Helping Struggling Couples Get to the Root of Intimacy Problems

Richard Schwartz's Internal Family Systems Approach to Couples Therapy

Richard Schwartz

Mark and Stacey, an attractive couple in their early thirties, have only been married two years and they're already knotted in conflict. In our first session, Mark, an intense, athletically built man, gets to the point, "I hate it that we're such a stereotype, but it's the typical scenario of me wanting more sex than she does. We're down to once every two weeks—if I'm lucky—and it's driving me crazy. I have a strong sex drive, so if it were up to me, we'd do it every day, the way we used to when we were dating. Now, not only do I not get my sexual needs met, but I feel rejected because most of the time I get shot down when I initiate."

Stacey, slim, darkhaired, sits rigidly in her chair. "I know we don't have sex as much as Mark likes," she says, with an edge in her voice, "but for me to want to make love, I have to feel emotionally connected to him and, to be honest, most of the time, I just don't. He seems so obsessed about this issue. I constantly feel pressure to satisfy him. It's like raw sex is the only thing he wants from me. It's gotten to the point where any time he touches me I freeze up--I'm afraid to respond even affectionately because if I do, he thinks it's an invitation to sex."

I ask each of them to describe what typically happens when they do have sex. Stacey says, "After some time goes by when we haven't had sex, Mark gets more and more sulky, and I begin to feel I'm like a bad, unloving wife. So I hug him or pat his shoulder or maybe just smile at him or something and, oh boy! That's all it takes—he's off to the races. I feel I can't say no again, and so we'll get in bed and start kissing. I try to be as warm as I can get myself to be; I don't want to just lie there like a dead fish. And, usually, at a certain point, I can work myself up so that I'm into it, sort of. Afterwards, I feel relieved because I know he feels happier and not so angry at me and, also, he'll back off and I won't have to do it for a while."

Mark and Stacey are caught in a classic struggle, and most couples therapists have responded with a now-classic technique: get him to back off by issuing a moratorium on sex and assigning exercises that allow them to show affection to each other without any sexual expectation. Trained as a problem-solving, strategic therapist, I used to give that directive to couples and often found that it had the desired effect. It probably would've worked with Mark and Stacey, too.

I once felt an outcome like that meant I'd done my job. Not anymore. Through the years, I've come to see that this kind of technical fix, however immediately useful, is unequal to the inner complexity of people and their potential to know each other intimately.

Know Your Selves

No other area of a couple's life holds as much promise for achieving intimacy as sex. Indeed, the promise of intimacy may be as important as lust for drawing human beings toward sex in the first place. My goal now is to help partners reach the kind of soul-deep connectedness in their sexual encounters that can transform their lives and their relationship with each other.

The Latin adjective intimus means "inmost, deepest." So real intimacy means, first of all, that both partners listen deep inside—i.e., get to know their inner worlds of emotion, desire, and vulnerability—and then reveal what they've learned to each other in an atmosphere of loving acceptance. The couples I've helped reach that level of resonance report tremendous rewards for themselves and their relationships.

Getting to know ourselves in all our multiplicity isn't an easy stroll through a familiar neighborhood. When our inner parts meet our partner's parts, the complexity is compounded, which is why couples therapy can be so difficult. Despite the fact that, like Mark and Stacey, most partners want me to get the other to change, I try to help each listen inside to discover why they respond to their mates in such extreme, and often damaging, ways.

I've found that, if I establish a safe, accepting atmosphere in our sessions, clients can have inner discussions with their parts. In a trancelike state of internal focus, they can dialogue with their parts about what motivates them to react in irrational or self-defeating ways. In listening to their parts' stories, their behaviors or beliefs become comprehensible.

As clients learn to separate from their extreme emotions and thoughts (their parts) in this way, I find that they spontaneously tap into a calm, centered state that I call their Self. When this happens in a session, it feels as if the very molecules in the atmosphere have radically shifted. My clients' faces and voices grow softer and more tranquil; they become more open and tender, able to explore their parts without anger, defensiveness, or dislike. When accessing this state of Self, clients are tapping into something deeper than all these conflicting inner warriors, something that spiritual traditions call "soul."


