Working with couples and relationships, with Kate Lingren
In this episode Kate Lingren helps us to understand how IFIO approaches communication and negative cycles both in couples and relationships.
IFIO is a relationship therapy born out of a desire to carry the concepts of IFS into a relational setting and to use the intimate relationship itself as a vehicle for growth and healing of the individual, as well as the couple.
You can find more on this model at Toni Herbine-Blank website (https://www.toniherbineblank.com)
You can learn more reading:
Self in Relationship: An Introduction to IFS Couple Therapy, in Internal Family Systems Therapy: New Dimensions, edited by Martha Sweezy and Ellen L. Ziskind, Routledge, NY 2013; and IFIO: Courage and Compassion in Couple Therapy, by Toni Herbine-Blank, with co-authors Donna M. Kerpelman and Martha Sweezy 2016.
Today on IFS talks, we're welcoming back Kate Lingren, talking today about relationships and intimacy. Kate Lingren is a certified IFS therapist and on the faculty of Intimacy From the Inside Out, using IFS and couples work as a lead trainer. She's also on the faculty of Boston College School of Social Work, where she teaches a class on IFS. Kate lives and practices in the Boston area and in Martha's Vineyard. Today, we are focusing with her on a different topic. Intimacy from the Inside Out, or IFIO as Toni Herbine-Blank collaborator on therapy method for couples’ relationships.
Thank you, Kate, for being with us today.
Kate Lingren: It's a pleasure. Thank you for having me back.
Aníbal Henriques: Kate, why this special interest of yours on couples and couples’ therapy, where does this come from?
Kate: Well, you know. It's interesting, the first thing that comes to mind when you say that, Aníbal, is I sometimes say when I'm teaching that I had my first couple when I was seven. Let's just say it didn't go very well.
So, the first couple in my life had problems and there was no help available for them, and that had a huge impact on me and my siblings. So, that's in there somewhere, wanting to provide something that is truly helpful for couples because it's not easy to stay in a relationship long term.
Aníbal: And how do we differentiate IFS from IFIO? And what does exactly from the inside out mean?
Kate: Yes, so, IFIO is the application of IFS to multiple systems, dual systems in the room. So, to Couples. And it could be any dyad, as a matter of fact. We talk about couples in terms of romantic partners, it can be used with any dyad. I've certainly seen the adult child and parent dyads, sibling dyads, friends, business partners. So, Toni Herbine-Blank has taken IFS and really honed it to be very applicable to working with multiple systems in the room and from the inside out is really the basis of IFS, I think. You know, the internal connection Self-to-part is primary. And the more healing work we can do internally, the more available we are to working with our partner on the relationship, hence from the inside out.
Tisha: Did you work with couples before IFIO? And how is it different?
Kate: I laugh, yes. And by the time I got to Tony's training, 2019 maybe. Was one of her first trainings I was ready to quit with couples, because it was too painful for me. Sitting with people, getting dysregulated and escalating in the room, and I didn't know what to do when that happened. And also, not to really...I wasn't able to really make a difference and provide something that felt really useful or helpful to couples. So, by the time I got to that training, I was thinking, ok, last ditch effort and that training changed everything for me.
Aníbal: Kate, how much someone that is trained in my IFS is ready to work with the couples or this kind of relations that you mentioned or how much is needed to go into this specific training on IFIO?
Kate: Yes, I think IFS alone does not prepare us to work with couples on so many levels. There's so much to it that it's impossible to cover all of that in the IFS training. The traditional level 2s often had a weekend on working with couples, the four-weekend model. And even that was just the very beginning. The 72-hour training that we offer is also just the beginning. And what I think makes it so complicated is what it triggers in us. It's…I think most people would agree with this, working with couples is more than twice as triggering as sitting with an individual, maybe exponentially because of our early experiences with our own first families.
Tisha: How did that play out for you, you know, as your post training, feeling into your parts, working with couples. How did you work with that? What did you notice?
Kate: That's a great question. One of the things I noticed through the training and got help with was how scared I got when one or both people in the couple got dysregulated. And then I would dissociate to protect myself and I have this memory of sitting with a couple in my office, they were screaming at each other and I just sat there glazed over and went away. And then, when I got my bearings, I actually had to stand up and say "you have to stop." It was the only tool I had. And now, so I really had to work with the parts of me that got so scared when people go into conflict in my office and we're really in parts,
Aníbal: Yes, maybe parts remembering also. We all remember.
