Susan Kamen on Connecting Imago Relationship Therapy to Sex – Smart Sex, Smart Love with Dr. Joe Kort

Have you heard of IMAGO Relationship Therapy, but have no idea what it is? This week on Smart Sex, Smart Love, Joe meets Susan Kamen, host of “Grow Your Guru,” a weekly show on NRM Streamcast. Susie is a certified Imago therapist and relationship specialist, teaching people the imago dialogue process to create safety, and to allow someone to be heard, especially on difficult topics like sex! Susie and Joe talk all things Imago relationship therapy, and how Imago therapy is different. Do you have conflict in your relationship? Are you looking for an opportunity for some healing and growth in your dialogue with your partner? Then, this is the podcast for you! Listen to Susie explain how collaborative a process Imago therapy is, and how it can significantly benefit you within your relationship and gain a better understanding of yourself and your partner.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       Welcome to Smart Sex, Smart Love. We’re talking about sex goes beyond the taboos and talking about love goes beyond the honeymoon. I’m Dr Joe Kort. Thanks for tuning in.

Okay, welcome to Smart Sex, Smart Love. I’m Dr Joe Kort. Today, my guest is psychotherapist, Susie Kamen. She’s a certified Imago therapist and relationship therapist. Susie teaches people the Imago Dialogue Process to create safety and to allow someone to be heard, especially on difficult topics like sex. She helps people get out of their own way by examining issues through different lenses, so that they can create more of the life that they deserve and desire.

Susie believes that personal growth, introspection, and connection are fostered best in a safe and nonjudgmental environment. She provides a sacred space in which clients can safely explore issues, learn new essential communication skills, and create the life and the relationships they’re seeking.

As an Imago therapist and relationship therapist, Susie works with couples, individuals, families, and adolescents. She’s also a Imago Relationships International member, a certified strategic intervention life coach, and the vice president of Imago Michigan. Plus, Susie is host of Grow Your Guru, a weekly show on NRM StreamCast created on a belief that within each of us is our inner guru, our true self, which is beautiful, whole, complete and worthy. Welcome, Susie.

Susie Kamen:                     Hey, Joe. That sounded great. Thanks for writing that for me. Can you send that back to me, so I can use that?

Dr. Joe Kort:                       Absolutely.

Susie Kamen:                     Thanks.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       Well, so welcome. Let’s let everyone know that you’re the one who had me get started on doing podcasts because I wanted to do it. And then I went on your podcast and saw how easy the people that you hired made it and I found people of my own. It’s easy.

Susie Kamen:                     I’m so happy you’re doing it. You are such a gift. Also, as a fellow Imago colleague, I think that you have a gift and a message. I’m so happy you’re doing this, and I’m so grateful to be on your show, so thank you.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       Thank you. Let’s start. Let’s just tell our caller or the listeners, what is a Imago Relationship Therapy?

Susie Kamen:                     Well, we would need a number of shows to dive deep into it. Essentially, Imago means image in Latin. It was founded by Harville Hendrix and his wife Helen LaKelly Hunt over 30 years ago. It is essentially a philosophy, a theory about why people pick each other.

And while that’s super interesting and can be helpful, the part that I spend a lot of my time in and that I’m extremely passionate about in particular about talking about difficult topics is teaching what they came up with, which is called the intentional dialogue. And that are tools and structure for how people can talk and break bad conversational habits and learn to be connected even when there is conflict.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       Right. So everyone knows, I’m also an Imago relationship therapist, and so I do exactly what Susie does, and it is true. Can you tell them a little more about what is intentional dialogue? Because I think the best part about that is what we learned is couples come in and they end up fighting in our office. I always tell them, “You can fight for free on the couch at home, or on the ride home. You’re spending a lot of money.”

Susie Kamen:                     Exactly, yeah.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       Can you talk about what the intentional dialogue is?

Susie Kamen:                     Well, how I use it in my office is I use Dan Siegel’s hand model of helping people understand that reactivity, as I see it, is a gift. It means that your brain is working.

I start by helping people understand that reactivity is not the problem, it’s not learning how to manage it. The steps in the dialogue process help manage that reactivity, so mirroring, when you repeat back to the person speaking, validation, I understand what you’re saying, you make sense to me even if I don’t agree with you, and empathy that I can imagine you might feel blank. That’s the outline.

