My PhD thesis is aiming to find answers to the question – “How might Internal Family Systems therapy conceptualise and treat adults with attachment avoidance and attachment anxiety?” The qualitative research, conducted through Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne began in 2019. As a relatively new therapy in Australia, sourcing PhD supervisors trained in, or knowledgeable about IFS, was a challenge. I was fortunate enough to find three university supervisors, and though they were not trained in IFS, they were very receptive to the PhD topic and supported the idea of including an IFS consultant on the supervisory team.
My PhD consists of three studies. The first was an extended conceptual review of relevant literature to provide a conceptual comparison of IFS and attachment theory. The second took the form of an online survey and accompanying in-depth interviews for IFS lead trainers, assistant trainers and IFS program assistants about how they conceptualise and treat insecure adult attachment from the perspective of IFS. This purposive expert sample consisted primarily of lead and assistant trainers, with most participants located in the USA. The final study was a first-person action research project. I engaged in ten IFS therapy sessions over Zoom with IFS lead trainer Rina Dubin. Despite juggling different time zones and daylight saving, there was a clear mutual commitment to the project, which led to positive change within me, and the creation of valuable data to analyse and generate themes for analysis. These data included written reflections from both client and therapist following each session, and transcripts of sessions, compiled for analysis at the conclusion of the ten sessions.
Completing a PhD can be an isolating endeavour. For that reason, I am immensely grateful to participants who generously gave their time and knowledge, despite being on the other side of the globe. During the data collection process, I could easily sense participants’ collective aspiration for further research on IFS. This shared positive intention and transcontinental link buoyed and sustained me through a mostly solitary research process, which also intersected with Covid-19 and ongoing lockdowns in Melbourne.
As an IFS therapist in Australia, I had already felt a sense of connection to some IFS trainers and therapists in the USA with whom I had met or been exposed to in my Level One training in Australia, and my Level Two training in Boston. In fact, it was during my Level Two training in Boston that the seed for this PhD was planted after witnessing a passionate and electrifying discussion about IFS and attachment theory between Richard Schwartz and participants. As an IFS therapist, I am passionate about IFS and hold an intention to contribute towards its growth in Australia. In my role as a researcher in Australia, a tension has emerged between my therapist-role passion for IFS, and the critical, analytic and reflective viewpoint I’ve needed to adopt toward the topics and data as a researcher. I simultaneously want to honour the generosity, willingness and time given by participants, whilst also engaging in the research process through critical thinking, distance and reflexivity. My hope is that this tension has potentially allowed for an emergence of new conceptual connections and novel outlooks regarding IFS and attachment theory.
Findings from the research suggest that though marked conceptual differences exist, both IFS and attachment theory can find synergy in the domain of treatment. IFS may be well placed to provide attachment theory with a treatment model that deftly explains and offers hope for change to the concept of insecure adult attachment and the internal working model. Attachment theory is not a theory of treatment and IFS may be able to position itself as one of only a few attachment-based therapies that specifically addresses insecure adult attachment.