both the study of the imago philosophy and a social componet of some sort (pot luck, dinning out, etc).

      Do you know people in the San Diego area that might be interested in helping us get this off the ground? My imago friend and I feel that there is such a vast need in this area for both ourselves and the community here in San Diego.

      I look forward to hearing back from you.

      Thank you,

      Christine Rothwell

    34. SystemsThinker Says:

      Hi Christine,

      Like I’ve mentioned, I love the idea and have thought about it myself before. I think that you should definitely pursue it, starting off as loosely or formally as you wish. I would just take the incremental steps of putting together a first meeting, getting the word out, and allowing the group to work things out organically as you go.

      I don’t know anyone specifically in San Diego. If I were you I would search the web for anyone in San Diego interested in Imago or related fields. And obviously I’d put the word out to any Imago therapists in the area, to singles groups and events that take place there, and I’d get in touch with the Imago Institute which I linked to in my previous comment.

      I think that there is a vast need for this not just in San Diego but all over the world. And if you could get something started, it could serve as a model for others.

      If I can help anymore let me know and I’d be glad to talk to you online or give you a call. I’d love to be a part of creating a movement around this.

    35. Sue Says:

      I have been in a 3 year relationship with a man who is by far the strongest imago match I’ve met. Predictibly, it has been the most intense and destablizing experince of my life. Much more so than my one 10 year marriage whom I specifically chose in a sort of analytical way…less passion, he had all the secure, safe qualities I was looking for instead of chemistry, passion. It too did not last a life time, it died a slow, freindly death, and when we parted it was still passionless, like we were just good buddies, almost more brother and sister than lovers. Made, in a way, the perfect secure co-parent with which to continue to raise our now 18 year old daughter, becasue even when we seperated/divorced…our life was still stable and we worked well together co-parenting our daughter.

      I cannot even imagine what it would have been like for our daughter had I exposed her to the roller coaster ride I just got off of with this last 3 year relatinship. I did not know if he was bpd or npd or both…it seemed a bit of both, even though very high functioning. The attraction was other worldy. I felt in a weird way we have known eachother always. AND, AND…you would think it would be pefect, difficult, but perfect, in the sense that he was willing to ‘work’ in therapy etc. But…I found, that the work took too long and went to slowly…and while work may have been being done by both of us, the wounding I felt I continued to go through repeatedly, mostly having to do with his propensity to lie and have emotional affairs with other women behind my back, just go to the point where I was so wounded and lost so much trust in him from BEING engaged in a relationship with him, that it got to the point where it seemed almost impossible to heal the trust. He expected me to ‘get over’ past betrayals really fast, and grew more angry and bullying when I could not just switch a flip and act as though trust has never been an issue. He would have moments of great insight, followed by periods that felt at the very least emotionally abusive bullying episodes. Even now, he would probably say he is willing to keep working on the relationship…he seems more desperate than I to continue our relationship…so in his opinion, I’ve turned into the one who is ‘unwilling’ to do the work. I see it as being unwilling to submit to what was periodically a very emotionally abusive relationship…at least it FELT that way to ME. He did factually lie to me, many times, and I did as a result, loose trust in him. Is he an imago match? Oh boy, yea he is. But there came a time when I could not tell anymore if the hard work was just a cover up for what was really a sick relationship. How does one know? Ineed, this imago match of mine, who I broke up with a couple of weeks ago, just sent me Keeping The Love You Find…another attempt for us to become enligtened. I wish that could be the case…but as what cost? Sigh.

    36. Al Turtle Says:

      Each letter I see, each painful story I listen to, tend to illustrate the principles of relating, the blind spots we all have, and reaffirm the “system” that I describe in my Map of Relationships.

      Dear Sue, if he is an Imago Match then things will be heavy. The more strong the match, the wilder - also the more this match touches the issues (dysfunctional ones) from your childhood. I think it also implies the greater is the potential for healing. It didn’t sound, to my ears, like a sick relationship. It sounded like a god-awful lot of “let’s get started healing this stuff” relationship.

      I suggest you go slow and learn your parts in the problems. That tendency to focus on the “other’s” stuff is so pernicious. I suggest you notice their stuff (lying, etc) and focus on your stuff.

      Of course my experience is different from yours. Best wishes.

    37. Elizabeth Says:

      Absolutely amazing. I needed to read this. I am struggling with these issues. Thank you.

    38. Janea Taylor Says:

      Incredible article! Thank you so much for writing this. I’ve been struggling with the same question for a while now. Should I “settle” on a relationship with someone that I’m not intensely attracted to… someone I don’t have much chemistry with? Or, should I hold out for another Imago match in order to help heal my childhood wounds. I was in a relationship with someone for a couple years that I believe was a true Imago match. Unfortunately, we ended up in a destructive, toxic cycle that led to me being emotionally abusive and her being an enabler. By the time relationship ended there wasn’t much left to be salvaged. As much as I would like to repair things with her and work through the Imago therapy process with her, she is more motivated by the wish of finding stability and security. I believe she is currently in a relationship with someone but something tells me they do not have the same type of chemistry we have. Maybe it’s intuition, but I have this feeling that she involved with this person because the relationship provides her with that safety that she needs. Thinking about this has made me wonder… could a relationship like that bring healing to someone? It would seem to me that if a relationship brings much needed safety and security, that this alone could help a person heal their past wounds. Which brings me to the exact question that you posed in this article. To repeat or not to repeat? What really works? If both options work, why choose one over the other? These are the questions I’ve been searching for answers one recently. A Google search of “repetition compulsion Imago” led me to this page. I’m thankful it did! I found your research and insight to be very helpful! Thank again! :)

    39. Robin Says:

      I am so glad to have found this article! I have never heard of imago before, but I’m newly divorced from an emotionally abusive relationship (my mother was emotionally abusive) so I’m at least aware of the fact that I will probably be especially attracted to another similar man. I’ve been working through my situation with a myriad of self-help books, medication and therapy.

      Anyway, I’ve recently started dating and have been on perhaps ten dates. One of the guys I have an incredible chemistry and attraction to and he appears to feel the same way about me. (we’re both INTJs, how I originally found this site). I really, really like this guy a lot and I’ve been afraid that we’re picking up too quickly and are bound to fall apart at some point. Also, for some reason I have lied to him a bit about my sexual past, which is incredibly unlike me to lie so I’m trying to figure out why that’s happening. He also has shown a little bit of controlling qualities. Quite honestly it’s already started making me think I should run, except that we really have a lot of fun together. He also has a very engaging social life, which intimidates and fascinates me at the same time (I’m almost 100% introverted).

      Anyway, this article has really opened my eyes to what it is that really attracts me to him - but not that it’s necessarily a negative thing in the relationship context, but rather something to be explored and learn from. After my last relationship I really do want someone who can help me grow and conversely I would love to help someone through their issues, as they would help me. I think that if I’m willing to go a little out of my comfort level then there’s a good chance he could help make my life more fulfilling.

      Of course I could be blowing smoke because I have no experience with an actual successful relationship :) But anyway thank you for giving me a new approach to explore and think about!

    40. SystemsThinker Says:

      Hi Robin,

      I’m glad the article gave you some important insights that might help you as you process your divorce and as you begin pursuing new relationships. The early stages of new relationships can be very confusing and full of mixed emotions. Hopefully understanding the dynamics better will allow you to communicate in a way that will make the best of the sitaution, whatever that may be. The most important thing isn’t to find the perfect person, but to find the complementary person who has that all important quality - a desire, or at least willingness, to venture with you into sometimes uncomfortable territory to gain insight into his or her unconscious motives and begin to grow and become more whole.

    41. Deborah Stinson Says:

      I have been struggling with this repitition compulsion all my life. I have been very successful in my career and now retired but this compulsion is always in the back of my mind no matter how much therapy, journaling, trying to get control of it and on and on. I am functional but at times get into this god awful depressed modes and fall into it with a borderline/narcissitic person. I fight and fight it over and over and recover for awhile and then back again. I appreciate the infomation and books and will continue the process but it is hell sometimes. Thanks

    42. SystemsThinker Says:

      Hi Deborah,

      Thanks for sharing your feelings. I think you really state well how incredibly stubborn these kinds of patterns are. They run so deep, are formed so early on in life at such a fundamental level, that they are very difficult to cope with and, without the right support and relationships, very difficult to resolve. So many of us seem to struggle with trying again and again to get these things healed. Some make it, some don’t. But the urge to do so is one of the strongest forces in life.

    43. Anne Says:

      Hi Howard,

      Wonderful and very interesting article. I have one question though: how does Imago theory explain cases where the attraction is not reciprocal? I mean, where one person is infatuated with another who does not like them back.

    44. SystemsThinker Says:


      Great question and one I’ve thought about too. I don’t recall Hendrix specifically addressing this in the books of his that I’ve read. If he did, then I’ve forgotten. Perhaps he addresses it elsewhere in other books or communications. But, in any case, I can only give my own speculation.

      The attraction we feel to someone, according to Imago, stems from our perception of subtle signals indicating that they share important traits with the original caregivers who wounded us. So I can imagine a few reasons we might be attracted to someone who is not similarly attracted to us:

      1) We have projected onto them important traits of our wounding caregivers even though they don’t actually possess them at all. In other words, we have fundamentally misperceived them in a way even more extreme than the type of misperception often involved in attraction.

      2) They do possess important traits of our wounding caregivers, but we do not possess the most important traits of their wounding caregivers. Mutual attraction would require that both people reciprocally possess those traits and I imagine there can be cases where this symmetry does not exist.

      3) Both people do possess the important traits of each others’ wounding caregivers, but one of the people, at that particular moment in time, is preoccupied with other circumstances or traumas that, at least temporarily, reduce the priority in their life - even on the unconscious level - of romantic goals.