All of those help you create some calmness for your reactivity. Really, giving the gifts of the person sitting across from you really being heard. Many of us didn’t get that as children or as adults. And then connection, even when there is different views. We’re not taught, Joe, we are not taught how to do this. I think it should be a class in high school and college because we end up then getting into relationships. It’s one of the only licenses you can get if you are married where there is no pre-pass and there is no renewal. I can renew my license tag, right, if you drive a car you get a recall. If you have a dentist to get your teeth cleaned. You are on your own in relationships.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       That is such an important point. You’re right. There is no classes, there is no guidelines, there is nothing. I always joke with my clients, “That’s why God made therapists,” right, so that we can help people.

Susie Kamen:                     Oh, I love that. [crosstalk 00:05:25], yeah.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       Right. Really the mirroring, I find this is hard for couples because they feel like, “What do you mean? I have to repeat back what he just said. I heard him.” They don’t understand. They say it’s mechanical. I don’t like it. I didn’t like it either when I first did it because as a Imago therapists we have to go to the weekend workshops ourselves with our partners to go through, right, before we get trained.

The problem was, I said to the facilitator, “I don’t want to… If I’m this broken and our relationship is this bad that I have to talk like this for the rest of my life, I don’t want to do that.” But, I learned that the mirroring is important. Can you say a little bit more why repeating back what your partner says is important?

Susie Kamen:                     Yes. I have the same experience in my office where people you know, “This feels really foreign.” The word I hear a lot, “This feels really forced,” and it is. You are really breaking patterns and habits. What I tell a lot of my clients is, “You know, I’d love to tell you everything about what you’re doing is from your wounding and we’ll explore that,” but a lot of why people do what they do is habit. Part of breaking a habit requires learning a new skill. This is learning a new language, and it is forced. You are training your brain to do what we’re actually born to do. If you watch people with infants, you match their tone. It’s really, we’re mirrored into existence, so it’s going back so far that it feels really foreign.

For me, I will share with you, that mirroring for me was extraordinarily healing because the other thing it does is creates differentiation, which means for me that the person sitting across from me I don’t have to personalize what you’re saying if I mirror you because you’re the person sending it to me, so it’s really a multifaceted thing. It can feel really forced until it is more a part of your way of being.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       Yeah. I always tell people the mirroring isn’t just for you. It’s for your partner to know that they’ve been heard. Sometimes partners will say something, you mirror them, and it might be right, or it might not be, or that it might be, “Yeah, I said that, but you know I didn’t mean that,” so it gives them a chance to correct it. You’re making contact each time you’re going back and forth, right?

Susie Kamen:                     100%. That’s what you just said, and even for that. Mirroring, for me, is like having magic in your hand. It really is a tool when learned that really has so many benefits. It really does, countless benefits for your partner, for yourself. Really, it’s such a gift and it really can feel really foreign though back to your original question, yeah. I just say to people, “At least in the short run, give it a try, you know, practice it.”

Apparently, I don’t know enough about this to I speak with full accuracy. I was under the impression that they were doing some brain scan studies on people that were practicing Imago. What it was showing was that your brain when you mirror starts mimicking people that meditate. That’s amazing, right, calming your nervous system so you can be more present.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       That is amazing. What I love when I learned in the training too is just how to if you don’t know what to do or you’re having a reaction, simply mirroring anybody, even not just a partner. You’re having a disagreement with a work employee. You’re having a disagreement with somebody out in the world to just say, “So, let me see if I got that.” You don’t even have use those words. What I hear you saying is, and sometimes it can just calm people down and you’re making a connection and it calms you down so that you can sit and really listen to what they’re saying.

Susie Kamen:                     100%, yeah. My motto is, and I really teach people this, or at least I’m in service of that, your reactivity, your partner, a coworker, like you said, Joe, that’s not the enemy. Your lack of knowing how to manage your reactivity is the challenge and the solution.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       Yeah. I love that. The reason I was drawn, and I’d like to find out your reason, I was drawn to Imago therapy is because it was people oriented, two people that fall in love. It wasn’t gender based. It wasn’t man and woman. It wasn’t two men, two women. It’s all couples. I remember learning that. When I decided, well not decided, when I realized I was gay and I met my husband, I remember thinking, well thank God I’m not going to have all those mother issues that a lot of heterosexual men have with female partners. Only to find out that it’s not gender based. It doesn’t matter who your partner is, male or female. It matters that whomever the more dominant parent is that wounded you will show up in your relationship, so that was helpful to me.

