Applying IFS to Relationship Work

By Toni Herbine-Blank, MS, RN, CS-P, “Couples and Individuals in Intimate Relationships” Topic Expert Contributor

Welcome to the IFS Blog column on relationship work. My name is Toni Herbine-Blank. I am an IFS therapist and senior trainer for the Center for Self Leadership (CSL).

Prior to my training in the IFS Model, I specialized in couples work, training with some of the leading voices in the field. I was enlivened, as so many are, by the idea of supporting people—specifically couples—to free themselves from the constraints that limit their relationships.

I completed my IFS Level 1 training in 2000 and became a trainer in 2004. Since then, I have spent countless hours developing a program called Intimacy from the Inside Out©, an 80-hour clinical training for IFS graduates interested in applying the Model to couples and to larger systems. I am excited to be CSL’s voice for this kind of work and to be in the role of topic expert on couples therapy for this blog.

The application of Internal Family Systems Therapy to my couples work dramatically changed my thinking about human dynamics and what was at the core of the dilemmas that couples face. Bringing IFS into my work broadened my perspective and, over time, gave rise to a new paradigm of thinking for the couples I work with and for the students to whom I teach the IFS Model. In short, we work with “parts”—aspects of the internal world of our clients—much as we would work with an external system. We support the development of relationships between parts, encourage dialogue, understand the roles and functions of the protective system, and help our clients make sense of the vulnerable child parts that carry burdens from overt or covert relational trauma.

IFS couples therapy is a beautiful model of differentiation. Our invitation to individuals in relationship is to attempt to make a radical “U” turn toward internal differentiation, attaching with the Self before “re-turning” to the other with a clearer understanding of themselves. The level of differentiation between partners in the couple is a barometer for the more opaque level of internal differentiation between parts and Self. Even though the external relational field is our first point of contact with a couple, we first prioritize the internal. In IFS couples therapy, our first aim is to help parts differentiate from the Self in order to recognize and re-attach to the Self. This internal attachment work paves the couple’s relational road. A state of individuation and attachment, inside and out, is our goal.

IFS is an experiential, right brain/left brain-integrating model of therapy that seeks to help people make sense of their life experience in a safe and collaborative way. Using IFS with couples not only invites an exploration of an individual’s inner life, but also works to support couples in envisioning a lively dance that includes communicating well, repairing inevitable rupture, making room for the needs of both individuals as well as the relationship, reclaiming passion, and exploring Self-to-Self connection.

For a more detailed description of IFS with couples, please check out my longer article on the CSL website, “Parts and Self in Relationship: IFS with Couples.”

I look forward to lively discussions, comments, and suggestions of topics you’re interested in reading about. Please check back soon for more blogposts on IFS and couples therapy.

5 Responses to “Applying IFS to Relationship Work”

  1. Eileen Marolla says:

    I found this article inspiring. Thank you.

  2. Sharon T. Walls says:

    I so appreciated your article, Toni. It so names the process I continue to work with, both in my office and personally! I love the road map you have outlined and the words you so articulately write to express the inner work as well as the relational dance that are both so critical to be with. Thanks for offering a compass for all of us.

  3. Nancy Wonder says:

    IFS is an amazing model for couples work. I support your column and hope you will write more. How do you deal with couples who say, “You are not dealing with the big issue” when I am focusing on differentiation?

  4. Peter says:

    “The level of differentiation between partners in the couple is a barometer for the more opaque level of internal differentiation between parts and Self.” Wow! That statement hit home for me. Having read In Quest of the Mythical Mate by Bader and Pearson, I am familiar with the need for healthy differentiation between partners in a relationship but the idea of internal differentiation between parts and Self…well, makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? Anyone brave enough to work in couples therapy needs access to the best conceptual models available, I reckon!

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