The Sexual Crucible and Imago Relationship Therapy

Two Approaches to Marital Counseling

Elaine Cook

November 8, 2001

In this paper, I'll present the theory, goals and techniques of Harville Hendrix' Imago Relationship Therapy, and David Schnarch's Sexual Crucible Approach. I'll then discuss their similarities and differences.

Imago Relationship Therapy

Hendrix created Imago Relationship Therapy after finding that his training as a psychotherapist had not adequately prepared him to help married couples, or to save his own first marriage. He researched professional literature and worked with thousands of couples, and gradually developed this theory, using an eclectic approach. He "brought together depth psychology, the behavioral sciences, the Western spiritual tradition, and added some elements of Transactional Analysis, Gestalt psychology, systems theory, and cognitive therapy." He believes that it was only when these theories "were all brought together in a new synthesis that they illuminated the mystery of love relationships." (Hendrix, 1990, p. xvi)

His underlying theory is that we unconsciously look for a partner who embodies both the positive and negative traits of our primary caretakers. As a background for explaining this, he discusses brain structure. He uses the term "old brain" to refer to both the brain stem (or reptilian brain) and the limbic (or mammalian brain) system. The reptilian brain oversees self-preservation, reproduction, reflexes, and various vital functions, and is the source of physical action. The function of the limbic system seems to be the generation of vivid emotions. The new brain is the cerebral cortex, the site of most of our cognitive functions (Hendrix, 1990, p. 9-10) The old brain is mostly concerned with keeping us safe. It uses stored memories to determine our basic reaction to someone, such as whether to attack, feel, nurture or have sex. The old brain stores memories of our childhood caretakers, and looks for someone with those traits "out of a compelling need to heal old childhood wounds." He suggests that the ultimate reason you fell in love was because "your old brain had your partner confused with your parents!" (Hendrix, 1990, p. 14) Hendrix says that it is inevitable that parents cannot meet all the needs of their children, and therefore create childhood wounds. The purpose of marriage is to heal those wounds.

As a child grows, experiences with family and society cause a split in the child's original wholeness into 3 separate entities:

    1. Your "lost self," those parts of your being that you had to repress because of the demands of society.
    2. Your "false self," the facade that you erected in order to fill the void created by this repression and by a lack of adequate nurturing
    3. Your "disowned self," the negative parts of your false self that met with disapproval and were therefore denied.

(Hendrix, 1990, p. 32)

Hendrix uses the term imago to refer to the unconscious image of the opposite sex you have been forming since birth, which includes the traits of your caretakers and compensates for the repressed parts of yourself (Hendrix, 1990, p. 38) It is the image of "the person who can make me whole again." (Hendrix, 1993B, p. 13) You are romantically attracted to someone who matches your imago.

He claims that romantic love is intended to blind you to the negative traits of your partner. Some time after it has accomplished its purpose, you start noticing your partner's faults, and move into the power struggle phase of your relationship. (Hendrix, 1993A) As the illusion of romantic love disappears, spouses begin to:

    1. Stir up each other's repressed behaviors and feelings.
    2. Reinjure each other's childhoods wounds.
    3. Project their own negative traits onto each other.

(Hendrix, 1990, p. 78)

The way out of the power struggle, and the way to heal the childhood wounds, is the conscious marriage. Conscious marriage involves resolving your projections onto your partner and embracing your own shadow, taking responsibility for yourself, becoming more intention in your interactions, and valuing your partner's desires and needs as much as your own.

The goal of Imago Relationship Therapy is to help couples become conscious in their marriage, to help them learn how to heal their childhood wounds through their relationships, and to help them create safety and passion so that they can create the relationship of their dreams. (Hendrix, 1993A) Dale Bailey expresses it in this way: "The function of Imago Relationship Therapy is to facilitate moments of empathic connection between partners. Rather than help the couple to solve relationship problems, the therapist's task is to help them restore their relationship as a loving connection in which the needs of both partners are met. Problems cannot be solved except in the context of such relationship." (Bailey, 1998)

The major technique for accomplishing this goal is the couples dialogue. This involves the following steps:

  • Mirroring, which is a process of repeating back what your partner has said in your own words, and asking whether you have understood it correctly.
  • Validation. This involves telling your partner "You make sense because..." and relating what your partner has just said to what you know about his/her past and childhood wounds.
  • Empathy, in which you make some guesses about what your partner may have been feeling, check it out, and ask about other feelings.

