Barbara L. Green, LCSW



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Imago and Object Relations

Stephen R. Plumlee, M.S., M. Div.
Private Practice, Sarasota, Florida

During the Imago Enrichment Day (October 16, 2000) at the Tenth Annual Conference of the Association for Imago Therapy, Dearborn, Michigan, Helen LaKelly Hunt and Harville Hendrix presented the conferees with the notion of two types of knowing:  connected knowing and separate knowing.  The two are distinct in the sense that connected knowing is based on empathy, identification, mutuality, and a sense of oneness, in contrast to separate knowing, which is analytical, abstract, logical, and differentiated.  The powerful impact of this view evoked a lively discussion, especially in the focus subgroups, whose members developed some stimulating ideas about different ways of knowing and how these ways interact.

What is the relationship of knowing to the human personality, as understood by Imago theory?  Are there different types of knowing?  Is connected knowing truly in contrast to separate knowing, or is connected knowing opposed to disconnectedness and, therefore, unknowing?  Is knowing developed in the process of establishing the imago, or does it occur as part of the neurological given of the human person?

Theories about Knowing

Theory of knowing, epistemology, is most often thought of as a branch of philosophy.  When psychologists comment on this activity of the mind, they often emphasize that all knowing is actually apperception.  It soon becomes clear, as one reflects on these questions, that the issue is larger than a definition of knowing and the description of types of knowing.  Indeed, the matter of knowing is directly seated in that of being, because how a person experiences what and who he is comprises the very source of his knowing.  Thus, the matter is a core one for Imago theory: the Imago perspective holds that the who-ness and what-ness of personal experience is both the product of relationship and the shaper of relationships.

Transformational Stage

There are indeed different types of knowing, but what are they?  It is helpful to approach this question from a developmental perspective.  In some formulations of infant life, the baby lives in a state of symbiosis with his mother.  This conception indicates that the neonate experiences life as if he and the mother were one, as though the universe consists only of himself, with the mother a merged part of his being.  According to this view, the baby has no perception of himself as a self or as a subject.
        While it undoubtedly is true that the infant does not yet have enough neurological development to be self-or other-conscious, he does in fact experience the presence of the mother figure as the one from whom comes gratification as well as frustration of needs and desires.  When the baby's needs for nurturance, warmth, and safety are met, he is satisfied, although he is not conscious of the presence of a satisfying person.  Likewise, when his wishes or needs are not fulfilled by the mothering presence, the child is forced to accommodate.  Perhaps he cries until the message is received and the need granted.  Perhaps he has to endure his discomfort or displeasure; perhaps he learns to soothe himself with sucking fingers or toes and falling asleep.
        Whatever the response to gratification and frustration, the infant is by necessity being transformed, or rather is transforming himself, adapting his demands to what can be expected, inventing new skills to communicate his wants, and perhaps giving up in despair.  When this relationship between maternal caregiver and infant goes well, it has the quality of what Winnicott (1965) called a "facilitating environment," with the right balance of care and withholding to allow the infant to unfold his capacities to meet changing expectations.  As Paula Heimann (1956) described it, the mother serves as a "supplementary ego" that provides a substitute set of unconscious mental structures for effectual interaction with the environment.  Thus she, as the major component of the infant's environment, relates to him to accommodate and assimilate the rest of the environment so that the baby can continue his self-transformation.
        The key concept here is relationship, which is crucial to Imago theory.  We say that the infant's first task is to attach to experience being wanted, to experience consistent warmth and requisite nurture while not getting lost in a sea of undifferentiated availability.  Because the infant is not yet capable of differentiating an object as distinct from himself, he experiences the maternal figure as a "process linked to the infant's being and alterations in his being" (Bollas, 1987, p. 4).  This maternal figure might thus be called a "transformational object" that is experientially identified by the infant with the processes that alter his experience of himself.  Although the infant cannot yet think consciously of the mother is a distinct relational object, he nonetheless is having a subject-object relationship with her.  His capacities for thought have not yet matured, but he is already knowing.  He is beginning to carry knowledge that is the unthought known, and he develops this knowledge as a result of the peculiar relationship he has with his mother.  From her response to him, he learns the rules of life within the context of the universe he shares with her, although he is not yet able to know that he knows.  His native physical and mental capacities, his unique combination of energies, strengths, and characteristic temperament gradually shape themselves to the environment mediated by his caregivers as he meanwhile shapes their behavior towards himself.  He knows increasingly, but only through the dialectic of his relationship.  What he knows conceptually is who the baby is, and what he knows is derived from the constant ebb and flow of physical and psychic energy between himself and his caretaker.  His knowing cannot be solely though the identification and oneness, because he already "knows" that his facilitating environment is not identical with himself.  However, he also cannot know in a thoroughly analytical and separated way, for he has not yet developed a consciousness of his own separateness.
        This is the state of pre-language, and the verbal discourse that one has with oneself and others is essential for  the process of knowing.  That is, the capacity to use symbolic encapsulations of one's thoughts and experiences is necessary for knowledge to be formulated.  Indeed, the acquisition of language is the most significant transformation that takes place in the infant's alteration of the experience of himself.  Thus, the pre-verbal and pre-differentiated child continues to use bodily movements, cries, becomes silent, and even mimes others to make the other experience what he himself experiences.  This can be seen, for example, in the behavior of autistic children.

