Cultivating gratitude for my partner
Lately, it’s been difficult to fully appreciate my partner. The pandemic has been tough on our relationship. The person I used to look forward to greeting in the evenings like a chattering bird is around all the time now. His empathy, earnestness, and patience have been overshadowed by frustrations around sharing a bathroom, the unending supply of his discarded socks that gather in the corners of our apartment like dust bunnies, and the cabin fever we’re both experiencing. Since March 2020, we’ve both been working from our one-bedroom Toronto apartment—there was a brief respite when my partner’s company rented a co-working space this fall, but rising COVID-19 cases could put a stop to that.
The pandemic is placing a strain on many relationships—not just mine. A July 2021 study conducted by the University of British Columbia (UBC), found that desire and intimacy declined among people who lived with their sexual partners during COVID-19, even as provinces reopened. A March 2021 national survey of Canadians conducted by Finder.com, suggests that nearly 5 million Canadians have broken up since the beginning of the pandemic. Since I don’t want to end up like that New York Times writer who set the internet aflame with a seething look inside her clearly miserable marriage, I’m working on cultivating gratitude for my partner.
Splitting / black and white thinking
Before I could begin cultivating gratitude for my partner, I had to figure out if I was splitting. Like many people with borderline personality disorder (BPD), I’m no stranger to the defense mechanism, splitting (though this defense tactic is not exclusively found in people with BPD). Splitting is a mechanism in which the self or others are viewed as all good or all bad, and a failure or inability to hold opposing thoughts, feelings, or beliefs. It’s also known as black and white thinking. Splitting often results in a person alternately overidealizing and devaluing the same person. For example, if someone important in my life lets me down, I subconsciously start to fixate on all of their flaws so my perception toward them shifts to seeing them as “bad” or “dangerous.” After my perspective shifts, I expect the person to let me down, so it’s not as painful when it happens. Unfortunately, once a person has swung to “bad,” it’s very difficult for me to recognize their strengths (and alternately, when idealizing a person, it’s next to impossible for me to see their flaws). Devaluation leads to other distorted behaviour like passive aggression or projection.
Upon reflection, I realized I had been fixating on my frustrations within the relationship, and had moved someone who has done nothing but try to love and support me into the “unsafe” category. I took some space to hold empathy for myself—sometimes, living with a disorder that distorts your perception can be incredibly frustrating and provoke feelings of guilt. I shared my realization with my partner, which helped him understand where some of our recent troubles sprang from. Once I became aware I was splitting, I could do the cognitive work required to overcome it.
When I was a girl, I was introduced to journaling by my cottage grandmother—a kindly older woman who owned a cottage across the road from my family’s. Her journals, which she had been keeping for decades, were a record of daily comings and goings. The journal I started was the one secret and safe place where I could vent my frustrations about my family life—more of a diary, really—until my stepdad found it, that is. After that, I learned not to write my feelings down.
As a result, I didn’t pick up journaling again until I was an adult with a private space to keep my writing; however, it’s a wonderful tool for processing my feelings. To use journaling to cultivate gratitude for my partner, I drew upon appreciative inquiry, a model of inquiry into the best of what is. Though typically used for leadership development and organizational change, appreciative inquiry allowed me to move out of my negative headspace and shift my perspective to focusing on my partner’s positives. I made a list of all the things I love and appreciate about my partner—and it was tricky when I first started. It was so easy for my mind to drift into criticism, but the more positive attributes I listed—his consistence, intellect, affection, sense of humour etc.—the easier it became. When I completed the list, I shared it with my partner so he could feel the affection I had generated toward him.
If my emotions don’t fit the facts of a situation, like when I’m splitting, or when acting on my emotions isn’t going to be effective, I use the dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) skill opposite action. To practice opposite action, I identify the emotion I’m experiencing and check to see if the emotion’s intensity and duration is justified by the facts. I identify and describe all the action urges that are associated with the emotion. Once I’ve done that, I can identify the opposites of those action urges and act accordingly. I keep practicing opposite action until my emotions change.
The first opposite action I practice to overcome splitting in my relationship is empathy. I do my best to put myself into my partner shoes. Usually, this exercise is enough to make me want to practice another opposite action—affection. I know it must be confusing and upsetting for my partner to be with a person who can devalue him without even realizing it, which makes me want to comfort him through touch. The more positive experiences I accumulate with my partner, the more I can move out of extreme thinking and cultivate gratitude for the person I care about.
Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy
Since IFS is based in family systems theory, it makes sense that it can be used to promote harmony within intimate relationships. Regular readers will recall that IFS is an integrative approach to therapy developed by Richard C. Schwartz to treat a variety of mental health issues, including trauma. I’ve gone in-depth on IFS before, but, as a refresher, fundamental to IFS is the understanding that our personality as a whole is made up of sub-personalities or “parts.” As we go through life acquiring trauma and attachment injuries, our parts can shift from valuable states into roles that, though necessary to survive our experiences, can be destructive to us in the long-term when these “parts” become frozen in survival mode. These “parts” tend to take the following forms:
Exiles: Our most powerful of parts, exiles are young, vulnerable parts we learned to bury a long time ago because our vulnerability or vitality bothered our caretakers or peers (for a multitude of reasons). Exiles are the parts of us that tend to carry extreme beliefs, hold fears of being worthless or unlovable, and influence our ability to be intimate. Exiles also have the power to pull us into their despair, until we become their pain.
