The Scoop: Personal connection happens in the small things, and when life gets challenging, the small things are the first to go. Relationship therapist Mary Kay Cocharo talked to us about the common negative relationship patterns she sees in couples, along with the various treatment approaches she takes to help. She dived into IMAGO relationship therapy, why premarital counseling can be a game-changer, and what couples need to remember when they face conflict. 

I recently reconnected with a friend from high school and, after a long time of being out of touch, found out she had gotten married. My friend, whom I remembered as free-spirited and untethered, had met and married a man in under a year. To say I was dubious was an understatement.

As I spent more time with them and my friend told me more about their relationship, I realized just how much they cared for each other and were dedicated to making each other’s lives better. They were on the same page about their relationship and had realistic expectations for the future.

What struck me most was how their intimate, connective moments manifested as everyday habits – like how he wakes her up with a back scratch or how she asks  him about his progress on a specific project when he gets home from work.

When couples struggle, these small connective moments become less common and can even disappear entirely. When these moments don’t occur frequently, couples can feel distanced from each other, and conflict becomes more challenging to navigate.

Relationship therapist Mary Kay Cocharo discussed why couples may struggle with recurring conflicts or feelings of distance and how therapy and other tools can help them rekindle this kind of connection.

“The job of a struggling couple is to get into the messy stuff and figure out exactly what needs to be healed,” Mary Kay said. “Conflict can be an opportunity for growth.”

Therapy Helps Couples Reaffirm Bonds

Mary Kay sees a wide variety of couples as a therapist. “It kind of falls into a few different categories,” she said. “I have a large emphasis on premarital counseling. I usually get people in their late 20s and early 30s who have gone through school, have their career going, and have set up their lives.”

While these couples are younger, they may be wiser in some ways. Mary Kay continued, “That generation is smart enough to know marriage is hard. They know about the divorce rate. I think these couples like to prepare to go into a long and happy marriage.”

Mary Kay also sees clients who have been married for years or decades. “These clients usually go in one of two directions. Either the relational space between them has grown dead, or they’ve kept their relationship alive by fighting constantly.”

Mary Kay said that couples who fall into the first category feel like they’re going through the motions of their relationship. 

small connections are the substance of our relationships
Small connective moments are essential for relationship health.

“They’ve lost that essential intimate connection with one another,” she said. “They’re living together, they’ve got a life, maybe they’ve got kids, maybe they have a business or a home– they’re just going through the motions.”

These kinds of couples need a relationship rejuvenation. “They’re in a stage of life where they’re looking at each other and wondering if they could be more and if they should stay where they are. You need to revitalize that connection.”

The other kind of couple, the fighting couple, interacts often – but it’s overwhelmingly negative. “They have really poor communication tools and are always triggering each other’s survival brain,” Mary Kay explained. “They’re expending so much energy arguing.”

Mary Kay said these couples need better communication tools and ways to deepen their emotional connection. Imago Relationship Therapy is a form of therapy that’s especially helpful for couples struggling with communication. Mary Kay is trained and specializes in Imago therapy, and she talked to us about how this modality can reignite a couple’s connection.

Facing Conflict With Alignment & Trust

Imago therapy gives couples the essential communication tools and habits they need to have empathetic conversations with one another. Mary Kay said it’s been considered one of the most effective forms of couples therapy and uses simple tools that build fortified bonds.

“I’m a Certified Imago Relationship Therapist,” Mary Kay explained. “Imago was conceived over 30 years ago by Dr. Harville Hendrix and Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt. I think it resonates with people because the theory is really deep about how we choose who we fall in love with.”

Imago Relationship Therapy aims to make opportunities for connection and growth out of conflict. “When a partner does something hurtful, it can remind the other partner of that feeling– whatever unmet need there was– that was present in childhood,” Mary Kay said.

mary kay cocharo imago therapy
Mary Kay is trained in Imago Relationship Therapy.

The Imago dialogue, or structured dialogue, encourages couples to face each other during therapy. The therapist is present and close to the couple, but the connective focus is on the couple.

“One person will speak, and the listener will repeat what they said,” Mary Kay said. “It’s not about agreeing. It’s about letting your partner know you hear them and what they’re saying makes sense to you.”

Imago therapy is helpful for a wide array of couples but is especially effective for couples who struggle to communicate. This communication weakness could be shutting down during arguments or having frequent hurtful arguments.

“Sitting close to each other, about 18 inches apart, holding hands, and looking at each other can be major tools in helping couples connect, even during fights,” Mary Kay said. “Imago fosters this deep connection.”

Discovering the Magic of an Ordinary Moment

Imago therapy teaches couples how they can use small actions to make connections easier. Most of these actions relate to physical proximity and closeness and can give us a glimpse into the habits couples can integrate into their daily lives to handle conflict better.

“Any couple who has two chairs in their house could sit across from one another, face to face, and silently connect until it’s safe to begin the conversation,” Mary Kay said. While not talking can be difficult amid an argument, Mary Kay said it’s essential.

“Sometimes talking is the most dangerous thing we ever do,” she said. “But to just sit across from each other and allow eye gaze, it’s not something we do very much. This helps us calm down and quiets our reactive brains.”

eye gazing
Eye-gazing is an Imago technique couples can use during arguments.

Imago therapy practices help couples hear each other from a calm and secure place. It encourages couples to remember their partner is looking for safety. Intimate contact—whether it be eye gazing, hand holding, or resting your head in your partner’s lap—can reaffirm this safety.

Conflict in relationships is painful and challenging. The tools of Imago therapy can make arguments less destructive and give couples the opportunity to remember why they’re with each other – even when the conflict is intense.

“Imago goes to the childhood stories that influence who we are now and how we behave with our partner,” Mary Kay said. “Couples’ issues are nearly always something bigger than what manifests, but this approach focuses on creating healing.”