Transitional Stage

But as the infant enters into his second year, he starts to differentiate himself from his mothering caregiver.  He becomes increasingly aware of her as more than a transformational process; she becomes a discrete object in herself, and so his way of knowing changes also.  Prior to this, knowing has been principally in the form of bodily memories outside of conscious mental operations.  Through them, the child has a knowing of which he is not aware.  As he continues his development, he begins to engage in more individuated activity, distinct from that which he has with his mother.  He separates from her to explore a wider circle of activity, both mental and physical; he becomes increasingly aware that he has experiences that she does not.  His distinctiveness as a person becomes more apparent to himself and to his mother.
        This shift of focus away from total involvement with the maternal (and to some extent the paternal) figure does not mean total separateness, however.  Even while the child is coming to know consciously and distinctly, he continues to need the reassurance of the provider of needs, to return for brief periods of visual, vocal, and physical reintegration with her.  To a very large degree, she is still the source of safety, particularly as the child experiences moments of pain.  From her he finds healing and solace as well as meaning, as he returns to recount his unique experiences with the unconscious belief that she understands the significance of what he recounts.
        This is the stage of development at which relationship with the father and other objects becomes important.  The father provides him with another source of derivation of knowledge, of both himself as he identifies with his father's values, beliefs, and foci of attention, and of the father as a separate person with whom he interacts, conscious of their differences.  This shift in the principles of relationship applies also to a widening circle of other persons, including other adults, age mates, and play companions.
        During this period as in all other developmental stages, the infant continues to create the meaning of the behavior of those he is related with, meaning that is about himself and about the environment.  Earlier, this psychic content was known in a pre-cognitive way but was held with an absoluteness of which the child was not aware.  This was not the primary repression of knowledge that could not be held in consciousness because of the threat of its meaning;  rather, the infant was not developmentally ready for conscious thought.  Now, in the stage of separation and individuation, he can assimilate information borne by stimuli, consciously interpret it, and either retain it in forms that are recognizable to him or repress it if its content floods him with more knowledge than he can sustain or if it otherwise threatens him.  The infant gradually alters his relationships with objects, now shifting from the process of experiencing the transformation to articulating it.  To replace the disappearing transformational object, he can symbolically enact the illusion of his own omnipotence and his own creativity.  His new idiom expresses his differentiation symbolically, and he can even play with the grandiose idea that he could eliminate the maternal object and she would nonetheless survive.  The transition is to an era of playing with ideas, of fantasies which brilliantly portray the infant's outgrowing of the maternal matrix, his relief and rage at that loss, and his illusory belief in his own power as he discovers his prowess in his individuated ego strengths.
        In this phase, knowing takes on a meaning quite different from the transformational process.  The infant now has multiple objects with which to interact.  He still performs the operation of internalizing his perceptions of objects, the meaning of their behavior, especially towards him, and the laws of life that he assimilates from them.  This is the period of socialization, when the young child makes the transition away from knowing what will help him shape his own being and that of the transformation-self.  Now he works at knowing what form he must take to be acceptable to the larger community.  No longer is it enough to be aware of how to sustain life-giving communion with one object, for now there are an increasing number of them, each with its own peculiar expectations and beliefs.  Knowing becomes a more self-conscious act, an awareness of an experience that is different from oneself and is distally observable.  This separate object, of course, is incorporated internally, with definition and value bestowed upon it by the subject, who symbolizes his knowledge through fantasy and language.  He gives word to what he has made a part of himself mentally;  he assigns relational value to it and develops a set of beliefs pertinent to that relationship.
        The fertility of meaning attributed to the relationship adds still another layer to the deposit of memories and unconscious expectations that make up the imago.  At least three relationships have been observed and experienced by the child, and the preconceptual and repressed knowledge of these three make up the content of the imago.  Most powerful, of course, is the relationship of the parental caretakers to the child.  The experiences on which that knowledge has been built begin very early in the infant's prenatal period and extend into the later years of childhood.  The elements of that knowing, which is unknown, are a compound of the unthought and of that which was thought but repressed.  Second, and profoundly influential in the development of the imago, is the relationship between (or among) the caretakers themselves, which has a strong impact on the infant who is within their field of interaction.  The effects of this relationship are also powerful for the intra-uterine infant via direct physical impact on the child who is contained within the mother's body, as well as through her neural muscular, and hormonal responses to the events of the relationship.  Of course, the child is within the range of the parents' interactions with each other throughout childhood, and because of this he develops an enormous treasury of expectations and beliefs about the nature of intimate relationship.  Finally, and also highly important, is the relationship each caretaker has with himself or herself.  The extent to which that relationship is respectful or disrespectful of the self, sustaining or destructive, energized or defeated, has a lasting effect on the unthought known of the child's relationship with himself.  This knowing may be repressed due to shame, sadness, or contempt, but the adult child may be dreadfully conscious of it.
        The amalgam that is the imago, therefore, is a complicated component of the mental apparatus.  Partly conscious but to a large degree preconscious and unconscious, it contains numerous bytes of knowledge.  Some are certainties but have never become differentiated thoughts;  others are the residue of direct bodily experiences recorded permanently, like a dent made in the earth by a falling meteor.  Still others result from distal observations and are filed away, to be later referred to with unconscious automaticity.