The first step toward that kind of intimacy involves helping each partner get to know the parts that are triggered by their problems. Because Mark and Stacey were polarized around their sexual relationship, I thought they'd feel safer doing this exploration in private. I suggested that I meet with each of them separately for a session or two. To help people find their parts, I usually begin by asking them what they think or feel about the problem they bring me. When I saw Stacey individually, for example, I asked her what she said to herself when Mark approached her for sex. "Oh no, here we go again!" she replied contemptuously. "I feel angry and helpless and just yuck! But then, I tell myself, 'God, I suppose I've got to do it or he'll make me pay.'"

I then asked her to focus on the disdainful voice. She said she sensed it in the back of her head. As she focused there, I suggested she ask it why it felt such revulsion for Mark and for sex? Putting her hands up as if to push the entire subject away, she said the voice was really disgusted by the whole thing—sweaty, naked bodies, ugly, hairy genitals, revolting fluids, and ridiculous animal noises.

Stacey's face was scrunched up in a look of loathing as she spoke, when suddenly she stopped cold and put her hands over her eyes."Oh my God, it's my mother!" she cried out. "It's my mother's voice in me!"

As we explored this revelation, Stacey recalled that her mother had conveyed her own deep revulsion with all things having to do with the body and sexuality. Some schools of therapy consider a voice like that a "parental introject" or a "schema" of learned cognitions (i.e., the internalized attitudes of Stacey's mother), and would encourage Stacey to ignore or argue with it. While there's no doubt that this part absorbed aspects of Stacey's mother, I find that such parts intend to protect rather than torment. These aversive, controlling voices belong to a category of parts I call the Managers, which act to protect people from hurt and trauma suffered in the past—usually when they were very young and unable to defend themselves emotionally or even physically.

The Return of the Exiles

If you think of Stacey's voice as an introject or a cluster of thoughts, it makes sense to try to get her to challenge or eliminate it. If, in contrast, you view it as an inner personality, you get curious about why it's in the role of puritanical mother. Rather than try to shut down this "manager-mother," I wanted to know why she had this role in Stacey's inner drama. I've found that when we approach our Managers with respect, instead of resentment and dislike, they often have good reasons for what they do. I asked Stacey to sit quietly, breathe evenly, and go inside. "Ask the mother part what it's afraid will happen if it doesn't keep you so repulsed by sex," I said.

After a moment, Stacey had a vivid image of herself as a 6-year-old girl in the bathroom. Her father was helping her undress to take a bath, and as she watched the scene play out, she could see something wrong about it. Her father was looking at her in a funny way, once she was naked, his voice sounded different, and he trembled slightly. She sensed again the fear and confusion she'd felt then—the feeling that something bad was happening, and that it had something to do with her being naked.

The 6-year-old was one of Stacey's Exiles. Exiles are often childlike parts of ourselves that carry the memories and sensations from times when we were hurt, terrified, abandoned, or shamed. Because we want to forget those experiences, we exile these parts, and our Managers do their best to keep them from ever being triggered. Whenever Mark became amorous, it began to scare Stacey's little girl, so her manager-mother went into action, damping down any sexual feelings. Unfortunately, by keeping the Exile deep underground, Stacey not only missed unpleasant memories and sensations, she also missed the most sensitive, innocent, and open aspects of herself. If Exiles carry our most rending pain, they also can give us our capacity for joy, love, passion, creativity, imagination, playfulness, and sheer zest for life. If we shut away the Exiles, we also shut away much of what gives sex, and life in general, pleasure and adventure and meaning.

Mark, too, had parts that influenced the patterns between him and Stacey. When I saw him alone, I asked him to relax and focus on the feeling of frustration he felt whenever Stacey "shot him down." He closed his eyes and said he noticed a voice saying that he needed and deserved lots of sex. I told him to ask the voice about itself. Mark smiled and said that that voice called itself "The Stud," and it looked like a very buff, very macho, very tan version of himself. Mark said The Stud bombarded him with images of himself having sex in numerous hot and ingenious ways with his wife and other women, who panted and moaned in lusty abandon. Mark said he liked The Stud and that it had a powerful influence on him. He basically agreed with The Stud that his life should be more like those images. Many men have parts like Mark's stud, but not many are so open about it so early in therapy.

