A large body of research shows that the home environment, particularly the quality of the relationship between the primary caregivers in the home, has a powerful influence on how we grow up. As children, we watch our parents closely, looking for clues about how adults are supposed to act. We pick up on signals about what a man is supposed to look like, what a woman is supposed to look like, and how a man and a woman are supposed to interact with one another. According to some psychoanalysts, those screenshots we take about how romantic relationships are supposed to play out create an unconscious image in our minds, called the imago.
Unless you’re a hermit, you are going to enter into relationships with others. Some of those relationships will be romantic. Romantic relationships, because they entail so much vulnerability, carry with them the potential for self-growth, but also the potential for great emotional harm. Whenever we open ourselves up to someone, we take a risk that that opening will be abused. On the other side, if we open up to someone, and they return the favor, what joy there is in being truly open and available to someone else!
What is the imago?
Our ability to open up like that, and the people we tend to attract, are heavily influenced by this imago. Essentially, the imago is a representation of our parents that forms the basis for how we have learned a relationship is supposed to look. If our parents spoke kindly and respectfully to one another, at an unconscious level, we find ourselves attracted to people whom our “antennae” pick up as being the kind of people who are kind and respectful.
On the other hand, if our father was abusive of our mother (or of us), then even though we may consciously want to avoid abusive partners, we are more likely to find ourselves attracted to people whom our antennae pick up as being the kind of people who will be abusive. Now, of course, at the beginning of most relationships, the outward actions that our mates use to lure us are attempts to portray their best sides. Therefore, when a woman is seeking a man, she is often unaware that her new boyfriend, who is at first treating her so well, and complimenting her so nicely, is actually someone who is capable of the same kind of harm she is hoping to avoid.
Most of our parents had both positive and negative qualities, and the imago is our mind’s attempt to recreate the parental home. The imago is a way to conceptualize how our experiences influence us to attempt to relive the past, often with the unrealistic goal of correcting it.
In the work I have done with relationship counseling, I have found that the imago concept is a powerful way to help people recognize how our partners sometimes exhibit traits and behaviors that are all too familiar. When we feel our buttons being pushed, knowing about the imago can help us reflect on the degree to which our hurt feelings are relevant to the situation we are in, as opposed to being unconscious reactions to past wrongs. In general, this is a good example of the belief of most psychologists that knowing about who we are and how we became ourselves, is the best way to become better selves.
Identifying your imago
In the classroom, I teach my Psychology students about the imago, and then ask them to reflect on the quality of their childhood home environment. Describe your mother – what were her good traits and bad traits? What were her best and worst qualities and practices? Now, describe your father – answer those same questions. Finally, think about their relationship – was it contentious? Did they speak respectfully to one another? Who “wore the pants” in the family, if anyone? Did they show love and affection? Was there any psychological, emotional, or physical abuse?
Next, I ask students to describe their most recent relationships, including their
current one if they have one. Using similar questions as we asked before, describe the relationship. Describe your role in the relationship. Describe your partner’s role. What similarities do you see across your relationships? What similarities do you see between your relationships and the relationship your parents had? The answer to that last question is your imago. It is what you were taught a relationship was supposed to look like.
Considering how important your own parents’ model was on your own relationships, realize that your relationships are similarly powerful models that are currently being built in your child’s mind. Your child’s imago is under construction, and your relationship to your partner is the building material. Be intentional about your life, and your parenting. If you keep finding yourself in unhealthy relationships, your imago is in full swing, and your child’s imago is taking notes.
Fortunately, you can change the pattern. The imago is like Dracula – the first glimpse of light, and he cringes and weakens. You don’t have to blindly go along with the imago’s demands. You are in control. I tell my students – if you keep ending up in bad relationships, perhaps it’s time to try out different types of people than the ones your eye is drawn to most immediately. If you like “bad boys,” seek out someone who is outside your normal area of interest. If you are in a relationship, it is time to model ways of speaking and acting with one another, so that your child’s future partners will treat your child kindly.
Your partners’ faults are not yours to fix – they are yearnings from your child self, wanting to change the past. But the past is not to be changed. Only the future is yours to create.