Guest blog by Eda Arduman, Ma., clinical psychologist couple therapist
Level 2 PACT therapist
Istanbul Bilgi University clinical supervisor instructor
Clinical Psychology MFT Master Program
It has been said that intimate relationships are not for the faint hearted, yet research shows us time and time again that the pleasure and reliability of relationships provide us with the resiliency to overcome the challenges life often presents. Some of the hurdles life throws are external (e.g., an economic crisis or severe illness of a loved one or divorce of parents) and others are internal (e.g., states of ambivalence, self-sabotage, and depression). Sometimes an external event spurs an internal reaction that interrupts movement; the braking mechanism acts as a counterforce to expansion and results in contraction.
The PACT therapist works with couples in severe conflict who are responding at a pace at which their minds cannot keep up with their words. The couple are trying to say things to each other, but their brains are simply registering each other’s microexpressions, tone of voice, and gestures. The more they try to talk, the more things spiral out of control. Though humorous in a Woody Allen movie, remaining in a state of high arousal for a prolonged period of time with no resolution can take a heavy toll on both partners.
Ferhat and Şirin came to therapy when their son was a year and a half old. They were stuck in a cycle of discontentment. Until the birth of their son, they shared hobbies and had a satisfying relationship. Now, however, they frequently argued about parenting responsibilities and time spent together or apart. Both have the insecure attachment style PACT refers to as island, and thus they were in the habit of solving problems through individualistic solutions. “Let’s just be happy alone” was their motto.
During our initial session, it came out that Şirin had survived a life-threatening bike accident just before her pregnancy. A car hit and nearly killed her. During the debriefing process, she claimed that what bothered her most was not the accident itself but seeing the bike totaled. She had lost all desire to buy or even ride another bike. She had no idea her loss of interest might be the result of trauma.
Having trained in Eye Movement Desensıtızatıon Reprocessing (EMDR), I decided to apply EMDR in conjunction with my PACT skills. EMDR protocol requires the patient to establish a safe haven in his or her mind. The corresponding PACT protocol entails using the partner as the safe retreat and moving the couple toward secure functioning. I had Sirin sit on Ferhat’s lap because face-to-face interaction was too dysregulating for both of them while in high-arousal states. He was able to hug her back with his body and stroke her arms with open palms in a firm manner.
The exploration went fairly smoothly until we came to the memory of another bike. Sirin’s face became still, and she started trembling and had difficulty following the movement of my hand—all signs of the disorganized-type dysregulatıon. She froze and started to talk about the bike her parents bought her when she was 13, at the same time they told her they were getting divorced. Her face lost affect and her hand began to shake. Even though her body was trembling, her voice and words were dissociated from the rest of her body. She continued to talk about the bike her parents had given her and how she used to ride off to freedom on it.
Noticing the dissociation, her husband moved forward and started to stroke her face. This annoyed her, and she brushed him off. With my support, he began rubbing her arms and knees as she continued to talk about the bike. I urged him to stroke her with wide palms because small finger brushes were ticklish for her. She started to shake and sob. She moved onto her husband’s lap, where he held her firmly as she continued to share how her life changed following her parents’ divorce.
As they jointly calmed down, Sirin and Ferhat were able to move into the fear they had regarding their own relationship. The ruined bike symbolized the loss of an internal as well as external vehicle that took Sirin to freedom. The ruin of the bike, followed by multiple surgeries and months of immobility, and then her pregnancy and all the infant-related responsibilities had resulted in her internally and externally relinquishing her freedom. This resulted in her coming to the unconscious, erroneous conclusion that her husband was the guardian to the jail her traumas had constructed.
Working with PACT allowed Sirin to experience that freedom was possible with her husband. Having built a scaffold of secure functioning, the couple were able to complete the cycle of rupture and repair at a real level, without falling into old habits. They expressed a new felt intimacy and trust, which had been missing in their relationship since the accident.