    45. Sylvia Says:

      Dear Howard,
      I have just recently discovered that I have abandonment issues. I think they stem from me being in hospital quite a lot as a child, in those days your parents werent allowed to stay with you, which made me feel very abandoned and - also the fact that my father was emotionally distant and died when I was 14. I have a chronic pattern of being attracted to emotionally unavailable men. It always starts off with the most amazing chemistry, the man seems to be really into me, then suddenly they become anxious and withdrawn. Then they disappear. No official ending to things, just gone. I get the feeling that they are terrified to take emotional risks, and as soon as things start getting involved, they cant stand the heat and they get out of the kitchen. I have come to think that THEY also have abandonment issues, and want to be out of the door before there is any danger of THEM getting dumped. I have tried, several times, to sustain a relationship with men that I am not as intensely attracted to, but it does not work. I start to feel lonely and bereft, as if something is missing. It gets so bad, that I end up being the abandoner in those scenarios. I have recently had a guy disappear on me again and we had not even had sex, so I cant blame it on the old “Wham Bam, Thank You Mam” syndrome. As before, brilliant chemistry, then no explanation, just vanished. However, on our last ever date, he said to me ” You are dangerous”. Did he pick up on my issues and not feel safe? Actually, it was this that made me realise I had a Repetition Compulsion going on. Again, there was an enormous chemistry, then he started to pull away. He became petulant and fearful. Then -Hey Presto -gone. I know I am subconciously attracted to these men in an attempt to rewrite history, but I also feel that I am doing it because I am SCARED to have someone fully commit to me. Its almost like the less I have to lose, the less it will hurt when I DO inevitably lose it. The good thing is that I have become aware of the pattern. I am doing as much research into it as possible, (thats how I found your wonderful site), and have acquired some books by John Bradshaw. I am determined to heal this pattern. I only hope someone will stick around long enough for me to work through this with them. I know I wouldnt have had a chance in hell of this with any of my past partners as they were all emotional cul-de-sacs. They simply wouldnt have opened up to it. Another thing I have noticed about my Imagos is that they are all very humorous to start with, clowning around, as if their life depended on it. I have started to see this as a defence technique, a facade to hide what is really going on with them, and I have done exactly the same thing. I know that all of this is reflecting my relationship with my dad. He was kind and tactile with me when I was a young child, but as I got older he withdrew more and more, as if he was disgusted that I was growing up. I have read that this is quite common among the fathers of girls. That they may feel inexplicably angry and betrayed that their little Princess is becoming a woman, and that they are no longer her main man.This was definitely the case with him. By the way, my mother displayed many Narcissistic traits and demanded all of his attention when he was at home, which wasnt often as he was a workaholic. He was also still very enmeshed with his own mother , my Grandma. I always felt that I came way down his list of priorities. Anyway, thanks again for a great post, it has really helped me. Hugs Sylvia

    46. SystemsThinker Says:


      Thanks for the comment and I’m glad you got something out of this post and my site.

      I have heard of abandonment issues tied to childhood hospital stays before actually. So it’s something worth considering. It’s easy to imagine how scary that could be for a kid if their parents weren’t even there to comfort them. Combine that with losing your father and there are certainly risk factors for abandonment issues that are even more serious.

      Your story of your relationship history definitely sounds like it could tie into the Imago dynamics. And yes, trying to cope by just having relationships that don’t trigger the Imago intensity can feel pointless.

      It’s great that you’re becoming more conscious of the patterns involved and seem to have gained a lot of insight. The inner child books, like Bradshaw’s, are worthwhile. And, if you haven’t actually read the Imago books, I highly recommend them. They gave me more insight into romantic relationships than anything else I’ve ever come across.

    47. Michele Says:


      What if your Imago match is married to someone else? If it is one’s pattern to only
      experience this devine maddening intensitiy with unavailable people, what chance does one ever have to heal the childhood pain?

    48. SystemsThinker Says:

      Great question, Michele.

      Well first of all, to be clear, your Imago match isn’t any one specific person. It’s a set of characteristics that multiple people might have. In fact, as Hendrix says, if you leave an Imago relationship with your issues unresolved, you will likely keep meeting other Imago matches.

      So if you meet an Imago match and that person is married, you can still find other people who are also Imago matches that may not be.

      But if you’re asking what happens when the pattern is to be attracted to unavailability itself, then you’re hitting on a very key aspect of Imago. The minimizer is the more emotionally unavailable partner and maximizers (those more open and explosive with their emotions) are usually attracted to minimizers. So it is right at the center of Imago theory to look at how attraction to unavailability plays out.

      If you’re only attracted to people unavailable due to something as specific as marriage, then you are really in a bind. But I would think most people who are attracted to unavailable people are also attracted when there is just emotional unavailability and distancing involved.

      If that is the case, then there is some hope, though only a couple options I can think of. One is to find someone who is currently still unavailable, but has become conscious that this is an issue for them and wishes to change. That is probably the holy grail for someone in your position. The other option, as I mention in my piece, is to consider a less intense relationship that is not quite as full of “maddening intensity” and enjoy it as best you can. And in the meantime you could heal as much of the childhood wounding as possible through other means such as therapy. It may never heal you as fully as an Imago relationship seen through to resolution, but it may be better than engaging in hopeless relationships and being re-wounded time and again.

      As for myself, I still struggle with this question mightily, just as I did when I first wrote this piece.

      I wish I had better answers to this. But, despite this being such a crucial question, I have not been able to find any other options. If anyone else does, I’d love to hear them.

    49. Sylvia Says:

      I found Micheles comment really interesting. Speaking as one who has had a long history of being attracted to unavailable men, I am fascinated by this subject. In an earlier post (June 15th), I said that I had a Repetition Compulsion which I believed stemmed from having a father who was emotionally unavailable to me and then died when I was in my early teens. The men I was attracted to were unavailable for all sorts of reasons. Some were married, one wouldnt leave home as he had a widowed mother, he wouldnt even spend a night away from her. Others were still tied to ex- wives via children or financial matters, one even turned out to be gay. Most were simply not willing to put themselves at emotional risk, or take any chance of being hurt. The common denominator in all of these scenarios was that the man in question was not able - for whatever reason - to put me first, or at least proritise me highly in their life. This is what was causing me to be so intensely attracted. I wanted to MAKE them available to me in a way my father never had been. In every scenario, I was abandoned by the man, and this was my real issue. I was replaying the abandonment I had experienced with Dad, but I didnt realise this until after my last boyfriend left me. The pain of it finally woke me up to what I had been doing. What I am wondering is, now that I am concious of my issues, will my next Imago match be aware of his and be prepared to work on them? I do hope so, as the thought of another man running away is horrible.

    50. SystemsThinker Says:


      Yes Michele’s comment really went to the core of this stuff, as does your situation. There is a section I quote in the piece that sums up the dilemma so well to me. I’ll quote it again here because it’s so valuable. Harville Hendrix says:

      “There is no way around this. You cannot avoid choosing partners with the devastating problems you had at home. Many times I have had people approach me after my lectures distraught because I’ve said that they are fated to repeat the devastating problems of their childhood. ‘Isn’t there any way I can avoid marrying an alcoholic (or someone who is physically abusive, or emotionally frigid)? Isn’t it enough that I have been in therapy, that I faithfully attend AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] (or ACOA [Adult Children of Alcoholics])?’ It is heartbreaking for me to tell them that the work they are doing is of tremendous benefit, but they cannot avoid the problems, that in fact they need to confront those very problems as adults in order to heal.”

      I think anyone in this situation just hopes to find someone who has the Imago issues, but is finally at that tipping point where they are ready to work on them. I wish there were a better answer, but I haven’t found one.

    51. Frances Says:

      I really wanted to thank you so much for a really insightful overview of repetition compultion. I recently ended a relationship which had all the hallmarks of repeating my (and my ex’s) childhood wounds.

      It was so hard to make the decision to finish with someone who feels so completely perfect for me, but the rewounding I received through his behaviour was so destablising that I was barely able to function day-to-day.

      Although I had an idea of what was going on in our relationship I had no theory to underpin it, so my understanding was very limited. Knowing that this (and more) information is out there, and that others are going through the same thing gives me real comfort.

      Again, thank-you.

    52. SystemsThinker Says:

      Hi Frances,

      Thanks for your comment. I know how frustrating it is when you find that Imago match, but, instead of healing, the re-wounding just plays out. You’re definitely not alone.

      Best of luck to you.

    53. B Says:

      I love this article…it really articulated what I am going through.

      I am in a relationship where the guy I am with and I are afraid to commit. We have not talked about commitment and communication hardly exists, but we see each other every weekend. He is quite open with who he is and is a 2w1 (enneagram) and I am a 4w5. We both can be quite dramatic, and our emotions fluctuate quite a bit.

      I think I fear abandonment and so does he. There is a power struggle and I am unsure how to proceed as I dont want to keep seeing him if he will not commit, but I will not ask for a commitment as I am not sure if he wants one with me. I dont want to risk anything. BUT I fear that if I keep seeing him, I will get attached and he wont. I fear that he will leave and this fear is making me so anxious that I am making excuses not to see him.

      I fear abandonment. I fear it so much that I want to reject him first, but I dont know how. I still dont know if he wants to be with me as he hardly talks to me except to set up a time during the weekend for us. He is a 2 and I know he fears rejection too, but his unwillingness to commit is creating a deep fear in me.

    54. Irene Says:


      Great and interesting post you put out! I can relate to it. The men that I seem to be attracted to are at least emotional unavailable. And the partner from my last relationship turned out to be a narcissistic person and the relationship caused me enormous pain. I had read the book from Harville Hendrix and I have to say that I had high hopes that this relationship could turn into a conscious relationship, but in the end had to face reality that this can never be the case with a person with this kind of character. I had already done a great deal of work on becoming conscious of my own wounds and healing them, but the pain during and after this relationship was enormous. Because I didn’t know what I was dealing with at the time of the relationship I did some research on internet and then found somebody who was familiair with this kind of dynamic and who has been able to turn her live around. Which has been and is a great inspiration for me, because the re-opening of the wounds and putting extra salt in them was not good for me wellbeing at all. And as far as I can see at this moment, this is what happened during this relationship. And it also left me at first with the fear that I would never be able to change this relationship dynamic because the men that I felt so attracted to are not capable of offering genuine love, trust and safety. And I have to say that I don’t believe in settling for less than you want or deserve in life. For me, the finding of this kind of information on internet and finding a great therapist that works with me on an emotional and energetic level has been great! Although I still aren’t ‘there’ I have found that things in my life change. I have encountered some of the same type of men as my ex-boyfriend and I can react differently now. The instant attraction to this kind of man seems to have changed. And having noticed that I will go on this further on this path and not settle for less than relationships, because when you settle for less, that is all you will get out of live and it is my belief that we all are worthy of true love.

      This is a link to the site of Melanie Tonia Evans and although it is about narcissistic abuse, I have the feeling that it goes for all kinds of intimite relationships, especially when you tend to be attracted to people with (severe of maybe mild traits of) a personality disorder:

      Maybe it is useful for you, maybe not. Either way, thank you for sharing and all the best to you.

    55. Irene Says:


      Just one more thing that just came to my mind. When working with your own emotional wounds/trauma from childhood (which we act out in relationships) some great work has been done by Peter Levine (Waking the Tiger) and David Berceli (Trauma/tension releasing exercises) and also tapping/EFT for releasing. I think we can become more empowered adressing and especially releasing/shifting our own wounds than laying our vulnarabilities in hands of others who tend to hurt us. I have done a workshop TRE myself and have the book from Peter Levine and for me it was an eye-opener and creating as well more possibilities for myself and others.

    56. SystemsThinker Says:


      It really is a bind when your Imago tends towards people with NPD, BPD or other disorders that almost guarantee they will refuse to work towards a conscious relationship. A huge catch-22.

      Congratulations on the progress it sounds like you’ve made through a lot of hard work. And thanks for the link and recommendations. I will take a look at them soon.

      I’ve heard of EFT but don’t know enough to really have a strong opinion on it at this time.

    57. Al Turtle Says:

      I keep track of these comments as the topic fascinates me and I continue to gather experience with the challenges. Here are some thoughts.