Knowing Is Holistic

Whatever the source of an individual element in the imago, the element is the result of knowing that was derived from pre-conceptual experience, when the transformational object is the intimate influence in development (a process that continues throughout life but is superseded in importance in successively later stages of development), and from separate knowing, when the relational objects are clearly known as other.  Each piece of knowing is related to every other piece, so that finally, all knowing is both connected and separate.  Without a sense of oneness, shared reality, and corporate meaning, there is no relationship from which to derive knowing.  Without differentiation, there is not an apperceived other to know.
        Fairbairn (1952) demonstrated that libidinal yearnings impel one to fulfill them, but satisfying them is not the end in itself;  they are tools to attain the ultimate goal, relationship with the other.  Fairbairn's dictum, "The ultimate goal of libido is the object" (p. 4), applies here.  The lifelong process of attaining this goal of relationship with the other, starting from the earliest moments of conception, causes the person to know what will facilitate that relationship, what will destroy it, and indeed, how the relationship can destroy the self.  From the beginning, the newly conceived infant has some awareness of the otherness of the other, even when it is the transformational object that is essential for life itself.  For the person, there is never a point of absolute psychic symbiosis.  On the other hand, total differentiation is impossible, for then there is no knowing of the other with whom to relate.  Knowing, essential for sustaining the life of the self, is at every stage of life an imago experience, connected and separate, differentiated and undifferentiated, held in a holistic tension.  Without that tension vitale, the personal organism would disappear by either undifferentiated absorption or total isolation.  In either case, there would be no imago, the treasury of knowing;  without the imago, there can be no knowing, and without knowing, there can be no relationship, which is the source of the self.  

Case Illustration

Karen and Gregory entered couples therapy about four years ago and have been in treatment weekly since then.  When they first started therapy Greg was 42 years old.  He had a 13-year old daughter from his first marriage.  Greg had no education beyond high school, but he was a brilliant inventor and craftsman.  His wife, Karen, an emergency-room physician, was 39.  This was her first marriage.  After four years of marriage, the couple had no children.

