“You are the one you’ve been waiting for”
This is the startling title of a book about relationships by Richard Schwartz, the founder of Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy.
The title of Dr. Schwartz’s book tells us that when we have a healthy, intimate relationship with ourselves, we can be in a healthy, intimate relationship with a partner.
How do we achieve a healthy relationship with ourselves? IFS theory holds that we all have parts in us that, in a relationship, interact with our partner’s parts. It’s our parts that cause the problems in relationships.
The purpose of parts
We are all born with parts that get developed to a greater or lesser extent, depending on what happens to us as we are growing up.
Many of these parts are designed to protect us. When we were younger and were hurt and didn’t have the resources to cope with difficult emotional experiences, our psyches exiled the pain we experienced. These painful Exile parts live, metaphorically, in the basement of our psyches.
If these Exiles are activated by our partner (i.e., our partner does or says something that unconsciously reminds us of a difficult emotional experience in the past), ‘Firefighter’ parts move in with extreme behaviour to protect us from the pain of the Exiles.
Firefighter parts cause the most trouble in relationships. When our Firefighter parts get activated, their job is to stop the pain of the Exile NOW. They are not concerned about who or what gets hurt in the process. Their job is to stop the pain. Firefighters don’t know that we are no longer young and immature and that, with help, we can probably tolerate the pain of the Exile.
How parts cause problems in our relationship
When our Exiles get activated by our partner, our Firefighter parts shame, blame, push, rage, force our viewpoint, or withdraw and distance from our partner. We think our partner is to blame for how bad we feel, and we attack them. This causes their Firefighters to attack back, and the fight is on.
Do we try to get rid of Firefighters? NO! Firefighters are very important protectors, but they have become extreme in their effort to protect us. Most people are unconscious and unaware of their parts.
How couples therapy can help our parts
In IFS couples therapy, we get to know the Firefighters and respect and appreciate all they have done for us. They may have actually saved our lives at some point. When Firefighters feel heard and appreciated, they relax and aren’t so extreme. And when partners become aware of what the Firefighters are trying to protect — the pain of the young Exiles in each of them — compassion arises. This creates some room for intimate partners to have more choices about how they react to each other.
It has been said that 10% of distress and tension in a relationship is related to the current issue/disagreement/fight, and 90% is based on what happened to us in the past. Getting to know our parts helps us be in a relationship with our parts instead of being ruled by them.
Our registered clinical counsellor Lucinda Flavelle specializes in parent consulting and coaching, individual psychotherapy, and couples counselling. As a result of therapy, you will find yourself relieved of the burdens you were carrying, confident in your new way of being, and with a renewed sense of optimism and purpose about your life. Read more about how she can help here.