How Mirroring Dialogue Helps Couples Empathize & Communicate Better
Are you ready for your lover to reflect your needs?
Originally published on SexTherapistRVA.com
You deserve more than mere co-existence with your romantic partner. You deserve deepening connections (physical and mental) and continuing progress toward common goals. You deserve a partner who’s attuned to your complex mental nooks and crannies — not just attentive to your body parts.
And so does your partner.
Improving relationship communication is a vital part of romantic commitment — and it’s an ongoing process. Every partnership could benefit from some guidance from time to time. That’s where sex therapy comes in—but it can also be helpful just reading about communication techniques and practicing them together.
This article explains a powerful communication technique for couples called empathetic dialogue mirroring — which comes from Imago Relationship Therapy.
What is Imago Relationship Therapy?
Four decades ago, Dr. Harville Hendrix and Dr. Helen L. Hunt formulated a unique approach to relationship communication and therapy that evolved into a powerful modality of psychotherapy.
They called their therapy technique Imago, after the Latin word for “image” — connecting both the reflective aspect of mirroring, and the root word of “imagine,” which is the first step to empathy.
One of the core elements of Imago therapy asks participants to understand the image of their partner that they’ve built up through the course of the relationship — and recognizing that the perception isn’t the partner, and the partner doesn’t owe anything to that mental image we’ve created. Furthermore, that subconscious image is founded upon a lifetime of unmet needs that have nothing to do with the partner.
Drs. Hendrix and Hunt name that mental construct the Imago, and demonstrate that the only way to get around the obstacle is through methodically practicing empathy until it becomes natural.
And by the way, for all the bug nerds out there: imago is also the final stage of an insect’s metamorphosis from egg to larva to pupa/nymph to adult. An entity in imago has emerged — often with wings! — from the shell of its childhood to live out its days in developmental and sexual maturity.
What’s the difference between Imago and other therapy methods?
One big difference is, Imago therapy focuses not on the roots and causes of problems, but rather on growth opportunities — by building positive communication skills to turn conflict into discovery.
Imago psychology starts by recognizing that our communication habits are endowed since birth, starting with high-pitched wailing when our needs aren’t met. We’re all unconsciously driven by needs that extend far back through childhood and infancy — met or unmet according to each individual’s circumstance and upbringing.
How we respond to unmet needs is determined by too many factors to count.
Some people communicate explosively, desperate to be heard and afraid of being ignored. Others retreat inward and convince themselves they’re too strong and resilient to have any needs in the first place.
Neither is wrong. Neither is right. We are all the product of innumerable experiences, expectations, and habits.
So Imago therapy solves that problem by offering a systematic framework of communication to allow people of any background to express themselves fully and be heard completely. Dialogue mirroring opens the door for deeper discovery, which strengthens connections, and ultimately — yep! — leads to better sex.
How Imago mirroring works for couple’s therapy
Too often in relationship communication — even in sex therapy sessions — our minds are more focused on what we’re going to say next, instead of listening to what our partner is saying right now. Especially when there’s conflict and pride at stake. Rather than sharing empathetic dialogue, couples fighting simply trade charged monologues. As a result, both sides dig in deeper and progress is impossible.
Imago Relationship Therapy attempts to end-around that natural fight-or-flight tendency by creating a habit of empathetic mirroring — repeating or paraphrasing what your partner just said, and asking for more. This requires your mind to listen well enough to accurately return the words, which automatically contributes to processing and digesting the experiences, thoughts, and feelings behind them.
The big idea is to get away from the blame game and reactionary battles, and instead focus on listening and understanding all the way through what your partner is saying. Imago therapy isn’t about sorting good from bad or figuring out right vs wrong — it’s about practicing true listening skills, which leads to deeper connections through empathy and self-reflection. It’s about trying to understand your partner’s point of view.
According to Imago therapy, love isn’t about devotion — it’s about discovery. Devotion can lead to further unmet needs, expectation imbalance, and habituated deference. Discovery acknowledges the individual, the unique depths, and the possibility of more.
When romantic partners are familiar and used to each other, they sometimes feel there’s nothing left to discover. But people are always changing! Don’t believe that cynical old axiom to the contrary. We’re always having new experiences, facing new decisions, waging new conflicts — whether major or minor, external or internal, obvious or subtle.
All interpersonal interaction is role-play
Whenever two people come together, there are (at least) six personas filling the stage at the same time. Those personas overlap, balance, feed into, and sometimes contradict each other. But they’re all there. Always.