Personal Background
Greg is a fraternal twin;  he and his twin sister have one older sibling.  Greg and his twin were born prematurely;  Greg was sickly, and his life hung in the balance many times during his infancy.  When he was three years old, Greg's father committed suicide.  Greg's view of his upbringing was that he was expected to be the replacement for his father and to take care of his mother and sisters.  Simultaneously, has was viewed as insufficient and unreliable because he was male.
        Karen is the oldest of three siblings;  she has two younger brothers.  Her mother was a paranoid schizophrenic who attacked her, sometimes physically, and emotionally withheld from her.  Karen's father was a successful professional man who dealt with is psychotic wife by working long hours and on weekends.  He left Karen with the responsibility of mollifying and later taking care of the mother;  the younger brothers were left to raise themselves.  Karen became a doctor because her father directed her to that profession.

Presenting Problems
When Karen and Greg started therapy, they were constantly bickering, engaging in mutual criticism, sarcastic attacks, and defensive counterattacks.  Greg knew that his wife despised him, that no matter what he tried to do, it would be found insufficient, and that it was only a matter of time before she would discard him as useless.  Karen knew that she was intellectually inferior and valuable to Greg only as a source of steady income, which allowed Greg to do his creative work.  She was resentful, bitter, and outraged about his long hours in his workshop.  She was aware that her suspicious outlook and contempt for her patients and other workers at the hospital made her husband want to avoid her, especially since it appeared that she had more love for her dogs than for him.  Greg was convinced that, because he was a man, his wife expected him to solve her problems, including that of making a living.  However, he produced almost no income, and what he did bring in was earmarked for child support.  Karen found herself financially supporting the two of them.
        Their sexual relationship was in a shamble.  Each partner claimed to find the other attractive, but they had sex only occasionally.  Greg was convinced that Karen found his lovemaking insufficient and that she would devour him if he did not keep a distance.  In reality, she lived a life of such emotional exhaustion and hostility that she seldom responded to his infrequent overtures, and then only for physical gratification.  Neither one had a spiritual practice;  Greg had been raised without one and thus seemed indifferent;  Karen reacted negatively to the strictures of her childhood religion, which she resented because it was the reason why her father kept himself and his children chained to their psychotic mother.
        Ostensibly a successful couple consisting of a brilliantly creative husband and a highly-achieved wife, they were psychological neonates whose mothers had been preoccupied with themselves.  Karen's mother had been trapped in psychotic incompetence and vicious competition with her same-six infant;  Greg's mother had identified with her daughters and was resentful of both the caretaker who had abandoned her in a catastrophic exit, suicide, and of the child who was made in his image.