Guest blog by Allison Howe, LMHC
PACT Level II practitioner
Saratoga Springs, NY
Do you and your partner have any mentor couples in your lives? A number of couples in my practice report that they don’t have a mentor couple in their social or support network. Yet mentor couples are important because they model the principles of secure functioning. They protect each other in our presence, and we can see and learn from the fair and sensitive ways in which they interact.
Years ago, my husband and I met such a couple, Rhonda and Pat, and they advised us to not become “married singles.” We didn’t fully know what they meant, although now we do. Married singles are partners who are married but spend little time together. They operate mainly as a one-person system. PACT therapists believe couples can design their marriage in any way they see fit. If the design works for both individuals, the marriage can flourish. My husband and I saw that spending time together kept Rhonda and Pat grounded and helped them thrive. For example, they wrote, “2005 held some adventures for us but we never wander far from the most important part of our lives—our family.”
PACT therapists work to help partners clarify who they are as a couple and what they are doing together in life. More specifically, they clarify what they truly value in their life together. Rhonda and Pat both deeply value their professional careers. When they were in their fifties, they began to notice they were spending too much time at work. They told us, “We realize that we need to stop and smell the roses.” This is a common issue in couple therapy; PACT refers to it as management of thirds. The couple have a limited amount of resources with which to care for one another and their relationship. When resources are spent in areas outside the relationship, the relationship can be compromised. Rhonda and Pat addressed this by choosing to make changes that allowed them to spend more time outside work doing things they enjoyed together. This included gardening, traveling, and spending time with family and friends.
Woodworking has been a lifelong hobby for Pat, and he recently completed a conference table for his office. Hobbies bring such satisfaction and meaning to life, yet they can compete for relationship resources in some partnerships. It was clear that Rhonda and Pat were not going to let that happen, as Rhonda shared, “I’m now beginning to turn wood. Took a private lesson and made my first bowl.”
One of the treasures Rhonda and Pat found in marriage is how to create novel experiences together. One year, they shared, “We spent hours on vacation viewing art. It was awe inspiring.” They cruised the Greek isles and said, “We felt like a king and queen.” PACT therapists are trained in the fundamentals of neurobiology and know that after courtship ends, the brain will categorize a partner as familiar and familial. One of the challenges for couples is to keep the flame of vitality burning. Our mentor couple showed us that having shared experiences that are pleasurable is a great way to fuel our partnership.
Recently, they celebrated 39 years of marriage. Rhonda wrote in their most recent greeting card, “We hope to go at least another 39. We are as happy today as we were on day one. In fact, it seems like just yesterday that he was wooing me. Nice thing is that he stills woos me whether it is with flowers or a balloon or having the house work done when arrive home from a business trip. I wooed him with my cooking while we were dating and I’m still cooking his favorite dishes today. Maybe this on-going wooing will result in getting us through the next 39 years.” Wooing is a courtship behavior but can fall off the grid in many marriages. PACT recommends that couples attract one another with friendliness, compassion, interest, and understanding to move relationships, instead of using fear, shame, or guilt.
Our mentor couple are thriving, and they truly epitomize how a secure-functioning relationship can withstand the test of time. Mentor couples can guide and inspire other couples by the unspoken sense of safety and security that exists in their union. A couple striving to form a secure-functioning relationship can be greatly supported by being in the company of a mentor couple.
Guest blog by Elaine G. Tuccio, LCSW, PACT faculty, Austin, TX
Challenging couples are difficult to work with if all the therapist knows to do is referee the flow of conversation and inappropriate behaviors. PACT-trained therapists, on the other hand, have numerous therapeutic tools that can be used to move these couples toward secure functioning.
For example, the PACT therapist sees acting out in session as an opportunity for staging an intervention toward secure functioning. Our training teaches us that it is usually best to sit back and observe, as if tracking the plot in a suspenseful detective novel. Underneath the precarious nature of challenging partners’ harmful defensive behaviors a relationship is waiting to be saved. Despite appearances, couples bring lots of resources, such as healthy drives and capacities that may be hidden under years of erroneous narratives about themselves, their significant other, and the world at large. The PACT therapist speaks to these resources, not to the defenses.
