Who’s Really Fighting?

When we argue or disagree in relationship, who’s fighting?

Raised in a house where arguments were commonplace, as an adult I found myself defaulting to conflict in my relationships. Why was I fighting all the time, and who’d benefit from the dissonance? Somewhere beneath the surface I could feel a lingering resonance to which I couldn’t gain access.

When my partner introduced me to Internal Family Systems, or IFS, the fighter in me lost power. I’m learning that our “fights” aren’t really ours. Parts of ourselves, trapped in time, hosting certain unprocessed emotions, are emerging. But it’s not even those parts that are arguing.

Each part of ourselves, seen in this work as a little “exile” within us, has motivations, goals, memories, and perspectives. The four year old who saw too much will become good at hiding. The eight year old who was being abused emotionally will stay small in order to escape abuse. The ten year old who couldn’t be himself will become someone else again in order to blend in. These youngest parts hold the most pain from our past. These aspects need to be viewed with great compassion and curiosity in order to determine which behaviors are helpful, and which can be released.

Furthermore, there are also “protectors” — the ones who’ve helped those little exiled parts negotiate the world. Those protectors are there to save your current self from the pain your younger self would’ve felt in moments of conflict. Those protectors have positive intents for you, regardless of the behaviors they display — they’re just trying to prevent you from being flooded with the painful emotions of the exile.

And it’s those protectors who are fighting.

Now, when I find myself in conflict, I observe. The one having the argument is actually a protector of my tiny exile; that little kid in me who still feels inadequate and afraid. That protector shows up conveniently judgmental, even mean at times, in order to keep sensations of worthlessness hidden away. That protector is the one who’s been fighting all this time. Now that this aspect of my operating system is clear to me, whether it’s professional or personal, I’m choosing to set us both free.

It’s likely that one of your well-meaning protectors is arguing with your husband, your wife, your teenager, your colleague, your parent, your sibling. We’re in altercations that don’t really belong to us.

With thanks to Bonnie J. Weiss, LCSW, author of the Self-Therapy Workbook.

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