Maya is a Psychotherapist, a former Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies at Rutgers University, and a member of AAMFT and AACD. No one is fooled by Maya’s youthful face and bountiful energy. While it is true that she can out-run and out-work anyone on the planet, Maya is an old soul. Her wisdom is profound; she knows Imago as she knows the rich soil of the earth; it’s as if she’s walked this path before. Her huge heart is only matched by her intelligence, her wit, her compassion, and her commitment to the blossoming of all those who work with her. She is in a loving relationship with Barbara, her partner in work and love and in parenting four children.
Being the daughter of a cultural historian, I have always been fascinated by why certain ideas and movements appear at a time in the evolution of our planet. It often feels as if the same ideas appear from all over the place at the same time. The creators of these ideas are independent from one another and often are on opposite sides of the world.
Democracy came about in the 1800’s as an attempt to move away from the power by few over the many. Somehow, at that time, the idea that “all humans are created equal” appeared. This was the first step in western philosophy to move toward valuing each human life and each individual born. The grand experiment that started in France found root in the “New World”.
And the theory was indeed an important one. The idea was there, but not in practice. Our great country was founded on a futile system. White people were the ones that mattered and people of colored were there to serve the purpose of the slave owners and those who murdered and stole land from the Native Americans. Although the idea was to found a country on the idea that all individuals count, the actual lived experience of many was the same as those who had fled England to rid themselves of the power of the Monarchy.
In the second world war the United States and England fought to destroy the tyranny of HItler and his Nazis. They sought to preserve the idea that all life matters. At the same time, Roosevelt, John Foster Dulles and some of their cronies were antisemites who did what they could to keep the desperate refugees fleeing Hitler out of our country. Another example of having an ideal, but not finding a way to live it.
The rise of feminism in the 60’s championed the rights of women. But even in that movement, there was prejudice against Lesbians and people of color. I will never forget my experience of believing I was a radical and taking over a building at a college. There were 18 men and 2 women (me being one of them). We were protesting against the lack of recruitment of people of color to this college. When we arrived in the early dawn and entered the building and secured it, the men went to work on crafting a statement. What did we two women do? We made sandwiches for the men. They had no interest in our intellectual contributions.
I have often wondered why movements come through certain people. What is it about those people that are chosen to be the disseminators of a theory? I remember how Saliary railed against God when he first heard Mozart’s music. Why had God chosen this “godless” man to represent the sacred music? Of course, the answer is, because Mozart was radical in his thinking and went against the established mores of the time. He was the perfect candidate to deliver Gods’ message that the sacred was also embodied, not just about the spirit.
So, why did this theory, Imago Relationship Theory, arrive through the containers of Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt? I do believe it was through the crucible of their very own power struggle that made them the perfect candidates. Their power struggle which mirrored the cultural struggle of women finding their voice in a male dominated culture. This theory is predicated on the idea of creating true partnership in relationship. Of course it is a tall order to live it especially since no one has actually ever experienced it in our culture. Perhaps the reason the divorce rate is skyrocketing, is because the old form of marriage is dying and a marriage of true partnership wants to be born.
From the very beginning, Helen and Harville struggled. They argued and fought, but I believe this conflict was an attempt to birth something brand new. Somehow through them and their pain and anguish they together created a theory that included a practice called the intentional dialogue that made space to create the relationship they and so many others had longed for.
Isn’t that what theories are? Aren’t they the human attempt to make understandable what is not yet understood? And is there anything more confusing than falling in love, imagining this person is the best thing that has ever happened to you, and finding out in 2 hours or 18 months that this is the worst thing that has happened. It was through Helen and Harville’s desperate need to understand why their relationship which held so much promise, was so painful and at times toxic.
Both Helen and Harville were raised in a culture that prized men and denigrated women. Harville was born in rural Georgia, the son of share cropper and his wife. He was the youngest of 13 children. When he was two, his father died, and when he was six, his mother died. His early memories are seeing his mother with her back to him, with her shoulders sagging. As a product of her southern upbringing and the Baptist Church, she felt herself powerless in the face of men. Without a man, she had no value.
Helen was born in Dallas, Texas, the daughter of HR Hunt, the oil baron. In her family, men held all the power and women were simply considered window dressing. It wasn’t until She and her sisters when they were in their 20’s realized they were inheritors of enormous wealth. The place for women was to be quiet and be the force behind their men. Her main childhood wound was feeling completely invisible and so she complied by becoming invisible.
So, these two people come together in the 70’s. It is after the women’s movement and Helen feels strongly about the equality of women. Yet, she still carries with her the idea that her place is behind the man. Harville raised in a male dominated church where only men were preachers who led the flock, also recognized the importance of having equality in relationship, but had no idea how to live it. He had the same wound as Helen from his childhood. He too felt invisible as the youngest of 13 children, who after his parents died, went to live with his older sisters who made it clear he was not to cause any trouble. He defended against this pain by becoming Hyper visible and feeling threatened whenever Helen would challenge his wisdom and authority.