Course of Therapy
The early treatment of this couple can be seen as an articulation of their respective knowing.  Karen experienced constant frustration of her desire for affiliation with a responsive object, in this case, Greg.  It was the task of the therapy to allow her to verbalize her pre-verbal anxiety.  Her communications consisted of attacks on Greg for his failure to provide her with a matrix in which she could experience herself in a relaxed, non-vigilant way.  Gregory was certain, in ways that he never could have conceptualized, that his undifferentiated self would be consumed by Karen's demands and that he could not relate to her as an object that would help him define himself.  His solution was to abjectly admit all his failures, which proved that it was hopeless for him to become functionally interactive in the relationship.  Simultaneously, he would present criticisms of Karen that were provocative but so highly intellectualized as to be incomprehensible.  My countertransference included rage, exhausted futility, and the offering of arcane intellectual interpretations.  As I learned to hear their remarks as wails of despair rather than cognitive declarations, the therapy began to move in the right direction.
        Following the insights of Eugene Shelly about dealing with narcissistic couples, I used paraphrasing mirrors with each partner.  This helped me to ascertain whether I had understood and soothed each partner, and it helped the partners to realize that I had actually attended to their experience.  Gradually, they began to question what they had known.
        As the partners slowly differentiated from each other and from their imago expectations, a subtle change in their relationship started to develop.  For example, as I reflected back to Greg the terror of being destroyed  by the anticipated overwhelming demands of Karen, who represented in a pre-cognitive way his dependent and demanding mother.  Greg started to recognize the Karen indeed required little from him in the way of life care.  Of course, this alone did not automatically eliminate his knowledge that he was viewed as a non-person to be used as an instrument for he reduction of his wife's anxiety.
        Nevertheless, gradually the two partners started pre-cognitively to know the other as a person with his or her own perspective, although they each remained basically the process-object for the other while they struggled against ancient and unthought knowledge.
        A decisive moment in their therapy came when they attended an Imago Couples Workshop about four months into their treatment.  In the workshop, where they could interact with each other for hours with the safety of me as interlocutor, they were able to see  more clearly the entire Imago framework of their relationship and the nature of their power struggle.  This new cognitive knowing became a component of their pre-verbal knowledge;  the other couples and I, as the presenter, took on the role of supplementary ego.
        Slowly, Karen and Gregory began to know each other distally, as other than themselves, as persons who had a self that was not totally defined by their participation in the other's self.  This became a self-defining process as they added their newly found perceptions to the imago  This internalization of both the continuing, dependable presence of the other and of new representations to whom they related helped them to continue the process of differentiation and to achieve a degree of secure attachment that neither of them had before.  Consequently, the anxious/ambivalent attachment of Greg and the depressive/schizoid attachment of Karen declined.
        Several developmental milestones occurred over a period of several months.  Gregory had a history of anxiously attaching himself to male figures, oftentimes employers.  He began to recognize that these men had served as internal objects for him, as shaky stand-ins for his absent father.  Through these affiliate objects, Greg had attempted to confirm his knowing of his own existence through their confirmation of his competence and accomplishments and their presence as a libidinal pole to help him protect himself from disappearing into the alluring abyss of the dependent, non-gratifying maternal figure.  Through his adulation of these men, he was able to attain some temporary degree of validation for his own worth as a male.  However, this knowledge was laid on a base of poor self-object relationship and an unstable perception of himself as a person, and the relationships always ended in bitter disappointment and grievous loss for him.  Now, as his internalized images of Karen provided for attachment based on self rather than accomplishment.  Greg's relationships with other males became less of a life-and-death issue for him.
        Karen, the more schizoid and depressed of the two, did not succeed in developing the same degree of attachment to Greg as a process-object, so that her self-differentiation was still behind his.  Nevertheless, she experienced me as a male figure who attended to her as an actual being, and through her work with me and with her female individual therapist, Karen is developing a clearer self-awareness.
        About eighteen months ago, Karen began to pressure Greg about having a baby.  She argued that before long, she would be too old to have a child safely, and that she felt more capable of mothering without behaving ragefully or psychotically toward the child.  Greg was more hesitant; he had one daughter already and saw many deficits in his capacities as a father.  Greg's doubts about his parental skills were a cognitively delineated way of symbolizing his still insubstantial sense of self.  Further, having experienced in the past Karen's retreats into cold, withdrawn, and rejecting ways when she was under stress, he was concerned that, with the continuous strain pf parenthood, she might regress.  This knowing declaration from Greg infuriated Karen;  she felt deeply hurt, and she counter-attacked frequently during sessions.
        Nevertheless, Greg eventually began to see that his known doubts about Karen were to a large extent projection.  He began to incorporate a differentiated  knowledge of himself and to understand the gains he had made as a father as a result of developing more caring and graceful attitudes toward himself.  Eventually, both partners entered energetically into the "Let's have a baby" mode.
        This process, however, was to be disappointing.  The couple resorted to in vitro fertilization;  Karen eventually became pregnant, but lost the baby in her fourth month.  For a considerable period, the couples therapy served as a container environment in which the couple could express their intense anger - Greg's anger toward Karen for not having taken good enough care of herself, Karen's anger toward Greg for having postponed his acquiescence until Karen was too old for a viable pregnancy, and both partners' anger toward me for not having cured them quickly enough.
        For perhaps the first time, the two partners realized that they each were separate persons for whom their experience had its own meaning, that they could experience empathic support with each other, and that, through my example, it was possible to receive the other's anger without being annihilated, rejected, or abandoned.  Indeed, Karen and Greg were clearly in a transitional stage of personal development.  Their knowing seemed increasingly to belong to each of them individually, but because of their growing differentiation, they also could share their knowledge with each other.
        Two other major shifts took place.  About two years ago, Greg gave up the studio where he had worked exhaustively to prove the reality of his self.  He sold the rights for a major invention to a small company and became an employee who was responsible for creative innovations.  For the first time in his life, he was making a real living and paying his share of the couple's expenses.  Therefore, Karen no longer had to be responsible for a portion of his child support payments.
        This change provoked a developmental crisis.  Prior to this time, Karen had dept her income and assets separate from Greg's;  in fact, she had been somewhat secretive about her holdings.  When Greg began to make consistent financial contributions to their joint life and financial decisions needed to be made, their system came up for question.  I continued to hold them therapeutically in the knowledge that they could live with tension, anger, and distrust while yearning for affiliation with each other.  Their choice of a financial system was theirs alone, and they are moving closer to commingling their assets and expenses.  However, occasionally they take steps away from that position, such as when one of them (usually Karen) is unhappy with a joint decision and feels a sudden urgency to regain veto power.
        In the present stage of their treatment, Karen and Greg still struggle with the pre-conscious knowing that they will be used, consumed, and discarded (Greg) or attacked and rejected (Karen).  Karen still recedes to the terrified belief that she is a non-person to her current self-object;  in those moments, she can become cold, contemptuous, and attacking.  Greg is increasingly sure, however, that these declarations are the wounded cries of a desperate infant.  Recently, Karen charged that Greg will never take care of her as she wants him to, but she simultaneously enumerated the attention and care she does receive from him.  Of course, she is correct in stating that no one will ever be able to care for her as though she were an infant.  Nevertheless, through my careful support and insistence, Greg was able to reflect to Karen his understanding of her knowing experience and to solicit from her suggestions for healing behavior changes that would help transform her internalized representations and object relations.
        Greg's anxiety still overtakes him at times, and he reverts to the abstract and convoluted intellectualization that represents not his deepest knowing but his effort to distance himself from the terror of his own inadequacy.  Karen is usually surprised at Greg's fear and lack of security.  In session, I help her to convey to him her own perceptions of his strength.  In earlier times, this process would have been useless and he could not have accepted it.  Now, with a more consistent experience of internal relationships with Karen and others and with a stronger knowledge of himself as a self, Greg is individuated enough to hear Karen's view of him as her own.  He can receive it as a reflection from her as a self-object and reconfirm a clearer knowing of himself.