How might a couple find each other and go toward a coherence that at first may feel threatening? It takes a deft touch to lead the couple in this way; even a seasoned therapist is likely to feel his or her theoretical knowledge and intervention skills are being tested. It is essential for the therapist to stay present and relational when working with challenging couples. The therapist should not have to work harder than the couple. This means making proficient use of self-regulation to engender an impenetrable therapeutic stance. Dr. Stan Tatkin writes, “In all therapeutic approaches, the therapist takes a stance that suggests his or her beliefs about where the therapy should go. This stance must be clear, coherent, and consistent if good therapy is to occur…. The PACT therapist moves partners down the tube of secure functioning.”
A common clinical error therapists make when working with primitive defenses from a partner or couple is becoming drawn into their story and into their use of these defenses in emotional attacks against each other. Forgotten or overlooked are the intentional aspects of these learned defenses for survival, and how they may show up as either running away from or running toward the other. It is important to study the moment-by-moment enactments of these defenses because that can increase understanding about how, why, and when they developed. Doing this requires steady use of PACT intervention skills so the couple can flex their tacit resources and self-correct destructive patterns in real time.
Reactive patterns of negative thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, as well a sensitivity to threat, become structured into family and couple systems and often point to transgenerational trauma. Throughout their lives, these partners have tried without much support to manage the painful symptoms of early traumatized defense systems. Couples do not expect patterns that have existed for decades to be remedied in a few sessions. Yet, in my experience with PACT, a great deal is often accomplished quite quickly.
Highly insecure partners and couples need certain attachment experiences to be able to develop essential relationship capacities for play, calm, trust, security, and touch. PACT gives them a process for moving from insecure functioning to a secure means of connection through increasing their awareness of destructive, dead-end defenses. One challenge these couples face is that they do not have a sense of their own boundaries or those of their partners. They were raised in environments where the map to a relational model of secure functioning was never laid down. They fall off the edges all the time. In these instances, the therapist needs to be ready to use acting out as an opportunity for increasing the partners’ awareness of unhealthy defense systems and for setting up secure-functioning experiences. To do this safely, it is critical that the therapist maintain a strong therapeutic stance that allows him or her to soften, shift, probe, and provide relief from these defenses.
Therapeutically, the means to success in working with challenging couples is to first understand the characteristics of secure-functioning relationships. Next is to develop and maintain a therapeutic stance that takes threats off the table and leads these partners down the path to secure functioning. My own approach includes four psychobiological expectations for the couple: safety, coherence, holding their agreements, and functioning securely. During the session, I see my job as naming, normalizing, and providing practice in each of these. For transformation and integration to occur, these must be repeated in every session, as long as the couple remains in therapy.
In sum, when we challenge couples to be makers of a secure-functioning relational map, they are pressed to navigate each other’s needs and their own primitive defense systems. Their new map charts not only the boundaries of a healthy relationship, but its topography, as well. Partners who function more securely naturally reach for one another. No one gets stranded in his or her own narrative. They feel safe in each other’s care. What the therapist may see as challenging at the start of therapy is actually the vitality partners can use to forge stronger love and commitment in previously uncharted relational territory. They leave therapy with an earned security that provides them a landing they can trust going forward.
Loving in a way that supports, energizes, and grows a long-term relationship means loving your partner the way he or she needs to be loved. Many well-intended people unconsciously get caught instead in the destructive loop of offering their partner the kind of support, care, attention, and love they themselves thrive on, only to be left feeling unseen, unsuccessful, misunderstood, and lonely, which often leads to defensiveness and fighting.
Aligned with a related PACT therapeutic goal—knowing who your partner is and how he or she operates—comes this question: Are you using that information to help your partner do a good job for you?
Successful couples arm themselves with detailed owner’s manuals that explain how each partner maneuvers through and makes sense of his or her world. Partners then put that unique and distinctive information to use on a regular basis by tailoring their love specifically to their partner. This in turn fuels and boosts the partner’s self-esteem.
