I am—despite that odd question arising after my last blog—not in the business of uncoupling people. I am more than ever invested in how I can guide couples to have a deeper committed long-term relationship in which both can feel safe. I have more recently discovered what the missing piece is in regards to being able to show up as the loving and compassionate Self with the other person. The answer lies in a particular practice which I will elaborate on more later in this article. But let’s first of all look at what is commonly done in therapy or coaching sessions and what the value of those approaches is.
Couples therapists like Stan Tatkin and Sue Johnson, who are based in attachment theory, empathize how important it is to create a secure attachment in our partnership. Stan Tatkin focuses among others on knowing each other’s threat signals and creating a “couple bubble” in which both partners feel safe with each other. Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy, says, “When EFT is successfully implemented, each partner becomes a source of security, protection, and contact comfort for the other. Each partner can assist the other in regulating negative affect and constructing a positive and potent sense of self.” (Susan M. Johnson: The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy).
For both of them, the answer to feeling safe, less anxious and less depressed lies in the connection between the partners. The goal is for each partner to learn how to show up as the unconditionally loving attachment figure for the other spouse. Your partner is your primary go to and the one who provides the safety for your childhood wounds to be healed. Their premise is that you need somebody outside of yourself to heal the past. If your partner is really struggling to be that person because their own defenses are triggered in the relationship this journey can be frustrating. Unless one partner already has a secure attachment style, the process of creating this attachment requires some time and commitment to working this out together.
Drs. John and Julie Gottman, whose research-based insights and techniques I use in my sessions with clients, also have a wonderful set of tools to truly empathize, perfect communication between the partners, compromise successfully, and to avoid the four horsemen of the apocalypse, which predict the end of a relationship.
Other couples therapists, like Willard Harley, focus on women’s and men’s needs being different and on making deposits into each others love bank, which is the emotional account we all have. I acknowledge the importance of our needs by teaching my clients the non-violent communication steps developed by Marshall Rosenberg to express our feelings and needs successfully.
All these are fabulous tools and techniques that can make a big difference in our closest relationships. When couples are willing to not just learn but also practice these techniques, their relationship improves. Besides making the commitment to put the time in to practice relating differently to each other, couples must learn how to handle situations when one or both partners get triggered into states of high emotional activation, into what is called fight or flight. When this happens, destructive patterns of interaction are activated and amends and repairs need to be made. Often the spouses feel discouraged by that setback. And that is were Richard C. Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems Therapy, known in short as IFS, comes in as a missing piece.
IFS helps couples replace their distant, controlling, or needy way of relating to each other by what Schwartz calls “courageous love”. This courageous love is accepting of everything we are and all our partner is. Within each of us is a group or “family” of sub-personalities, which Schwartz calls “parts”. Just like in a family, these parts have intricate relationships with each other. Some of the more known parts are the Inner Critic and the Inner Child, but we have many parts which, according to Hal and Sidra Stone and their system of voice dialogue, are either primary personality parts or disowned personality parts. IFS, in comparison, focuses mainly on two kinds of parts. One type is the “protectors”, which have the function to keep us safe; some of them are responsible for us going into fight or flight mode. There are also the “exiles”, which usually are younger wounded child parts.
Every message we get growing up from our family, our friends and the media, has conditioned us to believe that finding our soul mate, the One, will be the answer to our inner pain, our loneliness, sadness, fears or insecurities. The myth is that a special someone will come and love us unconditionally and heal all our childhood wounds. “We’ve been told that the love we need is a buried treasure hidden in the heart of a special intimate partner. Once we find that partner, the love we crave should flow elixir-like, filling our empty spaces and healing our pain” (Schwartz: You Are The One You Have Been Waiting For”)
The truth is that our partner can no more relieve our sense of unloveability and unworthiness than the short term energy relieving behaviours (STERBS) we use to distract ourselves from our pain. The external focus on other people or on STERBS, like food, alcohol, drugs and so on as well as addictive activities, can only provide temporary relief. In fact, this very assumption that our partner is our rescuer is the reason why so many relationships struggle and fail.
“From watching movies or TV, listening to songs on the radio, you’ll be convinced that everyone, sooner or later, will find their one, true, happily-ever-after relationship. The person who will heal you, complete you, and keep you afloat is out there. If the person you’re with isn’t doing that, either he or she is the wrong person altogether or you need to change him or her into the right one” (Schwartz).
We subconsciously pick a partner who matches the template of our original care-taker who has wounded us by making us feel “less than” or unworthy. And we set out with the unconscious agenda to relive the past but this time around change this person’s mind about our worthiness to heal that original wound. The problem is that our partner acts so much like our caretaker that he or she triggers our protectors. When the euphoria of the honeymoon period is over, and the love naturally changes, we get scared and, as Schwartz puts it, set to work on one of three projects.
The first “project” is to get our partner to change into that loving rescuer that we are hoping he or she will be for us. “We plead, criticize, demand, negotiate, seduce, withhold, and shame” (Schwartz). Naturally, most partners resist these attempts to change them and become defensive. They feel unloved and not accepted.
The second project that we embark on is to figure out what our partner doesn’t like about us and then strive to become what we think he or she wants us to be. In this case, the criticism and shame is directed at ourselves. We are no closer to true love and acceptance than when we are trying to change the other person.
The final project kicks in when we give up on getting the love we crave from our partner. We begin to close our heart to him or her and we do one of three things. We either search for a different partner, we numb down enough to stay with our original partner, or we fool ourselves into thinking that we need to live alone because we believe our true needs for love can never be met in an intimate relationship.
