Imago theory explains why we choose a partner that fits with our past

While relationships can damage us, they can also be a source for healing. 

 

Couple kissing in public.
Couple getting closer. Getty Images.

Ask someone what they look for in a partner and they may say things like smart, funny, good-looking, and may even trustworthy, loyal, and kind, all the adjectives you might expect. If you give them a chance to probe a bit deeper, they'll probably mention similar tastes in movies, music, in hobbies, or foods. Then there are personal likes and dislikes. Women usually say someone taller than them. While men explain certain physical attributes they find attractive. Few people would say, “They should remind me of my father" or “mother."


But if you look closer, you'll see that there is a strong connection between the milieu in which we were raised and the type of partner we choose. Have you ever noticed that people pick mates very much like their opposite sex parent or childhood caregiver? An “imago" (pronounced like embargo) is the image that's build into our subconscious. It contains all the positive and negative qualities of our caregiver(s) who raised us. This becomes a template for the romantic partner we look for down the road.

When we first meet someone we're attracted to, we may not be aware of what draws us in. When the way another person operates is familiar to us, it makes us feel comfortable and safe, like “we've known them forever." We feel good around this person and are able to let our guard down, even to be vulnerable. This allows us to build intimacy, from which the relationship springs.

The theory was developed by psychologists and romantic partners Harville Hendrix, PhD and Helen LaKelly Hunt, PhD. Their work culminated in the bestseller, Getting the Love You Want, a groundbreaking work now celebrating its 20th anniversary.

We model our adult relationships around how our caregivers interacted when we were children. Getty Images.

Growing up, watching our parents or caregivers interact modeled for us adult relationships. How dad treated mom for instance, can communicate how a woman feels, subconsciously, she should be treated by her partner in adulthood. How mom treats dad models how she should act. This works for men as well. If a boy's father treats his mother like a queen growing up, he's likely to do the same when he's a husband.

One problem that happens along the way is, a caregiver may fail to meet a child's needs. The child then adapts to accommodate the situation. The first stage usually occurs between birth and a year and a half. This is when one's attachment style starts to form. If the caregivers are loving and responsive to the baby's physical and emotional needs, he or she develops a secure attachment style.

If they are unresponsive or neglectful, the child internalizes feelings of rejection and begins to withdraw. Later on, he or she will avoid interacting with others, including peers. As the child gets older, they learn to cater to their own needs and become what is known as an “avoider."

Others have inconsistent caregivers when they're small. Sometimes they're neglectful and at others, attentive. This can give the child feelings of abandonment, leading to another insecure attachment style. This person becomes a “clinger." One's attachment style acts as a foundation, upon which future stages are built. Stages go all the way up to adolescence and in each phase, a new behavior or tendency is added.

How we're cared for informs us of our self-worth, how we'll attach to others, and how we think we should be treated. Getty Images.

At age three to four, one develops a sense of self. Depending on how well it goes, he or she can become a “controller," “diffuser," or “an integrated self." At four to seven, the child starts to feel their own power. As a result, they might become empowered, a “compromiser," or a “competitor."

At seven to 13, they learn about friendship, which can teach them how to conduct healthy relationships. But they may also become a “loner" or a “caretaker," who always puts others first, and hardly ever mentioning their own needs. Finally, there's adolescence, where we develop positive sexual and emotional relationships, or become a “conformist" or even a “rebel." Each stage adds another element to our personality and instructs us in how to manage our relationships and fall in love.

None of these are concrete, however. Behaviors can be situational. We may be an avoider in one instance, and securely attached in another. What tends to happen is, negative background experiences set one up, for what Dr. Hendrix calls, malatropism, or responding in the wrong way to a person or stimulus. Consider the little boy who runs up and punches the girl he likes. It's the wrong response for what he secretly desires.

Some psychologists believe we pick certain partners for psychological healing, to work through unresolved issues. So what if you weren't raised in the best environment or you keep picking the wrong people? Are you stuck? Fortunately, patterns can change.

Drs. Hendrix and Hunt created Imago Relationship Therapy, practiced by many couples counselors today. This is talk therapy arranged around structured dialogue, aiming at contingent communication. Each person starts to understand the meaning behind what the other person is saying, their motivation, what forces shaped them, and how they feel, deep down inside. As Dr. Hendrix wrote in the book, “We are born in relationship, we are wounded in relationship, and we can be healed in relationship."

To learn more about Imago theory, click here:

U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

U.S. Navy ships

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Surprising Science
  • U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
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Hack your brain for better problem solving

Tips from neuroscience and psychology can make you an expert thinker.

Credit: Olav Ahrens Røtne via Unsplash
Mind & Brain

This article was originally published on Big Think Edge.

Problem-solving skills are in demand. Every job posting lists them under must-have qualifications, and every job candidate claims to possess them, par excellence. Young entrepreneurs make solutions to social and global problems the heart of their mission statements, while parents and teachers push for curricula that encourage critical-thinking methods beyond solving for x.

It's ironic then that we continue to cultivate habits that stunt our ability to solve problems. Take, for example, the modern expectation to be "always on." We push ourselves to always be working, always be producing, always be parenting, always be promoting, always be socializing, always be in the know, always be available, always be doing. It's too much, and when things are always on all the time, we deplete the mental resources we need to truly engage with challenges.

If we're serious about solving problems, at work and in our personal lives, then we need to become more adept at tuning out so we can hone in.

Solve problems with others (occasionally)

A side effect of being always on is that we are rarely alone. We're connected through the ceaseless chirps of friends texting, social media buzzing, and colleagues pinging us for advice everywhere we go. In some ways, this is a boon. Modern technologies mediate near endless opportunities for collective learning and social problem-solving. Yet, such cooperation has its limits according to a 2018 study out of Harvard Business School.

