Parental guidance

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 May, 2006, 12:00am

REMEMBER THE MOMENT when you met your true love? Did your heart leap? Perhaps you had a sense that your search for a soul mate was over or that this special person was your other half. Or maybe you felt as if you'd known this person all your life.

If you did, then you're not alone. These are feelings experienced by lovers the world over. But how would you feel if those feelings were down to something far less romantic than love at first sight, something initially unsettling to consider.

According to US couple therapist Harville Hendrix, the reason you feel that initial and often strong attraction is because the person unconsciously reminds you of the love you experienced as a child from your mother, father or main care-giver.

Hendrix is the man behind Imago, a couple counselling method he developed with his personal and professional partner, Helen LaKelly Hunt. It's based on the idea that everyone's idea of love is shaped by the love they receive as a child from their primary care-givers. Hendrix calls this the Imago - which is Latin for 'image'. When we search for a partner, we search for someone who matches this image. So, in addition to our conscious idea of what we want in a mate (tall, dark and handsome, perhaps), we all have an unconscious agenda: we want someone who reminds us of our parents.

Why? Because we have unfinished business - or what Hendrix calls an unconscious agenda. As well as the positive characteristics of the love and attention our parents gave us, there are negative ones: the ones that wounded us and shaped our perceptions and the way we interact and behave within relationships, he says. The unfinished business is the need for us to revisit these to heal and move on.

Based on this theory, the child of an over-controlling parent could grow into an adult who feels unable to make their own decisions or lacks independence. This person may go on to find a strong-willed match - a controlling partner who makes decision for them.

Several noted psychologists, including Sigmund Freud, have talked about this before - but Hendrix has taken it a step further by developing it into a method of counselling and a successful business.

His book Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples has been on and off the US best-sellers' lists since it was published 18 years ago. Talk show hostess Oprah Winfrey has described Hendrix as 'one of the best couples' therapists I know', and singer Alanis Morissette was so enthusiastic about his theory that she trained as an Imago therapy educator.

Now, Imago is coming to Hong Kong, with a two-day Getting the Love You Want workshop this month conducted by therapist Louis McLeod, who was trained by Hendrix.

The workshop is aimed at couples at all relationship stages, says McLeod, who claims that the method has been successful with 75-85 per cent of the couples who have visited him in the past 16 years.

McLeod says that when we first meet our match we only see the positive aspects. Only when the romantic stage ends do we begin to see the negative aspects. 'Those negative qualities were there all long, but the person you saw as relaxed and easy-going, you now see as a couch potato. The woman you were attracted to because she was assertive, you now see as a nag.'

During this post-romantic stage couples enter into a power struggle as each tries to find room in the relationship for the other and their unconscious agenda of unfinished business. Rather than being a healing process, it becomes a source of more pain.

'This is when people say things like: 'You've changed - what happened to the person I fell in love with?' Some people say they feel tricked. A lot of people will try to coerce or force their partner to become the person they thought they were. A lot people become angry. Some get sad and grieve. Some will have an affair. Some get addicted to drugs or alcohol.'

How do you begin to untangle all this mess? McLeod says the therapy works by providing an environment in which a couple feels emotionally safe enough to talk about their wounds. He teaches couples to communicate better and see each other differently.

'It's aimed at helping them see where some of their partners' most disturbing traits come from - and, instead of seeing them as something to irritate them, they'll see them as something their partner learnt in their childhood to keep them safe within their family. In doing so, they can develop compassion and empathy.

'Like Adam and Eve, we blame each other for the trouble that we're in, but the transformative moment with a couple occurs when they stop pointing the finger at the other and begin to look at what they're doing to cause the mess.'

Imago differs from other forms of therapy because the focus is on creating the conditions and environment for couples to become a healing resource for each other. 'When I work with a couple most of the time it's them talking to each other and doing things with each other that are designed to help them communicate in a different way than they do at home,' he says.

Not everyone agrees with Hendrix's therapy - and some regard it as being over-simplified. However, Sharon Glick of St John's Cathedral counselling service says his method of encouraging deeper communication works for many people. 'Parents establish who we are,' she says. 'We all come out of childhood like unbaked cookies and as adults we need final baking or browning. We need to be finished. We need more skills and to work through the pains we felt from our childhood. I think Hendrix's theory that we fall in love with someone because we're looking for a reflection of our parents to solve unfinished business is an unproven hypothesis. It's more complex than that. However, the method does teach better communication, nurture and caring skills and that's pretty pivotal in a relationship.'

Even if you accept Hendrix's theory, is it really going to do any good knowing it when you first start a relationship? Could it even deter you from taking the first step towards a relationship?

'When we find someone, we don't think, 'Here's someone like my parents',' McLeod says. 'We think, 'I feel so wonderful with you'.'

'What's helpful is to know that there are stages in relationships and that the first stage won't last forever. It's meant to get you together with a person so you'll grow together.

'The therapy helps the couple see some of the deeper reasons they fell in love, and gives a roadmap to move their relationship in the direction of connection, safety and passion that most of us yearn for.'

Getting the Love You Want workshop, May 27-28, Harbour Plaza Hotel, North Point. Inquiries: Julie Gallinat, 9191 7045 or e-mail