      I experience deep relationships as the most effective growth producing agency in our world. I think my thoughts are consistent with a lot of thinkers including, say, John Bradshaw. I doubt this will change for a lot of generations. For me, the bottom lines are a) all people desire the attributes of a Conscious Relationship (by whatever name you call it. I call it Vintage Love.), and b) such a relationship is not achievable without healing the troubles in such diagnostic categories as BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) and NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder), etc.

      I make a couple of assumptions. Everyone suffers to some extent from NPD and BPD. Or better said, everyone at times displays the traits of NPD and BPD. Most probably not at a “clinical level” but serious enough symptoms to raise havoc in a normal relationship.

      There do exist people who recover from those traits, perhaps not most, but they do exist. Seems to me there is a normal human trait to resist change while at the same time desiring the results of change. To overcome this bind (no change, but want change) we keep developing strategies like TRE (Trauma Releasing Exercises) or EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques®), etc. etc. — or patience, perseverance and partnership.

      I am comfortable with the idea that during the mate selection process
      (mostly unconscious), one agenda is to locate and firm up a partnership with someone “equally crazy.” Some fun corollaries are that “if you think your partner is pretty nuts, that is a measure of how nuts you are.” Or however much work you think your partner has got to do to grow up/heal, your relationship is going to have to deal with 2x that amount of work.

      I am also very familiar with the idea that individual counseling/therapy, etc. doesn’t do much for building relationship skills or for fixing childhood damage. That may sound heretical, but I am comfortable with the idea that almost all childhood damage occurred in a relationship (with dad, mom, etc) and working on it with a committed partner is the optimum way to all that damage.

      And thus when I see a couple join up or I hear of a wedding, I see it as the beginning of two projects to rehabilitate two damaged people - which projects I want to assist. To me, the outcome is healthy members of society built out of damaged kids. When I hear of a couple splitting up, I think of projects suspended.

      I salute everyone who is working on this.

    58. SystemsThinker Says:


      Thanks for your comments. I really appreciate your work and you adding your voice here.

      I agree that now and then we all display a symptom or two that are part of the criteria for NPD or BPD at a subclinical level. And, yes, this can cause turmoil in a relationship to some extent. But I think this is different than relating with someone who has one of these conditions at a clinical level. When you have enough of the symptoms in combination, there is a “greater than the sum of its parts” quality that makes the interaction far more harmful, frustrating and seemingly utterly resistant to change in most cases.

      And this isn’t even to get into the challenge facing those who are repeatedly attracting psychopaths, an issue on which I have seen a number of sites focusing.

      Like you, I continue to have a strong hunch that these relational wounds need to be healed in very intimate relationship and I have a similar view of marriage and relationship splits at this point. I’m open to being shown that that’s wrong and that some kind of individual therapy can heal them (or perhaps family system work if one is lucky enough to have a family of origin with some members willing to go through it?) But if I had to bet, just based on my experience with myself and others, I’d say the highly intimate relational setting is crucial for healing and I’m still not sure how a typical therapist-client situation can possibly provide that to the necessary extent.

    59. EOTP Says:

      Al’s comment prompted me to revisit this thread. My original post was fairly early in this thread, over 4 years ago. As mentioned there, Al’s writings and some counseling really helped me get through my breakup and the subsequent trauma. And boy has my opinion changed in the last 4 years. For much of the 1st year after my ex and I broke up, we would talk 3-4 times/week. Now, well I haven’t spoken to her in almost a year, and trying to get a text response from her is almost impossible. This is typical of her and was a pattern with her with other people even when we were married. I no longer long to get back together with her. I see the chaos the probably BPD caused in our life, and the stress on me from doing my best to deal with it, while having no tools (which meant my efforts were mostly ineffective).

      And yet, when I meet a woman these days I can almost sense the damaged ones. I’m still drawn to them and my “white knight” side comes out to play. I’m just much better armed than I was before. Now I recognize that while I can do my part to help, no change will happen unless this potential mate is willing to work on her issues. I’m able to steer clear early if I believe that’s not going to happen. I don’t consider it a bad thing that I’m drawn to these “damaged” women. With my own issues (mostly ADD, a bit of OCD and some trust issues I continually battle), having a challenge really spurs me on. I just recognize that working on a relationship has to come from both sides, not just one.

      I’m still searching for the one I want to be with long-term, and am expecting issues to occur when I find her, and this time I’m more than willing to work through them to get to the great things that lie beyond.

    60. SystemsThinker Says:


      Thanks for the update.

      I’ve found that for most of us who are drawn to dramatic relationships, it’s very difficult to really end one until we stop making constant contact - at least until we’re beyond the grieving.

      That ability to unconsciously recognize those with complementary damage is really stunning, isn’t it? It’s almost magical. And, as you say, while the attraction often remains, we can learn to be more realistic about the likelihood of what would happen in a relationship with that person.

      Even if the emotional aspects of the “rescuer” theme remain to some extent, we can use our brains to remind ourselves that we cannot force someone to heal along with us who is unwilling to put in the work. Finding someone with the complementary damage and the willingness to mutually heal is a sort of Holy Grail. I wish you luck in your continuing search!

    61. Al Turtle Says:

      Not to belabor the point, but it might be nice to line up all the BPDs you’ve (we’ve) all tried to rescue, put them through really good recovery therapy and then have them describe the dysfunctions in you/me that attracted them to us in the past. Then we could send that “diagnosis” to your/my counselor for “consideration.”

      The primary damage I am interested in is my own, with a passing glance at theirs. I live with mine. I can chose to get away from theirs.

      I agree it is an almost magical situation. Certainly seems that way. But appears to me to be part of the “great design” of things.

    62. SystemsThinker Says:


      You seem to think that I’m saying those with BPD have damage and the people who attract/are attracted to them do not. If so, I’m not sure where you’re getting that idea. It’s certainly not what I claim. I am completely in favor of the non-BPD’s figuring out, as much as they can, what their issues are and seeking to heal them as much as possible on their own. The very theory of Imago is that the two partners have similar levels of wounding.

      However, if you agree with Hendrix, you cannot fully heal without your Imago match’s mutual interaction. Perhaps you don’t agree with Hendrix. While I have a strong inkling that he is correct on that, I’m still open minded that he is wrong and that the “lifetrap” path discussed in this piece is more optimal. But, even so, I’m not sure how aware of my own issues I even could have become without the light reflecting off of the partners I’ve had in my life and my attempts to make sense of it all.

      The question isn’t whether you can get away from the other person. The question is “Can you fully find yourself without another person?” This, for me, remains open to debate. And perhaps some people can and some can’t, depending on who they are and their particular types of wounds.

    63. EOTP Says:


      I mentioned some of my dysfunctions in my earlier post. I think the ADD/OCD combination, which let me devote considerable energies to her without losing strength (for a while, at least) was a big draw. Subconsciously, my addictive behaviors probably contributed, too. According to my ex, her parents (neither of whom I met, her mom predeceased our relationship, she was mostly estranged from her dad), both had addictions. Her father was (according to her) a brilliant engineer who destroyed his career with drugs, her mother apparently ate herself to death. I am a compulsive gambler, and although I no longer practice my addiction (10 years+ clean), I was in the midst of my disease when we were dating and during the early periods of our marriage. I think that my struggles let her justify her own struggles to herself (i.e. “they were all because he was gambling”).

      I own my flaws, I work on them. They are not healed, they are healing. I understand my contribution to the struggles of our relationship.

    64. Graciete Says:

      thank you for this post.
      I only recently started to connect the dots and realize I have big abandonment issues: My parents separated and my father kept me. Since he had to go to work he left the all day closed in a room - someone came at noon to leave me a plate of food- till he was back. Cannot recall how long it lasted. At some point he must have thought this was not healthy for me and decided to leave me with a family and would come visit on the weekends. He died alone in his room, he was diabetic. I can imagine for little me, 5 or 6 at that time, this must have been devastating. Waiting for my father to come and he never did. My life wasn’t easy after that, passed on from family member to family member, abused psychically (heavy beatings) till I was 18 and decided to be on my own.
      Last year, after having another relationship ending badly and feeling devastated afterwards, I then started to look back and realize there was a pattern I had been having in all my relationships. Men usually left me …..
      I started hypnotherapy and during some sessions I was able to remember a lot more things from my childhood and it totally makes since that I behaved the way I do with men.

      I would like to ask you what your thoughts are about this kind of therapy and if any of you has tried.

      Thank you
      ps: excuse my English, I’m not a native speaker :/

    65. SystemsThinker Says:

      Hi Graciete,

      Thanks for sharing your story. It sounds like you’ve been through some very difficult situations with abandonment, neglect and abuse that could certainly affect your relationship patterns.

      I have a lot of familiarity with hypnosis. I wrote a paper about it back in medical school. But I’ve never actually tried it myself as a client. I’d be very curious to hear about your experience with it and how it influences your relationships. So please let us know.

    66. Graciete Says:

      Thank you very much for your answer SystemsThinker.

      I had 8 sessions, once a week, 4 months ago, after yet another painful break up.
      I came to my hypnotherapist office in a terrible state and we decided, after our first talk, that it was important to work on my self-esteem to start with which we thought was the priority then. In our last session, during regression, and trying to find out when my abandonment issues started, I was alone in a room with my father and on my own, I decided to say good-bye and simply walked away - all this during trance - to my therapist surprise because she had not suggested it. Me and my therapist speak in German but during my farewell to my father I switch to Portuguese, which is my mother tongue. I left that day very confident because I thought from then on I could do the rest on my own. I realize now that there’s still work to be done and I cant do it on my own.

      I will re-start sessions with her this Thursday.

      After those first 8 sessions where we focused mainly on my self-esteem, I feel significant results. Things have changed! I feel more confident with my looks, I smile more and people have notice a different attitude in me, for the better. I’m more open and less afraid to be vulnerable. I think all the abuse and neglect in my childhood led me to adopt a very hardened attitude as a defense mechanism which subsequently led to intimacy problems.

      I will post again in 3-4 months to let you know how things are going.


    67. Graciete Says:

      Oh, yes … thank you for the link! I’m still reading it. There’s much information in it.

    68. SystemsThinker Says:


      Thanks for sharing your experience with hynposis. Very interesting and glad to hear it’s working for you. And you’re welcome for the link. I hope you found that piece worthwhile.

    69. anarete Says:

      I have read much about this topic for many years and I agree with most of it to some extent but my ideas are still evolving around it.I think that although psychology has made some important points ,I dont believe it gives us all the answers. The reason I say this is because of relationships I have seen in my life and my own experiences.For example I knew a woman who had a mentally disturbed mother and she was a carer for her; she went on to marry a man who developed a mental illness.Now psychology might say that she is re-enacting out past unresolved wounds whereas the woman looked at it that her earlier experience was a preparation for dealing with her present husband.

      My mother for example was I think highly dysfunctional and was supposed to marry a man who was just as dysfunctional as her but instead she married a man who was a perfect gentleman ; he adored my mother and was a wonderful husband. Know one knew then that 5 years later my brother would develop schizophrenia and my mother would need such a solid caring man by her side who supported her and my brother for 20 years.So you could say that he was being prepared from earlier experiences to take on this task.