Susie Kamen:                     Oh, I love that you just said that, yeah.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       Right. What drew you to Imago?

Susie Kamen:                     What drew me essentially, and again, I love that you said that and that’s part of my answer, is that I was seeing in my office the shame that couples were facing thinking that there was something wrong with them. And just for your listeners, most couples wait until they’re at least five to seven years in conflict before they seek therapy, and that hasn’t really changed much. I came across Imago. A colleague of ours had been telling me for years that she thought it would be a good fit for me, for years. Every time we’d get together once a month she would bring me Imago stuff when we would meet.

I finally decided to do it because I just kept feeling there has got to be a better way. It’s just so humane. For me, even if the outcome for your relationship is that you don’t stay together, I believe that you will be better off individually. I know this sounds so rose colored glasses. I feel like the world is a better place when we are more loving to ourselves in our communication and to the person we are in relationship to, even if it means we decide to part ways. It’s just more humane to me. That’s how I got to it.

Actually, [Tonie Kaplan 00:11:30], a colleague of ours, and for years and years, like I said, she’s like, “You have to do this. This resonates with you,” and so I finally did after just seeing how much couples were struggling.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       I know a lot of people get excited about it and because it makes sense. Oprah Winfrey won her first Emmy with Harville Hendrix and Helen on her show doing the Imago Relationship Therapy, and so she popularized it, and made it even more.

It does make a lot of sense that we’re drawn to familiar love, right. We’re drawn to both the positive and negative traits of our primary caretakers who raised us. And that we also are drawn to people that have a ability to express in themselves what we can’t express.

In my family as I’m Jewish, and we had a very loud family. My mother doesn’t like to really have a lot of calmness, so if you come to dinner with us you’re going to see at any gathering some fight is going to break out.

My mother will look at me and say, “Did you like the meal?” And I’ll say, “Yeah,” and then I’ll say, “Well, why are you looking out the window?” “Oh, I’m just resting and enjoying, you know, taking it in.” “Well, why are you talking to me that way?” I’m not talking to you any other way. I’m really just resting.” “Now, your voice is raised.” “Yes, it’s raised,” and so then we get into…

When I met Mike, he was all about peace and he was calm. I remember writing in a journal, “I could take a nap next to him.” But when I went to his family’s house, there was no room for emotion, right. It was peaceful and calm, no fighting. But, when my emotions came out they would contact the police and quarantine the house and get the emotion out, and so Mike met me to be more emotional. He didn’t know this. I met him to be more calm and learn more peace. What would you say about that?

Susie Kamen:                     Well I think, I love how open you are about sharing about your relationship. I think that what helps to recognize the gift in the power struggle. I make up that when you and Mike… I imagine there was a point where it wasn’t so easy to recognize, oh, Mike’s calm, or oh, Joe is more reactive, right?

Dr. Joe Kort:                       Right, exactly.

Susie Kamen:                     Right. At the point where what I liked about you now I don’t is where the power struggle is, and underneath that is a gift. That you each bring a gift to each other to heal.

Part of the Imago theory, back to your original question, what is Imago, one of the theories is that you are drawn to someone, the Imago match, which is crazy that you would pick someone… Are we allowed to swear?

Dr. Joe Kort:                       Yes.

Susie Kamen:                     Okay. That’s going to trigger the shit out of you. I’ll stay low on the swearing. You’re drawn to someone initially that is familiar who ends up is going to trigger a lot of your wounding. And you think, why would you do that? Well, the perfect Imago match is the person across from you who holds a gift. You each hold a gift for each other to help heal unfinished business from childhood.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       Right. I love that. That’s what I was drawn to because it makes sense, right. We’re wounded in relationship. Therefore, healing can only take place in the context of a relationship.

