The concept of Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a therapeutic approach that has been gaining popularity in recent years. The IFS approach, also known as “parts work,” posits that individuals have multiple “parts” within themselves, and that these parts can conflict with one another, leading to psychological distress. In this article, we will explore how the concept of Internal Family Systems impacts relationships, both with oneself and with others.
At the heart of IFS is the idea that individuals have a “Self” or a core essence that is fundamentally good, curious, supportive, and compassionate. However, this Self can become obscured or overwhelmed by the presence of “parts” that are more reactive, defensive, or protective. These parts may be formed as a result of traumatic and distressing experiences, societal messages, or other external factors.
When individuals are in relationship with others, their parts can become activated and interact with the parts of their partner. For example, if one partner has a part that is fearful of abandonment, this may be triggered by something that their partner does or says. If the other partner has a part that is dismissive or critical, this can exacerbate the fearful part in the first partner. In the Gottman theory, we learned about the Four Horsemen (Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling). From a parts work lens, the 4 Horsemen can be considered “parts.” We can better understand why one partner may engage in any of the 4 Horseman, by potentially understanding their underlying roles. A partner may have a defensive part to protect themselves from pain and vulnerability.
IFS teaches individuals to identify, be curious, and communicate with their parts in a non-judgmental and compassionate way. IFS also teaches us to re-parent and provide the part support with the unmet need. This allows individuals to better understand their own internal conflicts and work towards greater self-awareness and integration. In relationships, this approach can help individuals communicate more effectively with their partners, especially during times of conflict.
By recognizing and acknowledging their own parts, individuals can also be more empathetic towards their partner’s parts. This can help build greater understanding and intimacy in the relationship. Additionally, the IFS approach emphasizes the importance of creating a safe and secure internal environment, which can translate to a more secure attachment style in relationships.
However, it is important to note that IFS is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and individuals should work with a trained therapist to fully understand and implement the approach. Additionally, while IFS can be helpful in addressing internal conflicts and improving relationships, it is not a replacement for addressing systemic issues or larger societal problems.
To sum up, the concept of Internal Family Systems can have a profound impact on relationships, both with oneself and with others. By recognizing and working with one’s own parts, individuals can improve their own self-awareness and create a more secure internal environment, which can translate to stronger and more fulfilling relationships with others.
- Schwartz, R. C., & Sweezy, M. (2019). Internal Family Systems Therapy: Treating Trauma and Anxiety (3rd ed.). New York: Guilford Press.
- Sweezy, M., & Ziskind, E. (2017). Internal Family Systems Skills Training Manual: Trauma-Informed Treatment for Anxiety, Depression, PTSD & Substance Abuse. PESI Publishing & Media.
- Schwartz, R. C. (2013). Internal Family Systems Therapy (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Press.
- Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2015). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert. Harmony.