      If you look at history ,you will see that many great leaders or highly evolved spiritual people have had very difficult wives or sometimes women with very difficult husbands.So I think that there is another purpose besidses healing childhood wounds and that these childhood wounds were meant for a purpose that you might later need in your adult life.Im sure that many people have developed many good characteristics from dealing with a difficult partner as for example patience, compassion, forgivness, to name just a few.So I believe that apart from healing our childhood wounds, these difficult relationships if looked at another way develop our characters .And maybe we are not meant to be whole because that is the end of the journey and the human being is always growing and evolving ,there will always be unresolved baggage because its part of who we are ,issues and all. Our character and childhood wounds in my opinion cannot be resolved through the intellect and we cant know all the answers but what you can ask is this…am i a more mature loving selfless person than I was 5 years ago? Do I have more compassion patience, love and courage ? And I do believe that as you wrote above that all your relationships have been healing for you
      Graciete above mentions that she felt great after the sessions with the therapist but I don’t believe its because of what was discussed but because she had someone who was genuinely interested in her and gave her the attention and time to really listen to her heart, that is why she felt better, the topics were just an added bonus .

      I know the topic was form a few years back so maybe its a bit late to add my bit but thanks for your ideas .

    70. SystemsThinker Says:

      Thanks for your comment Anarete. It’s never too late to add your thoughts.

      My responses:

      –”Now psychology might say that she is re-enacting out past unresolved wounds whereas the woman looked at it that her earlier experience was a preparation for dealing with her present husband.”

      Well psychology is trying to figure out what is actually going on, not how the person themselves explains it. This whole process involves the unconscious so it wouldn’t be any surprise if people don’t consciously perceive themselves as re-enacting things and tell other stories to explain it. I’m not saying psychology has it fully figured out either. But we certainly can’t figure it out just by taking people’s self-perception as gospel.

      –”My mother for example was I think highly dysfunctional and was supposed to marry a man who was just as dysfunctional as her”

      According to Imago, it isn’t that you marry someone who is like you but someone who embodies the aspects of yourself that have been lost and repressed. So this could actually make sense that, if your mother’s calm, steady, compassionate side was repressed, leaving her very dysfunctional, she might attract a man who embodied those buried aspects of herself.

      When you say events are “preparing” you for what you’ll need later in life, that is kind of a spiritual claim. As an agnostic, I won’t say that’s wrong but there is no way to really establish whether it’s true or not, at least no way that I’m aware of. Theories like Imago are looking at things evolutionarily, asking why, for example, our brains would evolve in such a way as to attract people with the mix of traits that they do. So “purpose” in that sense means in terms of human evolution.

      I wouldn’t say my relationships have all been healing. They have provoked me to have to learn and understand more. But those lessons came with both some healing and some wounding.

    71. Graciete Says:

      “Graciete above mentions that she felt great after the sessions with the therapist but I don’t believe its because of what was discussed but because she had someone who was genuinely interested in her and gave her the attention and time to really listen to her heart, that is why she felt better, the topics were just an added bonus .”

      Yes Anarete, it was because of what was discussed. I had connected the dots and recognize the pattern but she guided me to the core of the problem and that was what made me feel so good. Working with an hypnotherapist has helped me greatly: I had big abandonment issues which with time had affected my self esteem. She has guided me through the process but I did most of the work! I had to teach myself that I don’t have to wait for no one to “save” me or “rescue” me. I had to teach myself to stop letting others hurt me! I had to teach myself to love me. In my case IT WAS about those first feelings of being loved and abandon by the same person. It took a lot of thinking. Whenever I felt those fears I taught myself to stop, breath and ask myself why I was feeling that way. After I would correct the thoughts and the feelings of fear. I still do this. Meditation has helped me also. In the process I got to know me better, I increased my self esteem, I get along better with others, things don’t affect me that much. I’ve learned to do things to please me. I feel much much better now. In a nut shell, I’ve learned to love me and taught myself to let go! Well, I’m still doing this :)

      Some of my friends have asked me what happened, they say my attitude has changed: I smile more, more people are drawn to me, it even scares me sometimes. My answer is: I’ve tough myself to love me and therefore love and accept others. oh, and I realized the power of an honest, loving smile :))

      Greetings from (not very usual) sunny Zurich :))

    72. Beth Says:

      It makes sense that the author would choose a philosophy if staying with and trying to work through problems and traumas of the past with the Imago given the author’s past. My trauma, really they are almost constant traumas, involve being raised by a paranoid schizophrenic father and a mother who is highly anxious and OCD. They never did and never will have any insight into their own behaviors. To expect any future partner of mine to consciously stay and work through his past with me is futile. I will continue to work on my own past traumas, to heal. I am indifferent to a relationship at this time. There will, in my opinion, never be a way to overcome the horror of it all. Some traumas never completely heal…always there and is always tender and sore. Kindness and love from strangers is a healing balm whose power never ceases to amaze me. Grace. Amazing. Humor also helps…so does crying at 4AM.

    73. Al Turtle Says:

      Well, Beth, it sounds pretty grim. I think partnership is still pretty critical to life. Recently I simplified all my writing. I’m the author of an Imago linked image of the Map of Relationships. Here’s the simple version.

      I believe life is about two processes, two paths, that each and every one of us is involved in. Just two. (Including those parents of yours, Beth.)

      One path is about becoming a great partner, a full member of a Vintage Love community. This path is all about learning the skills and approaches that make us wonderful to live with and live alongside. We are each becoming great contributing citizens/parents of this world. And we’re all learning this, bit by bit.

      The other path is about getting dead. We’re all on that path, too.

      We can do lots of things to speed up our journeys on these paths. We can make choices to die quicker. We can make choices to learn quicker. We can slow down our steps on either path, too. But I don’t think we can back up.

      The question for each of us is, will we get to Vintage Love first or die first. I think that day by day, minute by minute, we chose where to put our energy, along which path to speed up or slow down. I believe “joy” is involved - in that choice.

    74. Frederick Nightingale Says:

      Absolutely brilliant article. Highly beneficial for so many people.

    75. free2bme Says:

      I have been drawn to repetition compulsions twice.. Both with colleges. I am happily married but have recently realized that these addictive friendships are in fact repetition compulsion reenactments . I am am trying to sort out the reasons , but recently became aware that it has to do with my childhood parent trauma. I must say both of these experiences brought tremendous quick powerful growth for me. The growth happened as part of the experience itself, not because I conquered the resolution of the problem I was attempting to unconscionably solve. I don’t think running away from an attraction like this is always best cause you’d miss these rare opportunity’s to grow in this special way. Problem is its very addicting. The situation is a double edge sword. Your piece is informative - looking at both side s of the sword. I would only ad that if the situation is abusive - then therapy intervention is needed to plan an exit strategy. You need to weight it all out then decide.

    76. Uamvar Says:

      Great discussion here. Howard — I admire your self-discipline. Really, it’s hard enough to process this stuff on our own, “in the moment” — which seems to be when most of this heavy-duty processing takes place. That’s been my experience, at least; I’m more motivated to research and learn about these things when I’m in the throes of recovering from one of these star-crossed r-ships. So, to have the wherewithal to take these lessons — as well as the courage to share such personal experiences — really would require you to have a true commitment to this work. Good for you, and thank you for providing a forum in which others can learn and contribute.

      Wanted to share a few observations, gleaned from my own emotional travels down similar paths. First, it’s immensely encouraging to learn that we’re not alone in these situations. Particularly if your “Imago” partners are themselves suffering from personality disorders, part of the struggle for those of us who love them is that we are so often subjected to gaslighting and brainwashing. Whether our partners with PDs do this consciously or subconsciously (I tend to think it’s a bit of both at work), it does happen, and it’s very common to find ourselves wondering if maybe we really are the cause of all of the turmoil in our relationships. One thing I believe I’ve learned over the years, and have heard discussed in other forums is that, in general — if you’re asking yourself that question, you very likely aren’t suffering from a personality disorder. As I like to say, with all due respect — the only people who get upset when you call them crazy are crazy people.

      Yes — I know — “crazy” is a disparaging and polarizing term. And I don’t mean it that way — it’s just a word to me. And, as a therapist once said to me — sometimes, what else can you call behavior that is crazy? Of course, in a discussion like this, I much more mean “crazy-making” — another term I’m sure many of you have come across.

      I do feel compelled to point something out. Again, I mean it will all due respect, and in the spirit of open discussion. In reading some of the comments here, I can’t deny that there are times when it feels like some of the posters are ascribing negative characteristics to former partners as a way to rationalize being left. More specifically, I feel like it’s become common in forums like this one for people who have abandonment issues to accuse partners who leave them as being abandoners when, in reality, a much more accurate picture may be that the partner who leaves (going forward, let’s call them the leaving partner, or “LP”) has simply reached the end of their attempts to explore whether the r-ship is at all feasible for them, long-term. As we know — and as the title of the self-help classic “I Hate You, Don’t Leave Me” so succinctly captures — particularly individuals suffering from BPD have acute abandonment issues which, if not addressed (and, as we all know, sadly, they rarely are), more often than not serve to bring romantic r-ships to an end. And, if you’ve ever been with someone w/ BPD and been in the role of the LP, you may very well have experienced the hell of being “split black” by your ex. I can think of few experiences as emotionally devastating as hearing someone you truly love — but had to leave — talk about your relationship as being a complete ruse, something that you consciously and intentionally faked to secure your own “narcissistic supply,” which, once sated, led you to coldheartedly “devalue and discard” your ex. Because, of course, you’re a narcissist, or a sociopath, or someone with a borderline personality disorder.

      Which of course, like everything else, is nonsense — unless it’s true. And I’m willing to hazard a guess that, in most cases, it’s not. What’s been most chilling is to find yourself on the receiving end of such hateful words (we should remember that’s all they are, difficult as this is to do) from the very person who struggled so mightily to STOP you from leaving them in the first place! And, if you are someone who is otherwise well-adjusted and who enjoys solid, close relationships with friends, family, colleagues outside of your intimate r-ship with your PD partner — and you truly did or do still love your ex — surely you’d agree with them that, if what they’re saying is true, then you really do need help. And they should be relieved to be free of you. Yet, they aren’t…which alone speaks volumes about the credibility of their observations and, yes — their emotions.

      Their emotions are, at best, fungible, labile. Individuals who suffer with BPD — and there is no doubt that they do indeed suffer — bring new meaning to the phrase “living in the moment.” Because people wBPD have nothing but this exact moment and, more importantly in their realm of existence, what they are feeling RIGHT NOW. Nothing else exists. This is a critically important point to remember. Learning this and accepting it really helped me to understand how my ex could say the most incredibly hurtful, insulting things in the heat of the moment — all of it was “real” to her, regardless of how far-fetched it was. Only when I’d reach the point of refusing to engage further with her — in other words, only when I made the choice to remove myself from her emotional abuse — would she finally realize that she’d truly hurt me — and proceed routinely and predictably to beg for my forgiveness and plead that we just forget everything that happened. She did this because my refusal to engage — enforcing a personal boundary against being emotionally abused — triggered her fundamental fears of abandonment. As interesting, I think, was that she never apologized for her behaviors — except begrudgingly, and on those rare occasions, only because I demanded that she do so in order for me to consider remaining in the r-ship. But I never felt that these apologies were more than superficial, and I never saw her truly accept real responsibility for her awful behavior. All of this was incredibly confusing and hurtful to me, as I experienced it — but now, in hindsight, and having been through two prior breakups with my love before the final one — it’s all sadly predictable, if fascinating.

