Arleen Maiorano

Gestalt Therapy and Imago Relationship Therapy: an Interface


As a Gestalt Therapist, also trained in Imago Relationship Therapy, I am struck by the profound influence of the philosopher Martin Buber on both these theoretical approaches.  In 1923, Buber wrote “I-Thou,” a radical essay on the relational nature of existence, postulating that we are always in relation and that the “I” is always affected by, and emerging in relationship to the “Thou.”  Buber made a distinction between two types of interpersonal relationships, the “I-It”, necessary for survival, in which we use each other to meet pragmatic and emotional needs; and the “I-Thou,” necessary for personhood, in which we have an authentic experience of our partners in dialogue, understanding and honoring their “otherness,” and attempting to appreciate their experience as well as our own.  Buber is most interested in the process of meeting, or the “between.”  This is the sacred space that is created between two individuals as they meet at the boundary of contact and attempt to look at and experience the world through the other’s eyes.  The essence of gestalt therapy is to maintain our awareness of this space, as we work with our clients.  Similarly, the essence of Imago therapy is to teach couples how to become aware of and honor this space, in their ongoing interactions with each other.

Gestalt therapists work toward what Buber calls inclusion, the attempt to experience what the client is experiencing, from his/her side of the dialogue; and toward confirmation, the acceptance of our client’s feelings and behaviors, and the recognition that they cannot, in any given present moment, be any different than they are.  In an attempt to help couples achieve inclusion and confirmation toward a partner, often extremely difficult during those moments when needs or perceptions differ, and/or when childhood feelings are triggered, Imago therapy outlines a structured process in which each partner takes turns listening to the other, almost adopting a quasi-therapeutic stance.  Rather than engaging defensively and reactively, each partner is “heard” by the grace and generosity of the other.

This process is called the Imago Couples Dialogue, and it consists of three processes: mirroring, validation and empathy.   Mirroring is the process of reflecting back the “content” of a message from a partner. The most common form of mirroring is paraphrasing, a statement of your understanding of the message a partner has sent.  It indicates a willingness to be curious about and to accurately reflect back your partner’s perception of feelings or events, along with a willingness to temporarily suspend your own need to share your version of what might have occurred. Validation is a communication to the sending partner that you understand how the information being received and mirrored “makes sense,”  indicating that you can see your partner’s point of view and can accept its validity—its “truth” for the partner.  To validate your partner’s message does not mean that you agree with it, or that it reflects your subjective experience. It merely recognizes the fact that in any communication between two persons there is a subjective way of “seeing” which is the “truth” for each person, sometimes influenced by deep-seated “knowing” or “learning” based on prior (especially early childhood) experiences. It also recognizes that no “objective view” is possible.  Empathy recognizes the “self” in the other. It is the process of reflecting, imagining or participating in the feelings the sending partner is experiencing about the event or the situation being reported. This deep level of communication attempts to recognize, reach into and, on some level, experience the emotions of the sending partner. This allows both partners to transcend their separateness, even if only for a moment, and to experience a genuine “meeting.”

Gestalt Therapy and Imago Relationship Therapy have one other very important thing in common:  despite the profound philosophical ground that they both inhabit, they are both very practical.  Gestalt Therapy is well known for offering an “experiment” at the end of a session, a bit of “homework” that allows the client to practice a new attitude or new behavior.  Similarly, the last step in the Couples Dialogue is the Gift or Behavior Change Request, in which each partner commits to a positive behavior change: one specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-limited action that addresses each partner’s unmet need or desire.  Both theoretical approaches recognize that action is just as important as awareness and, in fact, creates the ground for growth, as each person experiences the triumphs or difficulties that emerge in the trying on of new behaviors.