Kate: Exactly, absolutely. And now what's interesting is it doesn't get to that point in my office. I know how to keep people regulated, help people stay regulated, and if they start to escalate, I know how to interrupt that.
Aníbal: You have a grip on them.
Aníbal: So, Kate what are the goals of IFIO, generally?
Kate: Well, the goal probably at its core is helping people find Self-to-Self communication, which translates into communicating on behalf of needs and vulnerable parts, as opposed to trying to get needs met from protector energy. So, Self-to-Self communication, Self-regulation is an important part of that. Unblending, of course, is an important part of that.
Aníbal: It's a huge one, Self-to-Self communication.
Kate: Yes, it is.
Tisha: So, is there a lot of education of the couples that you work with initially teaching them about how to notice their parts and how to unblend? Or does it happen naturally?
Kate: For me, at this point, Tisha, it happens more naturally. And I provide the education where it seems appropriate. I think I've put a fair number of couples to sleep, trying to explain how it works. So, I've learned to provide the information as needed and sometimes people don't need to know what we're doing. It just makes sense to them intuitively. And some people want to know "how does this work? What do you mean and what are you looking for with that question?"
Aníbal: Kate, one of the watermarks for the model, I believe, is the U-turn, which is also a concept for IFS, of course. What exactly is this U-turn when it comes to couples? How do you implement this with couples?
Kate: Yes. So that is a term of Dicks' that's so, so important. And, when couples come in, they often, almost always, I think I can say, come in blaming the other. We're here because they are doing X or not doing Y. If they would stop doing that, things would be fine. Or something like that. So, the U-turn is really, over time, helping people slow down and bring the focus back to themselves. So, and one way to do that is to ask "Ok, so, when they do that, what happens inside for you?" Which brings the focus back here, to myself.
Aníbal: Yes, "What am I feeling? And what am I needing?"
Kate: And they might still answer with something about the other person. And I'll just ask again until people really get in the habit of first checking in here, what's happening for me inside and taking the focus off of what their partner is or isn't doing.
Aníbal: So, Kate, on IFIO partners take turns on U-Turns and Returns. That may look really dynamic and lively. How easy is it for couples to take those turns and returns?
Kate: Yes, it's sort of organic, I think. If somebody is in a blaming part, for example, I might ask that person, you know, if it's showing up as an angry blaming part to see if that part would give them some space. So, there's the unblinding. And then, what's happening inside right now. So, it may be, it goes back and forth in some sessions. One person's doing a U-turn, the focus is on them. Then the other. Sometimes it's only one person in the whole hour and we stay with that So, it can look many different ways in a session. The important thing is that the therapist or me in this case, I'm interrupting every time if somebody is pointing the finger at their partner.
Aníbal: Exactly. You need to be very firm doing that to ensure safety.
Kate: That, too, it has to be a safe triangle, right?
Tisha: Speaking of that, how do you work with parts of yourself, as the therapist, that align with one member of the couple over the other? Do you speak for that...or how do you work with that inside?
Kate: That's a great question. And of course, it's going to happen, right.
Tisha: Because it happens, right?
Kate: Of course it's going to happen. And at this point, I'm connected enough with my system that right away I will notice it pretty quickly, if not immediately. And I do lovingly ask the part to move back so I can stay connected with both people, because that's what creates a safe triangle or contributes to a safe triangle.
It doesn't really happen so much anymore that I get, that I'm aligned with one and get called on it, but it has happened and when that happens, we have to be willing to take a look at that. “I feel like you're really siding with my partner over there on this.” And I'm ok now, I've learned to be ok with saying "Let me take a look at that" and yes, that's when I might speak for it. "You know, there was a part of me that was starting to ally with your partner around that, I'm going to work with that."
Kate: Or to be able to say "I checked inside and..." Because sometimes it's a projection. So, to be able to say, you know...This happened not that long ago for me, when one of the one person in the partnership said "I feel like you're really taking her side," and I said "Let me just take a look." And I took a moment and I said "I don't find any part of me that's taking her side here. And I'm wondering what's happening for you."
Tisha: Yes, it's really good to name.
Aníbal: Kate, it might be beautiful to see couples grow and change during these series of U-turns in order to see each other grow, but how relevant is it for a couple to heal that this U-turn, this individual work you described, get done with a partner presence or witnessing?