Once this is complete, the partners can switch, and the receiver (or listener) becomes the sender (or talker). (Hendrix, 1993B p. 78)

Other techniques include closing the exits (agreeing to stop or cut back on activities which are taking energy away from your relationship); setting goals and objectives for your conscious marriage; the container exercise which creates a safe space for expressing rage and being heard; behavior change requests, which are a particular format for requesting changes from your partner. Basically, however, the technique for the therapist is to explain the Imago Relationship theory and to facilitate dialogue between the couple in Couples Dialogue format.

Imago Therapy can be very directive. In his videotape, Hendrix emphasizes many times that you need to follow the directions exactly as described. If you do so, you will learn how to create the relationship of your dreams. (Hendrix, 1993A)

The Sexual Crucible

The Sexual Crucible approach is the "first application of differentiation theory from family therapy (developed by psychiatrist Murray Bowen) to problems of sex and intimacy in marriage." (Schnarch, 1998, p. 45) Differentiation is the cornerstone of this approach. In one of his definitions of differentiation, Schnarch says that it "involves balancing two basic life forces: the drive for individuality and the drive for togetherness. Individuality propels us to follow our own directives, to be on our own, to create a unique identify. Togetherness pushes us to follow the directives of others, to be part of the group. When these two life forces for individuality and togetherness are expressed in balanced, healthy ways, the result is a meaningful relationship that doesn't deterioriate into emotional fusion." (Schnarch, 1998, p. 55) Clearly this is Bowenian. As Nichols and Schartz state, "Bowenian theory ... has always centered around two counterbalancing life forces: togetherness and individuality." (Nichols, M. P. and Schwartz, R. C., 2001, p. 140)

Schnarch also defines differentiation as standing up for what you believe in or for what you want. It is integrity. He says it is fundamentally relational. It is not individuation, which is based on separating and getting apart. (Schnarch, 1994A)

Another definition of differentiation is the ability to maintain a clear sense of self in close proximity to a partner. The higher your level of differentiation, the closer you can get to your partner, because you're not afraid of losing yourself. It gives you a solid but permeable self, which allows you to make a decision to be influenced and to change (as opposed to having to change to stay on good terms with your partner). At high levels of differentiation, what your partner wants in his/her life becomes as important to you as what you want. (Bader, 1995)

Intimacy is at the core of a good sexual and marital relationship. However, Schnarch thinks many current therapeutic approaches encourage what he calls other-validated intimacy by working to develop empathy. He doesn't think this works. If you're dependent on empathy from someone else, you're not capable of intimacy. You move from self-disclosure to self-presentation, in which you're careful to present only those parts of yourself which your partner will accept and validate. (Schnarch, 1994A) Schnarch advocates self-validated intimacy, which occurs when you let go of your partner's opinions and move forward, even if your partner is telling you that you'll fall flat on your face. (Schnarch, 1993B)

Schnarch thinks marriage is a people growing machine. The purpose of marriage is to produce differentiation, and to use sexuality to grow people to where they can be in love, not just loving. Life and marriage are the teachers. Getting people strong enough to deal with life (such as being strong enough to bury your spouse) is what the crucible is all about. (Schnarch, 1992)

