Internal family system

  for couples therapy

The method was originally developed to work with clients who experienced childhood sexual abuse and clients with food addictions.

This method implements a systematic approach to work both with the subpersonalities of family members and with the family as a group. It allows you to combine individual and family work within a single theoretical framework. Internal family system  therapy integrates well with Murray Bowen’s concept of differentiation, ideas about the circular nature of family relationships, and solution-oriented therapies.

Working with the couple’s internal systems allows you to quickly access the traumatic experiences of partners that underlie the so-called Cycle of Vulnerability. The Cycle of Vulnerability refers to the repetitive chain of interactions between spouses, leading to a sense of deadlock in the relationship. Within the framework of the IFS method, a large number of techniques and exercises have been developed that allow spouses to change their reactions in a repetitive cycle, which allows them to rebuild the relationship in the desired direction. The terminology of this approach is easily assimilated by clients and significantly enriches their understanding of the ongoing processes in marriage, acceptance of themselves and their partner.

The theory of IFS has a convenient classification of the types of subpersonalities that arise as a result of distortions in the development of an individual and his traumatization. The author of the method, Richard Schwartz, distinguishes 3 categories of internal objects. These are Exiles, Managers, and Firefighters.

Exiles are childhood parts of the personality that have experienced trauma and are often excluded from the rest of the system as a result. They are isolated by the Managers and Firefighters trying to protect the person from the feelings of pain, horror, fear, shame, etc. that the Exiles are full of. The presence of exiles can be discerned by the emerging states of fragility and vulnerability.

Managers are the parts of the personality that run a person’s daily life.

They try to help control life situations and relationships, trying to protect them from feelings of pain and rejection.

Managers can do this in a number of ways: controlling their inner life, self-criticism, freezing emotions, punctuality, politeness, caring for others, striving for achievements, etc.

Firefighters are parts of the personality that turn on, seeking to keep the Exiles under control and extinguish their strong emotions.

They achieve this in different ways – using tantrums, anger, criticism, distance and coldness towards their partner. Firefighters can push a person to self-destructive and addictive behavior (alcohol, drugs, shopping, overeating, gambling and computer games, etc.).

Firefighters have the same goals as Managers (to isolate exiles from additional trauma), but use different, more impulsive strategies to do so.

The therapist views the problematic behavior of the spouses as an ineffective attempt at stress management, made with positive intentions by Managers and Firefighters. These parts try to do the best they can under the circumstances.

The therapist views the problematic behavior of the spouses as an ineffective attempt at stress management, undertaken with positive intentions by Managers and Firefighters. These parts try to do the best they can under the circumstances.

The essence of this method is also the assumption of the existence of the Central Self (Self), which carries out a leading function in relation to other subpersonalities. Self is assumed in any, even extremely severely traumatized system. In this sense, the goal of therapy is not to correct the defect, but to remove the restrictions that prevent the client’s Self from exercising full control over his own life. This therapy is a collaborative therapy, and in the course of successful work the client’s Self becomes a co-therapist of the change process.

Working with the couple, the therapist of this orientation helps to stop the reactive process between them and to interact more on behalf of Self. He will support partners to create some distance in relation to their subpersonalities, be a lawyer, their representative, speak on their behalf, discuss needs instead of being absorbed in their experiences.

Marital therapy using the method of internal family systems periodically changes the focus of its attention from the dialogue of spouses with each other to the internal system of each of them and back to interaction in a couple.

The use of work with subpersonalities facilitates the planning of steps for detriangulation of partners in an extended family system and allows this process to be done in cooperation with clients.


To love someone means to know all of his aspects, to accept and to respect all of them.

Dr. Irena Vacheva