Internal Family Systems Therapy with Couples

We are now going to take what you’ve learned about your own internal system and see how it plays out in couple’s relationships. All people want to feel heard and met. You do and your partner does. This is true at the deepest level under all the fears. The hope we bring when we enter into a relationship is that we will finally have someone who cares for us, protects us, and has our best interests at heart. We hope that our longings will be met, our young inner children will be nurtured, and our Exiles will be healed.

Let’s look at what happens to those needs, hopes, and longings as they encounter the needs, hopes, and longings of your partner. What happens when you feel hurt, angry, disappointed, or even wounded? What happens when your partner experiences your Protectors as insensitive or vice versa?

Difficulties in Partner Interactions

When we get stuck, it often looks like this:

  1. We interpret our partner’s behavior as hurtful—insensitive and uncaring.
  2. We feel hurt and perhaps angry.
  3. Our Protectors rise up—for example, we pursue, withdraw, explain, demand, blame, or shame.
  4. Our partner feels attacked, unseen, unmet, misunderstood, and abandoned.
  5. Our partner’s Protectors rise up to diminish his or her hurt.
  6. We feel frustrated, unhappy, and perhaps hopeless that we can ever get through to our partner.

When we are able to come from Self, our creative capacities and our ability to consider both our partner and ourself are available. Instead of reliving old patterns of beliefs and reactivity, we can:

  • listen internally and hear our activated parts—our Protectors and the hurt
    Exiles they protect
  • bring appreciation to our Protectors for their loyalty and devotion
  • send compassion to our Exiles
  • protect our Exiles from a Self-led place
  • speak for these parts, letting our partner know what we are experiencing internally

When we move out of reactivity, with its demands and blame, our partner can begin to experience us as safer. When others feel safe with us, they are more able to come from Self rather than from their reactive parts. These are the moments of genuine Self-to-Self contact. When we are in that state with each other, we create mutual understanding, respect, compassion, friendship, and openheartedness.

Couples frequently find themselves having the same fight over and over again. They often are unaware of their feelings or the parts that are activated. The same parts of one partner trigger familiar parts of another. It can be helpful to track these dialogues and look further into them to see what feelings are being experienced and what parts are showing up.

Next, please complete the 3 exercises listed in the table of contents (close this browser window)