During a recent couple session, a high-energy and very social wife declared she was “tired of cheerleading” her “lazy” husband, who would not respond to all the “pumping him up” she found herself “continually” doing with respect to his job. The husband, a quiet and productive man, slumped in his chair, his eyes downcast. Although not in the exact job of his dreams, he works full time in an industry he loves, and is able to support his wife and eight-year-old daughter. When the wife said she wished he networked in the same fashion she did in order to move up to the next level of “personal achievement,” he explained that he felt criticized. He admitted to avoiding his wife’s “constant barrage of rah-rah” by “checking out,” which left his wife feeling dismissed, hopeless, and ineffective at motivating the man she loves.
The husband, on the other hand, complained his wife ignored or trivialized his efforts to have his family enjoy one another and the home they have created, and show “grace” for what they already have. “We live really well, but I feel like it’s not enough for her. She usually wants us to go out instead of staying in for family movie night, going on a hike with just the three of us, or using our custom outdoor kitchen,” he said.
“I love our life, but I’m freaked out you don’t care about trying new things and meeting new people. You seem like you’re asleep at the wheel when you check out like that,” she said.
In an attempt to get him motivated, the wife was unintentionally devaluing him, and missed showing appreciation for the resources and contributions he brought to their family. Conversely, his attempts to get his wife to slow down and appreciate their life left her feeling disconnected, bored, and frantic.
Addressing the couple I asked, “So, who between you actually responds to cheerleading and being pumped up?”
After a long silence, the husband looked up and said, “My wife does.”
“And who between you thrives on simple words of appreciation?”
“He does,” she said.
“And you’re both offering those things to the other one, right?” I said, with a knowing smile.
They both chuckled. The husband had no use for cheerleading, and his wife had no use for simple, day-to-day appreciations…or so they thought. In fact, he would have use for the rah-rah if he could give it to his wife. If he did, it would boomerang back to him in the form of a happy, calm partner who feels safe, secure, and able to be more present in the relationship. And vice versa for the wife, if she could give simple words of appreciation to her husband. What you send out to your partner will come right back to you.
When partners don’t understand one another, they amplify what seems negative. Sometimes the behavior or request you find most annoying from your partner is the very thing he or she needs most, but that you resist giving. With the boomerang effect, you can give out what your partner thrives on, and then watch the reward come back to you. This way, you both thrive.
Ultimately, your partner is only as good as you believe him or her to be. So use the information you have gained to help your partner do a good job for you, and trust your partner will do the same, so you can both walk through the world feeling, safe, secure, sexy, and loved.
By Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT
Las Vegas used to have slot machines known as one-armed bandits. You only needed to move one arm to let them take all your money. Most slot machines now have buttons or a digital interface, but I remember seeing people in casinos hypnotically putting money in the slot, pulling the lever, listening and watching the cylinders spin, and every now and then getting a (usually small) reward. It’s addictive. Why? Because even though it is a repetitive action, the possibility of being rewarded causes the brain to experience novelty. And our brains love novelty. The fact that the reward is intermittent makes you feel you have to pull that lever one more time. If you do, you might just hit the jackpot.
It occurs to me that some of the new apps for dating or hooking up are similarly addictive. For example, consider Tinder, which is available on all platforms. You can scroll through a plethora of faces and find ones in your local area. Then you swipe to the right if you’re interested or to the left if you are disinterested. It’s all anonymous. And like the one-armed bandit, it’s addictive because it provides your brain with an endless stream of novelty. Am I attracted to her? Is he hot? Will the next one be even hotter? Is she nearby? Maybe we can hook up right now!
That’s another similarity between slot machines and hook-up apps: both answer the need we feel for immediacy. Just as gambling promises instant riches, our date must be instantly available.
I’m not saying that I oppose any form of gambling. If you have some extra cash, enjoy playing a game, and know when to stop, then have at it. Similarly, if you enjoy the process of hooking up, that is your prerogative. But if you are using an app such as Tinder in an attempt to find a serious partnership, that’s another story. I would venture to say your odds of finding what you want are not high.