In the study, participants were divided into three group types and asked to solve traveling salesman problems. The first group type had to work on the problems individually. The second group type exchanged notes after every round of problem-solving while the third collaborated after every three rounds.

The researchers found that lone problem-solvers invented a diverse range of potential solutions. However, their solutions varied wildly in quality, with some being true light bulb moments and others burnt-out duds. Conversely, the always-on group took advantage of their collective learning to tackle more complex problems more effectively. But social influence often led these groups to prematurely converge around a single idea and abandon potentially brilliant outliers.

It was the intermittent collaborators who landed on the Goldilocks strategy. By interacting less frequently, individual group members had more time to nurture their ideas so the best could shine. But when they gathered together, the group managed to improve the overall quality of their solutions thanks to collective learning.

In presenting their work, the study's authors question the value of always-on culture—especially our submissiveness to intrusions. "As we replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems well," Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and one of the study's authors, said in a press release.

These findings suggest we should schedule time to ruminate with our inner geniuses and consult the wisdom of the crowd. Rather than dividing our day between productivity output and group problem-solving sessions, we must also create space to focus on problems in isolation. This strategy provides the best of both worlds. It allows us to formulate our ideas before social pressure can push us to abandon them. But it doesn't preclude the group knowledge required to refine those ideas.

And the more distractions you can block out or turn off, the more working memory you'll have to direct at the problem.

A problem-solving booster

The next step is to dedicate time to not dealing with problems. Counterintuitive as it may seem, setting a troublesome task aside and letting your subconscious take a crack at it improves your conscious efforts later.

How should we fill these down hours? That's up to you, but research has shown time and again that healthier habits produce hardier minds. This is especially true regarding executive functions—a catchall term that includes a person's ability to self-control, meet goals, think flexibly, and, yes, solve problems.

"Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work," writes John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington.

One such study, published in the Frontiers in Neuroscience, analyzed data collected from more than 4,000 British adults. After controlling for variables, it found a bidirectional relationship between exercise and higher levels of executive function over time. Another study, this one published in the Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, compared fitness data from 128 adults with brain scans taken as they were dual-tasking. Its findings showed regular exercisers sported more active executive regions.

Research also demonstrates a link between problem-solving, healthy diets, and proper sleep habits. Taken altogether, these lifestyle choices also help people manage their stress—which is known to impair problem-solving and creativity.

Of course, it can be difficult to untangle the complex relationship between cause and effect. Do people with healthy life habits naturally enjoy strong executive functions? Or do those habits bolster their mental fitness throughout their lives?

That's not an easy question to answer, but the Frontiers in Neuroscience study researchers hypothesize that it's a positive feedback loop. They posit that good sleep, nutritious food, and regular exercise fortify our executive functions. In turn, more potent executive decisions invigorate healthier life choices. And those healthy life choices—you see where this is going.

And while life choices are ultimately up to individuals, organizations have a supportive role to play. They can foster cultures that protect off-hours for relaxing, incentivize healthier habits with PTO, and prompt workers to take time for exercise beyond the usual keyboard calisthenics.

Nor would such initiatives be entirely selfless. They come with the added benefit of boosting a workforce's collective problem-solving capabilities.

Live and learn and learn some more

Another advantage of tuning out is the advantage to pursue life-long learning opportunities. People who engage in creative or problem-solving activities in their downtime—think playing music, puzzles, and even board games—show improved executive functions and mental acuity as they age. In other words, by learning to enjoy the act of problem-solving, you may enhance your ability to do so.

Similarly, lifelong learners are often interdisciplinary thinkers. By diving into various subjects, they can come to understand the nuances of different skills and bodies of knowledge to see when ideas from one field may provide a solution to a problem in another. That doesn't mean lifelong learners must become experts in every discipline. On the contrary, they are far more likely to understand where the limits of their knowledge lie. But those self-perceived horizons can also provide insight into where collaboration is necessary and when to follow someone else's lead.

In this way, lifelong learning can be key to problem-solving in both business and our personal lives. It pushes us toward self-improvement, gives us an understanding of how things work, hints at what's possible, and, above all, gives us permission to tune out and focus on what matters.

Cultivate lifelong learning at your organization with lessons 'For Business' from Big Think Edge. At Edge, more than 350 experts, academics, and entrepreneurs come together to teach essential skills in career development and lifelong learning. Heighten your problem-solving aptitude with lessons such as:

  • Make Room for Innovation: Key Characteristics of Innovative Companies, with Lisa Bodell, Founder and CEO, FutureThink, and Author, Why Simple Wins
  • Use Design Thinking: An Alternative Approach to Tackling the World's Greatest Problems, with Tim Brown, CEO and President, IDEO
  • The Power of Onlyness: Give Your People Permission to Co-Create the Future, with Nilofer Merchant, Marketing Expert and Author, The Power of Onlyness
  • How to Build a Talent-First Organization: Put People Before Numbers, with Ram Charan, Business Consultant
  • The Science of Successful Things: Case Studies in Product Hits and Flops, with Derek Thompson, Senior Editor, The Atlantic, and Author, Hit Makers

Request a demo today!

How AI learned to paint like Rembrandt

The Rijksmuseum employed an AI to repaint lost parts of Rembrandt's "The Night Watch." Here's how they did it.

Credit: Rijksmuseum
Culture & Religion
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Culture & Religion

Pragmatism: How Americans define truth

If something is "true," it needs to be shown to work in the real world.

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