by Bonnie Weiss, LCSW
Sonia and Justin were so in love and thrilled to have found each other. Now three years and two children later, they find themselves feeling like total strangers who snap at each other and seem to have the same fight again and again.
Why does this happen? What are the foundational causes of these repetitive patterns of discontent?
We each have many different parts, each with its own point of view, feelings, and motivation. There is a part of Justin that wants to be close to Sonya and a different part that wants privacy and peace. When he pulls back to get privacy, this scares the part of Sonya that is afraid of rejection. This triggers another part of her that criticizes him to protect her rejected part. Justin responds by pulling back even further, to protect the part of him that is hurt by her criticism. And around and around they go.
With most of the couples I see, a turning point happens when they get a picture of the emotional landscape within themselves and their partner.
They recognize that they each have protector parts that are poised like vigilant soldiers to stand guard against perceived assaults from the outside. Behind these protective walls are each person’s vulnerable parts, who were hurt deeply in childhood or previous relationships. The protective parts vow is to never let the fragile parts be injured again.
It is possible for our hearts to warm to the tender child within our partner, and to also understand the efforts of their protectors. And for them to appreciate our parts. Justin saw that Sonya was just trying to protect the child part of her that was rejected by her father. And Sonya saw that Justin was just trying to protect the part of him that was criticized by his mother. Then a shift happened that made open communication possible.
Internal Family Systems Therapy is a method of couple’s coaching and therapy that facilitates this work. We can update our internal systems and bring our mature adult resources and wisdom into the relationship. Justin and Sonya learned to speak for their hurt parts and protectors instead of acting them out. And they softened and opened to each other, allowing their love to flower again.