2 people, 6 realities:
- How I am
- How I see me
- How I see you
- How you see me
- How you see you
- How you are
As we grow up and interact with more and more people, we pick up habits (good and bad) and learn how to play different roles with different people based on how we perceive them. We attach unconscious images of people based on our history of unmet needs. Those mental images — the Imago — interfere with our ability to see and hear what lies beneath.
Imago therapy attempts to round up all those personae and strain them through methodical conversation phases in order to equalize and uncover hidden parts and unmet needs of each.
3 phases of Imago therapy dialogue
Partners work through the three phases, switching roles at the end of each topic thread.
In Imago therapy, the person talking is called the Sender and the person listening and mirroring is called the Receiver. Much more positive than accuser and defender, isn’t it?
Know your role: Imago Sender
The Sender starts by signaling to their partner that they’d like to initiate a dialogue about a specific topic. The Sender talks for a while and then lets the Receiver mirror what they said.
Then they Send again, sometimes clarifying or explaining. And again let the Receiver reflect back what was heard.
The process continues until the Sender is satisfied, or ready to switch roles.
Watch out! It can be easy to go off on tangents. Gently help each other stick to one topic at a time.
Know your role: Imago Receiver
The Receiver’s job is mirroring what the Sender says by repeating, paraphrasing, or summarizing:
- “What I’m hearing you say is…”
- “If I’m right, you’re saying…”
- “Okay, so you said…”
And then asking for more.
- “Tell me more…”
- “What else can you tell me?”
- “Anything further?”
It can feel clunky and robotic at first, repeating back what someone just said — but over time it becomes a smooth channel for letting go of preconceptions and just listening.
Watch out! It’s easy to stay on the defensive with this step, adding judgements or your own feelings. That’s not your role! Mirror everything with the same tone and gravity your partner used.
Once the Sender has no more to add on the topic, the Receiver validates what they sent by acknowledging what makes sense and why.
Then the Receiver empathizes by guessing how what they’ve talked about makes the Sender feel, and checking whether their assessment is accurate. Sometimes this requires correction or further clarification…and another round of mirroring.
Real-world Imago dialogue in sex therapy
(Names removed to protect the innocent)
Photo by Etienne Boulanger on Unsplash
SENDER: I’d like to talk about what happened last week, with the groceries.
RECEIVER: Oh god, here we go. Okay.
SENDER: When you came back from the store without —
SEX THERAPIST: Just a sec, don’t forget to stick with “I” statements.
SENDER: Right. Sorry. Okay. I felt really upset when I unpacked all the groceries and you didn’t — and I didn’t see the ice cream I asked for.
RECEIVER: What I’m hearing is, you were really upset that you didn’t get the treat you wanted.
SENDER: Hold on, that’s not what I said. I was upset because I specifically asked you to pick something up, and you didn’t.
RECEIVER: Okay, what I’m hearing you say is, you were upset because you asked me to get something and I didn’t get it. Better?
RECEIVER: Is there more you can tell me?
SENDER: Yes I felt betrayed because even though it’s something small and silly, I trusted you to pick it up because it’s important to me. I was really looking forward to it.
RECEIVER: So you felt betrayed because you trusted me to get the ice cream that was important to you. Is there more?
SENDER: It felt like you weren’t acknowledging my need to indulge myself a little when work is stressful. It’s like the one comfort food I have, and you not recognizing what it means to me makes me feel unseen.
RECEIVER: So what you’re saying is, it wasn’t about the ice cream, it was about me not seeing your need to indulge in your comfort food when you’re stressed.
RECEIVER: Is there more?
SENDER: My first thought was, like you were trying to tell me not to eat junk food.
RECEIVER: Wow. Okay so if I’m hearing you right, you’re saying that when I didn’t get you the ice cream, you thought I was sending a message about your weight.
RECEIVER: I didn’t even think about that. Is there more?
SENDER: Not really. That’s why I was so mad.
RECEIVER: Okay, so that makes so much sense because of how your parents treated you when you were younger. Like you felt I was controlling your calories or whatever, like your dad telling you no one would love you if you got too fat.
SENDER: Yes. Horrible.
RECEIVER: I didn’t realize…you must’ve felt so attacked and criticized.
SENDER: [nodding] Do you want to switch?
RECEIVER: Not really. It’s a lot to think about. I’m sorry. I was just being lazy. I had no idea…
Of course, not all sex therapy Imago dialogues go quite so smoothly. It takes practice and guidance, especially at first. But couples who practice mirroring dialogue tend to grow in mutual resilience and connection, considering each other’s needs as closely as their own.
Now try it yourself — and let us know how it goes in the comments!
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