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Harville Hendrix pioneered the relationship therapy called Imago. (Michael Falco for The Globe and Mail)
Harville Hendrix pioneered the relationship therapy called Imago. (Michael Falco for The Globe and Mail)

Sarah Hampson: The Interview

The love gospel according to Harville Hendrix Add to ...

"When something archetypal possesses you, you're actually owned by that energy. It's not something you keep pumping up. It keeps flowing through you and you feel alive and energized, and more ideas come and more structure comes, and after awhile you have a vision."

That's Harville Hendrix speaking, so get ready. Sit comfortably. Batten down the hatches. He has paused. But not for long.

The global couples guru and former youth pastor is on his pulpit - at this moment, the phone, in advance of a speaking engagement in Toronto this week. From his home in New York, he's letting it all flow: his history as a pioneer of the marital therapy called Imago, now practised by more than 2,000 therapists in 21 countries around the world; his Oprah Winfrey-endorsed book, Getting the Love You Want, which continues to be on bestseller lists more than 20 years since its release; his own marital mistakes (one divorce, one almost-divorce); his theory on how to be blissfully wed (it starts with banishing all negativity); his passion (he will turn 75 in the fall, but he's not slowing down); and his vision.

It's a big one, that vision. He'll launch a global couples' educational initiative (as yet unnamed) this summer, but the outcome he expects won't come to fruition for about 50 years, he figures. Which is why he has taken to eating mainly raw foods - vegetables mostly and a little fish - and never drinks alcohol. He wants to be alive when it all begins to happen.

"We have discovered that the violence on the planet arises out of the dysfunction in the family, the core of which is the couple." The statement gets put out there, just like that. No gentle introduction. He rephrases for clarity. "All violence on the planet is the family writ large." He pauses as if to let his audience absorb it. "We now know where the demon is of the human tragedy, the human problem. The demon is in the family."

I'm thinking what you're thinking: Wow and eek and oh dear.

"Oh, yes," he replies assuredly when I express my incredulity. His delivery is not so much fire and brimstone as water and silk. "The crystallization happened five years ago," he explains soothingly. "It seemed kind of cliché, but that cliché was suddenly filled with luminous energy, and I thought, 'My God, if that's the case, I've been working on peace on Earth all of my life right here with these couples. So I'm not doing therapy. We're actually doing planetary healing.' "

Attribute the vision to getting old. Five years ago, just as he was about to turn 70, Dr. Hendrix completed the transition of Imago into a "legacy organization, so that if I die one day" - yes, he did say if - "I want a system set up so that no one competes for supremacy." He transferred power to a board of directors, stayed on the board for two years, and then let others run it on their own. "I didn't have job, and I was free for the first time to think about what we have achieved."

It had all begun in the aftermath of his first divorce in 1975. He and his wife, parents of two children, had been married for 16 years. At the time, he was a professor who taught marriage and family therapy as well as the psychology of religion at a theological seminary in Dallas. "But I was totally unconscious," he says. "There's no relationship between what you know and what you teach," he adds ruefully.

But with the break-up of his marriage, he felt compelled to gain insight into the mystery of romantic relationships. Conflict resolution, which was the prevailing therapy practice of the time, didn't delve into the underlying psychological reasons couples don't get along. After studying various practices of religion, psychology and psychotherapy, he developed Imago, his own theory of marital happiness. In essence, he believes that we all emerge from childhood with psychic wounds and that the unconscious mind seeks out romantic partners who resemble one or both parents - or parts of both. "Every marriage is a consequence of childhood," he states. The unconscious mind wants to heal those wounds, but that can only be achieved if both participants in a relationship are aware of what those hurts were. "We become partners with each other in the project of helping each other finish childhood."

In 1977, while he was practising Imago with clients he met Helen LaKelly Hunt, a Texan oil heiress, a trained psychologist and mother of two who had also recently divorced. Still, his relationship faltered, he admits. They married in 1982, and had two more children, but encountered "really difficult problems for the first 10 years." They weren't practicing Imago themselves. "It was like the preacher preaching about fidelity but having an affair."

They turned their marriage around by dedicating themselves to "do what we know worked," he says. Imago therapy states that negativity must be replaced with curiosity in each other and compassion. "It means you take a positive stance towards your partner," Dr. Hendrix says. "You see them as a partner, not as you, as having their own inner world. You accept that and don't judge."

They found that they had been living in an inequitable marriage, which fuelled their conflict. She had grown up in a patriarchal model and unwittingly repeated that in her first, unhappy marriage. She also allowed Dr. Hendrix to be the lead in their relationship, especially as it pertained to their work in marriage therapy and the authorship of the 1988 book that made his name. "My creativity was a function of the nature of our discussions," he says now of Getting the Love You Want. "Helen wasn't just a dumb blonde who said, 'Oh, that's good.' She had input. She is an educated woman on her own." For the 20th anniversary of the book, which has sold more than two million copies, it was republished with her name as co-author. They have also co-authored several other books, and Dr. LaKelly Hunt has become a leading feminist, elected to the U.S. National Women's Hall of Fame for her work and founder of the Sister Fund, a small, private foundation for the support of women and girls.

Both are working on new Imago-based books. "Some people think we're crazy and pathological and obsessive compulsive," he offers. "But we're not! We're alive! We're pulled into the future! …

"I once wanted to save the world for Christ and now I want to save the world through marriage and love," he says. "It's the same message, only more concrete. Now we know that if can teach couples to restore their empathetic resonance that they can actually heal one another and become loving. And so love is born on Earth, in couplehood."

And that, dear reader, is the end of the sermon.

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