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Mars and Venus on Planet Imago:
Gender Issues in Imago Therapy

By Mary J. Simon, Psy.D., CWP
in collaboration with Howard Lambert, Ph.D, CWP and
John Mariner, L.C.S.W., CWP and Roslyn Cantrell, Ph.D., CIT

Over the past two years, I have been dialoguing intensely, sometimes heatedly, with my colleagues in Denver about my perception that Imago does not adequately address some issues that are central to women’s growth in relationships. I have also been developing ideas about how to address these issues both within and outside of the context of Imago Relationship Therapy. I, and we, have wanted to find a forum to share these ideas and initiate a dialogue about them in the large Imago community. Therefore, I was delighted with Al’s invitation to submit material about “What Imago does not directly address” for the final issue of the Imago Dialogue under his editorship. My basic thoughts are as follows.

What I think of as the core “gift” of Imago theory — the understanding that our difficulties in adult relationships are manifestations of childhood wounding and that these must be addressed and healed in order to have fulfilling adult relationships seems to be gender neutral. However, there are other aspects of Imago theory and processes that fall into the same trap that most psychological theories developed by men have fallen into. That is, it overlooks the fact that, because of biology and cultural programming, women’s developmental path is different from men’s. Therefore, women, enter adulthood and adult relationships with different strengths and different growth edges.

The Stone Center’s work on the sexes’ different developmental paths says that little boys are encouraged to give up connection with their primary caretaker (usually female) in order to develop an autonomous sense of self. Little girls, on the other hand, are encouraged to stay in connection with mother and develop their sense of self in connection. The hazard for boys, of course, is that they develop a strong, though often pseudo-sense of self at the price of disconnection. The hazard for girls is that, although they maintain a sense of connection, at times an unhealthy one, their sense of Self is often vague and weak. The ongoing cultural programming of men and women reinforces these developmental tendencies. Thus, men and women tend to enter adult relationships from very different internal places.

These gender differences may be one of the causal reasons that men more frequently adopt the Turtle defensive style and women are more likely to adopt the Hailstorm style. These defensive styles, in turn, often intensify or modify some gender differences. For the sake of clarity and brevity, however, I have chosen not to address these issues here.

It is reasonable to state that an overall goal in relationships is to develop two well-differentiated selves in connection. Because of the above realties, men most often have difficulty with the connection aspect of this equation. Women, on the other hand, tend to have more difficulty with the well-differentiated Self aspect. My experience, and that of many women I work with — both therapists and clients — is that Imago therapy is most focused on and effective in developing and deepening connections, the growth edge for a majority of men. However, women’s growth edge — developing and maintaining a clear sense of Self — is not so directly addressed. I believe that Imago theory and processes need to be further developed and/or modified to address these differences.

I am not suggesting that men don’t need to work on Self issues or that women don’t have any problems developing true, deep connections. I do believe that the sequencing is different. The top layer for men most often is to develop the ability to connect. The top layer for women is more often to solidify the sense of Self.

The large gaps in women’s boundaries result in the feeling that demands, needs, feelings, etc. from the outside an enter and take over our space and/or pull our energy out without much choice on our part. (It isn’t true that we have no choice, but it FEELS that way.) When you don’t experience much sense of control over your personal space and our energy, it’s hard to hold onto a clear sense of yourself. Therefore, I believe the growth edge for women is to develop more intact, though still flexible and permeable, boundaries. This involves pulling in and containing one’s energy. It means pulling energy back from what I call “mucking around in other people’s circles”, i.e. trying to fix, change, or take (inappropriate) care of others. This is an unhealthy and unworkable form of connecting. Instead, we need to look inside to find our own reality, our individual truth. Then we need to learn to speak it honestly and courageously whether or not we think this will get the response we want from our partner. And we need to live our lives in a way that expresses our personal truth, not how others need or would like us to be.

There are a number of other areas in Imago in which this problem is manifested. First of all, as Date Bailey pointed out, there are two different formulations of fusion in couples. There is protective fusion, “You and I are one and I am the one.” Culturally, as well as developmentally, this is the form of fusion most frequently encountered in men. The other, equally destructive form of fusion, introjective fusion, is “You and I are one and you are the one.” Cultural programming, as well as our unique developmental path, makes this form much more common in women.

As Dale also suggested, Imago therapy focuses primarily on projective fusion. While this is very valuable for men’s growth in relationships, it does not adequately address women’s experience and growth needs. For instance, it is extremely important for someone engaged in projective fusion to “get” that there is another reality out there, listen to it and validate it. This is what the Dialogue is specifically designed to do. However, for someone who is locked into introjective fusion, the growth edge is more to “get” that I have a truth of my own and I need to find it, speak it, and know that it has validity whether or not someone else validates it. The Dialogue does not directly address these issues. In fact, it can encourage women, who have already been programmed to believe they need external validation, to keep looking for it from their partner.

Helpful additions to standard Dialogue instructions to the Receiver would be:

a) to emphasize to the Sender the importance of describing their experience (not their judgments about their partner) honestly and openly, and

b) to support the Sender in holding on to the validity of their reality whether or not the partner is willing to validate it.

The tendency for women to look outside themselves to get their needs met can also be exacerbated by the Behavior Change Request process. The process of restructuring my frustrations with others into an understanding of my own childhood wounding and unmet needs is essential for growth for both men and women. However, to then move directly to asking someone else to do something about it can reinforce the sense of powerlessness and dependency that is such a common experience for women. It can keep us locked in unhealthy connection and away from developing our own self-nurturing abilities. A beneficial addition the BCR process would be as follows: “What I am going to do to give more of this to myself is …. This could be inserted just after the “global desire”. The BCR could then be completed with “How you could support my work is…”

Another concern I have about the BCR process is that it can easily be misunderstood by women as one more way to try to “get my partner to change”, which I believe is one of the worst habits of women in relationships. Not that our partners don’t need to grow. We all do. BUT — women need not to be directing our energy towards getting others to change. Because it is a futile endeavor it reinforces a sense of powerlessness. It feels controlling to our partners (because it IS!). Worst of all, it takes our energy away from nurturing our own growth.

Interestingly, my male colleagues say that they feet the BCR process as it currently exists has the extremely important function of stimulating men to reach out and ask for help. This counterbalances their programming to be “self-sufficient” in an unhealthy, disconnected way. Again, we have DIFFERENT REALITIES and both (all) need to be addressed.

One of the other Imago processes that can reinforce old, unhealthy programming for women is the No Exit Decision. Of course, both partners need to put adequate energy into the relationship. Not doing this, however, is more frequently a shortcoming of the man. Notice how often the “dragee” to the Couples’ Workshop is the man! The woman’s problem is more likely to be putting too much energy into trying to “make the relationship work”. Our normal developmental path makes us very conscious of and concerned about our connections. Our cultural programming encourages us to believe that we can “make the relationship work” all by ourselves if we just put enough energy in. The No Exit Decision process needs to include permission, even encouragement, for women to keep enough energy within their own boundaries to develop and nourish their sense of self.

There are other areas in which I and my colleagues believe that Imago theory needs to be modified in order to more directly address gender issues in relationships but the above points are some of the most salient. We also know that these issues may look somewhat different for women from different cultures and classes, women in same-sex relationships, etc. We hope that this article will stimulate thinking and discussion within the Imago community that will lead toward an ever-increasing recognition and inclusion of many different realities.