How to Make Love Last: Interview with Imago Relationship Therapist Sulfiati Magnuson

Most committed relationships begin where fairy tales end  - the Ever After. While the beginning of a romantic relationship has all the bells and whistles of love and excitement, the long-term maintenance requires hard work and perseverance. I have met with Imago Relationship Therapist Sulfiati Magnuson to learn about the challenges that people face in a relationship and the opportunities of healing and growth these challenges offer. I hope that after reading this article you will have a better understanding of the nature of mature love and will have gained useful tools for improving your communications with yourself and your loved ones, while surrounding yourself with love that lasts.

Sulfiati Magnuson brings her rich life experience to her therapeutic practice.  A mother of three adult children, she has also had both corporate and academic careers, worked in a hospice, was a lay midwife and childbirth educator, taught at the university level, and is an artist.  Sulfiati has been a Certified Imago Relationship Therapist for over ten years, and has mentored other Imago therapists. Her post-graduate training includes Sandplay Therapy and Sex Therapy. She has also been trained as a Psychodrama Group Director.  She offers therapy to adults in the Pacific Northwest, as well as around the United States and other countries as well from Kirkland’s Totem Lake area of Seattle's Eastside since 1996. She is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in the State of Washington (LMHC). She has taught, "When a Community Weeps," at Antioch University Seattle, and various courses for professionals on trauma at local mental health agencies.  She has been a Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Counselor. Her education includes getting her B.A. in Psychology, Creativity and Spirituality, as well as her M.A. in Psychology, Mental Health Counseling, both from Antioch University Seattle.

As an Imago Relationship Therapist, what are the most common issues among couples who come to therapy?

First, I’d like to thank you Anat, for this opportunity to talk about Imago Relationship Therapy, as it is something I have been very passionate about ever since first encountered it 12 years ago.

I would say that there are a couple of complaints that people actually verbalize at their first appointment. The first one is - “I’m not in love anymore with my partner. We are like room mates.” Couples are desperate to understand why all the “warm fuzzies” butterflies, roses, passionate sex and spontaneity that made them excited at just the thought of being together are no longer the staple of their relationship.  People latch on to the idea that “falling out of love” must be the answer, and is enough reason to end a relationship, and move in the hopes finding “the right person” the next time. Our culture infuses us with the belief that romantic love is the only kind of love there is, like what we see in the movies, or learned from fairytales. Successful models of mature love where people chose to be healing partners, as well as lovers, friends and co-managers of household and family, are regrettably rare.

The second most common complaint I hear is - “We can’t communicate anymore,” with one or both of the partners feeling unheard and therefore not valued.  Unlike traditional couples therapy where the therapist acts like a mediator, and often takes sides, I teach people real tools, in real time that assure improved communication.  The end result is that people come away having been heard, validated, and feeling closer again.

How do you approach these concerns with Imago Therapy?

I ask the couple to tell me their story about how they came together and if there was an initial “spark.”   If there was chemistry, it indicates that the bonding experience romantic love does provide, took place. The answer is usually yes, not always, but usually. Sometimes people make a calculated choice about their partner, but most often there is that period of time when you think you have finally met the person you believe is going to give you all the love you could possibly imagine. Finally!

During the romantic period, you are literally “high” on powerful chemicals in your brain. These chemicals are the same ones activated between mothers nursing their babies. The purpose is the same - to create the bonding experience. When these chemicals stop, as they invariably will in less than three years, the opportunity for mature love arises. In order for mature love to develop you must, in a way, fall in love again with the person as they really are, not just as you imagined they would be, or wanted them to be for you.

This is very much a struggle, because in our media-driven culture, we don’t have many examples of robust, satisfying, passionate mature love. We do have examples of quite the opposite where people get addicted to the thrill of a new love and go from one to another, never finding lasting love, satisfaction or peace. This pursuit is very intoxicating, but there is often the hangover of bitterness, resentment, confusion, blame, sadness, and ultimately -pain.

