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.