The goal of therapy, therefore, is to increase each individual's differentiation, which will increase the differentiation of the couple. Sexual crucible therapy works with the natural process of marriage. When you rely on other-validated intimacy, you will get bored or frustrated. You cease being able to look your partner in the eye, you stop asking for what you really want when you think your partner will react badly. Your sexual activity is limited to whatever neither of you considers perverted or disgusting. At some point, you recognize you have to do something if you don't want to live the rest of your life with boring sex. To change, you either have to get out of the relationship, or decide you won't accept the status quo, and you're ready to fight. But this fight is with yourself, to hold on to yourself and insist on what you want even when your partner, the most important person in your life, is resisting change. Schnarch says, "What we've just described is how the natural systemic processes of marriage kill sex so that the lousy sex drives people forward to finish their development so that they're capable of having the sex they were pissed off not having to begin with, and to become capable of loving on life's own terms. Because the same strength it takes to look your partner right in the eye and not only have sex with them eyes open but fuck them in the clean sense of the word, that sort of no holds barred eroticism... and quiet yourself at the same time, is the same ability you're going to need to bury your partner. And if you're not ready to bury them, it's not safe to love them with all your heart." (Schnarch, 1994A)

Like other Bowenians, Schnarch rejects techniques. The curative element is the person of the clinician (Schnarch, 1994A) However, he is willing to offer tools. He says he never tells clients what to do, but he does mention some activities they might find useful, if they care to try them. Among the tools are "hugging till relaxed." This involves really feeling (being aware of) your partner while you're hugging. It also involves standing on your own two feet and focussing on yourself. It's impossible to relax when you're leaning on your partner, because any move your partner makes forces you to adjust your position. Therefore this serves as a model for differentiation. Another tool is kissing and making love with your eyes open, so you'll really see and be aware of your partner. He also talks about styles and meanings of sex, and encourages people to widen their repertoire. (Schnarch, 1998)

The ability to self-soothe and to hold onto yourself, and the willingness to self-confront, are important to increasing your differentiation. These involve calming yourself down, not taking your partner's behavior personally, maintaining a clear sense of yourself, and facing your own unresolved personal issues. (Schnarch, 1998)

Schnarch very explicitly deals with sexuality, and provides a model for being comfortable with the discussion of intimate sexual details. He challenges therapists to look at their own attitudes to see whether they are truly conducive to helping their clients explore a high level of sexual functioning. He asks whether the Virgin Mary enjoyed a good sex life with Joseph after Jesus was born, and points out that if you think that question is blasphemous, then you'll probably have a hard time fully supporting a woman's sexuality. (Schnarch, 1994B)

Unlike other Bowenians, he often increases the anxiety to force a change. He believes that effective treatment often encourages one or both members of a couple not to compromise, not to agree, but rather to maintain their own beliefs even when those beliefs seem antithetical to effective marital or sexual functioning. The ways they are afraid to grow are the ways they've truncated themselves "for the good of the marriage" and are precisely the ways in which they need to grow. (Schnarch, 1994A) When one person doesn't want sex, he'll encourage that person not to have sex. At the same time, he'll encourage the partner who wants sex to ask for what s/he wants, though he'll also encourage him/her to ask why s/he wants sex with a partner who is uninterested. (Schnarch, 1998) At some point, through the process of self-confrontation, things will shift, though it's always possible the shift will be towards divorce. However, that risk has to be faced for both partners to get what they truly want. Note, however, that what someone wants often changes during self-confrontation. When the partner with the least desire increases his/her desire, it's not unusual for the other partner to lose his/her desire for a while. (Schnarch, 1998)

Similarities and Differences

In spite of the differences in these two approaches apparent in the summaries above, there are some surface similarities between them. At times they seem to be saying the same thing. They both want to create a passionate marriage, they believe that marriage is a growth path, they both say they are working to overcome emotional symbiosis or fusion and to help the couple achieve emotional differentiation, they both believe that growth in marriage is part of a spiritual path and that your partner is well suited to helping you with this process. However, Schnarch has expressed shock at listening to Hendrix and finding that what Hendrix was saying could have come out of his own mouth. (Bader, 1995) Schnarch is concerned with driving the field forward, and points out that we have to examine theories and their applications and see what they are really doing. (Schnarch, 1993C) He wants to make the differences clear.