Kate: In IFIO there are a number of protocols that we use. One is tracking the sequence of an ineffective cycle that couples get into. That's pretty predictable for most people. Another protocol's courageous communication, which we can talk about a little bit more. Another protocol is doing an individual piece of work with one person in the presence of their partner. And I can tell you that it is so powerful. And I know that from the inside out because I've had that experience with my partner and being able to witness her doing a deep piece of work was deeply, deeply meaningful for me. And it helped me understand her in a very different way, which helped me not react to the protectors that I would sometimes react to.
Tisha: You could meet them with compassion, seeing what they were protecting.
Kate: Absolutely. Yes. That's one of the pieces of that protocol that is so powerful. The partner gets to say "Oh, this wasn't, it isn't about me? Wow."
Aníbal: Yes. So, Kate, what exactly is courageous communication?
Kate: So, in essence, courageous communication is being able to speak on behalf of parts and listen from Self. So, in the training and in the model, there's a lot of emphasis not just on speaking for parts, but on how to listen from Self. So, we spend a lot of time and energy helping the listener get ready to listen. So, sometimes, for example, we might contract for one person to speak on behalf of an experience. Then we go to the listener and help them get ready. It could take a whole session to help the listener get unblended enough to be able to really hear their partner from their heart. I sometimes say from your heart or from Self-leadership. So courageous communication is basically that, speaking on behalf of parts and listening from Self. It sounds simple and it is not easy to do.
Aníbal: Yes, absolutely. And how does Self help to regulate couples?
Kate: Well, if you think about it, yes, the regulation has to happen first before anything else can happen. And so, unblending really allows access to Self-energy. And that's where calmness, centered energy, curiosity is, as you know. And so, when someone is in a Self-led place, more calm, more centered, more curious, the energy is calm. And it takes that to be able to listen to some difficult things from your partner, potentially difficult things. As opposed to being in a part and dysregulated, speaking from angry energy. There's nothing that can happen that's constructive then. And I sometimes say to people, if you are in an angry part, if you are speaking from this part or dysregulated, I use that word a lot with Couples' clients, and they actually seem to really like it. Is very affirming. "Oh, that is what it is, isn't it? I am not regulated." And I'll say "If you're coming from that angry part, you are not going to be heard. And I want you to be heard. So, let me help you get more regulated or calm or connect with some calm, centered energy or something like that."
Aníbal: So, IFIO really helps couples with cycles.
Aníbal: And I'm curious, what is a negative cycle and how IFIO addresses negative cycles.
Kate: Yes, that's a big part of the work, is listening to the couple over time and really trying to suss out what this cycle is, and a cycle is a kind of predictable, repetitive pattern between two people. That, and my way of thinking is their attempt to get a need met, each of them attempt to get a need met, that's not working. And most couples have, like Toni says, basically one fight. Which means that we each have sort of this core exile or vulnerability that tends to energize our core front line protectors.
And the content can change, whether it's over who cleans the bathrooms or who does more around the house or who's wanting more attention from the other, the content can change, but that underlying core exile and front-line protectors tend to be the same. So, we're listening for that. We're listening for the protector, which I think is an attempt to get a need met. So, maybe it's getting louder and starting to raise one's voice. It's the protector energy. And what is that part afraid would happen, we might ask, if you don't get louder?
Kate: What you might hear as well, then "I really won't be heard, I won't be seen. I'll never get what I need." And then we get closer to the exile.
Tisha: So, it sounds like there's a lot around negotiating needs.
Tisha: And is it generally that there's an exile at the base of each of them, or is there sometimes needs that will never be met in a specific relationship?
Kate: That's a good question too. It's both. Any need, all needs are acceptable. If you can identify the need, it will make sense. "Oh, so, you need to be seen." I don't want for example, here's an example. I often hear this "I don't want to have to say what I need. I want my partner to know."
Aníbal: "You should guess. You should know."
Kate: "You should guess. You should know. "
Tisha: Right. "It doesn't have as much value if I have to ask."
Kate: Exactly. So, "ok, you there's a part of you that really wants..." So, I might frame it for them “…to just know what you need.” "That makes sense. I get that." Who doesn't have that? That's not a need that's likely to get met though. Nobody can really know what we need before we speak for it. But I'm going to normalize it. "Ok, I get you have that need."
And there's kind of two things about that. One is we come back to the Self to part connection. So, I want to really deepen that person's Self-to-part relationship, so they can meet the need of that part a little bit more, speak on its behalf. And then the partner can then say, "I wish I did know what you need all the time. I'm sorry that I can't." But then there are other core needs that we all have that are not being met in a relationship. Say, for connection, to be seen in some basic ways, to be heard, for sexual intimacy, and sometimes these things are just not on offer.
