by Seth Kopald
Couples seem to push each other’s buttons and often say hurtful things. Perhaps the closer people are, the more they feel safe to let their guards down. The problem is that people often hurt the ones they care about the most when they speak from feelings like anger or frustration, or from their pain they are experiencing.
Richard Schwartz, developer of the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model, encourages people to look within when someone is in conflict with another and identify which parts are activated prior to speaking. The term parts refers to various aspects, perspectives and feelings people have, and these parts tend to take control during conversations. For instance, if someone feels criticized by their partner, they may notice multiple parts might be activated. One part may feel hurt and sad, while another is angry and wants to lash out. Both parts exist simultaneously. Perhaps there is even a third part that wants to deflect the criticism by acting like it never happened. It is normal for people to experience a range of reactions and only let one bubble to the surface. A person may be taken over by anger, for instance, while a sad part yearns for closeness.
When people speak from their parts, the listener often reacts defensively. For instance, if a partner speaks from anger, the other may feel the need to protect him or herself. If one person speaks from annoyance, the listener may feel criticized or shamed, and react by becoming distant. Speaking from a part then, often provokes reactions in others. Then anger speaks to anger, or anger causes shutdown in the other. There is another way to go about this. People can notice what’s happening inside and share that with their partner.
People may warn themselves not to say hurtful things, but, once they are taken over by a part, noticing is much harder. Thus, the key is to notice these parts or feelings as they begin to emerge and take a moment to understand them, perhaps with some compassion. One may think, “I notice anger rising in me; it wants to lash out,” or “I feel a sense of not being heard, and frustration is building.” Some may think, “I notice the need to tell him/her that it’s all his/her fault, I wonder why.”
When we notice, the Self is noticing. When people allow parts or feelings to take the lead, the true Self is in the back seat, along for the ride. Conversely, when they notice their parts emerging, they can pause and speak for them. One may say, “As we are talking, I’m noticing anger rising in me,” and if people really listen to their own anger, they may find that anger protects them from being hurt. Then they can talk about that to their partner in a calmer way.
At first, this type of communication may feel unnatural. People are used to talking from parts, not for them. Over time, this type of communication becomes more fluid, partners start to notice when each other are taken over by parts and may find more patience and understanding, knowing that a part is talking rather than the person’s true Self. When a partner speaks for a part, it lets the other know that they care enough to do so. It’s an investment in the relationship.
Seth Kopald is an IFS practitioner who leads individual sessions, couple communication sessions and groups. Seth creates a safe space and guides people to care for themselves in a loving and insightful way. He holds a Ph.D. in organizational management with a specialization in leadership and a master’s degree in education. For more information, call 734-395-3319 or visit SethKopald.com.