I frequently see this kind of relational history with individuals who come for therapy. People are often longing for relationship when they have never been able to have a sustained relationship because they have this misunderstanding about the true nature of relationships and the conscious work it requires.

From the Imago perspective the ideal relationship is one in which people become a healing source for each other, to heal the deepest wounds sustained from childhood, or previous relationships. Each of us longs to be the most whole, alive and complete version of ourselves that we can be, and the nest of a mature love is just the place for this to take place.

Is there a different Imago approach when treating couples or individuals?

The Imago therapy approach is a little bit different with couples and individuals, although both require the same personal introspection and work.  With couples, the person who has decided that they have fallen out of love is determined to not be vulnerable with their partner, and justified in leaving the relationship. The rejected partner is confused and hurt and dumbfounded, and maybe angry, but usually they are the ones who are vulnerable.  The first thing is to create safety in my office that both partners will feel safe enough to be vulnerable with each other, and with me.  Or, the person who has initiated coming to therapy wants me to “fix” their partner, who they assume is the cause of all the discord and their pain.  It often comes as a shock when both parties understand that it takes two to create the nightmare. With individuals the exercises are the same as they are for couples: discovering what it is you bring into a relationship that needs healing; seeing who you think your perfect mate should be; learning what you are actually attracted to; and learning why previous relationships “failed.” The work someone does on themselves changes the way they are in their relationships so they don’t have to repeat the unpleasant heartaches of their past, or it can give someone the courage to actually risk falling in love for the first time.

How do you create safety that allows vulnerability?

I practice what is called Relational Therapy. The experience of the therapy itself is part of the healing process, not just education, tools, and exercises. I try to model the kind of behavior that I am teaching by not being judgmental or critical. Most people have had enough of that in their lives, either from parents, bosses, or even themselves! I’m empathetic, and endlessly curious about people and their stories.  We also know from current brain research that negative experiences impact the brain five times greater than positive ones, so I begin by modeling and coaching an atmosphere of appreciation and acceptance.

And then, what comes next?

In Imago, what we call The Intentional Dialogue teaches how to have conversations where each person is guaranteed to be truly heard. Communication is not just an exchange of data. Awareness is born that links up what you are feeling towards your partner at the present moment with what you have felt in your past that was painful or frustrating. In that process, people begin to see that they have projected their primary care giver’s face onto their partner. They go on responding and defending themselves, as they would have with the primary care giver who initially caused the pain. Once they see that, there is an awakening and something breaks open. I think it’s humbling actually, and it opens the door for them to question themselves and see their partner for who they truly are, not someone who may have abandoned, ignored, humiliated, dismissed, or abused them.

During therapy, do some people resist the Imago process? 

Sometimes someone is attached to their own concept of what a relationship should be and to feeling happy all the time. Or more frequently, they are attached to being “Right.” There is a saying, “You can either be ‘right,’ or in relationship.”  In many cases, they have not been exposed to the concept that real growth and eventually real peace and happiness often come from going through the journey of undergoing loss. This can come from the loss of your dreams or ideals, a person, a job, health, a belief system, a sense of safety, or whatever it is that takes you from a known, secure place in your heart into the unknown, and nothing is the way it was. It is a time for rebirth.

Could you tell if there is a gender, age, or education level that reacts better to Imago Therapy?

I’m not so sure there is a gender difference, although I think it is fair to say that most women are more comfortable discussing the realm of feelings and self-reflection than most men. However, this is certainly not always the case. I would say that people on the extreme ends of the age continuum are more challenged. The youngest couples I have worked with, in general, are so immersed into the cultural concept about relationship and just want to feel good so badly. They don’t want to have to work for it. They don’t want to have to  “be strategic.” They just want everything to be “natural” and “spontaneous,” so that’s a little hard for them. It takes a little bit of maturity to be disabused of those concepts. For people in their 70s, or 80’s, it’s also challenging but in a different way. People tend to be less flexible as they age, and they are less able to take on new thoughts, behaviors, and habits. It’s not impossible, but it takes a concerted effort.

