By Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt
From the April 2003 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
When we fall in love, we see life in Technicolor. We nibble each other's ears and tell each other everything; our limitations and rigidities melt away. We're sexier, smarter, funnier, more giving. We feel whole; we're connected.
But inevitably, things start to go wrong. The veil of illusion falls away, and it turns out your partner has qualities you can't bear. Even traits you once admired grate on you. Old hurts resurface as you realize your partner cannot or will not love and care for you as promised.
Since he no longer willingly gives you what you need, you try to coerce him into caring through criticism, intimidation, shame, withdrawal, crying, anger—whatever works. The power struggle has begun and may continue for many years, until you split, settle into an uneasy truce, or look for help, desperate to have your dream back.
What's going on here? After reflecting deeply on this question, we've come to this conclusion: You've found what we call an Imago partner, someone who, we regret to say, is uniquely unqualified (at the moment) to give you the love you want. And this is what's supposed to happen.
The thesis is relatively simple: Although we think we have free choice in selecting our partners, our primitive brain has a nonnegotiable agenda to find someone who resembles one of our childhood caretakers in order to complete unfinished business. No matter what our parents were like or how hard they tried, they weren't perfect. Invariably, they failed to meet some of our essential needs, which left us with an emotional wound.
Growing up, we instinctively developed a pattern of behavior to protect us from being wounded again. But at the same time, we continue to carry around an internal image, a sort of imprint of our caretakers' traits. As babies this imprint helped us distinguish our parents from other adults, much like a young zebra—whose mother circled it repeatedly right after birth—recognizes its mother's distinctive pattern of stripes. When, as adults, we meet someone who fits our emotional imprint, we fall in love. Our imperfect caretakers, freeze-dried in the memories of childhood, are reconstituted in our partner.
The romantic yearning we feel is the anticipation that our new love interest will meet the needs our caretakers failed to satisfy. But a problem arises immediately, because our partner, who also bears childhood hurts, enters the relationship with similar expectations and opposite patterns of self-protection. In the attraction stage, we're drawn to someone whose defense mechanism seems complementary to ours because it's so different. But before long, our differences create a core conflict. To complicate matters, though you'd think we'd choose a partner with only our caretakers' positive traits, the negative traits are more indelibly imprinted on us. Unconsciously, we need to be healed by someone with the very deficits that hurt us in the first place. Since we don't understand what's going on, we're shocked when the awful truth about our beloved surfaces.
"You are already with your dream partner, but at the moment, he or she may be in disguise" Our Imago is also likely to have the qualities—both good and bad—that we lost in the shuffle of socialization. For instance, the anger you repressed because it was punished in your home, and which you unconsciously hate yourself for feeling, you "annex" in your partner. But eventually, seeing your own forbidden emotions in him makes you so uncomfortable that you criticize his quick temper.
All of this seems to be a recipe for disaster, and for a long time it was a depressing state of affairs that puzzled us. How can we resolve childhood issues if our partners wound us in the same ways our caretakers did and we ourselves are stuck in patterns that wound our partners?
When you're unaware of the hidden agenda of romantic love, it is a disaster. You inevitably repeat your childhood scenarios with the same devastating consequences. But when you understand that you've chosen your partner to heal certain wounds, and that this healing is the key to the end of longing, you've taken the first step on the journey to real love.
It's crucial to accept the hard truth that incompatibility is the norm for relationships. Conflict is a sign that the psyche is trying to survive, to heal by stretching out of its defenses. It's only when you don't have this knowledge that conflict is destructive. (We believe that couples who claim never to argue are often shying away from intimacy; instead of sharing all of themselves, they may develop parallel lives.)
Romantic love is supposed to end. It's the glue that initially bonds two incompatible people so they can begin to do what needs to be done to heal each other. The good news is that the power struggle is also supposed to end. The emotional bond created by romantic love evolves into a powerful organic bond through the process of resolving conflict.
With self-awareness we can correct what has gone wrong. But a conscious relationship isn't for the fainthearted. It requires reclaiming the lost, repressed parts of ourselves that we were told were dangerous. And it means learning coping mechanisms that are more effective than the crying or anger or withdrawal that has become habitual. It means reconnecting through honest conversation and extending ourselves to give our partners what they need to heal. This is not easy, but it works.
Relationships aren't born of love, but of need; real love is born in relationships. You are already with your dream partner, but at the moment, he or she may be in disguise—and, like you, in pain. (If your partner is abusive, you need to recognize your part in the attraction and learn how to keep yourself emotionally and physically safe. Unless you're conscious of the dynamic, you might think divorce will solve your problems—only to select another partner with similar characteristics.) A conscious, honest relationship can restore your sense of aliveness and wholeness, and set you on the path of real love.