"Ask The Stud," I said, "what it's afraid would happen if you don't get to have sex all the time." He soon became quiet. After a long silence during which his face betrayed intense emotion, Mark said he'd felt waves of shame as he watched an image of himself as a 13-year-old in the boys' locker room. Talking in a bare whisper, he said that, at that age, he'd had small protuberances at his nipples. The other boys had ridiculed him mercilessly, calling him "Tits," asking him when he was going to buy a bra, and telling him he was really a girl. At such a vulnerable age, this kind of abuse was deeply traumatic to a young boy's developing sense of his own manhood. It was then that The Stud stepped into its role and the devastated 13-year-old was exiled. Never again, vowed The Stud, would he let anybody doubt Mark's masculinity, and it pushed him to seduce as many girls as he could.

Firefighters to the Rescue

Once a client shows more qualities of Self, I ask him or her to enter the scene that an Exile is stuck in. "Can you go into that locker room and be there in the way that boy needed someone to be there at the time?" I asked Mark. Even after 20 years of doing this kind of work, I'm still awed by the way people unerringly know just what to do to heal these wounded inner parts. Mark said that as he approached the 13-year-old, the boy looked up with fear and embarrassment, thinking that this strong, athletic man would also make fun of him. Instead, as Mark played the scene, he sat down on the bench a few feet from the boy. He gently told the boy that there was nothing wrong with him or his body, that the appearance of his breasts was due to hormonal changes and they'd soon look perfectly normal. Other boys were also insecure about their bodies, Mark pointed out. "And anyway, I love you," he said to the boy. At this, the boy dropped his guard and burst into tears. Mark put his arm around the boy and took him out of the locker room, to a safe and pleasant place in the present—Mark visualized taking the boy canoeing on a nearby lake that he and Stacey often visited.

Meanwhile, Stacey went through a similar process. She helped the little girl out of the tub, carefully folded her in a fluffy, warm towel, and, embracing the girl, told her that she'd done nothing wrong. Whatever happened was her father's problem, not hers. Stacey, too, brought the girl into a safe and comfortable setting—to the living room couch—where she folded her arms around the little girl as she read her a story, while the sun streamed through the window.

Healing Together

After Mark and Stacey made peace with their inner exiles in private sessions and, consequently, were each less vulnerable and reactive to the other, I brought them together for a joint session. I told Mark and Stacey, "No wonder you feel so hopeless. You never had a chance for real intimacy. As you heal these parts we've found, you'll finally have a chance."

In the joint session, my role is to help them remain Self-led as they speak to each other. When I notice that either of them has been hijacked by a part, I encourage them to focus inside briefly and then come back and speak for their parts rather than from them. When a partner speaks from the Self about its parts, the other partner is less likely to be triggered and more likely to hear the message.

Mark and Stacey nervously shared with each other what they'd learned in individual sessions. It was extraordinarily touching—as it often is when embattled couples begin to thaw out—to see Stacey tell Mark with unfeigned emotion how sad she felt for that young boy who had been so cruelly humiliated. "I can understand now why you feel so driven, and why my rejection hurts you so much," she said, looking him deeply in the eyes. Mark said he'd never known about the old incident with her father, and now it made complete sense that she'd cringe when he pursued her. He knew what it felt like to be hounded. The quality of the conversation between the two of them was soft and hesitant, but direct.

Self-To-Self Connection

Once couples get a taste of what real Self-to-Self connection feels like, they're eager to keep going, particularly when they see the barriers to their own freedom fall away. Over the course of a year, working with their parts, sometimes individually, more often in front of each other, Mark and Stacey reported continuing changes in their sexual and nonsexual lives together. Each was becoming a different person with the other; in fact, they were becoming a lot of different people with each other in ways that increasingly energized, touched, and delighted them both.

