The Hidden Opportunity in Romantic Relationships

Dr. Denise Renye, PsyD, M.Ed., M.A. on Sep 30, 2022 in Relationship and Family

By: Dr. Denise Renye

As a sexologist, I am quite aware that there’s a pervasive myth in our culture, particularly in the media, that romantic relationships should be problem-free. That if you find “the one,” you’ll live in a happy, harmonious blissful state until one of you dies. And if you don’t experience happy, gooey harmony all the time, there’s something wrong with the relationship.

That’s not my perspective. My stance is that romantic relationships foster spiritual growth. With intimate relationships, all of a person’s issues may arise: insecurity, impatience, anger, neediness, etc. An intimate relationship is not just the dopamine rush of excitement and joy depicted in movies and on TV. It’s also the irritation of your partner constantly misplacing their keys. Instead of dumping someone at the first sign of trouble in the quest to find a “perfect” person with whom no issues will arise, a relationship offers an opportunity to heal wounded parts of yourself.

Imago relationship therapy is a good model of this. Dr. Harville Hendrix and Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt developed Imago Relationship Therapy in 1980 and focused on transforming any conflict between couples into opportunities for healing and growth. In fact, "imago," a Latin word, means image and refers to the unconscious image of familiar love. I see that thread of “familiar love” in my practice whereby people tend to seek out what they experienced before. Meaning if they were abandoned as a child, the person might unconsciously seek out someone who abandons them and/or is extra sensitive to any indication of abandonment.

Why do they do this? Oftentimes, people want to heal even on an unconscious level. They want to “fix” their past in the present. If an early childhood attachment figure like a parent or guardian abandoned the person emotionally or physically, they’ll seek someone who does the same and try to create a different outcome. Instead of having that person abandon them, they’ll try to get them to stay put.

The Imago process helps shed light on these dynamics and provides support as you each unpack your histories. This sort of therapy also allows you to share essentials with your partner about your childhood, which can be helpful to shed light on current relationship dynamics. The process also provides structure to state your frustrations clearly and articulate exactly what you need in the relationship. This is all in order to heal through the relationship connection.

Hendrix and Hunt say the Imago Dialogue ultimately allows you to say to your partner, “I respect your otherness; I want to learn from it. And I want to share mine with you.” In other words, you’re sharing your truest, most authentic self with your partner, and not only is that powerful, it’s healing because you no longer have to pretend or hide parts of yourself. You’re allowing the vulnerable parts to be seen, heard, and loved.

This sort of communication restructures the way you talk to your partner so that what is said is mirrored, validated, and empathized with. You’ll go from saying, “Really? You liked that awful book?” to “Interesting. What did you like about the book?”

Instead of seeing your partner as an extension of yourself, you’ll recognize them for the unique and interesting human they are. That uniqueness may create a rift at times because it always does, but viewing relationships through this lens, that they are an opportunity for growth, also means you’ll find your way more quickly to repair, to reuniting with your partner. You’ll view the conflicts that arise as opportunities for growth rather than signs the relationship is doomed.

And if being in a relationship is what you are choosing, enjoying it and healing through it are beautiful ways to break intergenerational trauma wounds, increase intimacy, and come to know yourself deeper. It may not look like a Hollywood movie, but that’s okay because your relationship is something better: It’s real.

Dr. Denise Renye is a Sex Therapist in san francisco, CA.

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