Build your dream marriage part 2: Turn conflicts into healing and growth opportunities


We’ve been programmed to believe that conflicts in marriage are bad! That’s NOT true!! Conflicts in marriage can bring us to new levels of healing and growth we would never experience otherwise.

A dream marriage is a true partnership where you find the healing and wholeness you’re looking for. Conflicts are what provide opportunity for that!

There are four reasons conflicts provide our best opportunities to heal and grow.

1. We marry our ‘IMAGO’.

We marry our what?!

Imago is Latin for ‘image’. Dr. Harville Hendrix coined the term to refer an image we carry around in our unconscious minds.

In order for us to fall in love with someone, that person must match that image, or we simply won’t fall.

The Imago consists of…

(1) the positive and negative TRAITS OF OUR EARLY OUR CARETAKERS, and

(2) the LOST PARTS OF OURSELVES; i.e. skills in our thinking, feeling, sensing, and doing that we never developed growing up.

All the child development theories tell us that children create representations in their minds, pictures of their caretakers. This picture recedes into our unconscious and becomes what we now know, according to modern science, a neural network in our lower brain (brainstem and limbic system).

Because this part of our brain only sees images, this ‘Imago’ is kind of like a Monet painting, a fuzzy image that is a composite of our parents’ positive and negative traits.

As you seek a life partner, this image filters out of consideration everyone whose traits are not similar to your early caretakers.

And it draws you to a person who not only matches your parents’ traits, but one who also exhibits those disowned, denied and lost parts of yourself.

Are you kidding me? Can this be real?

Sure! Let’s say you meet a person who is beautiful, or handsome, or smart. They seem compatible, and share common interests with you.

Think of how many people you’ve met like that. Hundreds perhaps!

But, have you noticed, no matter how great they are, if they don’t have, for example, your father’s anger, or your mother’s depression, or the withholding nature of a grandmother who helped parent you, they are absolutely, totally uninteresting?!

Sure this is a theory, but I’m finding it to be true more and more as I continue to practice Imago Couples Therapy based on this concept.

When a person comes along who matches these traits, especially the negative traits, your lower brain signals the release of the chemicals that cause you to fall blindly in love.

Take Mario and Rosa for example.


Mario’s mother’s had many positive traits including LOYALTY, and some negative traits including DEPRESSION and DETACHMENT.

As the third born of four children, Mario grew up feeling left out and invisible. Lost in the chaos surrounding a single mom struggling to meet the needs of four children, he often felt abandoned. His way of surviving that wound was to always be in control, and to be aggressive enough to get the attention he needed.

So who does he marry?

Rosa, who had traits similar to his mom. Mario was drawn to Rosa’s loyalty, and he later discovered her depression and ‘distant nature’ triggered his old wounds of abandonment.

Rosa’s Imago

Rosa’s father’s had many positive traits, including WORKING HARD, and some negative traits including ANGER and the need to be in CONTROL.

She learned early on to stay out of the way, to detach emotionally, and avoid the conflict that seemed to always surround her dad.

And who does she marry?

Mario, who had traits similar to her dad. Rosa was drawn to Mario’s hard working nature, and she later discovered that his angry outbursts and controlling nature triggered her old wounds and fear of closeness.

OK, wait! Why would I be drawn to someone who triggers my pain and brings out the worst in me?!

Keep reading. This will all make sense. Trust me.

The Romantic Stage

When you meet your Imago, you become intensely attracted and fall in love, because your lower brain signals the ‘ok’ to release dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin into your system. That’s when you realize there’s ‘chemistry’ between you.

When Rosa and Mario fell in love, they felt fully alive and saw life in vivid color! They felt they had finally arrived! They felt they had found someone who ‘not only understands me, but is willing to meet all my needs’!

In this ‘drugged up state’ they were totally unaware of how their negative traits would eventually affect each other.

Can you relate?

This is called ROMANTIC FANTASY and it doesn’t last! The drugs wear off and the rose-colored glasses are soon ripped from your face.

The Power Struggle Stage

About nine months after Mario and Rosa said ‘I do’, their romance began to fade and the Power Struggle began.

When Rosa felt the slightest inkling of Mario’s anger and control, she would detach emotionally in order to feel safe. This is what she learned to do growing up with a father who could explode at any provocation.

Rosa’s withdrawal would then trigger more of Mario’s anger and controlling behavior. It activated the lonely feelings he felt when his mother couldn’t be there for him. He learned to be aggressive to get what he needed growing up.

And, you can probably guess how it went down from there’¦

Mario’s angry reaction triggered more withdrawal in Rosa causing him to become even more angry and controlling…

And it was ‘game on’! The Power Struggle.

A destructive cycle of cat and mouse!

It was Mario, overly aggressive in his pursuit of connection, and Rosa, withdrawing in her fear of connection.

Rosa and Mario fell in love not just because Rosa was beautiful and Mario was handsome, or any of those normal reasons we imagine, but mainly because they were an Imago match!

Becoming aware of their Imago match was the first step toward seeing conflict as the key to healing and growth.

The second step was to realize…

2. Our unconscious relationship agenda is to HEAL the past.

This matching of Imagos is driven by an agenda to heal past wounds.