What a perfect match to be the ground to produce a theory and practice that could birth in reality all the ideas of democracy. And yet, they had no idea how to live it. For the first years Harville was the face of Imago and Helen was largely in the background. Even though she was the impetus to writing Getting the Love You Want, she did not want her name on the cover.
And yet, she grew more and more resentful that everyone only focused on Harville. Harville was unable to bring her into equality because from his experience, in a relationship there could only be one visible person, and if he gave Helen visibility, he would disappear.
Then one day, Helen had enough. Giving birth to the actualization of something so radical as actually living in equal relationship, required a disintegration. And Helen told Harville she wanted a divorce. They went to multiple therapists but nothing helped. They separated and Harville lived with a dear friend. Then one day they met at a book store and happened upon a book about couples and Astrology. When they looked at their astrological match they read, “your negativity and competition for space will destroy your relationship. You need to remove all negative conversation or else this relationship is doomed”. They had no idea how to talk to each other without using put downs, and criticism. So for three months they actually couldn’t talk to each other. Then one day, Helen suggested they practice the dialogue that they had created. This time being careful to speak in a way that was “self reflective”. They made a deal to only talk about their own experience and to risk being vulnerable. Another way they shifted from negativity to being positive was by giving each other appreciations. They practiced this for 30 days, and guess what? Their relationship radically changed.
Today, both of their names are on the cover of the new addition of Getting the Love You Want. Together they have created the social action movement of Safe Conversations which takes Imago out of the therapy room and makes it accessible to the larger culture. Helen has found her voice and Harville has stepped back to make space for her. Both of them have learned it is possible for both people in a relationship to be visible. They are today a model of what they only could write about almost 40 years ago.
My life experience and my experience in Imago is also a story of cultural change and transformation. I grew up in a family where men were superior to women. My father, a college professor was in the fore ground and my mother was in the background. She worked tirelessly to support him by raising us, keeping house, and caring for the extended family that arrived from Europe. My model of relationship was a mother who was quiet and deferred to my father (he had been her high school teacher and was 10 years older) and a father who was greatly admired by all those in the outside world. My brother was the intellectual giant in our family. My older sister struggled in school but worked really hard and managed to do well. I, the youngest, was a terrible student. Not only did I struggle to learn, but I refused to work hard.
I was an embarrassment to my father who couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t at least try.
I had no idea I was smart. My main value in my family and in all my relationships was my ability to build connection. I was prized for my emotional capacity, with no idea that I was smart.
When I began my training with Harville, I had no idea of Helen’s importance. Because a faculty member who knew may was ill, I was invited to be a support faculty for Harville’s early trainings. I was the only woman with five ministers and I felt it. I did speak up, but often felt as if my voice was not valued. I was often criticized for not being “boundaried” because I had high energy. My favorite story about this happened one day when I arrived at the training quite depressed. One of my colleagues came up to me at the end of the day and said, “Maya, my you have grown. Your energy is so much more contained. Good for you”. I got the message. If I behaved more like a man, I would be valued.
I often would put myself down in the presence of Harville and these men in an attempt to stay safe. I intuited it wasn’t ok for me as a woman, to be too visible. In addition, I had left my marriage to my husband 8 years before to be with a woman. So, not only was I a woman, I was also a Lesbian. I compensated for this by always dressing in a feminine manner. God forbid anyone would think I was too visible with my gayness.
Because I had so much insecurity about my intelligence, I would allow Harville and my colleagues to be the arbiter of whether what I said was valuable or not. It took me many years to begin to claim my own intelligence, even though Harville was very generous in his praise of my thoughts. I still believed somehow my way of thinking because it wasn’t as “male” as my counterparts, did not have equal value.
This is my story as I experienced in so many years ago. At the time I had no idea of how similar Helen and my journey was. I inadvertently added to her sense of invisibility because I gave more Creedence to Harville’s contributions than Helen’s. In my defense it was partly because I didn’t know about her contribution, but even once I did, I unconsciously continued to say things and do things that made Harville the center piece of this work.
So, please know this history is written through the lens of what I believed back then. I know now how incredibly valuable Helen’s female voice was in creating this theory. Clearly, without her this theory wouldn’t exist, both because there would be no relationship to birth it, but also because her drive and her vision propelled Harville to work with her to write and publish this book. In the background with no one knowing she worked tirelessly and through all of her resources to co-create these ideas and to birth this movement. I will always regret I didn’t understand her contribution sooner and caused her to feel as I have often felt as a woman, invisible, unimportant, and undervalued.
Today as I write this, the US is about to inaugurate the first woman as vice president. Not only is she the vice president, but it is clear that Joe Biden sees her as his equal by the way he is constantly including her. He is creating with her what Barak Obama created with him, a true partnership. And this time it is between a man and a woman. I am sure he will do as Barack did, “She will always be the last person to leave the room because I so value her opinion.”
Perhaps that is how it works. A theory comes through someone who is trying to understand something they cannot understand. That doesn’t mean, they know how to live it or manifest it. It may take years and many other people to truly understand how to live into the ideas. In my more hopeful moments, I like to think Helen, Harville and the Imago Community will continue to not only spread these wonderful ideas, but actually live according to them and teach others to do the same.