Why You And Your Partner Should Try IFS Therapy If Your Relationship Lacks Empathy

When it comes to therapy, there are many different methods. While no technique is better than another, what fits each person varies. This is most especially true when talking about relationship counseling because you're not just dealing with one person's issues but two different personalities and how they relate in a couple. As much as cognitive therapy has positively impacted relationship psychology, Internal Family Systems therapy (IFS) has come to the forefront as another way for couples to navigate their connection.

The main concept of IFS is that we all have three parts within us: exiles, managers, and firefighters, according to marriage family therapist Jessica Vechakul. "These parts of us are like members of a family, who are each doing their best and have a special way of taking care of the family system," Dr. Vechakul tells Forbes. Exiles are the most sensitive parts, usually linked to trauma, that we suppress for our own peace of mind. Firefighters come into play when the exiles pop up and cause pain, essentially putting out the emotional fires. And, lastly, managers do just that: Manage by preventing exiles from surfacing, so there's no need for firefighters.

When someone can identify these parts in themselves and their partner, they have a deeper understanding and are more empathetic to behavior and reactions to those behaviors. Although bringing empathy to a relationship isn't easy, it's certainly not impossible. Like all therapy, it just requires putting in the work to get there. IFS can help.

IFS can increase self-awareness

Although a 2007 study published in Child Development found that babies have "self-world differentiation," that's a far cry from the awareness and mindfulness necessary to navigate adult relationships. In fact, self-awareness is something that needs to be cultivated, according to Harvard Business Review, so we can not only be better partners but more sound people in all corners of our lives, from the workplace to how we conduct ourselves from day to day.

Because IFS helps us understand all layers of ourselves, even the ones we actively try to hide (exiles), it brings about self-awareness through the concept of self-leadership — the ability to "separate your 'Self' from your 'parts,'" as described by self-leadership coach and IFS expert Conor McMillen on his website. When we're able to discover it, it can make us better communicators and more understanding of others. In turn, these things make us more emotionally intelligent, so harnessing empathy is easier to do.

According to a 2017 study published in Mindfulness, there is a strong link between self-awareness and empathy. If either you or your partner finds it hard to be empathetic of the other, IFS can help you work on ways of being self-aware so that empathy has a chance to follow. 

IFS can increase self-acceptance

Being able to accept oneself in a culture that throws a lot of negativity our way can feel like an uphill battle. It's not just about accepting how we look and what we do, but where we come from and who we are deep down to our core. But in learning to accept ourselves, even the parts we're not exactly proud of, we free up our exiles and the negative emotions associated with them. This can allow us to transform without the firefighters constantly trying to quell our fear and pain. It's about creating easier access to the Self, per PositivePsychology.com

"As we get to know these parts, one thing [clients] notice is 'Oh, I can start to maintain boundaries with people. I can get my needs met and notice that I have worth and value as a person,'" trained IFS practitioner Kasandra Lundquist tells Well + Good. "The narrative of how they talk about themselves really starts to shift."

With self-acceptance comes self-compassion as we embrace our humanness, according to PositivePsychology.com. When we can forgive ourselves, we have the ability to forgive and understand our partner, especially in a way that's more open and full of empathy. It's so hard to go through life accepting the flaws that come with being human, so being able to do that is a relationship strengthener for sure.

IFS can help with anxiety and depression

According to The Foundation for Self Leadership, as of November 2015, IFS has been listed in the National Registry for Evidence-based Programs and Practices. What that means is that IFS has been studied and proven to be effective for many types of mental health issues, including anxiety and depression — which can take a negative toll on a relationship, especially if one partner struggles to understand the other's suffering. 

"You can quickly feel pushed away from your partner rather than drawn closer together," couples psychologist Sarah Salzman tells PsychCentral. "Relationships take energy and goodwill to maintain well, and that can be hard to come up with when you're [experiencing episodes of depression]." IFS can bring empathy to the partnership you both need.

With both of you in IFS therapy, not only can the partner with the mental disorder learn to manage it, but it offers the chance to "increase the couple's sense of intimate connection to one another" through the practice of speaking for your parts rather than "blending with these parts and speaking from them," licensed mental health counselor Max Tsymbalau explained in a blog post. According to the World Health Organization, depression and anxiety remain the most common mental illnesses in the world, so knowing how to navigate them in a relationship (if one or both of you have it) is essential.

IFS can promote conflict resolution

It's hard to resolve a conflict without empathy, per The Conflict Expert. When a couple has an argument or even a small disagreement, it requires being able to put oneself in the shoes of the other to understand why they feel the way they do. Without that ability to feel, not just understand, why someone reacted or said what they did, there may be no real resolution. Instead, you just have two people holding resentment until the next argument that's likely to be even bigger.

According to a 2019 study published in the International Society for Research on Emotion, those who are empathetic are more able to reconcile within a broad range of relationships — not just romantic ones. A relationship that doesn't have empathy is one that will likely have a difficult time resolving issues, both big and small. It's important to learn how to fight fair and productively.

In IFS therapy, conflict resolution and problem-solving are tackled so couples can get to the bottom of things faster (per GoodTherapy). Life is far too short to waste time being angry at someone we love. While IFS may not be the cure-all therapy method for every couple, if it comes down to empathy and trying to understand each other and your personal battles, IFS may be right for you. Healthy and fulfilling relationships require knowing the completeness of ourselves and our partners, and IFS can be the doorway to that.