As we considered in the last post of this series, we have vulnerable and protective parts of us that can play different roles in relational dynamics and relational conflict we get stuck in. This is a space where parts-work is not only incredibly helpful for us to navigate internal conflict, but also external conflict! If we know which parts of us and the other person are stuck in conflict, we have helpful information to navigate that conflict. Let’s unpack that…
Most of us tend to have one main part of us that ‘drives the car’ of our lives. This is the part of us that gets up to go to work, that goes to the grocery store when we really don’t want to, and that does the dishes even when we’d rather not. I like to call this the ‘adulting’ part of us (IFS would refer to this as a manager or being blended with a manager). In relationships, we often connect, especially romantically, from a more vulnerable or softer facet of us, which is often a different part of us. This might be a playful, carefree, or relational ‘part’ of us. Then, there’s the part of us that comes out during conflict. This might be a part of us that shuts down, goes on the attack, or just wants to run away. Whichever resonates with you, consider how important it would be to know if you are in conflict with someone who is their regular ‘adulting’ self, their ‘playful’ relational self, or their ‘attack’ part of self — and the same goes for knowing which part of you is in the conflict!
If we take a step back, we can consider how these different parts of us create the possibility to have a number of different kinds of dynamics happening when there is conflict between two people — it would all depend on which part of each person is engaging most in the conflict, or which parts of them are cycling through engaging in the conflict.
Let’s pause and think of an example. Can you think of a time that there was some sort of reaction from a loved one — this might be a friend, roommate, spouse, or family member — and it just seemed so different from how you normally experience them? Sometimes this can feel jarring or confusing, and oftentimes we even learn to try to avoid upsetting people in a way to bring out these parts, or sides, of them. We might know, If mom or dad is stressed, it’s going to be miserable, everyone walk on eggshells around her or him so that we don’t provoke that part to come out! Oftentimes this isn’t spoken explicitly, but is deeply known implicitly.
It’s common for us to learn these things from a young age with parents, siblings, teachers, and relatives, and then transfer the same protective strategies we learned at a young age in our adult relationships. If we have a roommate or date someone who reacts in a similar way that a sibling, parent, or childhood friend did, without thinking, a part of us can step into action, employing a protective strategy to try and maintain peace, avoid conflict, or sometimes even provoke conflict to resolve what was not resolved when were younger.
This might look like a person getting really quiet and ‘small’ when a friend gets loud and angry, trying to avoid provoking them even more, something they might have learned with an angry family member as a child. Or maybe, someone feels safer as an adult to push back on others in a way they never did as a child, and rather than getting quiet and ‘small,’ they decide they won’t be made to feel quiet or ‘small’ again, and they become even louder than the other person, asserting that they won’t be put back in that old role.
However we react, and however it’s related to the past, these kinds of curiosities and reflections about which part(s) of us and the other person are interacting in relational dynamics can be a game changer. We can know where to direct our energy, where to invite God in to bring healing and transformation. This is not a perfect analogy… so go with me so far as it can go, knowing it will break down…
Think of different parts of you like different plants. If you only water some of the plants and put some where they’ll see sun, these are the only ones that will flourish. And if you mistakenly think that one isn’t getting water or sunshine, and tend to that one and not the others, what will happen? The others will whither, neglected, and most tragically, by mistake! This is what parts work invites us into, being able to identify the ‘plants’ that need ‘water’ and ‘sunshine,’ helping us to not unintentionally neglect ‘plants’ that we aren’t connected to.
Using this analogy, I invite you to consider which ‘plants’ need tending to, and what their ‘water’ and ‘sunshine’ might be — how might this part of you need cared for by you, and by God? As an example, you might think about a part of you that reacts in relationships — maybe you notice that there’s a part of you that often gets unkind and puts others down, or isn’t honest about what you need or think. Let yourself be curious about this part of you, and what it might look like to invite God to help you care for this part of you. What difference would it make if this part of you was seen and understood? If this part of you was seen and understood by you, and by God, how might this change how this part of you interacts with others?