      What I was getting at before I digressed, however (forgive me for that), is that I feel like (could be wrong, obviously) I’m hearing in a few of these posts what sounds like concerted attempts to make r-ships happen with partners when maybe the signs they are giving indicate, simply, that they’re not really into it. I think all of us can agree — you can’t force a relationship to happen, let alone love. Well, maybe you can attempt to orchestrate the former, but I don’t think the long-term stats are too good on those kinds of arrangements leading anywhere permanent. The concept that “people come into our lives for a reason” is one of those things that everyone seems to either believe or not, based on their own experiences and worldviews. But, certainly, when I hear someone lamenting a relationship that didn’t work out, with a partner who, from their description, really doesn’t sound like they want one, I have to wonder what’s going on. Or, similarly, when the poster indicates how much they loved their partner, and how much time and attention they lavished on them, while feeling like they were being pushed away, I have to wonder if these may be circumstances where one partner simply wanted things from another that the other partner either wasn’t willing or capable of giving.

      The bottom-line is that everyone is entitled to choose the partner and the r-ship that is right for them. Being in a successful, loving relationship isn’t about molding a partner’s feelings and behaviors to suit some idealized image of “what the perfect r-ship looks like.” No relationship is perfect, because none of us are perfect. That said, an imperfect relationship can still very much be ideal for two people. Within the relationship, each partner is entitled to determine what they want to live with, what they are willing to live with, and what they aren’t willing to live with. It’s never any more or less any one partner’s life — takes two people to make a r-ship, as we know. And it’s not a crime to leave a relationship, because you feel like you’ve done all you can — or even that you’re not willing to do any more than you’ve done with this particular person — it’s life. I’m not advocating that everyone bail on their partners after the first X number of misunderstandings — obviously not! But, if all you ever do is work-work-work on and talk-talk-talk about the r-ship, and you keep having as many or more bad days than good, it may just be time to move on.

      Again, great discussion. Thanks for sharing, and godspeed to everyone.

    77. Arthur Says:

      Thank you, Howard, et al. I’m a little late to the conversation, but I must say, your comments have all been helpful. This may be a side shift from the specific subject but sometimes we gotta go back to the beginning and try to remember what we forgot. I found “Philosophy For Life” by Jules Evans to be a good restart point. It’s very accessible and offers many further clues. Fare forward, voyagers. See you at Cafe’ Philosophique.

    78. NiceToBeAlone Says:

      “Some fields believe that we can become relatively whole completely on our own” Absolutely right, I mean :

      (1) Trying is normal but once you understand a scheme you don’t have to repeat it, and it’s better to be just friend with someone or avoid them than to repeat something hurtful! Even deadly sometimes!

      (2) Personally I went out a few month with one borderline and I can tell you that I prefer to be alone to the end of my life than to repeat such a miserable relationship! That in “” allowed me to understand many psychological question evolving around borderline, narcissism and anti-social behaviors. I am now able to detect a borderline possible partner in the few first minutes of an encounter, these signals are strong deterrents and very valid as far as I have been able to test a few cases a bit longer.

      (3) I don’t think I would allow anyone to treat me like it happened, thinking about push-pull, in other words, they push, you try to understand and discuss the matter and if they don’t want to be rational and constructive you accept the push and never accept a pull again! Why woukd you accept it ?

      The borderline state of mind is about fear of being abandoned and power on the partner to avoid that and after playing with power also power for the sake of it! What the point of spending time with people like that ? Much better doing other things, seeing other people etc.

      How to detect toxic people ? Look for cluster 3 signals! Don’t spend time with people who make you uncomfortable for fun, power or anything else not justifiable! Keep in mind that many of them don’t realize the full spectrum of their actions and therefore are not fully capable to discuss and understand them! Therapy is always possible but as a partner YOU ARE TRAPPED because the simple fact of you being still around means to them that THEY ARE OK, because you came back, are still here etc. : a gratification for the narcissist and the occasion of a new push for the borderline :-)

      Keeping borderlines as just friends is also difficult, because if you resist endlessly the pulls, it’s likely to go for a long time (anti-social seems to be able to exploit that, because pulls means profitable gifts etc.) and have many triggers at the end! Some end up imagining that you gave in for the reliefs to give you a push, trigger at anything to explode etc. Borderline friends could be useful (to borrow money from … anti-social personality disorder) but don’t expect any moral support and empathy, in fact any demand for empathy is likely to have an aggressive response like the one they probably had when forging their personalities! It’s hard to give what you did not receive!

    79. NiceToBeAlone Says:

      “At the same time, widespread failure to engage with and resolve unfinished business in our personal relationships will surely play out in increasing conflict and destruction on those higher levels and vice-versa. For example, consider how the current American approach to nations whose policies we find disturbing mirrors the avoidance strategy that many advise to those with extremely challenging intimate partners. Rather than persistently engaging and negotiating with leaders that provoke our deepest fears and anxieties, we often instead avoid interaction as a form of punishment or illusory self-protection, allowing polarizations to increase and drive the proliferation of greater threats and dangers to all of us.”

      Sorry but I think there is a HUGE BIAS in this way of thinking, because :

      Borderlines feed themselves with our interactions, if you are in a relationship with push-pullers and want to stay, you have to accept the push-pull, you have no other choice, because push-pullers like many abusers are power seekers, they won’t admit to surrender their power to someone they dominate on that psychological ground, and from within the relationship whoever accept borderline behaviors is reinforcing borderline behaviors BECAUSE IT WORKS for the borderline (you stay, you want to help, and you are nice)! So helping a borderline partner from inside is incredibly hard because efforts to solve the problem are part of the problem :-O !! By the way we should not forget that borderlines are SICK, if you get a brain scan you can see that the limbic system is almost unchecked by the cortex and anything that threaten the BPD is a trigger, talking about change and therapy is a trigger and suddenly you deal with someone who is really stupid and can’t think straight anymore!

      Really if one can leave, the best thing to do is try to convince the person to get into therapy, if it does not work bye bye not contact again!!! And we should not forget that BPD is contagious, the more BPD you undergo the more you have a risk to become like them through PTSD !! I know what I am talking about … 1st hand mind burning!

      Question about borderline and sex ? Borderline are said to have an emotional mental age of about three, so isn’t it a bit like something forbidden ??? In my case it felt like that, may be a recall of BPD previous abuse … horrible!!

      Otherwise, curing your XPD with another complementary YPD is possible I did it for myself, but the other-one is still completely nuts. Took me years to understand and I am now sort of allergic to many PDs, I see them coming very quickly, body language tells a lot, and you often have confirmation after that, often as many times as you want, but a cluster of 3 or 4 clues is good enough. to be sure. By the way most of them is asked “directly” admit it right away.

      What about countries ? … it’s volatile to try to draw a parallel, but if a country got something like a general personality disorder I guess trying to follow all its wishes in the hope to get a reasonable outcome is a sure way for a catastrophe. And if things turn too bad at some point you have right of self-defense.

    80. SystemsThinker Says:


      What I’m getting at is this:

      On the individual level, it’s debatable what the best strategy is. Is it to simply not engage at all with certain dysfunctional people or is it to engage in a strategic way in order to try to catalyze some kind of healing? Both sides have their arguments. But both are also often legitimate options. Not always. Some people are stuck in a situation where they have little choice but to engage. But, at least sometimes, in our personal lives, we have the option to simply not engage.

      But on the global scale, there isn’t really the same opportunity. The idea that we, as humanity, are going to be able to just ignore and disengage from pathological people in our modern tightly-interconnected world is a fantasy. We are going to have no choice on this level but to acknowledge the existence and influence of such people and systems and develop optimal responses.

      So discovering how to best engage on the personal level gives us some insight about how to best engage on the global level, where we have no choice but to engage. If we make it our policy to always just pretend such people do not exist and avoid them at all costs in our personal lives, when it comes time to deal with them on the global level, we will be ill-prepared. (I’m not saying, however, that every person at every time should engage. I’m just saying this doesn’t seem to be an optimal blanket policy for everyone to just avoid dysfunctional people across the board. It seems to me too oversimplified and shortsighted.)

      Note that by “engage” I certainly don’t mean doing so in a submissive way. I simply mean facing the situation with as wise a strategy as possible rather than attempting to just avoid it.

    81. NiceToBeAlone Says:

      “facing the situation with as wise a strategy as possible rather than attempting to just avoid it”

      Yes said like that it appear reasonable. But engagig is often very risky, I still feel it’s better to leave it to the specialists when it’s possible! On a personal level everytime I tried to engage (one GF and a few nutties acquantances) it did not work :
      * they did not ask me to do that, so they had every rights to refuse the service and they did it systematically.
      * they were never interested to dig into the question.
      * everything that has possible insight was threatening and therefore a trigger for a crisis.

      Etc… just feels like wasting time and energy!

      PDs are continuums like situations and sometimes engaging is good when other time it’s best to go away, but I still think if you spend a lot of time (without the proper training) to deal with people full of problems, you often start to carry a few yourself ans if it’s a nice straight forward help it’s nice but if it’s to catch a PTSD or an STD or maybe both it really sucks! Personally I would have the rule of NO SEX with BPDs fully inflexible :-) Worst sex ever! No feeling no love just physical action and power games! No thanks!

    82. SystemsThinker Says:


      I also said:

      “(I’m not saying, however, that every person at every time should engage. I’m just saying this doesn’t seem to be an optimal blanket policy for everyone to just avoid dysfunctional people across the board. It seems to me too oversimplified and shortsighted.)”

      In any particular case - like perhaps in yours - the best idea in one’s personal life may be to avoid. As you yourself seem to realize, it’s a strategic decision that each person has to make in each situation.

      My point here is that some people say “avoid disordered people” as if it’s a workable blanket policy for life in general. It isn’t in today’s world. Even on the individual level, we sometimes can’t completely avoid them directly. And we certainly can’t avoid their influence in society. And on the global level, “avoid disordered people” as a policy is just fantasy.

      There is a connection between the two levels or scales - the personal and the global. But please recognize the distinctions I’m making between them in my comments about each of them.

    83. NiceToBeAlone Says:

      “But please recognize the distinctions I’m making between them in my comments about each of them.”

