What to Expect in Internal Family Systems Couples Therapy

Hopefully the ideas and exercises in this book have been helpful to you, and you feel confident that you can improve your relationship. Or perhaps you feel that you and your partner could use some professional help.

This chapter will tell you what to expect from a couples therapist who uses the internal family systems model. Since there are so many IFS therapists in the United States and in other countries, there is a lot of variety in the way IFS is practiced. This chapter gives the basics of the IFS approach.

Discover Your Own Abilities to Solve Your Problems

Since everyone has Self qualities available to them (curiosity, calm, compassion, confidence, courage, clarity, connection, and creativity), there is no need for IFS couples therapists to teach you these things. When they see something missing in your relationship, they look for the Managers and Firefighters that are obscuring your natural abilities.

Partnerships are better when contempt is absent, there is more appreciation than criticism, problem solving is done with connection and humor, and partners accept influence from each other (Gottman, 1999).

But IFS couples therapists don’t usually teach these skills. Instead, they ask questions about what’s in the way. Are there reasons to criticize, disconnect, or reject input? Maybe you’ll find out you have parts that believe that criticizing is the best way to get your partner to change, that accepting influence means losing control, or that distance is safer than engagement.

Once you understand the logic behind unproductive behavior, your natural couples skills will emerge. You’ll find yourself being spontaneously gentle, creative, open, appreciative, and assertive.

When you formulate your own plan to change, it will be more specific, elegant, and productive than anything a couples therapist could have suggested.

IFS couples therapists want to collaborate with you to find solutions. They are respectful of your own abilities, and do not present themselves as experts who know the answer to your problems. In fact, you will probably find that your IFS couples therapist is willing to be wrong, and happy to be corrected or redirected. The answers lie within you, and your IFS couples therapist has the skills to help you find them.

No Need to Label You or Your Partner as Psychologically Damaged

IFS therapists do not try to figure out how your early environment damaged you. Rather, they focus on getting to know Managers that developed extreme behaviors to help you adapt. For example, IFS therapists wouldn’t usually say, “You are mistrustful because your early family interactions were too unpredictable.”

Instead, they would say, “Would you like to get to know the part of you that is mistrustful? How do you feel toward it? Would you like to understand it better? Would you like to ask it what would happen if it weren’t so mistrustful?”

By answering these questions, you will find out if you have a part that is trying to protect you by being mistrustful, and if there is an Exile within you that was hurt, for example, by unpredictable behavior. Instead of “How can I help this person develop more trust?” an IFS therapist thinks, “How can I help this person understand and validate her mistrusting part?”

IFS therapists see problematic behavioral patterns as the well-intentioned work of Managers and Firefighters trying to do the best they can under difficult circumstances. With the presence of Self energy, you can get to know these protective parts and help them relax. The solutions that arise from Self-part relationships will be far superior to anything you could have imagined beforehand.

No Judgment

IFS couples therapists accept both partners unconditionally, no matter how they act in their worst moments. Instead of judgment, there will be curiosity and compassion. IFS couples therapists know that extreme behaviors result from Managers and Firefighters trying to do their jobs, not from innate badness or character flaws.

IFS couples therapists will not usually see one partner as the victim and the other as the perpetrator (remember, we are not talking about physically or emotionally abusive situations). Even though it might look as though one partner is controlling or demeaning, the other might have parts that think they need to accept victimization. For instance, are there parts that think they deserve bad treatment, feel helpless, or feel frightened? Once such parts have the opportunity to relax, partners who seemed like victims will find new resources to respond assertively.

Perhaps you think the first thing a couples therapist should do is to tell your partner not to be so critical, angry, selfish, controlling, or distant. That might be tempting for the couples therapist, but taking an educational approach usually doesn’t solve couples’ problems because those critical, angry, selfish, controlling, or distant behaviors come from Managers and Firefighters that are just trying to help. They need acknowledgment and understanding for their efforts, not rebuke. A curious attitude toward protective parts is much more effective than arguing with them. You’ll learn that curiosity about your partner’s protective parts is much more effective than fighting with them.

IFS advocates respect for the effort, dedication, and caring that underlie Managers’ and Firefighters’ efforts. These parts need understanding before they can leave their restrictive roles and embrace a fuller existence. You will be amazed at the possibilities that arise when you are able to let Managers and Firefighters speak for their beliefs and when you hear the poignant reasons behind their efforts.