Let's start with the concept of differentiation. As mentioned above, Schnarch believes that empathy based approaches to marital counseling do not create intimacy. Instead, they create codependence. Following a case example in which a husband lies and verbally invalidates his wife's experience of intimacy in a recent sexual encounter, he says: "Some approaches that recognize emotional fusion still prescribe other-validated intimacy as the cure. They believe encouraging Bill to validate Joan's disclosures and tell her she made sense might eventually instill compassion in him and he might change for her. Their notion is that Bill will recognize Joan is a separate person by validating statements that differ from his own reality. Unfortunately, this strategy renders Joan helpless until Bill undergoes metamorphosis - which doesn't readily occur because Bill doesn't want to hear what Joan has to say to begin with. Moreover, perpetuating Joan's dependence on other-validated intimacy means Bill can 'pull the rug' out from her whenever he doesn't like what she's saying." (Schnarch, 1998, p. 113)

Further, in a panel discussion with Hendrix and Ellyn Bader, Schnarch states that he thinks Murray Bowen would have labeled what Hendrix is accomplishing as pseudo-differentiation based on borrowed functioning and a reflected sense of self. (Bader, 1995) Hendrix, on the other hand, thinks that Schnarch's approach is sadistic. (Bader, 1995)

What is the real difference here? As Dale Bailey points out, Hendrix understands symbiosis as partners projecting their reality on each other, whereas Schnarch sees symbiosis as the fear of experiencing or expressing any differentness from one's partner. (Bailey, 1996) Since their understanding of the problem is different, their solution for it is also different. Bailey says, "Drs. Bader and Schnarch believe they promote differentiation by focus on the self, while Dr. Hendrix believes he promotes differentiation by focus on the reality of the other and the quality of the relationship." (Bailey, 1997)

Bailey describes the dialogue process in Imago Therapy as a self-transcendent experience. "One partner, despite disagreeing with the other and being in emotional pain, provides validation and empathy for the other. To do so, he or she must contain and transcend his or her own reactions to understand and empathize with the other's reality...The one who receives the validation and empathy not only is calmed and soothed, but is often powerfully moved by a sense of gratitude. For the couple, it is a healing experience." (Bailey, 1998)

I think that what Schnarch is missing in the couples dialogue is that the act of differentiation is on the part of the listener rather than the speaker. There may be healing for the speaker, but it's the listener who must self-soothe and make an effort to understand a different view. This helps the listener see the otherness of his/her partner.

To go back to the case example, Schnarch makes an important point that letting someone else define our experience ("you didn't experience intimacy with me, because I said we weren't intimate") decreases differentiation. In the scenario with Bill and Joan, in the Imago model Bill is the one who can differentiate by being willing to listen to Joan's experience, or by being willing to admit the impact of the experience on him. In addition, he can create healing for Joan. Schnarch, however, is focussed on Joan - what can she do to validate her own experience and not be held hostage by Bill's words. This is an area where I would really like both Schnarch and Hendrix to be able to see what the other is doing and incorporate parts of it. I would like to combine their approaches. I agree with Schnarch in encouraging Joan to recognize that her experience with Bill had been an intimate one for her, whether or not he admits it was for him. At the same time, I would encourage her to make a safe space for Bill to express his feelings about the experience, by asking him about it and mirroring and empathizing with him. That might enable him to understand his underlying reasons for denying the intimacy of the experience.

This brings up a point that Schnarch is missing, which is that empathy and validation allow the listener to help the speaker. While the speaker may initially be dependent on the empathy and validation, I suspect that as couples start to heal through the dialogue process, they become more willing to express their reality whether or not their partner supports them.

In a related difference, both Hendrix and Schnarch talk about developing a self-in-relation, but they mean different things. As we might expect, for Schnarch maintaining your sense of self is the key to developing your self-in-relation, since differentiation is "your ability to maintain your sense of self when you are emotionally and/or physically close to others - especially as they become increasingly important to you." (Schnarch, 1998, p. 56) He believes you need to be able to meet your own needs. For Hendrix, on the other hand, the self is created in relationship. He does not see surrender in the dialogue process, but rather the amplification of self in the experience of the delineation of the other (Bader, 1995). In other words, I become more myself as I recognize the otherness of you and withdraw my projections from you. Hendrix believes that the psyche is fundamentally relational. We have needs that are met from the outside - air, water, etc. (Bader, 1995) Likewise, he believes we need a partner to heal our childhood wounds; we can't do that alone.

