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The Imago Theory

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Dear Dr. Yael:

You often discuss the Imago theory. I am not sure I understand what it is.

Even though I am in a good marriage (we are married for less than a year), I sometimes witness things that remind me of my parents’ marriage, which was not so good. I often find myself overreacting to my husband’s anger, though I realize it is because my father is a very angry person.

If I understood the Imago theory correctly, I am projecting my feelings about my parents’ marriage onto mine. Is that possible?

Anonymous

Dear Anonymous:

As a way of explaining the Imago theory, a concept I use in doing marital therapy, I am going to present a hypothetical marital dispute and through the dynamics of the argument explain the theory.

Avrumi and Sarale spent Motzaei Shabbos by her parents for a family melaveh malkah. They left their young children at home with a babysitter. The evening went well; Avrumi spent the time in the dining room with his father-in-law and brothers-in-law singing and eating, while Sarale was in the kitchen with her mother, sisters and sisters-in-law talking, laughing and enjoying.

Ready to go home, Avrumi enters the kitchen. Loudly and jovially, he says, “Yak, yak, Sarale. I heard you talking non-stop throughout the evening. Your voice was the loudest and you did not even come up for air. My dear eishes chayil, you certainly have the gift of gab.”

Sarale then replies tearfully, “You really are a killjoy. I had such a great time tonight. Why do you have to embarrass me in front of everyone? Let’s go.”

In the car, Sarale says, “I really want to talk to you about what happened tonight. Why do we always end up fighting whenever we go to my parents or your parents?

“I think we really have a great marriage when we are home with our children. You are an amazing father and we have great times talking to each other. However, whenever we go to our parents’ houses for Shabbos, Yom Tov or any occasion, you seem to get upset that I talk too much or too loudly. Last time, when we were by your parents, you were upset by how much your mother and I were talking. I really like your mother, and I would think that you would be happy that we get along so well.”

Avrumi: “I am sure that you like my mother; you are so similar to her. Both of you never stop talking. It drives me crazy.”

Sarale: “It seems to drive you crazy when I talk and have a good time with either your mother or my own mother. Why wouldn’t you be happy that I am having a good time?”

Avrumi: “It’s not that I don’t want you to have a good time, it’s just that I grew up with a mother who always spoke a lot. And you know my father. It just drives him crazy.”

Sarale: “I know your father, and we both agree that he does not give your mother the proper derech eretz. My mother also likes to talk, but my father will never hurt or embarrass her.”

Avrumi: “If you know it drives me crazy, maybe you should speak a little less and not so loud so that I don’t feel like I am back in my parent’s home with my mother.”

Sarale: “Maybe you should work on not listening to what is going on in another room and just enjoy yourself with the men. Why were you even paying attention to the conversation in the kitchen? Why is this your business?”

Avrumi: “Because I do not want my wife to be like my mother or my mother-in-law. Both of our mothers seem to talk a lot. It drives me crazy.”

Sarale: “Does it really drive you crazy? We can talk to each other for hours and have such a great time. Am I not fun to be with when we’re alone? So why can’t I be that same Sarale with our mothers, sisters, and sisters-in-law? This is who I am.

“You seem to be happy with me being this way as your wife. Maybe you just saw your father scream at your mother too much. I think that your mother is an amazingly fun, full-of-life woman and that your father is grumpy and always annoyed. I never want you to turn into your father. Do you remember that during our first year of marriage, we decided that we would try to be more like my parents, who seem to have derech eretz for each other? To be honest, here’s how I see it: Your mother has derech eretz for your father; your father is the problem.”

Avrumi: “You are really hurting me now. You know that I am nothing like my father. I am a much more loving and involved father to our children, and I think that I am a better husband as well.”

Sarale: “Yes, you are a great father and wonderful husband. It is only when we go to our parents’ houses that this argument seems to happen. Please just think about it.”

Avrumi: “Okay, I will.”

What was actually happening in this marriage? Avrumi was reacting to Sarale based on his childhood. He saw his father always upset because his mother spoke a lot, and when his wife was fun and talkative with his or her family he overreacted by getting upset.

Avrumi’s Imago is based on his childhood. In his Imago – the image formulated in his childhood – he remembers a lot of fighting at home and his father humiliating his mother for being too talkative and too loud. Even though he loves Sarale’s personality when they’re together, when he hears her talking to others, he suddenly hears his mother’s voice and it makes him feel uncomfortable.

The Imago theory is very complicated. For example, it can entail a wife hearing her husband getting angry and becoming overly upset due to her father’s constant anger. But it can reveal itself in positive ways as well. For instance, if a woman had a very warm and loving father and then marries a warm and loving husband, she may continue to have a positive Imago and enjoy an excellent relationship with her husband. In therapy, the Imago is usually a problem when it is a negative one.

In your marriage, your father’s anger is the negative Imago that is buried in your heart. When you hear your husband’s anger you suddenly hear your father’s anger. I hope this awareness will help you become less angry with your husband. But if this issue is deeper than what I’ve picked up, please seek professional help. Hatzlachah!

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