 Sometimes education can play a role, but that doesn’t necessarily depend on how smart someone is. When someone has been educated, they have had the experience of taking in new thoughts. Carl Jung said the way he evaluated the status of someone’s mental health was the degree to which they were engaged in their own creativity. He was not saying weather they should be sculptors or painters or anything like that. When he talks about creativity, he is talking about the capacity to see something from a different perspective. To be able to see something differently than what you have originally thought. Educated people have more experience doing that. It comes down to being flexible and curious.

Would you say that the ideal age group for you to work with are people in their 40s and 50s?

{Considers}  It’s possible because by mid-life, people are beginning to realize that their life has become just what happened on the way to their dreams. It is a time ripe for discovering meaning, and assessing one’s identity. It’s also a time when people ask - “Is this how I want to live my one precious life?” It’s a very rich and exciting time of passage into maturity, and hopefully wisdom.

I do have the fantasy of being able to teach in high schools and colleges, so young people can have good communication skills, the courage to be vulnerable, and be realistic about relationships from an early age. I often have clients who come-in in their 30s or 40s and say - “You know, I’ve always being attracted to the bad boys! There is this nice guy once, and he treated me so well. Did I go for him? No! I went for the guy who was a loser, in debt, did drugs...” or - “She looked so great! We shared all the same activities! But man, she was crazy and I never saw it coming!” It would be so nice if we could just shortcut all that.

When someone comes with a history like that, I tell them - “You have been working on the same problem all these years, with all those people. They were your first attempt to heal what happened to you as a child. There is nothing to be ashamed of here. Have some compassion for yourself for doing the best you could. We are going to create a plan for you to have a different experience in relationship.”  If someone was physically abused as a child, for example, their first partner might be someone who also abuses them in some way. And maybe there is a second, but at some point they chose differently if they have had a different relational experience.

Is starting therapy early the key to happy and successful relationships?

I may be biased, but yes! I’m thinking of one couple whose parents gave them a gift of going to an Imago workshop for a wedding present!

It really can be an intervention at an early point in a relationship. The education of altering your expectations of your partner, and of yourself, and of relationships in general, can be a huge relief. It doesn’t mean necessarily that the couple will never get tripped up with their own unconscious triggers. I’ve worked with some couples for a long time, and then {laughs} they’ll come in and their feathers are all ruffled, and they just seemed to be exhausted, or barely speaking. I address them with the same seriousness as if I have never seen this before, and walk them through the Imago process to have a conscious dialogue about their frustrations with compassion for themselves and their partner, and retracting their projections onto their partner. It’s then when they go, “Oh, my Gosh, it happened again! How is it possible?” Such is the power of the unconscious where all our old wounds, and especially our old defenses, live. The same tools we used to survive early hurts in our lives become the defenses we use as adults. They no longer work, and have to be replaced by new, conscious behaviors. Harville Hendrix (the founder of Imago) often said, “I wrote the book, so you’d think I’d be able to not be triggered by my own past, but no! {Laughs} It’s not possible!”

You said you wish to start teaching Imago in high school, what message would you tell young people?

I would tell them - “There is so much more to relationship than you could even imagine!” to start with! I would teach them about the progression from romantic love to mature love. I would also teach them the communication skills that are the elements in the Imago Dialogue: with mirroring, validating and empathizing. These tools can be used with whoever you are in a conversation with, wherever you are.

Could you please explain these three elements: mirroring, validating, and emphasizing?

In the Imago Dialogue, someone is the sender and the other person is the receiver. Let’s say in high school during lunch break a friend comes up to you and starts with - “Oh my god, you wouldn’t believe what has just happened to me…” That person needs to talk. Your job is to be the receiver and be really present for your friend, and not jump in with your experience of a similar experience, or impatiently wait for your friend to finish (or even interrupt), or to be thinking of your response and not really being present for your friend. Or worse, by dismissing their experience by saying something like - “Oh, you shouldn’t feel that way! It’s no big deal!” Listening is a specific skill that involves more than just the ears, and often requires the courage to open your heart, self-soothing, and/or mindfulness.