Enough of these moments and a couple begins to know that, whatever stormy melodrama roils the waters of their relationship, it cannot interrupt a deeper, more enduring current flowing between them. That connection forms a loving backdrop to a couple's sexual experience that makes it safe and wonderful for any part to come out. It's the safety of the Self-to-Self connection that allows the delicious surrender to the sexual process.

Once a couple has tasted Self-to-Self intimacy, they know that whatever tempests they find themselves in aren't the essential reality of their connection. No matter what the parts are saying during these inevitably rough times, the couple knows that sooner or later they'll again speak to each other in their true voices. And when that happens, each loses a sense of lonely separateness, and, at some level, experiences a state of union and oneness. They sense that both of them are part of the deep ocean, not the isolated waves. Both are home.


This blog is excerpted from "Pathways to Sexual Intimacy," by Richard Schwartz. The full version is available in the May/June 2003 issue, Rediscovering Pleasure: Are Therapists Afraid of Eroticism?

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Topic: Couples | Trauma

Tags: childhood trauma | childhood traumas | Couples & Family | couples conflict | couples counseling | couples/family | Dick Schwartz | IFS | inner parts | inner selves | internal family systems | love | love and relationships | mental trauma | Richard Schwartz | Richard Schwartz PhD

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Saturday, July 3, 2021 7:18:16 AM | posted by Abbie Clark
Richard Schwartz PhD, I don't believe I've ever read anything more insightful and genuinely written by another therapist in my life! Your care and concern for the deeper healing instead of the typical (band-aid+time=healing=problem solved) approach is truly encouraging and admirable. Other professionals in your field should aspire to this level of dedication and empathy. I wish I could afford your services myself! I'd relocate to be a client! Thank you for providing your techniques without asking for people to pay for a book to access. As well as writing in such a way that anyone could understand why and how you'd stepped beyond the call of duty, so to speak, to not only do your job- but do your job to the fullest extent. Investing your care into other people doesn't require a PhD, and this world could use a lot more people like you. It would be a much better place. But unfortunately a quality the likes of which you possess, you cannot teach, nor buy. I appreciate this very much, and will be Googling your name immediately following my submitting this. Reading the previous comment was extremely helpful, and hopefully the commenter has/or should write their own article on the subject. Very well explained, and beautifully written. Kudos!

Sunday, October 1, 2017 3:45:39 AM | posted by Liz
This is really interesting. I have to wonder, however, at the agreement between a male and a female that the male's experience of being compared to a female at a certain point in his development is "cruel humiliation". While I understand that this is the hegemony of our culture, I also think that it is imperative for the psychological health of the relationship that both members acknowledge the painful contradiction, the extreme double-bind imposed upon females, to accept that they are the embodiment of an insult to males, that they are meant to accept that femaleness is something "less than" and degraded in comparison to maleness. The scenario that females are so worthy of contempt in the eyes of men and that, in order to avoid association or identification with female humans on a somatic level, men must sexually penetrate and dominate as many women as possible, or "their woman" as often as possible (Mark's narrative), while common, is toxic and needs light shed upon it along with the reckoning with "parts" of an individual - those inner manifestations of this dehumanizing scenario. Consistent with the cultural narrative, Stacey's experience of being sexualized by her father at age 6 is consistent with this culture that designates not only women, but girls, as sexual instruments for men, and that teaches girls that their primary value is in sexual display, all the while saddling them with the responsibility for men's sexual attraction and/or predatory behaviours. While it might not be appropriate or necessary to introduce an explicit conversation about the current context of patriarchal capitalism and its social constructs pertaining to sex roles with clients, it behooves psychotherapists to have that conversation. Surely one cannot facilitate healing in relationships without thinking critically about the cultural constructs of sexual relations in the collective psychological landscape. Ortega Y Gasset has written: “The preoccupation of what should be is estimable only when the respect for what is has been exhausted”. Without acknowledging the toxic and incoherent directives of profit-driven patriarchy as they pertain to the problematic way males and females are taught to be sexual, healing the relations between men and women will be severely limited.