by Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt

When we fall in love, suddenly we see life in technicolor. We nibble each others' ears and tell each other everything; our limitations and rigidities melt away. We're sexier, smarter, funnier, more giving. Now we feel whole, we feel like ourselves, we are connected.

But inevitably--whether we marry or move in together-- things just start to go wrong. The veil of illusion falls away, and it seems that our partners are different than we thought they were. It turns out they have qualities that we can't bear. Even qualities we once admired grate on us. Old hurts are reactivated as we realize that our partners cannot or will not love and care for us as they promised. Our dream shatters and we feel disconnected.

Disillusionment turns to anger. Since our partner no longer willingly give us what we need, we change tactics, trying to coerce our partners into caring--through anger, crying, withdrawal, shame, intimidation, criticism--whatever works. The power struggle has begun, and may go on for many years, until we split, or we settle into an uneasy truce, or until we seek help, desperate to feel alive and whole again, to have our dream back and feel reconnected.

The Imago Emerges

What is going on here? After reflecting deeply on this question, we have come to this conclusion: you have found an Imago (IH-MAH-GO) partner, someone, we regret to say, who is uniquely unqualified (at the moment), to give you the love you want. Well, this is what's supposed to happen.

Let us explain. We all think that we have free choice when it comes to selecting our partners. But our primitive "old" brain has a compelling, non-negotiable drive to restore the feeling of aliveness, wholeness and connectedness with which we came into the world. To accomplish that, it must repair the damage done in childhood as a result of needs not met, in a relationship with a person who resembles our caretakers.

You'd think, then, that we would choose someone who had what our caretaker lacked--and of course this is what we unconsciously seek. Would that it were so! But the old brain has a mind of its own, carrying its own image of the perfect partner, a complex synthesis of qualities formed in reaction to the way our caretakers responded to our needs. Every pleasure or pain, every transaction of childhood, has left its mark on us, and these collective impressions form an unconscious picture that we're always trying to match up as we scan our environment for a suitable mate.

This image of "the person who will join with me and make me whole again" we call the Imago. [Try this. See Exercise 1 below.]

Although we consciously seek only the positive traits, the negative traits of our caretakers are more indelibly imprinted in our Imago picture, because those are the traits which caused the wounds we now seek to heal.

Paradoxically, our unconscious need is to have our feelings of aliveness and wholeness restored by someone with the same deficits of care and attention that hurt us in the first place.

So when we fall in love, our old brain is telling us that we've found someone with whom we can complete our unfinished childhood business, meet certain biological imperative, and recover our wholeness. Our imperfect caretakers are "freeze dried" in the memories of childhood, are "reconstituted" in our partner. Unfortunately, since we don't understand what's going on, we're shocked when the awful truth of our beloved surfaces.

But that's not all the bad news. Another powerful component of our Imago is that we also seek the qualities missing in ourselves--both good and bad--that got lost in the shuffle of socialization. If we are shy, we seek someone outgoing; if we're disorganized, we're attracted to someone cool and rational. The anger we repressed because it was punished in our home, and which we unconciously hate ourselves for feeling, we "annex" in our partner.

But eventually, when our own feelings--our repressed exuberance or anger--are stirred, we are uncomfortable, and criticize our partners for being too outgoing, too coldly rational, too temperamental. [Check this out. See exercise 2 below]

Waking Up to Reality

All of this seems to be a recipe for disaster, and for a long time this depressing state of affairs puzzled us. How can we resolve our childhood issues if our partners wound us in the same ways as our caretakers, and we ourselves are stuck in childhood patterns that wound our partners?

Consciousness is the key; it changes everything.

When we are unaware of the unconscious agenda of romantic love, it is a disaster, for our childhood scenarios inevitably repeat themselves with the same devastating consequences. There is method to this madness, though. The unconscious recreation of the ambience of childhood has the express purpose of bringing this old impasse to a resolution. When we understand that we have chosen our partners to heal certain wounds, and that the healing of those wounds is the key to the end of longing, we have taken the first step on the journey to real love.

Conflict is Natural

What we need to understand and accept is that conflict is supposed to happen. This is as nature intended it: everything in nature has a polarity and is in tension. The hard truth is that the grounds for marriage is really incompatibility; it is the norm for relationships. Conflict needs to be understood as a given, a sign that the psyche is trying to survive, to get its needs met and become whole, and paradoxically, to restore connection. It's only without this knowledge that conflict is destructive.

Romantic love is supposed to end. It is the glue that initially bonds two incompatible people together to do what needs to be done to heal each other, and in the process, heal the rifts in nature caused by our wounds. The good news is that the power struggle is also supposed to end. The emotional bond that is created by romantic love to keep partners together through the hard times evolves into a powerful organic bond through the process of resolving conflict.

The way we have come to see it is that nature is healing itself in our relationships, restoring connection with split off parts. This is a spiritual process with psychological benefits. Each individual is a node of energy woven into the tapestry of Being, and the tapestry is frayed and weakened where there is conflict. With our self-awareness, we humans do not have to remain stuck in childhood ruts; we are uniquely able to correct what has gone wrong. And when we do it has cosmic consequences. When we heal our relationships, we heal the rift in nature, repairing the fabric of being, and in a small way, contributing to the wholeness of the human situation.

Making the Choice for a Conscious Relationship

A Conscious Relationship is not for the faint-hearted, for it requires reclaiming the lost, repressed parts of ourselves which we were told were dangerous to have, and which we unconsciously hate ourselves for having. And it means learning more effective coping mechanisms than the crying or anger or withdrawal that have become so habitual for us, rupturing our connection. It means reconnecting through dialogue, stretching to give our partners what they need to heal. [Try this. See Exercise 3 below] This is not easy, but it works.

Regardless of what we may believe, relationships are not 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 is in disguise--and, like you, in pain. A Conscious Relationship itself is the therapy you need to restore your sense of aliveness and recover your wholeness, and set you on the path of real love and reconnection with the Cosmos which is your essential nature and destiny.

Exercise 1
Make a list of positive and negative traits of both your parents. Then make a similar list describing your partner.

Exercise 2
Check it out. Make a list of the traits you like least in your partner. Then make a list of the traits you like best in yourself. Compare the two and share with your partner.

Exercise 3
Try this. Ask you partner to state their deepest frustration with you. Then ask what they need most from you. Listen without reacting. Mirror accurately what they say. Validate their point of view. Express empathy for the feelings. Stretch to meet their deepest need.

Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt are partners in life and work.  Harville is author of Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples, and they are co-authors of a companion book Meditations and Exercises for Getting the Love You Want. For more information, visit or