Another major difference is that Imago Therapy is geared towards keeping a relationship together. The relationship is primary. Schnarch believes that pressure to stay together increases the likelihood that a highly fused couple will split up. (Schnarch, 1993A) In addition, if one of the couple wants to split up, s/he'll see the pressure to stay together as a pressure to capitulate to his/her partner. This works against differentiation. Schnarch views the ability to take care of yourself as vital to being close. Essentially, the more I can stand up for myself and let you know what I feel regardless of your reaction, the more I can afford to let you be important to me and close to me, since I don't have to modify what I say in order to control your response and get your validation.

Imago Therapy tries to minimize the differences in what a couple wants. After each person in a couple has written up the features of their ideal marriage, Hendrix advises them to focus on the common goals and set the ones they disagree about aside (Hendrix, 1993A) Perhaps he expects that if one person really wants something the other doesn't, they will eventually resolve this through the dialogue process. However, Schnarch would clearly disagree with this approach. The person who wants something needs to continue to express that desire and not set it aside in the interest of nominal harmony.

The role of the therapist is very different in the two approaches. In Imago Therapy, the couples dialogue is the key. The model works even if the therapist is tired and wants to go home. (Bader, 1995) In the Sexual Crucible approach, the therapist is key. The therapist has to put the pieces of the puzzle that have been rejected back on the table. The therapist has to introduce a new reality, beyond the half-truths the couple is clinging to. The therapist must be deeply engaged and also emotionally unentangled. It is this de-triangulation that allows the therapy to progress. (Schnarch, 1993A)

The types of interventions used in these two approaches are totally different. There are two good examples from a panel discussion with Hendrix, Schnarch and Ellyn Bader. In one, Schnarch mentions a situation in which a woman is crying because of physical abuse by her husband. I assume he is referring to a demonstration of the container exercise in the Hendrix video, in which Hendrix is encouraging the woman to express her rage fully while her husband listens without defending himself. (Hendrix, 1993A) Within the Imago model, this allows her to express her feelings in safety, and gives her husband the opportunity to understand her better, as well as an experience of managing his own feelings. Schnarch would handle the situation totally differently. He would tell her something like, "I don't understand what you're doing. You're telling me you hate him and are angry at him. Why are you stroking his ego? What you're showing him is how he can control you and the effect he can have on you by your tears. You're also showing him he can do it again, because you still want his understanding and a promise from him never to do it again...Why are you refusing to believe what you're saying?" Schnarch says that the typical response to this type of intervention is that the woman draws herself together and scares the husband. (Bader, 1995)

Ellyn Bader gave another example that shows the difference. In this case, a man was upset because his wife was angry that he hadn't read a book that he had promised to read. Hendrix' response was to do a couple's dialogue. She imagined that Schnarch would say to the man, "Who owns your dick?" Schnarch admitted that he would say that, along with some other things.

Communication is another central area of disagreement. Learning how to communicate better is central to Imago Therapy. However, Schnarch doesn't think couples have a problem communicating, they just don't like what the other is saying (Schnarch, 1993A) While it may be true that this causes some "lack of communication," my observation is that there are lots of times when couples get angry at each other based on an actual misunderstanding of what the other has said. Schnarch does not deal with this.

As we saw above, Hendrix is concerned with making changes to affect both the old brain and the new brain. Schnarch is focussed on the new brain, or neocortex. He's concerned with "who wants to want," with choice and desire. It's neocortical desire that makes sex personal, that create intimacy. Self-validated intimacy is what allows sex to be truly passionate. (Schnarch, 1993C) Schnarch helps people explore their sexual potential and asks them explicit questions about their sex life, while Hendrix rarely even mentions sex, except implicitly in talking about the goal of creating safety and passion.