Arleen Maiorano



I’ve been asked to talk a little bit more about triangulation, so  here goes. Let’s begin where I left off, with Harville Hendrick’s question:  “Would you rather be right or be in a relationship?”  The most serious problem with triangulation is that it is often an attempt to enlist friends, colleagues and/or family members in our quest to be “right” when we feel “wronged.”   There is often strength in numbers, so when we feel powerless we seek allies.  We act outside of the relationship, instead of inside, which is the only place where healing communication can take place.

Most of us know the intense feelings that overcome us when we are in the midst of a fight with a romantic partner, a parent, a boss, or any other figure with whom we have an intense and often dependant relationship.  Aspects of these relationships often trigger, or in the case of a parent re-trigger, a confirmation of our world view that we are being unjustly treated, unfairly accused, ignored, devalued, etc.  We then feel a combination of self-righteousness, powerlessness, and rage, and this is often felt by both parties, each feeling “right” and each feeling “wronged,” an escalation that can happen so quickly that we find ourselves unable to respond with awareness and good judgment.

In Gestalt Therapy, we would call this emotional place of “rightness” a polarity: we tend to re-create and re-experience early family dynamics in our relationships, continually finding ourselves stuck in one side or the other, often having the same fight with the same person with the same words, as if we are in a Shakespearean play and we have memorized our lines.  We tend to go to our friends and colleagues after these moments, to confirm our sense of injustice.  But, paradoxically and sadly, we then also confirm our belief that we are powerless; that the world is unfair; and that the people we love will always let us down.

This is at odds with the Gestalt/Relational perspective which is based on the premise that we most fully embrace our authenticity in relationships, and facilitate mutual healing, when we meet someone at the boundary of contact. We then can attempt to understand our partner’s perspective and invite him/her to understand ours; even more important, we can attempt to understand the mutual and co-created dynamic that emerges from our interaction. The two wounded inner children can meet, and instead of fighting for survival in the only way they have known, they can begin to collaborate and build a safer and more caring partnership which acknowledges and validates the feelings of both partners.  This is the ultimate healing potential of a relationship: we get a second chance to be part of a loving and supportive partnership, instead of repeating what we have always known and being disappointed all over again.  We get to do it a different, better way.  We have to talk to each other to do this, however, and not to someone else, unless that someone else has the wisdom to be empathic to both sides and send us back to our relationship to do the work that needs to be done.  But, to be clear, then we would not be triangulating.

Arleen Maiorano

Some Relationship Survival Skills


Being in an adult love relationship can be a difficult task for many people. Even when we function very well in work or in friendships we can find ourselves experiencing emotional extremes in a love relationship that simply do not exist in these other areas.  These extremes include intense love and connection, as well as intense rage, suspiciousness, disappointment, fear of abandonment, neediness, and entitlement.  Most experts agree that this is related to our re-creation of the early symbiotic bonds we experienced in our families. Our deeply engrained emotional “memories” emerge when we least expect them and we can respond to a nuance or a tone in our partner’s voice with an intensity that more realistically belongs to these past relationships. The art of being in an adult love relationship involves learning how to recognize our own emotional “triggers” and then making a commitment to managing these triggers in a more reasoned and effective way. In my work with couples, I’ve developed these strategies for this ongoing work of being in-relationship.

Stop, Identify Your Feelings, and Check Them Out:
Just because you feel something (attacked, threatened, blamed, hurt, rejected), this does not necessarily reflect your partner’s intention. In fact, in the case of intense and repetitively occurring feelings, this is probably not the case. As stated, these intense and repetitive feelings are usually deeply ingrained emotional body memories and sensate responses related to childhood trauma. Check out the reality of these feelings with your partner.

For example: “I’m feeling criticized. Is it your intention to criticize me now?”
Instead of: “How dare you talk to me like that?”