Susie Kamen:                     Absolutely.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       Right. You brought up the three stages of love that I love Imago talks about that the first stage everyone calls the honeymoon period, but it’s romantic love. It’s supposed to end. And then you go into the power struggle where people then end up fighting and having conflicts. And then if you get through that you move to real love, which is based on reality. It’s such a hopeful-

Susie Kamen:                     Exactly.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       Don’t you think it’s positive?

Susie Kamen:                     Yeah.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       I remember looking at Harville Hendrix and saying, “This stuff is like you’re making something sound that’s so horrible, and it feels like this is not the right relationship.” You reframe it as, no, the fact that you’re having trouble is because you’re in the right relationship.

Susie Kamen:                     100% yeah. Now again, I do believe, and I don’t want anyone to have… feel misled. I still maintain that you need two people willing to do the work. I also believe if you want to bring in spiritual, some [inaudible 00:15:35] principles, universal principles that maybe someone is there for a reason for a certain amount of time. That not everyone gets to that place. I still feel that even if you end up not staying with that person, the intentional dialogue process, understanding more of what our baggage is and what we’re bringing that’s cluttering up the space between, is healing and worth the journey.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       I totally agree. We’re talking about, I always say that couples therapy should include two conversations, the conversation about the relationship in general and then the sexual conversation. A lot of us use a Imago to help couples differentiate and look for connection around sexuality and around sexual differences between each other. Can you speak to that a little bit?

Susie Kamen:                     Yeah. I’m so excited to talk about this. I think that you and I’ve talked about… I hope you can remember that quote. What’s that quote that we talked about when you were on my podcast? “The person who’s most comfortable… least comfortable in the room.”

Dr. Joe Kort:                       Oh yeah, it’s Doug Brian Harvey. He says, “When it comes to sex, the most uncomfortable people control the room.”

Susie Kamen:                     It’s usually the therapist?

Dr. Joe Kort:                       It can be the [crosstalk 00:16:53] therapist or it could be the partner. So as somebody in the room, if they’re the most uncomfortable, they’re going to try to control their discomfort, and so it can be anyone.

Susie Kamen:                     Exactly, yeah.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       Right.

Susie Kamen:                     For me, one of the reasons, and I hope I’m answering your question directly… The other thing that I think that dialogue process does is it creates a structure for conversation, and for sex, and eroticism and intimacy. I think for many people it is, you know when someone’s going come here, come here and their other hand is stop? I think we want so much, and yet we’re so terrified of conversations and closeness. What I think the structure does is give a safety, some parameters to talk about hard topics like sex.

To be able to say here’s what I’m into… because people change. If you met someone at 22 I make up that you’re different by 32, or even 27, or if you’ve had kids where you’re at in your life cycle and to explore where you’re at sexually is a conversation most couples don’t have, which I think ends up creating conflict, and disconnection, and secrecy.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       Yeah.

Susie Kamen:                     I think the dialogue process creates safety for authenticity.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       It’s so important because sex is so difficult for couples to talk about, let alone anything else. There is a woman I’m going to have on the show soon, she’s not a Imago, but her name is, oh my God, I’m gonna forget her name, [Amanda Luterman 00:18:23]. She’s writing this book called, Erotic Empathy. Why I love it, it’s because Imago is all about finding empathy for your partner and really understanding where they’re coming from.

She’s saying, well what about erotic empathy? What if you have a disgust response or you just don’t like what your partner is into and can you still find a way to have empathy that it makes sense to them that it turns them on, and it makes sense to them what turns you on? I think that’s beautiful.

Susie Kamen:                     I do this all the time in my office. Exactly, that’s what we do. I help people manage their facial expression. Our job in our life is to keep ourselves safe, right? You’re a [inaudible 00:19:06] a lot. If you look across and you say to your partner, “You know, hey, lately I’ve been thinking I want to try blank,” and they look at you that they’re disgusted, you’re not going to feel safe to continue that. To have empathy and curiosity, that doesn’t mean you have to agree with wanting to do whatever your partner said.

I don’t know how we’re doing on time. I’m wondering if it will be good for your listeners to get, have an example, if you and I role played a small snippet of what that could be because a lot of times I’ve heard, “Well, I hear you saying that, but what would that look like in your office?”