Managers: Managers are our preemptive protectors. They govern the way we interact with the world around us to try to prevent the exiles from flooding our awareness with painful and traumatic feelings.
Firefighters: These parts rush in to protect us when our exiles try to break through. They do so by distracting us with impulsive behaviours such as drug use, promiscuity, overeating, or violence.
Beneath this collection of “parts” is something Schwartz calls the “self,” a calm, centred state that can separate from extreme emotions and thoughts (or “parts”) through mindfulness. The goal of IFS is to help these parts transform through “unburdening” or a renegotiation of extreme beliefs. When a part is unburdened, it transforms back into its naturally valuable state, and a person can move forward from a self-led place.
In relationships, particularly in Western culture, we expect our partner to be our ultimate personal salvation. In other words, we expect our significant others to rescue our exiles, which is an impossible expectation. When our partner fails to meet it, it’s common to leave the interaction feeling scared or disappointed, which spurs us into what Schwartz refers to as “The Three Projects.” Designed to get our partners back into a loving and redemptive role, these projects include: trying to force a partner to change through manipulation (pleading, demanding, shaming, etc.), trying to figure out what our partner doesn’t like about us and attempting to excise those parts even when it goes against our better nature, or giving up altogether and beginning the search for alternatives.
The key to avoiding these projects and to finding deeper levels of intimacy, according to Schwartz, is to find ways to connect with and speak for our parts. Though I’ve been practicing IFS for a few years, I had slipped into trying to get my partner back into a loving and redemptive role. Instead of tending to my activated part, I turned to him to eradicate my discomfort. Once I took the time to let the parts of me that were running my life (managers, or the ego, if it helps) relax, my exiled parts were able to rise to the surface of my consciousness and tell me what they needed.
For example, I noticed I was having trouble letting my guard down around my partner. When I went inward to find out what was going on, I encountered a manager who was pretty critical of this behaviour, which was only further entrenching it while piling on a lot of guilt for acting this way in the first place. I told the manager part that I understood why it was annoyed, and appreciated its efforts in keeping the exile at bay. I asked what the manager might rather be doing instead, and was surprised when it told me it would rather be looking forward, surveying the horizon for opportunities. An image materialized of this part standing on the precipice of a cliff high above a lush landscape. I told the manager that if it let me speak to the exile, I might be able to get it into its desired role, and it relented and stepped back. With the manager satisfied and released, I was able to learn my exile was a small child who kept her guard up because the behaviour had served her extremely well during her childhood. Unfortunately, that little exile didn’t realize I was no longer stuck in those circumstances. Once I showed the exile my present, and reassured her that she no longer had to take on the burden of hypervigilance, I felt a light tingling expand across my chest. She was free to be a child again. After I had unburdened these parts, it was easier to relax around my partner.
In addition to helping me appreciate and value my parts, and making me my own primary caregiver, IFS has the added benefit of giving me compassion for other people’s parts. If my partner is angry or short with me, it’s less devastating to understand his reaction is only coming from a small part of him that’s likely been triggered in the moment. When I combine IFS, journaling, and opposite action, I’m far less likely to experience splitting, and can relax enough to appreciate all the wonderful qualities my partner possesses.
This issue: Couples therapy and eugenics
At the turn of the twentieth century, American marriages were falling apart. Between 1870 and 1920, divorce rates in the U.S. increased 15-fold. Paul Popenoe, drawing upon Austrian and German methods of marital therapy, opened the first couples therapy centre, the American Institute of Family Relations in Los Angeles in 1930. However, his motives for saving North American marriages were rooted in racism: he wanted to preserve the white race.
Popenoe (who had no formal psychological training but still went by doctor), argued that “unfit” people would reproduce regardless of their marital status, whereas “fit” (see: white middle class or higher people) would never have children out of wedlock. Therefore, the white birth rate would plummet. Though Popenoe was a staunch supporter of sterilization for the mentally ill, wrote in praise of Hitler’s eugenics practices, and advocated for segregation, he counselled thousands of white couples every year, wrote a popular Ladies’ Home Journal feature, “Can This Marriage Be Saved,” and launched an industry of marriage counselling. Popenoe passed in the 1970s, and his Institute is long closed, but look no further for evidence of his legacy than the “family values” movement found in North America.
No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model
By: Richard C. Schwartz
If you need a bit of a refresher on IFS like I did, I’d recommend No Bad Parts. An overview of the fundamentals of IFS, No Bad Parts also offers plenty of practical exercises to deepen your connection to your parts. If you haven’t already read it, I’d recommend following up this read with You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For by Schwartz, a book about applying IFS in intimate relationships.