There are other issues here, as well. The brain may love novelty, but it hates having too many choices. We live in a culture in which we can pick and choose from many different items when we go shopping, and we can usually take things back for a 30-day return. We don’t have to make a commitment. We don’t have to choose one or two things, and stick to those. But Barry Schwartz found that people are not happy with too many choices. We do better with a limited number of choices that allow us to pick one thing and fully commit to it. Whether it’s a car, a pair of shoes, a new dress, a house, a career, or lover—we are more likely to find a happy result if we’re not choosing between multiple items. You may think that if you can keep dating different people, swapping out old partners for new ones, you will eventually be able to hit perfection. But it doesn’t work that way. The search for perfection will always leads to disappointment.
As a couple therapist who stands for secure-functioning relationships, one of my main concerns about the current dating technology is that it is focused first and primarily on people’s characteristics and only secondarily (if at all) on principles of relating. Apps encourage you to look for someone who’s handsome or beautiful, or sexy, or tall or short, or has blonde hair and blue eyes. Instead, I believe you should first consider the kind of relationship you want—or even better, must have—in order to be happy. For example, should the relationship be mutual? Should it be fair? How should my partner and I treat each other? Dating apps that don’t have this kind of focus are doing you a disservice. They are bandits in the sense that they rob you of the likelihood of finding a viable, long-lasting relationship.
Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. New York, NY: Ecco Press.
For more about dating, I’d like to invite you to purchase my new book, Wired for Dating, at Amazon.
Guest blog by Inga Gentile, LMFT (California), licensed psychologist (Norway)
PACT core faculty, Tromsø, Norway
A couple’s relationship is especially vulnerable to crisis during key transition points in life, such as the birth of a baby, the formation of a first romantic relationship, adolescence, a chronic illness, and the frailty and illnesses of aging (Staton & Ooms, 2012). From a psychobiological perspective, relationships operating under insecure models of functioning are even more vulnerable to distress at these junctures. This is because insecure models, as one-person psychological systems, tend to promote behaviors and attitudes that are not pro-relationship, and therefore partners can perceive each other as insensitive and unfair. During highly vulnerable periods, partners need one another more than at other times, yet insecure partners are not able to be there for each other. Often partners come to therapy at these times either as result of the transition itself or as a result of other behaviors triggered by the event.
Conversely, a secure model of functioning is characterized by sensitivity, fairness, and true mutuality. A secure-functioning relationship is by nature a two-person psychological system, and therefore pro-relationship. In a Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy (PACT), the focus is on moving couples in the direction of secure functioning. Although the principles of secure functioning provide guidelines for optimal human development and well-being, how secure functioning is demonstrated in a relationship can vary greatly from culture to culture, and even from couple to couple.
As with any new skill or information, to have true meaning for a couple, secure functioning has to carry personal meaning. In my inpatient work with couples at a clinic in Norway, when I see spontaneous moments of connection between partners, I point them out. If possible, I do this in a way that gives the couple a metaphor or symbol of what secure functioning means for them. We make it something they can refer back to again and again throughout therapy and in their relationship going forward.
A couple who were in their late thirties and had been together for five years came to therapy following increasing isolation, loneliness, and fighting after the birth of their first child. Both had grown up in coastal fishing villages in northern Norway, and this common background became a point of reference for them. During one session, while heading into a mutually dysregulating situation, we hit upon a metaphor that illustrated how they were tethered to one another: it was a type of knot used to secure boats in a harbor. In that moment, they touched each other’s hands and both linked their thumbs and index fingers as a symbol of their connectedness. This symbolic linking initiated a bottom-up state shift, and their escalation dissipated. First experienced physically, the gesture then could be translated metaphorically and given meaning psychologically. This became a gesture they could wordlessly return to in moments of difficulty, as well as in play.
Another couple, who were in their early fifties and had been together for twelve years, came to therapy because of awkwardness, isolation, frustration, and loneliness in their relationship after their youngest child (her daughter, his step-daughter) left home. Also, the husband, who had always been the rock in their relationship, had become ill. Although they became acutely aware of their isolation as a result of these stressors, in some ways it had always been there. In therapy, they saw that the isolation and misattunement they had been struggling with mirrored their early experiences in their families of origin.