Aníbal: Those are common also.
Kate: Yes, very.
Aníbal: Very common.
Kate: And so, what I want to find out is, is it possible that those things could be on offer? So, working with the partner to hear this and to see if that is something that could be freed up. And if not, then what does that mean?
Aníbal: So, our needs can be met or just be listened, listened by our partner.
Kate: Yes, so here's a kind of benign example from my own relationship, So, my partner is a tech wizard and she really has a need to share that with me. And I tried to listen to, you know, these things she's finding out about and what this device can do and all this kind of stuff. And I just glaze over. I can't hold presence to it. And I tried and tried and tried, and it was painful to her that I would zone out until we could really talk about it, that "you know what, I wish I could meet this need. And I do, I do wish I could meet that need to connect around this, but I can't. It doesn't make sense to me and I just disconnect." And that freed us both up. For me not to feel guilty and lacking and like a bad partner, for her to get that need met place out, there are plenty of people who love to talk about that stuff.
Aníbal: And what about sexuality, Kate? We do not see a chapter on sexual intimacy on the book IFIO from, I believe, Toni Herbine-Blank, and Donna Kerpelman and also Martha Sweezy, 2016.
Aníbal: Yes, it was interesting to me that you pointed that out, yes.
It's curious as couples therapist, what we find is, and this was certainly true for me, a lot of us don't ask about sex. And that's an interesting internal inquiry, isn't it?
Aníbal: Yes, why is that?
Kate: Yes, I mean, we have parts that come up around...that have beliefs about what it means to ask about sex and sexuality. So, for me, there were parts that had discomfort around that topic and so, didn't ask. And once I saw those parts, I could really work with them and help them, so that I could be available to talk about sexuality in my office and ask about it, even if the couple didn't bring it up. A lot of couples’ therapists say if they want to talk about it, they'll bring it up. And what we find is that that's not necessarily true. People want and need to talk about it, but they're afraid to bring it up, So, we have to be courageous enough to ask.
Tisha: I'm curious what parts you came upon in your own Self inquiry, if they're universal, if they're cultural.
Kate: I'm sure there are universal ones and cultural ones, and for me, it was very much related to my own shame around sexuality. And some trauma from my early life that hadn't been worked through, that really got in the way of me feeling safe and comfortable talking with couples about their sexual experience. And what a gift it was to myself to access those parts and help them and help the younger ones not even be in the therapy room. No child needs to be hearing grownups talk about their sex life.
Tisha: So, this work with couples has really been bolstered by how Self-reflective and how dedicated to your own work you've been?
Kate: Yes, I would say so.
Tisha: Sounds really important, especially for couples’ work.
Kate: Yes. And I think it's, partly why the IFIO training is so powerful for people. It's really taught from the inside out. There's so much of it that's experiential as in a traditional IFS training and even more so in some ways. Particularly around shame, which a lot of people haven't even looked at.
Tisha: And so that comes up in other ways besides just around the sexual conversations.
Aníbal: So, Kate, what is exactly the role of shame and shaming in couples therapy success or failure?
Kate: So, you know, Martha Sweezy, talks about shame and Toni too. That there are internal shamers that are protectors, right? But they're not helpful. They'll... You know how Martha talks about shamers either going internally and, coming after us as inner critics? Or turning toward the other and becoming aggressive toward someone else. You see that in couples therapy a lot, there's shaming toward the partner, and it is an attempt to get a need met. It doesn't seem to make sense because is not rational that shaming somebody is going to get what you need. But it's the same belief internally that "if I shame myself, I won't make mistakes. And if I shame you, you're going to give me what I need." It's the same as blaming, only harsher, you know, like blaming and shaming, it's very common in couples, particularly if they have gone way down the river of difficult negative cycles.
Aníbal: I'd like to quote Toni in this book IFIO. She says...they write, three authors, that "IFIO approach to couples’ therapy, guides and supports couples in learning how to speak for parts and make requests that invite rather than threaten their partner into responding."
Aníbal: That's what you just said.