Current Process
Karen and Gregory are at a working-through phase of their therapy.  The crises they encounter are no longer insurmountable.  Their knowing of themselves as selves and of each other as differentiated persons who can act as both transformational objects and as transitional objects is allowing them to each create a new imago.  Will these new sets of knowing expectations ever replace the old ones that were so damaging to them?  Probably not.  What we can expect, however, is that as their knowledge continues to be built on differentiated experience, the multiple internal relations that make up their respective images will continue to grow healthier and more realistic expectations.  Their knowing is becoming both individuated and undifferentiated, a holistic activity.



Bollas, C. (1987). The shadow of the object:  Psychoanalysis of the 
        unthought known
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Fairbairn, W. (1952). A revised psychopathology of the psychoses
        and psychoneuroses.  Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality.
London: Routledge, Kegan, & Paul.
Heimann, P. (1956). Dynamics of transference interpretation.
        International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 37,  303-10.
Winnicott, D. W. (1965). Psychiatric disorder in terms of infantile
        maturational processes.  The Maturational Process and the
        Facilitating Environment.
  London: Hogarth, 230-41.


1.  Throughout this paper, for ease of expression, "he" is used as the personal pronoun.  When referring to an infant, "he" is used to maintain clarity of reference in the frequent juxtaposition to mother, she.

2.  Self is an historically consistent experience of many internal relationships, which are mentally objectified, related to, and known.  Subject is a meaningful understanding of one's own and others' existence and the capacity to relate with them and with oneself.

3.  From Hoon, S. (October, 2000), A Conversation with Eugene Shelly, M. Div, Imago Connection, 6-7.

Stephen R. Plumlee, M.S., M. Div. is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.  He practices individual, family, marital, and group psychoanalytic therapy in Sarasota, Florida.

Mailing address:
1717 Second Street
Sarasota, FL 34236