      Fine with that.
      And thank you for buidong such an interesting website

    84. mahja Says:

      Hi There,

      I really enjoyed reading your article. I came across compulsive repetition lately and ended up reading your blog…so far, it is one of the few theories that, personally, make sense to me….however, while working in domestic violence sector for about many years and I struggle with applying this theory to my clients…it feels like the dynamic that appears there, is much more complex than that…also the perpetrators of violence in relationship often use lots of manipulation, brainwashing that starts very subtly, that it is hard for me to explain this dynamic with imago theory…it seems more comparable with brainwashing/manipulation that takes place e.g. in cults or zimbardo’s prison experiment scenario….we know from statistics and experience that some victims of domestic violence had secure attachment to their caregivers and not too many unhealthy dynamic from childhood that they needed to work on, however they were still attracted to their abusive partner…I am curious what is your opinion on this?…

      Also I was wondering if you believe that one person can feel a strong imago-match connection to someone but this someone is not triggered by them?….I guess my question is if it is possible to have an unreciprocated intense chemistry with your imago match or is it always mutual?…if it is not why do you think it’s that…

      My last question is about ‘the abandoner’, if as you described, we need our imago matches to help us work through our past wounds, and it is a sign of growth and something that makes us feel more fulfilled/alive…why abandoners need to disengage is so much stronger than the need to stay in the relationship?….I am usually the person who is being ‘abandoned’…and I can see that my partners care about me and sometimes feel like they really want to challenge themselves and stay, but in the end they always end up giving up and leaving….if our need to be ‘whole’ is ingrained in us and drives us, how is it that so many people prefer to leave?

      Thank you for this great article and look forward to your response!

    85. SystemsThinker Says:

      Hi Mahja,

      Thanks for your comment. You raise some important questions.

      On your first question:

      I do think that there are likely cases where a relatively secure person meets a true con artist and becomes brainwashed and manipulated. But as you allude to, we’re talking about statistics here. I would think that statistically it’s more likely for someone with insecure attachment to be more vulnerable to more extremely unhealthy relationships later in life.

      We also need to keep in mind that it can be very difficult to ascertain accurately what someone’s actual attachment history and structure is. Many people repress, suppress or deny their early attachment wounds. In fact, some of the more traumatized people deny them the most strongly as a coping mechanism. Also, there are practices that people experience during their upbringing that, despite being potentially harmful, are nonetheless considered the norm in their cultures. So they might not identify these experiences as unhealthy and even mental health professionals in their cultures might not recognize them as such.

      So it’s complicated to know exactly who really has attachment wounds and to what extent. It may be that more people have them than we realize or than admit to or even realize it themselves. But even with that said, I am very open to the idea that, in some percentage of cases, even a relatively healthy and securely-attached person can be vulnerable to a particularly skilled manipulator.

      One other thing worth mentioning here is that, in Imago, early attachment wounds are not the only relevant wounds. Wounds in later stages of development are also relevant.

      As for your second question:

      I definitely think it not only can happen, but is very common, that a person feels a strong Imago match with a person that does not feel this in the other direction. A person is an Imago match for someone primarily based upon whether they possess qualities similar to those of the caregivers that originally wounded them and with whom they, therefore, have unfinished business. Just because Person B resembles the wounding caregivers of Person A does not mean that Person A will resemble the wounding caregivers of Person B, as well.

      You specifically asked if it is possible to have an unreciprocated intense chemistry with “your imago match.” That wording implies that for each person there is only one person that resembles their original wounding caregivers. But in a world of billions of people, there are surely many such people. For some of them this person will also resemble their wounding caregivers and for some they won’t. When the match goes in both directions, then the potential for deep mutual healing exists.

      As for your last question:

      I think in general the idea is that abandoners at some point in life either felt their space was infringed upon, which led them to be driven to maintain space, or were neglected and coped with it by denying their neglected needs exist, and thus have a strong drive to avoid very intimate situations that bring awareness of these unmet needs to the surface. This drive to avoid is in conflict with the co-existing drive to connect.

      Yes the abandoner has a deep underlying impetus to heal their wounds. But that healing requires first going through some painful realizations and stages. It’s similar to how an addict may have a strong drive to become healthy, but to do so requires the courage to go through withdrawal. Becoming whole again is very fulfilling eventually, but it may require a lot of pain to get to that point. Another example would be exercise. It can feel very enlivening to get in shape, but if you haven’t exercised in a long time, it’s not going to feel so great at first. To me it’s just like so many things in life that are fulfilling in the long run, but where many people aren’t either able or willing to go through the painful parts of the process in the short run.

      It’s important to point out that this is not true only of the abandoners. On the other side, we have people who are extremely clingy and enmeshed as a result of their own wounds and they are often just as unwilling to go through the necessary path of healing. Almost by definition, it’s true that the clingier partner (known in Imago as the Maximizer) is more driven to take action toward healing. But it can still be very challenging for them to face the role their own wounds play in the process and to recognize and work on their own need for greater independence and self-support.

    86. Skye Says:

      “To understand the Imago, and its seeming stranglehold on our will, we have to return again to our original thesis: our goal in life is to return to that original state of relaxed joyfulness that we somehow remember, to feel alive and whole. In order to do that, we have to go back to the scene of the crime, to the place where we were wounded, in order to undo the damage and re-find what was lost.”

      This. I agree and disagree.
      I really like that crime scene metaphor. There’s an unsolved case, or a mystery from the past that requires immediate attention. The protagonists goes back, faces his past, his demons, solves the mystery, learns the truth, the truth sets him free and he finally can move on with his life. I think this is something that fiction writers got better than any psychologist ever.

      I agree that you have to re-live certain things. You have to do it to learn something about yourself, look at things from a different, more adult perspective and then let it all go. To me this is this ‘wholeness part’ - with imagos by your side you gain access to stuff that has been repressed, denied or even forgotten. What I don’t believe in though is that you can create a happy relationship with an imago partner. In most cases they’re supposed to show you something, change you and leave. Period.

      As for settling for more ‘functional’ partners - I doubt whether that is even possible. Certainly, not for everyone. First of all, I don’t think non-dysfunctional partners without some issues of their own are even attracted to dysfunctional people. Secondly, is it even possible for dysfunctional people to live in a normal relationship without sabotaging it every two weeks? I’ve read too many ACoA partners’ stories to call BS on this claim.

      My case: last time I tried forcing myself into dating a ‘nice guy’, my subconsciousness created the worst sinus infection ever. Of course, I had to cancel. Another time it was the smell of the guy. It was just disgusting; intimacy made me nauseatic. However, when I finally stopped running away from guys I’m really attracted to, change in the pattern happened. After 1,5 month of a really crappy relationship, I just stopped being attracted to the ‘troubled’ type. Whenever I spot one, I’m repelled, irritated or nervous (nervous as in scared, not excited). Just as I should be. So it is possible to learn - now I fall for warm and quiet type of guys. It’s still far from perfect and happy but there IS progress. So I agree with Hendrix that there’s no point in fighting yourself. Your subconsciousness won’t let you into a normal relationship anyway. At least not untill you’re ready. Besides, it knows a better way out of this mess.

    87. SystemsThinker Says:


      In Imago, you resolve these issues in the “power struggle” stage. Once resolved, you can move on to the “real love” stage. Do you think it’s not possible for a couple to make that transition? I agree with you that, in some cases, partners come into each other’s lives, resolve something important, and then move on and that can be very mutually beneficial in the long run. I think it’s sad actually that there isn’t a respected and constructive relationship structure within our culture to acknowledge that. But I don’t see any reason why many couples can’t continue to be together to enjoy the fruits of that resolution too. And I am sure many Imago therapists have seen quite a few couples do so. I think it just depends on the couple and their situation and where in each other’s healing process they find each other.

      Perhaps we have a series of levels of wounds to heal and we heal some with one partner, some with the next. At some point, if we continue, there will be someone who is there as we get “over the hump” and heal our most serious remaining issues. Why wouldn’t it make sense that, at that point, we might end up staying together with that person?

      I think it’s certainly possible for a more and less functional partner to have a lasting relationship. After all, many relationships begin or continue for reasons beyond the partners’ emotional dynamic, such as out of social convenience or for the perceived sake of children. The Imago perspective, though, I believe, would be that such a relationship is unlikely to be very mutually satisfying or full of life. As for the sabotaging of the dysfunctional partner, that might depend on the kind and degree of dysfunction. Certainly in some cases, the sabotage is consistent and severe. But not all “dysfunctional” partners in Imago are severely wounded. There are degrees of woundedness, some more manageable than others.

      So are you saying that in that 1.5 month relationship with a “troubled” guy, you resolved your Imago and from then on were attracted to healthier guys? I’m assuming this not only happened in a surprisingly short time as you say, but without the guy himself participating in this process consciously and healing himself along with you?

      Thanks for your thoughts and for sharing your story here.

    88. JC Fene Says:

      If you only attract women with BPD, you might be a narcissist, have NPD. The other thing that might be happening is you are co-dependent or have BPD and you are attracting
      only women who are narcissists, have NPD.

      These relationships go as you have described, a rather quick, deep connection that seems
      to grow and then when it moves forward are to be made, like getting serious, moving in together, getting engaged, getting married, buying a house , having a child, etc…………
      the person with NPD usually runs or ruins things and makes the other person run, sabotages things.

      This sounds more like the pattern you are describing. There is no therapy solution for NPD sadly.

      I hope this helps.

    89. SystemsThinker Says:

      Hi JC. Thanks for your comment and your perspective

      You’re right that the NPD/BPD relationship is a common and archetypal one. There are even a couple books specifically dedicated to the subject like this one and this one, though I haven’t read them so I can’t speak to how good they are.

      However, my situation seems different. In my experience, narcissists are actually able to keep someone with BPD engaged more fully and for longer than I typically was. I think this is because narcissists are usually just as avoidant about healing as the BPD usually is, so they help each other remain unconscious.

      With me the difficulty was that I would try to make the underlying dynamics conscious in order to heal, which I had a strong drive to do, and at that point they would quickly abandon (sometimes, in fact, for someone more of a narcissist who would not threaten to make these uncomfortable aspects conscious as I was doing).

      I think you’re much closer with the mention of codependence. I always had a strong drive to rescue and help them, often to the exclusion of focusing on my own wounds. That is something I’ve had to work on a great deal over the years.

      The women I talk about here were definitely BPD though and not NPD. People with NPD are more rigid, whereas people with BPD are much more fluid. These women were extremely fluid in personality and identity. But within that fluidity, there can be an aspect that is narcissistic that can pop up on various occasions along with the other aspects and that has sometimes been the case.

    90. tijen Says:

      Try the book:Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help You Find - and Keep - Love. I found it incredibly helpful with my relationship difficulties.

    91. Dan Says:

      Wonderful. Very informative.

    92. Jenni Says:

      Came across your blog when searching for essays on helping partners resolve childhood issues. Your piece is fantastic and provides profound concepts to mull over. Got out of a 20 year marriage (my first romantic relationship; my first boyfriend) with an Imago match that wasn’t willing to work at change and so I finally gave up. Now deeply involved with an Imago match again (my second romantic relationship in life and I’m 40) and things are going so much better because he’s self-aware and interested in growing and I too am his Imago match. This relationship has been therapeutic in a way I don’t think a pairing with a non Imago match would be. However, as you’ve noted, it is work and sometimes exhausting as we both at times have stumbled and hurt each other. And i feel confused at times because some friends say I should abandon this effort and find a partner who is safe and not wounded and that would be best. But that’s not the direction my heart wants to go. I’m an optimist and i think this could be great for both myself and my Imago partner.

