Every species of mammal uses the limbic system—the social, emotional, relational part of the brain—to create strong bonds that provide safety and a felt sense of security. Adult-child bonding is especially crucial for the development of the complex human brain and nervous system, and the development of an internal felt sense of security in the world—both real and perceived. When parents are too often inattentive of their child’s emotional needs, this bonding does not happen optimally, and the injury of insecurity can prevail.
Memories, especially negative ones, are extremely powerful in influencing our perception of the world and our behaviors. Our subjective experience is colored by our past. All experiences, at any age, involving fear and threat are “velcroed” into the memory system in the interest of self-protection, but memories from childhood have particular potency. Children do not survive very long without parental attention and protection, and times of parental inattention, misattunement, and neglect are perceived as profoundly threatening. These memories become deeply wired into the brain and imprinted in the mind. (This is the basis for the value of inner child work in modern psychotherapy.) Many of the patients we work with are reacting from these often implicit and unconscious, velcroed threat memories and their activation, without proper awareness and attention from their partner.
PACT therapists understand the workings of this internal safety and security system, and the importance of this area in our work with couples. As PACT therapists, we motivate movement from projected, negative, internalized relational blueprints toward secure functioning within the primary partnership. In moving couples in this direction, we understand the importance of partners “holding each other in mind,” especially in these places of old injury. We ask them to take on the mantle of the attending parent in these areas of distress by holding their partner and their partner’s history in mind.
Toward this end, I often do the following exercise with my patients. My wife’s passion for yoga helped me envision this practice, so I affectionately call it the Secure Family Asana. (Āsana is a Sanskrit term to describe yoga postures that can promote change.)
At an appropriate place in a couple’s treatment, I invite them to sit face to face and interactively regulate each other. I have both partners imagine their arms around both their own inner child and their partner’s inner child (see Figure 1). I ask the couple to imagine being attentive parents to the places of childhood insecurity, and for this to be mutual, face to face and eye to eye.
Using this imagery and practicing it externally can promote the replacement of insecure blueprints within the procedural memory system. An internalized felt sense of comforting safety can then enhance secure functioning within the couple in times of distress, rather than the repetition of injury from the original memory patterns.
As PACT therapists, we know that secure functioning is characterized by a balance of valuing both self and the relationship. Therefore, we encourage couples to tend their own historical and present-time hurts, as well as be there for their partner’s hurts. Two strong, secure, internalized partners regulate these past injuries and their repetitive projected activations together. Old hurts are securely attended to in a mutual manner, rather than being allowed to take over and threaten the partnership.
This Secure Family Asana exercise embodies the tending of self and other, in both past and present. It encourages the healing of old hurts, and the growth of an internalized reparative family system. Couples can practice it to powerfully support their movement toward secure functioning.