Would You Like to Speak for That Part?

You may hear your IFS couples therapist asking you to speak for a part instead of from it. You may recall how Laura learned to speak for her controlling part (Chapter 2). She said to Timothy, “I maintain control over emotions, yours and mine, so it doesn’t get too painful within me. When I can speak for it instead of speaking from it, I can say what’s going on and hear what’s coming back.” She was truthful about her own experience and simultaneously open to Timothy.

If you are speaking from a part, you will often have a claustrophobic, stuffy experience. You may feel limited to one point of view and reality, as though you were living in a big house but locked in just one room. Then you might find yourself switching to another part, with different beliefs and worldviews, but just as restricted. When you speak for a part, you express the same beliefs and experience, but in a fluid and spacious way.

IFS couples therapists will welcome every experience you have but will encourage you to unblend and communicate with a sense of spaciousness. When this happens, you will have a better experience, and your partner will be more likely to comprehend what you are saying.

What’s Happening Now?

You may be surprised when your IFS couples therapist asks you, “What does it feel like inside when you say that?” or, “Is that part here now?” You might feel like he or she interrupted you, or that it is strange to look for the actual presence of a part.

IFS couples therapy, and IFS therapy in general, focuses on your actual, felt experience in the moment. In fact, effective therapy always includes actual, moment-to-moment experiences (Lewis, Amini & Lannon, 2000). It might seem strange at first, but if you take a leap of faith and look for the actual presence of a part, you will get much more out of therapy. Focusing on how you feel in the moment as you discuss problems with your partner will allow you to express more of yourself and it will help you and your partner have more productive, connected discussions.

Getting to Exiles

IFS couples therapists know that extreme behavior (anger, lying, controlling, distancing) is the work of Managers and Firefighters protecting Exiles. Therefore, couples therapy often focuses on finding and getting to know Exiles. When and if you are ready, your couples therapist will invite you to get to know the hurt parts within you and help them feel less isolated and afraid.

Focusing on You or Your Partner Individually

Sometimes your IFS couples therapist will talk to you and your partner as a couple, and sometimes to one of you individually. When your couples therapist focuses on you as a couple, you will get a chance to communicate directly with your partner about the issues that are most important to you. As Harville Hendrix, the founder of Imago relationship therapy (1988), says, couples therapy is most productive when partners take turns listening to each other with curiosity, empathy, and attention.

Your IFS couples therapist will divert you from mutual dialogue if there are parts in the way of proceeding productively. When your couples therapist speaks to you directly, you will have a chance to get to know what blocks better communication with your partner. If all you need to do is acknowledge your Managers and Firefighters and have them step aside, this could take a few minutes.

If you need to get to an Exile, it could take several hours over several sessions. Perhaps you and your partner will want to stay together in the room during this process. If your partner remains, he or she will be touched by the pain that is driving your anger, criticism, or distance, and by your openness, courage, and vulnerability. He or she might be able to contribute reactions or comments that enrich the process.

Perhaps you would rather do this individual work privately. You might feel safer talking to the couples therapist alone. When your partner returns, you can share what you discovered.

Either way, once you have focused on your parts, you will be back to interacting with your partner with renewed creativity and confidence.

What About My Individual Therapy?

Perhaps you or your partner is in individual therapy. You may be wondering how that will blend with couples therapy.

Once you start couples therapy, you may experience challenges and transitions in your individual therapy. Previously, you may have felt validated and appreciative when your individual therapist made judgments about your partner or gave you relationship advice.

Once in couples therapy, you may wonder what to trust—your individual therapist who knows you so well, or the process that’s unfolding in couples therapy.

Perhaps your individual therapist has tried to help by offering opinions about your relationship. Maybe he or she was concerned about your well-being and wanted you to consider leaving the relationship, or has offered opinions about your partner as a way to help you clarify your own experience. Perhaps you were tempted to use your individual therapy to complain about your partner and your therapist allowed you to do this.

Once you start couples therapy, it could be difficult for you if your individual therapist keeps offering advice and opinions. You might need to go through a transition with your individual therapist and find out what things to reserve for the couples therapy.