One day in session, they coined the term “everyday security.” This became a symbolic expression, a mantra they could call on, to remind themselves of their new understanding about who they were—not only what they wanted to be, but also what they believed they could be together. In this way, secure functioning went from being a distant principle to something that applied to them personally. The idea of creating and maintaining a safety and security system and a shared couple identity proved to be powerful for them, and terming it “everyday security” underscored the social contract of “having each other’s backs” at all times. This was something neither had growing up.
I have found that these kinds of personalized symbols and metaphors provide helpful tools for couples moving toward secure functioning. The right symbol can lift partners out of the conceptual realm and into their moment-to-moment experience. The two couples I described were able to use their symbols to help integrate the concept of secure functioning into the fabric of their relationship. When a couple can experience belonging to each other, understand what that looks like for each of them, and also become aware of their automatic defenses against it, they are poised to experience secure functioning not only as something to be practiced under distress, but as a way of engaging with each other at all times.
Staton, J., & Ooms, T. (2012). “Something important is going on here!” Making connections between marriage, relationship quality and health implications for research and healthcare systems, programs and policies. Wingspread Conference Proceedings. Retrieved from http://www.healthymarriageinfo.org/resource-detail/index.aspx?rid=3984
Guest blog by Stefan Neszpor, FRCPC, director of the Adelaide Couples Clinic and PACT Level II practitioner, Adelaide, Australia
Most couples have a story about what is taking place in their relationship. However, the story often doesn’t match the reality of how they experience one another. I was reminded of this recently when I met a couple in their mid 30s, with two small children. With respect to PACT attachment styles of relating, he was an island and she was a wave. In simple terms, that meant he tended to distance himself, while she was more the clinging type.
They came to therapy because she had become infatuated with a man living next door who seemed more approachable to her. Indirectly, it seemed she was trying to signal to her partner that she wanted him to be more attentive.
In the initial therapy sessions, they were able to identify one of her early patterns whereby she had a deep desire for affection. This showed itself as anxiety. Her way out was to gain attention as a form of approval for her sense of self.
Several sessions later, I asked them to do a simple exercise called the lovers’ pose as a way enabling themselves to have greater access to one another. They liked it and I could see that it was helpful, so I asked them to experiment with aspects of their experience at home.
When I saw them at the next session, I asked them how it went. The husband reported that they had been “too busy” to do the exercise on their own.
Ordinarily if I were using a psychodynamic therapeutic frame, I would have gotten caught up in asking them to define busy. I would have tried to understand the various dimensions of “busy” to find out how that undercut their attempts at connection. However, I decided instead to use my PACT skills of psychodrama. I asked them to “show me what busy looked like.”
The first step was setting the scene. They proceeded to set up the therapy office as though she were in the kitchen preparing some food, and he had just arrived home from a busy day’s work. He gave her the shortest of greetings and started to play with one of the children. He virtually ignored his partner.
All this was videotaped, so they were able to review it afterwards. I began by asking how satisfying it was to have this distance between one another, and whether this was actually meeting their needs.
As they reviewed the video, they saw their overall lack of contact, lack of eye contact, and distancing behaviours. They recognized the impact on their relationship and were able to articulate a different story about what they had called “busyness.” It was a story of sadness, of fear and apprehension about making contact. He expressed the overwhelming shame he felt at his inability to know how to initiate contact with her in an affectionate way.
I asked them if they could think of any particular things they could add to their interaction to make it more pleasant. Both of them found this difficult to identify. So I coached them in how to make greater eye contact and use physical contact as a way of signalling to one another what actions felt safe. I modelled the behaviours and encouraged them to give it a try—much as a director might do with actors in a play.
I then gave them the option of re-enacting “busyness” in a way that their needs could be expressed. With the support of my coaching, they were able to do this. They found it to be much more enjoyable and engaging. They seemed empowered to go further with their ability to seek each other out. The psychodrama had made it safe for them to make the contact for which they both seemed to yearn.
I set new homework assignment for further exploration, which they were able to do. The end result of this process was that they were able to dissipate some of their fear and avoidance behaviours, and begin to make true, meaningful contact with one another.