    93. SystemsThinker Says:


      Thanks for the feedback.

      That’s great that you went from an Imago partner who wasn’t willing to do the work to one who is. There seems to be nothing quite as healing as a relationship with an Imago partner who wants to get conscious along with you. It definitely takes work. But hopefully it’s worth it.

      Most people are not even aware of the Imago concepts so their advice reflects that. It can seem on the surface like simply leaving a relationship that is very challenging is the obvious best course. And our culture is pervaded by myths that optimal relationships should be easy and smooth. In my experience, that’s not how it works in most cases and Imago explains very well why that is.

      As long as you continue to make progress in becoming more conscious together and both you and your partner remain committed to taking steps toward further development - even if you sometimes fall back a step - then I think it can be a very fruitful situation. Of course there are deal-breakers where a relationship truly becomes unsafe. But as long as none of those are present, keep growing together.

      Feel free to get in touch with me (you or anyone else reading the comments) if there’s anything I can do to help.

    94. Matt Says:

      This essay exactly describes my situation right now. I went through five relationships with relatively good partners who treated me well, but in almost every case, I felt like something very important was missing from the relationship. Even though those women were (for the most part) attractive and interesting, in each case I felt like she just wasn’t the person I wanted to be with. As much as I liked each of them, I felt like there was some very important thing I needed to do with some very important person who was still “out there.” Well, in my sixth relationship, I found that. She was the Imago match of all Imago matches. I was surprised at how strong my feelings for her were, and I had the overwhelming feeling that I had finally found the woman I had been searching for my whole life. I had the strong feeling that I had finally met my “other half.” I wanted her love and her availability more than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life.

      But unlike my previous girlfriends who were affectionate and kind, this woman, who is my true Imago match, was a terrible partner. She lacked empathy, she rarely had time for me, she was rude and insulting, she disliked physical affection, she lied sometimes, and she was often narcissistic. She dumped me after a rocky six-week relationship. Her most redeeming quality - and the one that is important here - is that she knew that she had problems, and I could see that she was making a conscious effort to work on them. She was seeing a therapist at the time we were dating, and I could see little things here and there that she was doing to try to make herself better and to make the relationship better. She tried hard to be a better person, but alas, her negative feelings seemed to always get the best of her.

      I suspect that she has Asperger’s syndrome/high-functioning autism. You know who else I suspect has Asperger’s syndrome? My dad. So yeah, while your Imago match has BPD, my Imago match has Asperger’s.

      This is a difficult situation, because, almost by definition, a person with Asperger’s will probably never be a good partner. So not only does my Imago match have Asperger’s, she’s also a Minimizer, which makes her extremely difficult to deal with.

      My seventh girlfriend was sort of an Imago match. She wasn’t rude or insulting or dishonest, but she did act like she never had time for me, and she sometimes ditched me to hang out with her friends. She also didn’t like to be touched in public, and she had some pretty serious inhibitions about sexuality. She was more of a classic Minimizer with some Asperger traits. I felt a stronger desire to be with her than I felt with my first five girlfriends, but not as strong as my desire to be with my sixth girlfriend.

      So I have a very difficult problem. I do sometimes attract women who are good partners, but when I am with them, I feel like I am with the wrong person, and I feel that something critically important is missing from the relationship. If I’m with an Imago match, I will finally feel like I’m with the right person, but she will have Asperger’s or Asperger-like traits, and she will treat me badly and will probably end up dumping me. And you’re right, accepting a life with a good partner (but not an Imago match) is something like an existential death, where I acknowledge that there is important business that I will never finish, and where I will always feel like I’m not with the right person, even if she’s attractive and interesting and treats me well.

      So what do I do? Asperger’s occurs in women at rate of about 1 in 200, so Asperger women are not easy to find. My sixth girlfriend is still single, and as far as I know, I’m the only boyfriend she’s had. I actually thought about mentioning Imago therapy to her, or offering to work things out with her. In the unlikely event that she agreed to try to work things out, I might be subjecting myself to a pretty bad emotional situation while she worked through her issues and figured out how to be an affectionate and supportive partner. But of course, if it all worked, it’d be the most rewarding experience of my life.

      The other option is to try to find a good partner (not an Imago match) who is affectionate and supportive. The downside to this approach is that I’d have to go through therapy to try to learn to live with the strong feeling that I was in the wrong relationship with the wrong person, even if the woman I was with was attractive and interesting.

      Do you have any recommendations for me? Thanks :)

    95. SystemsThinker Says:


      It’s fascinating how there is that chemistry with the Imago match that just isn’t there with others. Isn’t it?

      Finding an Imago match willing to seriously work on their issues together with you can seem like a Holy Grail. And even if you find someone who appears to be that, they have to be really committed to it over the long haul just as you do. Otherwise, it’s not enough to get over the hump.

      Interesting that your Imago may have to do with Asperger’s traits. That combined with this person being a Minimizer would certainly present a challenge for a Maximizer like you. I do think with the right therapy someone like that could become a constructive partner. Maybe not just like any other partner. But a partner in their unique way. I am sure there are people with those traits that have wonderful relationships with compatible people. I’ve seen some talks by people with Asperger’s that have done a great job of understanding how they work and how others work and how to better relate. Really inspiring actually.

      Yeah so now you’re stuck right in the dilemma I wrote about. Some people believe that anyone can become whole on your own without an Imago partner. Hendrix disagrees. Obviously it’s important what the actual answer to that is. And I’m not completely sure. I still hold out hope that there may be a way to heal more deeply without the Imago partner. But I still think the best healing is likely to come with such a partner. And in that case, whether it’s someone with BPD or Asperger’s or whatever it is for any given person, the key is finding an Imago match who is conscious enough and committed enough to do what is necessary to become more whole alongside you.

      Personally, if I found someone with that kind of match who was willing to commit to going through Imago and any other necessary therapy, I’d go for it. Everyone has their own risk tolerance, but to me that’s a worthwhile risk as long as you’re regularly making sure that you’re both still committed to making progress toward health and it isn’t just lip service.

      There is an Imago book for singles partly because there is work you can do on your own. You may not be able to heal fully without the partner, but you can certainly do some significant healing. Each step you make, you’ll be attracted to slightly healthier partners with whom to possibly “finish the job.” So that’s a no-brainer to do as much as you can on your own so that the challenge your Imago poses gets gradually less daunting.

      Other than that though, I don’t think there is any magic solution. This is a chess position that really has no perfect move and where it’s all dependent on your own risk tolerance level and values. Hold out for the big win and possibly lose big? Take the safer route and possibly have a sense of regret that lingers? It’s really a personal preference and sometimes events end up playing out as much due to circumstances as conscious choice.

      If you - or anyone else reading this - want to delve into this with me more deeply in a personal way, I do offer coaching which would allow us to work together one-on-one. I offer a free hour session to anyone interested in which we can get to know each other better, talk about what I can offer and see if there is a good fit. So feel free to contact me if you want to explore that.

      Best of luck!

    96. Matt Says:

      I think I might have an answer for this. I’ve been reading some stuff about the Twin Flame belief system, which is similar to Imago, but from a more woo-woo spiritual point of view than a clinical psychological point of view. Your Twin Flame is your mirror image, and is like an Imago match, but a Twin Flame appears in your life to show you your old wounds and all the hidden pain and trauma from your past that you didn’t know about so you can heal it. Like Imago, the Twin Flame relationship is supposed to be painful and difficult, but leads to greater healing.

      So, I think that the answer to “To repeat or not to repeat” depends on the life path you want to take. If you want a life that maximizes pleasure and productivity while minimizing pain and mistakes, all while giving you a life that is stable, secure, and predictable, then you want to stay away from Imago matches and Twin Flames, and instead pursue a relationship with a good stable secure partner. But if you want a life of personal growth, one that leads to a higher calling and helps you go through the painful process of clearing out all your old trauma and pain, and that helps you get in touch with a higher self, then you want to find an Imago match or a Twin Flame.

      So if you’re looking to be a standard productive member of society, then you want a stable secure partner. If you want self-actualization and personal growth, you want an Imago match. I feel pretty good about that answer.

    97. SystemsThinker Says:


      Thanks for your comment.

      Imago relationships can be so intense and eerie that it’s understandable that people could speculate on a supernatural basis to them. I’m not exactly a mystic, and I’m not saying I believe it, but even I have at times had to at least bat about the possibility given some of the experiences I’ve had.

      But supernatural or simply psychological, the idea that the interaction with an Imago match surfaces your old wounds and traumas to be healed is certainly at the core of how I view romantic relationships.

      The key is that in Imago the wounds and traumas are not only surfaced by the relations with the Imago partner, but are optimally healed via that interaction, as well. Without the relationship, the level of healing that can be achieved is limited, regardless of how conscious we may become while it’s going on. In order to continue healing to our greatest potential, we will need to meet another Imago match and continue the work within the relationship setting.

      Keep in mind that the situation isn’t so vexing in all Imago relationships. Partners with complementary wounds, in cases where their wounds are manageable and aren’t too extreme, can work through their challenges relatively cooperatively to become more conscious and whole. The situation really reaches its peak as an agonizing dilemma in relationships between certain types of Imago matches with particularly extreme and polarized wounds and defenses. For example, in those cases where a partner with Borderline Personality Disorder - in which the generation of no-win situations is a common symptom - meets a partner with strong codependent traits.

      In that situation, where it seems to be a decision between two very sub-optimal choices, one approach is, as you frame it, to balance the desire for stability and predictability with the desire for personal growth. This is as good a way of trying to make the decision as any. But it is not as if framing it this way makes the decision any less painful. The key is in the concept of centroversion, the innate drive for wholeness. As I write in the post:

      “This centroversion does not yield easily and it is likely that even if we manage to consciously accept its ultimate failure, resigning ourselves to something less than a conscious relationship with a full Imago match, our unconscious will long continue to yearn for more.”

      So one can certainly reason that they will forego the pursuit of an Imago relationship in favor of more immediate stability. But it still comes at an emotional cost.

      Moreover, giving up on the potential of an Imago relationship doesn’t necessarily lead to more pleasure and productivity. The very reason this is a dilemma in the first place is that, if you take the risk and do manage to find that Imago partner who is willing to heal, it likely will ultimately not only lead to personal growth but also more pleasure and productivity than could have been had in a non-Imago relationship. However, this is a gamble since, if one’s Imago match happens to be someone almost constitutionally unwilling to do mutual healing work, this best outcome is unlikely to happen (though perhaps tantalizingly possible).

      So I do think you offer a framework for making the decision. But I don’t think that framework changes the fact that this is a true dilemma and that there are inescapable risks and powerful pros and cons no matter which side of it you choose.

    98. Uamvar Says:

      This little phrase perhaps best sums up the allure of Imago and “Twin Flame” relationships — “tantalizingly possible.”

