If you are reading this page then there is probably something about your relationship that could be working better for you. What can the IFS method offer you as a couple?
I think it’s fair to say that your partner has the capacity to create or generate the most pain for you of anyone in your life – and vice versa. That fact can be pretty scary and most traditional forms of couple’s therapy try to manage the space between you by getting you both to adopt particular communication styles, “When I hear you say that I…”.
The problem with that approach is that many parts of your system don’t want to be “managed”, they want to be heard. And despite the best intentions of your manager parts they cannot take the lead in your system the whole time.
Exiled parts of your system will get triggered and their hurt will invite your protective armies to be mobilized.
Recently there has emerged in the field of couple therapy more sophisticated approaches to communication; yet they still seek to find ways to get your needs met (or more accurately your part’s needs met) by your partner to some extent.
When couples come into therapy it is usually because the communication between them is engaged in by protective parts and it has probably been a while since the playful, juicy, trusting and sexy parts have been available to them both. Or the space between them feels like a vacuum as their conflict avoidant parts only allow for perfunctory communication.
What is the origin of the discord and how can it be resolved?
You probably have a ready answer to this: your partner is the source and if they would just “get it” and change what so obviously needs changing then everything would be resolved. Or you and your inadequacies are the cause and you need to change what you’re doing to fix it. Your partner has the same answers but they are in the mirror.
In truth what gets activated in relationships are wounds held by parts of us that didn’t get the approval/attention/love that they needed. When that happens to a kid they will invariably conclude that they are somehow undeserving and seek to be redeemed – to be loved wholly just as they are. These young parts will seek out a partner who in some way reminds them of the parent that didn’t give them what they need in order for the repair to happen – and in choosing someone who resembles the person that didn’t meet their needs they are pretty much guaranteed that they will not get that need met. Or they will choose a kind, loving nurturing partner who may well offer them the love that they need. In that case they will be unable to take it in because of the belief that they aren’t worthy. Eventually the kind nurturing partner will respond with firefighter activity and so the armies of both sides get marshaled.
These young parts that give the power to others to decide on their worthiness are connected to other parts that need to control the other to get what they want. Since we don’t like being controlled this inevitably activates mistrusting protectors.
IFS couples work seeks to resolve the discord through facilitating Self-led communication between both parties. Although it sometimes feels a bit awkward and clumsy as the new “language” of speaking for the parts of your system is learned, it is worth hanging in there.
With the safety created by the therapist you and your partner can learn to speak for the protective, angry parts of your system (instead of from them). When there is sufficient trust present – and only then – you may also be able to speak for the vulnerable parts to which they are connected.
This open, honest, Self-led communication can be tremendously healing for couples. As you hear about the frightened kid behind the angry jabs and what happened to him/her you may find your protectors softening. As your partner hears about the vulnerable parts of your system that hold no malicious intent towards them it becomes possible for you to be heard.
As you learn to take care of those vulnerable parts and your partner learns to do the same for their parts the demands and expectations about being taken care of, the fears of rejection, demands for reassurance and the angry responses to being controlled can gradually become less prominent. When that happens the space between you can once again become available to those playful, easy, goofy, sexy… (you name it – they’re your parts) parts.