It’s actually two lower brains colluding to fulfill nature’s drive to heal wounded emotions.


Rosa’s lower brain perceived Mario as one who, because he was similar to her dad, could activate the old wounds she experienced from her dad’s anger.

OK Chuck, now you ARE talking crazy! How could this be a good thing?!!

Because experts tell us our emotional wounds heal best when they are activated by someone similar to the one who caused the wound.

If this person triggers that old pain, and then responds in a healing way rather than a hurtful way, there is nothing on the planet that can facilitate your healing better than this!

This is why marriage is the best place to find healing. Better than any therapist alone can facilitate.

Rosa’s need for healing

Rosa’s unconscious relationship agenda was that Mario, when triggered, would not explode in anger, but respond in a different way. She needed Mario to be present with her making it safe for her to stay connected with him.

Her hope (and her real reason for falling in love) was that Mario would heal the wound that her father’s anger inflicted.

This is the love that Rosa always secretly longed for. And she discovered that the best person to give her that love and help her heal her past was Mario, the one who happened to have the greatest potential to bring her more pain!

Mario’s need for healing

Mario’s unconscious relationship agenda was that Rosa, when triggered, would not withdraw like his mom did, but respond differently and stay present with him.

His hope (and his real reason for falling in love) was that Rosa’s presence would heal the wound that his mother’s emotional distance inflicted.

This is the love Mario always secretly longed for. And he discovered that Rosa, while being the least capable person to give that love, was the best person on the planet to help heal his past!

The Couple’s Dialogue

The Couple’s Dialogue provided a process for them both to validate each other, and to empathize with each other in a way that began to turn their conflicts into this kind of healing connection.

And here’s a wonderful reality that brings lots of hope!

Our lower brain doesn’t register time. It exists in a constant present tense. Therefore, when you finally get the love you’ve always longed for, it doesn’t complain, ‘Well you’re about 15 years too late! That’s what I needed as a child!’

No, it says, ‘Finally, I’m getting what I always needed!’ And the healing begins!

So conflict becomes an opportunity for healing when we discover our unconscious agenda to heal the past.

There’s a final reason to embrace conflict…

3. Our unconscious relationship agenda is to GROW toward wholeness.

Mario’s need for growth

Rosa’s need for healing was a call for Mario to grow in the skills needed to regulate his anger, and patiently wait for Rosa to respond to his need for connection. It was Mario’s growth in this respect that would bring healing to Rosa.

This required Mario to stretch grow and discover a part of himself that was there all along, but was lost or never developed growing up.

As Rosa learned to voice her frustrations in the form of positive requests, Mario grew in his ability to regulate his anger, and to let go of his need to be in control. This made it safe for Rosa to stay present with him.

Rosa’s need for growth

On the other hand, Mario’s need for healing was a call for Rosa to grow in her ability to stay present with him and to overcome her fear of closeness. It was Rosa’s growth in this way that would bring healing to Mario.

As Mario voiced his frustration in the form of positive requests, Rosa grew in her ability to lower her walls of protection and become vulnerable and emotionally present with Mario.  She learned the skills needed to share her feelings in a way that helped her gradually overcome her fear of intimacy.

From Rosa’s and Mario’s example, we can see that’¦

Your marriage partner’s need for healing provides a blueprint for your own growth, and vice versa.

Conflict is a sign that growth is needing to happen. It’s a sign that something new is wanting to emerge in your life and relationship. It’s your partner’s need that points to the specific area you most need to grow.

When you give your partner the very things you feel you just CAN’T give (because you never developed that ability), you end up getting a piece of yourself you never had before.

Partners who grow by stretching into these new ‘caring behaviors’ often report feeling more fully alive than they ever have before. It seems they benefit even more than the partner who receives healing!

What about you?

Is your relationship in conflict?

Has your romantic love faded, turning your dream marriage into a nightmare?

Does it seem like falling in love was simply nature’s way of getting you to hook up permanently with the most incompatible person on the planet?  

Are you asking ‘Why would nature drive me into the arms of someone who ends up frustrating me to no end?’

Well, now you know!

It was your inner drive to heal past hurts, and to discover and grow lost parts of yourself that caused you to fall in love.

And there’s no better person to heal and grow with than the one you’re with right now!

Click here to download a Brief Relationship Workup that will help you learn about your own Imago.

Click here to use the Workup to discover your own Unconscious Relationship Agenda.

Ping me if you’d like help and I’ll walk you through it!

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    Author: Chuck Starnes

    Chuck Starnes is a relationship coach who is passionate about helping couples find the safety, connection, passion and full-aliveness they are looking for together. He also helps organizations become more productive by improving relationship and communication skills.

    2 thoughts on “Build your dream marriage part 2: Turn conflicts into healing and growth opportunities”

    1. Herb Tannenbaum says:

      This is a great article and flushed out so much important informations for couples and explains Imago concepts clearly and in a way that enlightens all of is on the journey to the relationship of our dreams. Thank you for putting the article together and sharing it.
      Herb Tannenbaum, Ph.D.

      1. Thank you Herb. And thanks for being such an valuable mentor to me and so many others.

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