You love me…you love me not. I love you…I love you not.
Whether it’s Valentine’s Day, an anniversary, or any other chance to renew our commitment to our partner, have we ever stopped to wonder why these reminder events are such a marketer’s playground, or why when they come around each year we are suddenly able to find the time, energy, and money to drop whatever we would otherwise be doing to make plans for displays of affection?
Love isn’t easy, period. Love is not easy to come by, and it is not easy to keep. And it is extraordinarily painful to lose, but couples who once were madly in love with each other fight, split, and divorce on a daily basis. They also spend months and sometimes years after the split still struggling to figure out why it happened and how to pick up the pieces and move on.
If it is not easy to love a deux, it can be traced back to our own difficulties with loving ourselves. We cannot love someone we do not know – and often, each half of a new couple comes into the relationship willing and able to spend more time getting to know the other person than getting to know themselves. We don’t know why we get angry, or what triggers it. We tell new partners about how past partners have deliberately “pushed our buttons,” and then we blame those past partners for love’s earlier unhappy endings. We tell ourselves we are sure it will be different this time – new partner, new love, new beginning.
Until it starts happening all over again with our new partner, and we suddenly begin to smell a rat. We may then start to wake up and realize that, if the only constant in a recurring pattern is us, then we are the one who holds the power to change that dynamic rather than risk yet another painful loss.
In Internal Family Systems (IFS), a powerful and dynamic therapeutic model that explores our inner world interactions in all their many parts, we learn that both in and out of love, we are multi-faceted beings. We are fascinating, really – we have so many thoughts, so many emotions, so many memories, so many experiences. And within the context of a love relationship the environment is especially ripe for all of those thoughts, emotions, memories, and experiences to collide in our attempt to preserve the love we have while protecting ourselves from more pain.
IFS students soon learn that we have the Hurt Child, who remembers the very first breakup and wants to make sure she never, ever has to go through that again. We have our Inner Critic, who remembers past harsh words from former loves that hit too close to home, and reminds us that we are our own worst enemy and that any pain we have felt in the past is our own fault. We have our inner Champion, who will do battle to ensure that no interloper – even a loving one with good intentions – gets close enough to harm us. And we have the Blamer, who steadfastly maintains that, regardless of whatever repeatedly unfortunate circumstances may befall us, we have no one to blame but somebody else.
Couples in conflict can benefit greatly from becoming students of themselves, and IFS is a model uniquely well-suited to that exploration. In IFS couples therapy, each partner can start to learn how “pushing buttons” actually arises when an inner facet of self that bears past painful memories gets triggered into self-protective action by a partner’s comment or action. IFS’ self-awareness training enables each participant in the relationship to check their reactions against their inner awareness before responding in customary knee-jerk reaction ways to their partner. For instance, is the Blaming part of you judging your partner because it is easier than bearing the self-judgment of your own Inner Critic? Is the Hurt Child going away just when he should come closer because one hurt was enough, and when that original hurt happened he was a child and didn’t know what else to do but flee?
IFS training in the context of couples communication helps each participant to recognize that each of these parts is doing the best they can to protect us. We can then begin to learn new communication skills that start with self-awareness and self-evaluation. We can forestall knee-jerk reactions that may further damage our treasured relationship and create new patterns of interaction that are healthier, more mature, and more self- and love-affirming.
If you are feeling stretched and challenged by the dynamics of a valued love relationship, Internal Family Systems therapy can help. At Southlake Counseling, we have over two decades of expertise with guiding couples to salvage, restore, and rebuild the love they have worked so hard to cultivate. Contact us at www.southlakecounseling.com and experience for yourself just how wonderful saying “no” to unhealthy conflict and YES to love and life can be!