According the Imago Theory, every human being is born into a state of completeness – when we come into the world, we are all inherently whole. We are created in pure connection and serenity; if course, it is impossible for our primary caretakers to completely fulfill every one of our innate needs. As our needs fail to be adequately met, we adapt to our personal experiences. Roughly the first year and a half of our lives is referred to as the attachment stage.
During this stage, our developmental duty is to establish a solid foundation for further growth – to attach to our caregivers in a healthy way, establishing a sense of belonging and safety. If our caregivers are emotionally available and highly nurturing, and respond to the majority of our physical and emotional needs, we will likely exhibit secure attachment. In infancy, healthy attachment typically looks like slight distress upon separation from the primary caretaker (but an ability to be calmed), coupled with an increased sense of comfort when reunited with the primary caregiver.
Secure and Insecure Attachment
On the other hand, insecure attachment will likely occur if caretakers are rejecting, cold, and unresponsive to our emotional and physical needs. We may have felt unwanted or disregarded, and withdrawn from interpersonal contact as a direct result. When insecure attachment occurs, we are likely to develop avoidant patterns of interpersonal interaction. Rather than seek relationships with others, we will actively avoid emotional bonds. If our caretakers were inconsistently available to meet our needs, we may have felt abandoned, and developed a more dependent style of attachment. Later on in life, this attachment style will translate as clinginess.
These various adaptions become integrated into our behavioral patterns and personalities. Some Imago specialists believe that these adaptations set us up for a lifetime of malatropism –meaning that we will react the wrong way in response to specific stimuli, essentially getting the opposite of what it is we subconsciously desire.
Take a look at the various stages of adaption, and the consequences of insecure (and secure) attachment later on in life.
Stages of Adaption in the Imago Theory
From birth to the middle of our first year of life, we are in what is known as the “safety and belonging” attachment phase. If our caretakers are emotionally available, warm, and nurturing, we will exhibit secure attachment. If they are cold and rejecting, we may feel unwanted or undeserving, and exhibit avoidant attachment. If they are inconsistently available, we may feel abandoned, and exhibit clingy attachment. From 1 ½ years to 3 years of age, we undergo what is known as the “exploration stage” of our lives. If our caretakers encourage exploration while providing protective and healthy boundaries, we will feel free to investigate the outside world, and develop a healthy sense of curiosity. If our caretakers are overprotective and smothering, we may begin distancing ourselves from them, and become isolated. If our caretakers are neglectful, we are likely to become pursuers, developing the core belief that we can only rely upon ourselves.
During our 3rd and 4th years of life, we begin to develop a sense of self-identity. If our caretakers support our assertions and accept and mirror our identifications, we will feel accepted for who we are and develop a strong and integrated sense of self. If our caretakers are dominating or controlling, we may feel shamed, and become rigid or punishing of ourselves. If our caretakers are invasive or deflecting, we may feel insignificant – invisible and underappreciated. If this is the case, we are likely to become self-effacing and docile. From 4 to 7 years old, we are in the midst of what is known as the “competence” attachment phase. We begin to learn of our personal power as individuals. If or caretakers give us clear instructions while actively supporting our efforts, we are likely to develop a strong sense of self-confidence, and continuously engage in positive risk-taking. If our caretakers are perfectionistic and demand an unrealistic level of excellence, we may become competitors, adopting a deep-seated sense of inadequacy. If our caretakers offer no guidance and ignore our accomplishments, we may become manipulative or overtly compromising.
The “concern stage” of our lives occurs between the age of 7 and 13, during which we learn to develop and maintain healthy friendships. If our caretakers encourage and model good friendships, we will be more comfortable forging relationships with our peers, and we will develop many healthy friendships (including a best friend). If our caretakers are disapproving of our friends or overly-protective, we may feel lonely or rejected, and become loners or social outcasts. If our caretakers entirely disapprove of our autonomy, we will likely internalize the belief that are own needs are illegitimate, and become caretakers.
Imago and Intimacy
Finally, in adolescence, we hit what is referred to as the “intimacy stage” of our development. We will learn the important of intimate closeness, and begin fully grasping what it means to love and be loved. If our caretakers speak to us realistically about sexuality and support intimate relationships, we will become comfortable with adult intimacy, and develop positive sexual and romantic partnerships later on in life. If our caretakers are overly controlling or restrictive, we will likely rebel – some of us may continue rebelling sexually and romantically far into our adult lives. And if our caretakers and rigid and disapproving, we will likely become conformist, and develop and unhealthy sense of self-righteousness.
Of course, behavioral patterns may change over time, and none of these adaptions are cast in stone. However, in times of fear and elevated stress, we are more likely to respond in certain ways based on our upbringing. In adulthood (according to Imago theory) we will seek to recreate the conditions of our childhoods so that we can utilize our adult competence to complete development tasks – in other words, to finally grow up. Because of this subconscious drive, we will unwittingly be the most attracted to those who mimic the traits (both negative and positive) of our primary caregivers. Additionally, we tend to fall in love with individuals who have similar wounds, but different defenses. The fundamental need may be the same, but one partner will actively deny it while the other embraces and accepts it. In many cases, each individual in the relationship will complement the other. For example, one may be controlling where the other is submissive. One may be intuitive where the other is harshly logical.
Finally, we are attracted to individuals who exhibit aspects of our lost selves. If we become romantically involved with someone who mirrors the personal traits that we lack or have lost, then we are reclaiming ourselves by proxy. Unfortunately, relationships such as these tend to end in a power struggle; healthy arguments represent a cycle of connection, rupture, and repair. In dysfunctional relationships, the issue is not so much the rupture as the inability to reconnect. This is where Imago Relationship Therapy comes into play. The backbone of IRT is structured dialogue, otherwise known as contingent communication. This form of communication occurs when vulnerability is met with empathy, and can lead to powerful and lasting healing for both concerned parties. To learn more about Imago Therapy, please contact us today.