Imago relationship therapy changes your brain (probably)

The word Imago means Image. In this case, it refers to the image you have of the love you received from your parents as a child. This is very similar to the idea of an Internal Working Model. What they're both interested in is the way your earliest relationships - the ones you had with your parents - how they continue to affect your adult romantic relationships.

The Internal Working Model is the idea that those early social interactions form a relationship blueprint which underpins your understanding of adult romantic relationships. If your parents were unable to show you much love, that's what you expect from a partner. If you were often neglected, you will have learned to be self-reliant and will have a hard time committing to, and depending on, someone else.

Imago Theory takes this idea a stage further. Just like the the Internal Working Model, it suggests that we find partners who respond to us in ways which are similar to that which we experienced from our parents. But Imago Theory argues that we do this for a specific purpose: to reverse the trauma of painful childhood experiences, to make us complete.

So, if your father was distant and cold and you could never quite get the love you needed from him, you find a man who is distant and cold and you try to make him love you. Because if you can do that, everything will be okay – you will be complete and the lack of love from your father won’t hurt anymore. If your father was abusive, you find an abusive partner and try to make him love you because then the trauma of your childhood abuse will be reversed and everything will be okay.

It's not hard to see the danger here. Getting into a relationship with the specific purpose of changing someone is almost universally a bad idea. But very often, people will not be doing this consciously. The drive to find someone to rectify childhood problems is likely to be happening at a subconscious level. And that's where Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT) comes in. The therapy seeks to help couples become aware of the unconscious forces that have been involved in bringing them together, and which continue to shape the way they relate to each other.

So, what's the evidence? Well, there's an intriguing study which looked at the brain function of couples before, during and after IRT. Essentially, it set out to examine key areas of the brain associated with cognitive functions that IRT should enhance, including empathy, language and mood regulation.

The areas of the brain found to be significantly different after the therapy were those associated primarily with the brain's salience network. This is a system, made up of many different structures in the brain, which is involved in directing our attention to things which we find surprising, pleasurable, self-relevant, or emotionally engaging.

Secondly, this study found that the therapy changed activity in the brain's default mode network. Again, this is a system made up of a number of difference structures in the brain. It goes quiet when you're focusing on a specific task, and it comes to life when you're sort of day-dreaming. It's involved in creating our sense of self by reflecting on past events and envisioning future ones, being self-reflective and self critical and creating a story of who we think we are. It's also involved in seeing things from other peoples' perspective.

So you can see how both these networks might be central to any therapy where you're trying to help people shift from one way of thinking about themselves and their partner to a more functional one - one story about their relationship - to another one.

This study was small - carried out on only 9 couples - so the researchers are keen to point out that more research is needed to truly understand the neural mechanisms that underpin relationship change, or even to find out if they can be measured at all. But, for now, why not sit and reflect for a while on your past relationships, and the stories you tell yourself about who you are?

Just becoming more aware of these underlying mechanisms may help you to find the best possible romantic partner, or to accept more readily, the beautifully flawed one you already have.