Internal Family Systems, Guidepost for Sexual Intimacy

Richard Schwartz on Better Sex through the IFS Approach

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. 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, dark-haired, 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.

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.

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.

When people listen deeply inside, they encounter a host of feelings, fantasies, thoughts, impulses, and sensations that comprise that background noise of our everyday experience of being in the world. When they remain focused on and ask questions of one of those inner experiences, they find that it's more than merely a transient thought or emotion. Within each of us is a complex family of subpersonalities, which is why we can have so many contradictory and confusing needs simultaneously, especially around sex.

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.

For me, then, intimacy has two components: the knowing and revealing of one's secret parts and also the sense of awe and belonging that comes with Self-to-Self connectedness.


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. There are all kinds of Managers. Some are inner critics who drive people to perform perfectly so they'll never re-experience old feelings of failure and inadequacy. Other managers, like Stacey's, are early-warning systems that operate to prevent the person from even getting near an experience that might cause harm. Sex is perhaps the area of life most prone to the meddling of overzealous managers.

The Return of the 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. 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.

Healing Together

After Mark and Stacey made peace with their inner exiles in private sessions, they were each less vulnerable and reactive to the other. 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.

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.

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.

This blog is excerpted from “Pathways to Sexual Intimacy."Read the full article here. >>

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Topic: Couples | Aging | Trauma

Tags: couples therapist | couples therapists | ED | emotion | family | HEAL | imagination | internal family systems | intimacy | sex | TED | therapist | therapists | therapy | Psychotherapy Networker | Dick Schwartz | IFS | Richard Schwartz

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