Imago Therapy is focussed on healing childhood wounds. Hendrix sees that as the purpose of marriage. (Hendrix, 1993A) Schnarch says a focus on childhood wounds encourages victimology. It encourages us to expect that someone else should be there for us (Schnarch, 1993B) On the other hand, "Passionate Marriage is about resilience rather than damage, health rather than old wounds, and human potential rather than trauma." He suggests that his approach "offers ways to resolve the past in the present by focussing on what's currently happening in your marriage." (Schnarch, 1998, p. 43) Some of the case examples in Passionate Marriage demonstrate this.

Hendrix seems to believe that change comes from safety and being listened to, and he tries to create the safety that he thinks will let a relationship bloom. Schnarch seems to believe that growth occurs only when forced, when it's too uncomfortable not to change, so he helps create the anxiety that will cause the change.


Although they are both trying to create healthy marriages, Imago Relationship Therapy and the Sexual Crucible Approach have very different interventions, and are actually focussed on different goals. Hendrix treats couples with kid gloves and lots of empathy, while Schnarch is strategically confrontive and very willing to increase their anxiety when he thinks it will help a couple face their issues and increase their differentiation.

© 2001 by Elaine Cook



Bader, E., Schnarch, D., and Hendrix, H. (1995) The Role of Empathy and Differentiation in Couples Therapy. (Cassette Recording CC95-TP13a and b) Milton Erickson Foundation. Panel discussion at the 1995 Integrating Sex and Intimacy Conference of the Milton Erickson Foundation.

Bailey, D. (1996) Bader, Schnarch and Hendrix. Journal of Imago Relationship Therapy, Vol. 1 No. 2. Retrieved 9/26/2001 from

Bailey, D. (1997) Bader, Schnarch, and Hendrix - The Authors Respond. Journal of Imago Relationship Therapy, Vol. 2, No. 1. Retrieved 9/26/2001 from

Bailey, D. (1998) Imago Relationship Therapy As A Spiritual Path. In W. Luquet & M. Hannah (Eds.) Healing in the Relational Paradigm (Chapter 16). Washington, DC: Brunner/Mazel. Retrieved 10/1/2001 from

Hendrix, H. (1990) Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples. New York: Harper Collins.

Hendrix, H. (1993A) Getting the Love You Want: A Video Workshop for Couples. Winter Park, FL: Imago Productions.

Hendrix, H. (1993B) Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples - Home Video Workshop. Winter Park, FL: Institute for Image Relationship Therapy (book that accompanies the video).

Nichols, M. P. and Schwartz, R. C. (2001) Family Therapy: Concepts and Methods. Boston: Allyn and Bacon

Schnarch, D. (Speaker) (1992) Constructing the Sexual Crucible: Paradigm-Shift in Sexual & Marital Therapy. [Audiotape] Evergreen, CO: Marriage and Family Health Center.

Schnarch, D. (Speaker) (1993A) Clinical Realities: The Therapist's Crucible. [Audiotape] Evergreen, CO: Marriage & Family Health Center. Recorded at Menninger Foundation 1998 Patient-Therapist Relationship Conference.

Schnarch, D. (Speaker) (1993B) Maybe it's Love... But is it Therapy? [Audiotape] Evergreen, CO: Marriage & Family Health Center. Recorded at Menninger Foundation 1993 Patient-Therapist Relationship Conference.

Schnarch, D. (Speaker) (1993C) Problems of Sexual Desires: Who Really Wants to Want? [Audiotape] Evergreen, CO: Marriage and Family Health Center.

Schnarch, D. (Speaker) (1994A) Integrating Marital and Sex Therapy. Evergreen, CO: Marriage & Family Health Center. [Audiotape] Recorded at Menninger Foundation's 1994 Sexuality Conference.

Schnarch, D. (Speaker) (1994B) Integrating Sexuality and Spirituality. [Audiotape] Evergreen, CO: Marriage & Family Health Center. Recorded at the 1994 British Columbia AIDS Conference.

Schnarch, D. (1998) Passionate Marriage. New York: Henry Holt and Co.

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