      As you say, “there are inescapable risks and powerful pros and cons no matter which side of it you choose.” It’s up to the individual to decide how much they are willing to risk, and to weigh the pros and cons using their own psychic scale. Are these types of relationships possible? Sure. But probable or likely to reach that point of healthy, post-healing connection? Hard to say. True dilemma indeed.

    99. jodie Says:

      This article was wonderfully insightful and made sense on a very intuitive level that I have been unable to put into words - which you have achieved wonderfully so thank you - I no longer feel so lonely on this journey.

      I had one relationship which was steady, harmonious and compatible - easy going - little chemistry.
      This relationship ( current) with an IMAGO match - it has its ups and downs, I do not know what to do - it has been three years it feels too rollercoaster - like to think about building a family.
      He does not identify with this article - so joint work on this is unlikely.

      Is it only possible to have high chemistry with an IMAGO match?
      How can I make the best out of this situation in order to heal and change these patterns?
      Do I need to heal my inner child first?

      I am looking for answers and desperately desire an action plan - I am torn - a life without any chemistry at all for me is surely as unappealing as an up and down relationship - or are my expectations too high?

      Any guidance would be very grateful wishing you all the best on your travels :)

    100. SystemsThinker Says:


      Thanks for the kind words. And I’m glad the writing made you feel less alone. You are definitely not alone as these are archetypal human experiences that are described in this article, though it varies from case to case how extreme they are.

      It sounds like you’ve experienced the dilemma - a smoother relationship lacking the chemistry and one with deep intensity but feeling more chaotic and less reliable.

      I don’t know for sure if one can only have chemistry with an Imago match. But that has certainly been my experience and is Hendrix’s philosophy, I believe.

      If you’d like to delve into this more deeply, you might want to consider doing a session with me. I offer coaching and have worked with many people on a wide range of relationship issues. I could give very general advice here, but to really help you optimally I would want to know a lot more details about your particular situation. And a session together would allow that..

      If you (or anyone else reading this) are interested, you can learn more about my company here and you can contact me directly to talk about it. I am willing to do a free session so we can explore your situation more fully, I can give you some initial advice, and we can go over the formats to work together and see if there is a good fit. If there is, we can talk about the best way for us to work together. If not, I will try to refer you to other resources that may meet your needs.

      I can do a session with you anywhere in the world as long as you can access a telephone or Skype. So just get in touch if you’d like to explore the possibility.

    101. truthbeknown Says:

      After reading this thread I have several comments and a few questions perhaps.

      First, the whole concept of “chemistry” versus non chemistry vs the intent on Imago. It seems like there are some fine lines or blurred lines on this topic. One is that by following the Imago model of engaging with these patterns we are running into rather then running from them. I don’t know if the theory talks about chemistry of attraction does it ? per se - if you keep running into the pattern it is because the subconscious is trying to resolve something. Okay, is it trying to resolve or just finding what is familiar. In hypnosis and NLP they talk about the Reticular Activating System (RAS). The example of buying a car comes to play. Lets say you buy a particular model car and its red. Now all of sudden you see them everywhere on the road. BTW this happens to me after a break-up; i see the type of car my ex drives and notice that as my mind focus’s on that vehicle despite all the other vehicles on the road. Why? the subconscious is trained to look for it- The RAS sees it.

      So if the RAS can do this with cars, imagine what it does with partners? “oh there you are again”.
      I think the fundamental problem/challenge is that most of us LIKE THAT CAR (to stay with the metaphor). It’s comfortable and we recognize it.

      So now do we ride this ride again? even though by doing so may lead us on a roller coaster ride?
      What’s confusing in discussing this on other forums with the maximizer type is that we get fooled real easy because the other party gives us what we want and it feels good. So is the chemistry more about giving us what we didn’t get from our family of origin. In my case the partners that i have had seemed to give me adoration and a desire to have a partner who was a good communicator. I didn’t realize maybe this was because at their core they weren’t going to be good communicators. I don’t recognize this (or haven’t in the past) until they take the “candy” that they give away. Of course nobody likes to have things that partners give you taken away! The switch is amazing though. We say, “if i had know this was who my partner was, i would not have picked them!” Sort of a “wolf in sheeps clothing” scenario.

      So first how to we avoid running into this?
      One clue in this past relationship was sex. i view sex as love so I was or had been willing to accept cues for sex as cues for love. One book, “cupid poisons arrow” talks about how sex polarizes couples. The author views the solution as to NOT have orgasms with your partner. In searching for a partner that was willing or not willing to do that- she had to find someone who didn’t stimulate her desire to have an orgasm as much as the “hot” guy. What does this have to do with Imago or chemistry or bpd/npd? First, I thing from hanging around those forums for awhile, those that held out from either having sex too soon in the relationship or talking to their partner about NO ORgasm sex were able to weed out borderline or chemistry addicted types who would not want to go this path.

      The view on chemistry here is: hot sex and hot chemistry equates to eating Junk food and the high that one gets from that. Slow sex or NON orgasm sex (which is based on more of bonding model) is better.

      i have to say that with my last partner (who exhibits NPD to a degree) having sex was a huge trigger for her to control me and then shift into being a runner. I think the concept of “great chemistry” here scared her because for someone who likes control - losing yourself in sex is disempowering.

      David Scharch talks about this in his work: “passionate marriage”.

      My part of the equation with this: I was not willing to follow this “slow sex” or low heated sex model. I was so interested in pleasing my partner thinking that this was how to get love back from her. After the last sexual experience with my ex- she called me two days later and broke up or pushed me away by saying really mean and disparaging comments. I decided to walk away and I’m struggling with that decision but I needed to find my balance after she had told me after great sex that she wanted to see other men (the next day).

      So I haven’t seen or heard anyone combine David’s work with Imago with Karezza (Marnias work).
      For Marnia and her husband they have a very loving relationship based on bonding behaviors. The other partners she tried to engage with were not willing to do this slow sex. I wonder then if high imago types are mostly very sexual types on both sides?

      Also, what’s particularly interesting about relationships is that there is very little education from those that have successful ones. It would be great to have a forum of IMAGO survivors who finally worked things out and were happy with each other? Where are they? and how about the NoN Imago partners who are happy? If we had a model to hear about successes versus failures most of the time, then our subconscious would also get good messages. Right now the airwaves are piping out the music of failure in relationships and our brains maybe are singing the only song it knows?

      Just some thoughts.

    102. SystemsThinker Says:

      Hi truthbeknown,

      You can of course seek out more information about the Imago model and Hendrix’s view of it. But I’ll offer what I know.

      Hendrix certainly puts forth that the subconscious is trying to resolve something and that, when the relationship is enabled to play out to its potential, that resolution is actually achieved (which is the very goal of Imago relationships and therapy and is seen in practice.)

      I agree that you can be primed by experience to notice certain things more than others, as in the example of the red car. But with Imago, it goes far beyond just noticing to strong, sometimes even overwhelming attraction to the Imago match as opposed to the lack of such attraction to a non-Imago match. And that attraction is not necessarily “comfortable.” In fact, it can be downright scary at times with its intensity. It can be so uncomfortable that people often run from it…only to have it repeat again until it is faced. In fact, one of Hendrix’s goals in his work is to educate people who keep trying to run away from Imago matches that doing so is futile since they will almost certainly just end up in the same situation again until they work through it.

      This only becomes an intractable dilemma, as I write about in this piece, when one’s Imago match happens to be someone with a fundamental aversion to resolution. In other cases, where the Imago match is someone who at least has some significant willingness to work toward health, this process is a fantastic opportunity. So what I’ve written about in this article is what happens in a subset of Imago situations that involve particular kinds of people, not in all, or even most, Imago relationships.

      The chemistry in Imago is picked up at a subtle unconscious level, perhaps through microexpressions, for instance. It is based in a recognition that the person has certain traits of the original wounding caregivers and of the aspects of ourselves that have been repressed or denied. This is explained in great detail in Keeping the Love You Findand Getting the Love You Want. So I recommend you read those if you haven’t.

      If this was only about adoration, then intense attraction could develop for anyone who gave that. But what Imago explains is why our response has much to do with who it is giving something, not just what is being given. We seem to want to not only get what we didn’t get in childhood, but get it from someone who is as challenged in giving it as the original person who interacted with us in this way. Imago theory would say that it isn’t a coincidence that you were drawn to someone who offered communication and then took it away, but that, had they been the type of person who would go on to consistently give communication easily, you wouldn’t have responded to their original communication so strongly. After all, there are plenty of good communicators out there, yet most of them would not stir you in the same way.

      I do think that being cautious about sex could help weed out some types, such as those with BPD, that often attract people through strong early sexual energy. But this isn’t a solution to the dilemma I’ve described here. If your Imago match really is someone with BPD traits, it would be just a way of invoking one side of the dilemma - namely the side in which we make the conscious decision to seek a stable, even if non-Imago, relationship despite the fact that this may limit the overall potential for healing.

      However, Imago chemistry is not just sexual. Imago partners “push each other’s buttons” in a host of ways. I even believe that you can pick up on elements of these types of repetition compulsions in non-romantic settings where sex isn’t involved at all. It’s just that in a fully romantic Imago relationship, all systems are go in the same place so there is tremendous growth potential.

      When you say “I wonder then if high imago types are mostly very sexual types on both sides?” it exhibits a bit of a misunderstanding about what an Imago match is. There is no overall “Imago type.” An Imago match for a given person is like a psychological puzzle piece that fits with their own psychological structure in a certain way. There could be Imago matches who are both highly sexual, both less sexual, or mismatched sexually. There are all kinds of arrangements that could be involved in Imago relationships depending on the structure of each person’s wounds. There are infinite precise Imago configurations, though they do fall within some general categories.

      I really think you would benefit from studying up much more deeply on Imago so you understand the entire model and the full depth of what makes someone an Imago match. If you do that, I think you’ll see that while the points you’re making are important, they are based on an incomplete understanding of the model. Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t disagree with the model. Perhaps you’ll believe Hendrix is just wrong. There is some research being done to validate what he is saying. But not everyone agrees with him, of course. But if you take the model as it is laid out, then you’ll see that it does offer a context in which to understand the points you’ve raised.

      I imagine part of the reason there isn’t a lot of education from successful relationships is that many of the most healthy relationships involve people who grew up in healthy situations so they haven’t really had to get highly conscious. They were raised with healthy dynamics, had most of their developmental needs met, attract a partner at a similar level, and the relationship plays out naturally in a rather healthy way. Just as sometimes the naturally great athlete isn’t as great of a teacher/coach because they can’t relate to the struggles of the average athlete, perhaps, similarly, many naturals at relationships don’t even know how to articulate what they’re doing to those who are just learning about healthy relating.

      I agree that some of the best education would come from those who went through the power struggles of Imago, gaining consciousness in the process, and came out the other side. Of course, Hendrix’s work is, in many ways, offering that education since that is what his work is based on. But it would be great to hear more directly from those who went through it. I think there are some resources like that out there, including testimonials from those who have gone to Imago therapists and seminars. You could contact Imago Relationships and see what they have to offer in that vein.

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