Dr. Joe Kort:                       Yeah, we have about five minutes, so let’s do a little bit. Do you want to start?

Susie Kamen:                     Sure. Hi, Joe. I’m wondering if this is a good time to talk?

Dr. Joe Kort:                       What I’m hearing you say is you are wondering if right now is a good time to talk with me. Did I get it?

Susie Kamen:                     You did. What I’d like to talk about, and assume we’re in a relationship, what I’d like to talk about is something that’s been on my mind around our sex life. I’ve been nervous to talk to you about this.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       Okay. What you want to talk about is something around our sex life and you’ve been nervous to talk to me about it. Am I getting it?

Susie Kamen:                     I have, yeah.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       Is there more?

Susie Kamen:                     Yeah, I feel like our sex life has been complacent lately.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       You’re feeling like our sex life has become complacent lately. Am I getting it?

Susie Kamen:                     Yeah.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       Is there more?

Susie Kamen:                     I’m scared to talk to you about this because I feel like what goes on for me when I’ve said this in the past is you get really defensive. I perceive you as being really defensive.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       You’re scared to talk to me because you perceive me as getting defensive. Am I getting it?

Susie Kamen:                     You are.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       Is there more?

Susie Kamen:                     Yeah, and I feel like it would be really important for us to try some different things sexually.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       I’m not going mirror you now, but I like the idea that we just did that so people hear that you’re saying I statements. You’re speaking in short sentences. You’re using the same voice that you use at a dinner table for pass me the salt and pepper. I’m mirroring you verbatim what I hear you saying. Am I getting it? Is there more?

You’re creating safety for your partner. This can be really hard because you and I we’re not partners, we’re not in a power struggle, but when you are, it’s really hard to keep your temper, and really hard to stay contained while you’re having a conversation that might be triggering you and you might completely disagree with, right?

Susie Kamen:                     100%. What the research shows too is if we’re looking to, a whole other topic, make some deposits to hopefully have [inaudible 00:21:37] out of your relationship decrease a little bit. Even the safety of these conversations where there doesn’t have to be agreement helps people not feel like they have to get their needs met elsewhere because the connection in the conversation is often as important, if not more, being heard than if you actually agree about what’s next sexually or anything.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       Right. And then what we didn’t say, we don’t have time to go into more and we would probably have you back on, is you there is a set, not just communication exercises, but behavior change requests. How to invite your partner into changing behaviors that are causing frustrations in the relationship? It has a whole toolbox.

Susie Kamen:                     Yeah.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       Right?

Susie Kamen:                     100% for everything. I would love to do another one. Well, I would do this everyday with you. It’s my passion. I love working with you to really talk about how Imago can be the vehicle to help people talk about sex and eroticism really, because I just had a guest on my show on Monday… I have another show I’m doing right now at [Kaiba 00:22:42] Media called, For Real.

We had a woman who brought sex toys on. Giving the safety for people to talk about that even if there is no agreement it’s so critical, and so much a part of who we are. I would love to talk about all the different ways that we can help couples talk about this.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       Yes, for sure. We’ll definitely maybe have you back on and talk about, go into deeper about Imago Relationship Therapy, but we need to wrap up. Do you want to say anything more about yourself and tell the listeners where they can find you?

Susie Kamen:                     Yeah, you did a great job. You can go to I also am a coach. You can call me at (248) 788-7072. Joe, your intro was amazing. I’m committed to helping couples, and individuals, and families really get out of their own way to really create and live the life they deserve. I’m so grateful to be connected to you, Joe.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       Same here. I love that you remind people that it’s not just couples. It’s for individuals, families. We know that there is a global movement of Imago and trying to get countries and people in charge to talk to each other. I’m glad to talk to you too. I love you. You know I do. We’ll connect again.

Susie Kamen:                     Absolutely. I’m so grateful. I’m so happy you’re doing this. You are a true gift to the world, Joe.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       Thank you Susie. Have a great day. Thank you for coming on the show.

Susie Kamen:                     You too.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       All right.

Susie Kamen:                     Take care. Bye.

Dr. Joe Kort:                       All right, bye.

Thanks for listening to this episode of Smart Sex, Smart Love. I’m Dr Joe Kort. You can find me on That’s See you next time.