In the mirroring process after someone speaks, you repeat back what was said to you with as much of the speaker’s words as you can. Sometimes someone needs literal word for word mirroring, and sometimes just summarizing is enough. The person will let you know what they need by how they respond. What that does is keep you from sitting there just waiting until it’s your chance to talk, until you say your version of the same thing, or give advice. And most importantly mirroring really  “holds” the other person in a way, like a virtual hug.

Validation begins before a person speaks, as I believe people really only do what makes sense to them. If someone doesn’t make sense to me, I just assume I don’t have enough data, yet. To continue the high school conversation, I should be able to say, “That makes sense! Wow! anyone would be thrilled/upset/challenged by that experience!” By validating someone, you are not agreeing with what the person says. You are letting them know that based on their own life experience, beliefs, etc., they make sense. This is a huge distinction that is very important to understand, especially if you disagree with what someone is saying. This is one of the most challenging, and consequently most rewarding of the skills that Imago has to offer.

Which also takes us to the next phase, which is empathy, in which you could imagine and see what the emotional impact is on someone of what they are sharing with you. You let them know that you get it, that you get what they are saying, that it matters to you, that they matter to you. Weather you are saying, “How awful,” or, “You must have been really scared.” The receiver is also stretched forward into the relationship by the self-discipline required in this exercise, and often the reward is learning something new about their partner, and through the genuine experience of empathy, people are often surprised when they describe their experience as “intimate.” And it is intimate, often more intimate than physical touch.

How do mirroring, validation, and empathy affect the sender?

In general, people feel respected, seen, and heard. Which is a gift. I would say that that is also one of the most common complaints that people present me with. They don’t feel that their partner hears them, sees them, or understands them. 

When I was studying to become an Imago therapist, I thought I’m going to try this out. One of my daughters was staying with me at the time and someone called for her. It was late at night and this woman was really upset. My daughter is a director of a youth theater, and the woman’s son was in a current play that was going to open in a couple of days. She was just angry and outraged, saying, “I’m pulling my son out of the production!” I took a deep breath, and just mirrored her, then validated and empathized with her situation. By the time I was done and said, “This must be very challenging for you,” she burst into tears and said, “My father is in the hospital and he is dying and I can’t manage getting my son to rehearsals at the same time when my father is dying!” And I said, “Of course.” I just continued mirroring, validating, and empathizing, and by the time we got off the phone she was done crying, and said, “Oh, just tell your daughter that I do love her so much.” {laughs} I could have said under my breath, “What a b----!” or, “I’ll give her your name and number. Bye!” and gotten off the phone as soon as possible.  Instead, it felt like a human connection, rather just an exchange of data or judgment. I knew then that the Imago Dialogue is simply a tool for connecting humans to their better selves, in any situation, at any time.

It seems like this method could also be used at the office.

Absolutely. You could even use it in a store! Parents have had great success with their children, particularly teenagers who really need to be heard or understood and seen, or adults with their siblings and/or parents. I find it particularly helpful when I have clients who have different religions, or political views.  When people come from different “cultures,” be it a culture of affluence or poverty, blue collar or academic, Norwegian or Irish, Imago relationship therapy offers a way to see that at our core, we humans are all the same, with the same fears and needs. Intrinsically, it’s taking two people who have different thoughts, belief systems, religions, or life experiences, and creating a bridge, one brick at a time, between our own insular “planet” and another’s, where they can journey into their beloved’s world without judgment, and have true human understanding and empathy.

Imago therapy creates a bridge of connection and understanding between you, and the person you care about most in the world: your partner, your child, your family, or even your boss. The co-creator of Imago, Helen Hunt, Harville’s wife, has said, “Imago is a way to world peace, one dialogue at a time.” It is a thrill to witness this process, and humbling.