Kate: Yes, they say it so much better. But, you know, it's like, if I say to my partner "You know, for whatever reasons, there's a part of me that just kind of cringes when I see the sponge in the sink, and it's all wet and it's been there for hours and hours, and I'm wondering if it would be ok with you just for me to just kind of squeeze it out and put it up on the side." Right? Very different than "What the fuck is wrong with you? I've asked you to not leave the sponge in the sink." That's a common one, by the way, the sponge. [laughs] Is amazing to me how often that comes up.
Tisha: I have sponge parts.
Kate: [laughs] Right, yes.
So, you see, that's the difference, that the first way I might get what I'm asking for. The second way from a shaming protector, no way am I going to get what I'm asking. For why? Because if my partner were to hear that from me, her protectors come right up. She's not hearing what I'm asking for, she's just hearing the anger and the energy and the shaming.
Tisha: So, the U-turn is really important.
Aníbal: Kate, do you believe, as I have heard, Toni believes or says, that we could love anyone if it wasn't for our parts?
Kate: Well, you know, I thought about that. I think it's true. I think it's true in many ways. I don't know if it's true in a primary relationship because we're not going to love everybody. On the other hand, the kind of love that is part of Self leadership openheartedness, I might not say a friend, say an acquaintance or colleague, maybe, I might not really like all that person's parts, but I can find love for that person. Absolutely, from Self-leadership. With a primary partner, I think there has to be more. If I don't, if there's more of my partners parts that I don't like, that's going to be a good inquiry, and if those parts can be heard and relax back, ok. But if they can't, no.
Tisha: Just a follow up question to that, what are your thoughts on chemistry? When there's just someone out of the blue and you feel that spark and... What is that all about?
Kate: I know, I love that, don't you?
Tisha: Yes, I'm so curious. What's firing up? Is it parts? Is it like our system knows that we can heal our exile's through a person? Or...
Kate: Yes. Or we might have that belief and then, after a little while, as the chemistry fades, we realize "oh guess what, no, that's not going to happen here." I think it's like drugs, something happens in the brain with oxytocin and we are actually high, when in that phase of a relationship. And it's wonderful, but it doesn't last, and in some ways in this culture in particular, we've grown up with the belief that if that doesn't last, then this isn't the relationship. This isn't my soul mate. But it's not going to last. And I think, you know, I've done a lot of grief work with clients about around that. Like “yes, that was wonderful, and it's past and it's not going to be like that again. And it could be something different and equally important.”
Tisha: So, could those drugs that our brain gives us, or our bodies flood us with, are those parts or is it attachment parts or...?
Kate: Yes, that's a great line of inquiry. I think parts definitely play a role in it. And if you think about it, though, it's all projection. I don't know anything about you, and yet I am completely smitten with you. And my parts are projecting who you are and who you could be to me. And that is a big layer of it, I believe. And so, when we realize that that may not be on offer, what our parts were projecting, that's a loss. And that's often when a lot of people come to therapy is when they really get "Oh, you're not this person that I thought you were". And you'll hear it in session like "They were different when we first got together. And I feel like I've been sold a false bill of goods," people will say. And then that's worth unpacking, like "How much of what you thought you were getting was a projection or wish?"
Aníbal: Kate, do couples attend to your trainings on IFIO with Toni, is it more complex when there are more couples or more interesting when you have real couples in training?
Kate: It can it can be more interesting with a real couple, yes. And when there are couples in the training, it's, you know, Toni has to really meet with them and see if they're in a place to do a demonstration for the training that could be helpful; and is more in the service of the learning of the large group than in the service of helping that particular couple in that situation. And not all couples are able to do that. So, much more often we have staff people playing couples. And you didn't ask this, but we do that more than participants playing couples because the staff know what we're trying to demonstrate and will work with us. Whereas participants might get hijacked in their own parts and it goes in a different direction than what's in the service of learning for the group.
Aníbal: So, in those trainings, there are also demos, but also mostly role-playings?
Aníbal: Makes sense, yes.
Kate: And they're very powerful because as we know, a role-play is never just a role play.
Aníbal: Yes, exactly.
Aníbal: So, Kate, thank you so much for having us. It was a joy to be here with you and Tisha, and our hope is that we can keep meeting and sharing this model, our work and our lives.
Kate: Thank you so much to each of you. It's a pleasure.
Tisha: Thank you. In this conversation today, I just sit in so much appreciation for how much wisdom you have in working with couples. That's got to be really good for everyone who you sit with.
Kate: Thank you.
Tisha: Can imagine the lives you've touched you.
Kate: Thank you.
Recorded 14th June 2020
Transcript Edition: Carolina Abreu