Women engage more in the first two change projects mentioned above, while men tend to more quickly retreat into the third behaviour. Shutting down externally often seems like the safest choice for men, especially when they experience strong inner angry protectors. Men often fear what they might do if they let that rage take over.
Women tend to define themselves through relationships and are socialized to take care of their inner child parts through relationships. When those exiled child parts are upset, they usually want to change things in their relationship so that the distressed inner child can get the love and comfort from their partner in order to feel safe and secure. Hence, women are more often the initiators of change-oriented discussions.
We tend to assume that women are more connected to their emotions and we jump to the conclusion that they should be better at parenting their own inner children. However, women focus so much on taking care of others and on getting their inner child’s needs met by their relationship, that they are no better at nurturing their own parts than men.
Schwartz talks about a cruel joke that is being played on all of us. “We’ve all been setup—victims of a cruel joke. First we are loaded with emotional burdens by our family and peers, and then taught to exile the parts carrying them. Then we are told to go out in the world and find that special person who can make us finally like ourselves. Together we and our partner enter the striving, frenetic whirlpool American lifestyle that preludes time together, isolates us from community, depletes and stresses us out, and offers innumerable addictive distractions that further isolate us. When we can’t make this impossible situation work, we feel like total failures—as though something is wrong with us.” (Schwartz) Meanwhile, we never had a fair chance due to the baggage many of us have and the pressure of modern life, but most of all due to the complete ignorance on how to deal with our inner turmoil, other than expecting our partner to miraculously make it go away.
The missing piece you have not been taught is how to parent yourself in a way that allows you to take care of our own inner wounds and to show up as your best self with your partner. You can stop searching outside of yourself because you are the special person your vulnerable inner child parts have been waiting for. Once you realize and embrace that insight fully, your partner will be released from the pressure to have to be the perfect unconditionally loving parent for your younger selves. IFS is essentially attachment theory taken inside.
In your partner’s place, your Aware Self will become the primary caretaker of your inner child parts so that your partner can be a secondary caretaker. Instead of your power parts, for example your Inner Pusher or Inner Perfectionist or Inner Pleaser, to just name a few, parenting your vulnerable inner children in their limited way, your true Self can give those parts what they so desperately need. Those protective parts are parentified inner children. They have taken on the job to protect you and thus parent the vulnerable child parts but are often quite burdened by it.
IFS is a psycho-spiritual model of therapy in which all human beings are perceived as healthy and whole. The Self is the spiritual aspect of this therapy. It is a myth that we have to learn or build compassion. Our true self is naturally accepting, loving and compassionate. All humans have this inner wisdom and healing energy. The Self is the healing entity. It is meant to be the natural leader of the inner system of parts. The Self is eternal, knows all and is not affected by any trauma. It connects us to others and to all living things. It is presence, heart-openness and conscious awareness. The Self is characterized by the eight C’s of self-leadership that Schwartz names. The Self is compassionate, calm, curious, connected, confident, courageous, creative and possesses clarity.
When you take care of all your parts from that Self, you can also show up from that calm, connected and compassionate stance with your partner. The way you relate to your own parts is mirrored in the way you are able to relate to your partner’s part. If you for example have a relationship with your own fearful part, you can be compassionate with your partner’s scared part.
When our power parts, for example anger, control, defensiveness, judgement, righteousness or even our distant rational self are triggered, we are usually blended with them or have a feeling of being taken over by them. Interactions with our partner from a place of anger, judgement, righteousness, defensiveness or control are clearly not productive but are greatly damaging for the relationship. Instead of our power parts taking us over in a given moment, we ideally want to be able to speak for the parts rather than being immersed by them and speaking from those powerful parts.
We also want to be able to speak for our vulnerable inner child and their needs rather than having the child take us over. When that child takes over and jumps into the driver’s seat, we might show up as overly scared, helpless, or moody. Our partner is left wondering what to do with this child-like behaviour and finds himself or herself in an involuntary parenting role.
The myth of us having a monolithic personality, which translates into being only one mind, is according to Schwartz one of the greatest causes of distance and conflict in our intimate relationships. That awareness of our parts, our natural multiplicity, on the other hand, is the greatest antidote. Instead of believing our partner is this angry or controlling person, or they are this distant judgmental person that shows up at times, we can relax into the awareness that this is just a part of them and that it serves the function of protection. When both partners are totally flooded by their protector parts, the knowledge that this isn’t a permanent condition but that the protectors on both sides will relax and the two Selves will emerge is extremely eye opening and comforting. We can then both work with our own parts to get back into Self and then repair and reconnect with our partner from a loving and compassionate place.
Not only does the knowledge of the multiplicity help us navigate through storms, but it can also deepen the intimacy and love. We all have fears that once we have exposed our parts that cause difficulties, we will forever be seen by the other person as having character flaws. If both partners understand that those are just parts of each of them, parts that simply need empathy and acceptance, it is easier to respond to each other lovingly. As we learn to love and accept all our own inner parts, we also learn to love and accept all parts in our partner.
“There is something magical about trusting that all of you is welcomed in a relationship. It’s as if you are a single parent who feels ashamed of how ugly, stupid, or frail some of your children are” (Schwartz). When this process of welcoming all parts of oneself and of ones partner is mutual, it provides such a secure couples connection that the protectors can relax more and more and both partner’s younger parts know it is safe to come out.
Join me on Sunday, June 24 for an “Intro to Your Parts and to Your Self” workshop from 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. This workshop is based in Jay Earley’s parts work. For more information please call or email.
Contact me for a free phone consultation on either individual sessions or couple’s coaching. I also offer packages for couples.
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