Listen to What Your Partner Has to Say:
Breathe, stay open, and reach for empathy. Stop explaining or defending, and really listen to the content of what your partner is saying; even try to repeat it back (active listening). It is unproductive to counter-attack, counter-threaten, counter-blame, or counter-reject in an attempt to manage your emotions. As an adult you can survive being blamed, rejected, threatened, or attacked, even if it is actually happening. You do not have to fight as if your survival depends on it, and you do not have to be vindicated in the moment. The need to “win” or be “right” also cuts off the opportunity to have a dialogue about what may be our partner’s legitimate need or disappointment.

For example: “You’re saying that you’re upset that I didn’t think about making dinner. I see that this was very important to you. You would have liked me to think of you.”
Instead of: “How can you talk to me about making dinner? When was the last time you did anything for me?”

Contain Your Feelings, Don’t Act Out:
Stop, breathe, and attempt to make contact with and support the frightened, hurt, or angry child within. This is your job, not your partner’s. Your sense of well-being cannot be dependant on your partner’s behavior or validation. This is how you felt as a child, when your survival did depend on the good will and validation of an often irrational or non-respectful adult. Remember that your partner is probably imperfect, rather than of truly bad intention. Remember that two people of good will can have different perceptions of the same situation, each rooted in his/her own experience. Support yourself, so you can be open to your partner’s experience.

For example: Say to yourself: “These are my familiar childhood feelings. I don’t have to defend myself. I can breathe through these feelings. I can wait to react. I can be open to what my partner is saying.”
Instead of: “Unless you admit what you’re doing, this relationship is over. I can’t be with someone I don’t trust.”

Ask for What You Need:
Just because your partner has not intuited your need, does not mean he/she has actively rejected or shamed you. Your partner may be anxious, depressed, threatened, unaware, or even self-involved.  Hopefully, he/she is educable and of good will, and hopefully you are working on building a relationship together. Hopefully, your partner will learn to be more aware and responsive over time. Ask for what you need, rather than making a statement about what you’re not getting. This creates a shift toward hopefulness and openness, and away from blame and self- fulfilling negative prophecy.

For example: “You know how easily I feel criticized. Could you try to say the same thing without any blame attached? Could you try and just tell me about your own need or reaction.”
Instead of: “You are just a mean person. You’ll never learn how to talk to another human being.”

Accept Frustration or Disappointment:
Your partner cannot always give you what you need, even when you do ask directly, usually because of his/her own emotional trauma and imperfections. In a good relationship, we get some of what we need most of the time. In a great relationship, we get most of what we need most of the time. Over time, you can assess whether you have a “good enough” partner and a “good enough” relationship, and you can make decisions about the relationship based on your assessment. This  cannot  be done in the heat of the moment, during one fight or because of one disagreement. As adults, we can survive not having our needs met, even needs that are deeply felt. This is part of accepting our partner as an imperfect, separate human being. Again, our survival does not depend on a specific emotional need being met immediately, and we can only assess the value of the relationship and the full measure of our partner over time.

For example:  “I’m disappointed that you keep criticizing me and I feel upset by it. I hope we can work out a better way to talk about your frustration (hurt, disappointment…) in the future.”
Instead of: “This relationship is hopeless. I’ll never get what I need from you.  I’m leaving.”

Attempt to Work Out Feelings  Inside the Relationship:
This is especially important when you find yourself confirming familiar negative thoughts or feelings (triangulating) with a friend or even with a therapist, or when you find yourself withdrawing into a private self-congratulating mental dialogue. If you confirm your negative world-view, you will feel morally superior and you may even feel safe, but you will not develop a partnership. This is the opposite of being in a relationship. It is like being alone—either with yourself, or with someone who is offering you a mirror image of yourself–and it only serves to confirm your childhood emotional world-view and set of expectations.  As Harville Hendricks once asked, “Would you rather be right or be in a relationship?”

For example (to a friend): “I know you’re trying to support me, but I should really bring these feelings back to my relationship and see if I can work them out there.  It’s too easy to confirm all my negative feelings.”
Instead of:  “Don’t you agree that I’m right? Can you believe how badly he/she acted?  Isn’t he/she unbelievable?”