It is possible that you act differently in your individual therapy than you do in your couples therapy. The presence of your partner may bring out parts of you that you don’t show to your individual therapist. As a result, it may be hard for your individual therapist to understand what is happening in your couples therapy, and for the couples therapist to understand what is happening in your individual therapy.

If any conflicts arise, you can discuss them with both your individual and couples therapists. Hopefully, you can resolve them so that your couples therapy has the best chance to succeed, and you can continue enjoying the benefits of your individual therapy.

© Copyright 2008 by Mona R. Barbera, PhD, therapist in Providence, Rhode Island. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Margo Marriage Counseling

    Margo Marriage Counseling

    July 20th, 2008 at 10:58 AM

    There is definitely something to be said for giving couples the resources that they need to make a difference in their relationships and not necessarily telling them the exact steps that they need to take. Not only does them give them a better understanding of their own selves, but it can also open up their possibilities as a couple and lead to discovery about what they need together to make their relationship continue to work.

  • Sandy


    July 23rd, 2008 at 8:24 AM

    So does this type of therapy just try to get the other “non managing” partner to conform to what is going to best work with ther partner’s personality type? That does not necessarily seem so healthy.

  • mona barbera

    mona barbera

    July 24th, 2008 at 12:30 PM

    Dear Sandy, great question. Responding with Self energy to your partner doesn’t necessarily mean saying what the other partner wants to hear, adapting to them, or going along with them. When Self qualities are present (courage, clarity, and confidence, connection, etc), one can say almost anything to one’s partner and feel good inside about it afterward. It could be, “I hurt when you don’t listen to me,” or “I don’t like it when you say you’re going to do something and don’t do it.” When Self qualities are present, you can say any part of your truth with calm, connection, and compassion. Most likely you’ll get a good response from your partner (either right away or after a while), and if not, you have data about how your partner responds when you do your best.

  • Bruce Hersey

    Bruce Hersey

    July 25th, 2008 at 2:12 AM

    Your question has me wondering if what you are taking from this is that there is a managing partner and a non-managing partner. If so, I would like to clarify that in IFS, both partners have managers. All of us have managers, firefighters and exiles. When couples are in trouble and seeking help, most often neither one has been able to sustain much Self-presence, because each partner’s managers are very busy protecting their own exiles from being further hurt by the other. The therapist helps them both understand this about themselves and each other. Often understanding how your own managers fiercely protect your vulnerable exiles allows you to identify those exiles and care for them in a more direct and healthy way from Self. Simultaneously, understanding hat your partner’s managers are really just trying to protect their exiles enables you to be more understanding and compassionate about their exiles that need caring and protection. As the caring and compassion increases, there is less need for protection from the managers of both partners.

  • Stephanie W

    Stephanie W

    July 27th, 2008 at 4:38 AM

    So are you saying that when we are in trouble we turn to one specific aspect of our personality to take the lead in dealing with our issues? I guess I am a little confused too.

  • mona barbera

    mona barbera

    July 31st, 2008 at 9:30 AM

    Dear Stephanie, thanks for your question. It brings up an important issue. In couples, it’s best that we respond from all of our parts. Usually we respond from only one at a time – for instance we might vacillate between anger, hurt, hopelessness, pleading, stoney distance, and loneliness, fully immersed in each one, and then switching to the next.

    We can bring more resources to our relationships when we have access to both our anger and our hurt, our hopelessness and our hopefulness, our empathy for our partner and our own need to be understood, our desire for distance and our desire for closeness, at the same time. Instead of alternating between opposites – and leading with just one part, as you say – partners can bring surprising resources to tough relationship situations when they have access to opposite parts of themselves. What would it be like if a partner could bring both anger and hurt to the conversation at the same time? Hopelessness and desire for connection? Strength and vulnerability?

    As Joseph Roach says in his book about charisma, “It,” people who are effective communicators have “the power of apparently effortless embodiment of contradictory qualities simultaneously: strength and vulnerability, innocence and experience, singularity and typicality…” For instance, Princess Diana, who drew people to her with a combination of royal self-assurance and vulnerability.

    You can read about my own journey and how others can bring their opposites to their relationships, in the preface of book, “Bring Yourself to Love.” Here is the link: loving-relationship-information.com/support-files/bytlpreface.pdf

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