King and Queen: Protecting the Couple Relationship

by Rachel Holland, DClinPsych, PACT faculty, Buckinghamshire, UK

One of the characteristics of secure functioning a PACT therapist communicates is that romantic couples are the King and Queen of their domain who protect their relationship and each other in public and in private.

I had been working with Peter and Jane for four sessions. They came to therapy for help with intimacy, and our initial work focussed on therapeutic alliance and social contracting. Both were outsourcing their arousal regulation away from the relationship to substances.

From the Partner Attachment Inventory (PAI), I knew both Peter and Jane experienced emotional neglect in childhood and had parents and caregivers who were either unavailable and didn’t protect them sufficiently or behaved in ways that were frightening. More importantly, the couple now had this information about each other and a better understanding about how each operated. They were beginning to understand how they had internalized an insecure model of one-person psychology and auto-regulation that kept them safe up to a point as children. As adults in a romantic partnership, the strategy of tolerating distress alone was leaving their couple bubble open and vulnerable.

It was coming up to Christmas time, and they were talking about their plans, including their families coming to dinner at their house on New Year’s Day. Jane’s stepfather is sarcastic and insulting toward her mother and also Jane. He likes to irritate Peter, and has a pattern of dividing and conquering those within whom he interacts. Jane’s mother is passive in the face of her husband’s unpleasant and unkind behavior.

The dinner sounds torturous. Could they avoid it? Absolutely; however, this family scenario would quickly be replaced by an inconsiderate boss, an awkward co-worker, or other threats to their relationship that would need to be skilfully handled together.

“So,” I ask them, “how are you going to take care of each other during the visit?” In asking this, I send the explicit message that secure couples manage together and protect each other from threats.

PACT is a “show me” therapy. So I invite Peter and Jane to stage the dinner. First, they walk through how family dinners typically run, and how the stepfather divides and conquers. Their arousal levels move quickly outside the window of tolerance, and they auto-regulate to cope with the all-too-familiar activation and threat. It becomes clear that it can take days for the couple to recover separately from an event like this.

The role of the PACT therapist is to push couples down the tube of secure functioning, toward each other and into the couple bubble for protection. Therefore, I use the language and frame of King and Queen to communicate that Peter and Jane are and should be at the top of the hierarchy together, and not somewhere at the bottom, getting run over by the stepfather’s derogations. I invite them to stage in real time being the King and Queen (in this case, host and hostess) in the protection of each other with their challenging guests. I offer the psycho-education that they are in the role of protector of each other, as the public stewards of their relationship. The process is to take a second pass through the scene, during which they can practice secure functioning.

We try out seating arrangements in which they are in each other’s line of vision, rather than side by side. This way, they can more readily pay attention to each other’s arousal states and help each other regulate with eye gaze or signal for help. Being side by side would leave them more prone to perceiving each other as predatory.

They think up the ruse of tasting or stirring the gravy as a means to allow them to escape to the kitchen together and check in with each other. I suggest eye gazing, making faces at each other, eye rolling at the stepfather, and embracing as means for arousal regulation through interaction and levity so they can respond as a couple to the activation they feel from the challenging personality styles in the family.

Jane has learned about Peter’s attachment and arousal styles, she knows he will need a break from being with people, just to breathe out. She says that when she notices his arousal level shifting, she will suggest that he take the dog for a walk while she continues to host the guests. He can reciprocate for her later.

After dinner, they plan to sit their guests in front of the television with a box of chocolates while they clean up in the kitchen, which will give them more time together as a couple to decompress, connect, and protect. They will also be proactive in returning to the living room with their guests’ coats in hand, and reminding them that traffic is building and perhaps it is time for them to head home.

PACT takes the therapeutic stance that one does not have to have a secure model growing up to have a secure, protected, loving, and nurturing relationship as an adult. The PACT therapist expects couples to move toward secure functioning. We expect partners to know each other well, manage each other well, and protect their couple bubble. A King and Queen who protect their relationship are a couple who rule their world.

Copyright Rachel Holland

Couples in Distress: Working With Bottom-up Interventions

by Inga Gentile, MFT, PACT faculty, Bardu, Norway

“Nothing is more revealing than movement.” — Martha Graham


Despite our conscious narratives, which are formed in the brain’s left hemisphere, much of what we do is driven by fast-acting processes and affect-regulating capacities encoded in the right hemisphere as part of procedural memory. Our early repeated relationship experiences not only create a psychological blueprint for how we view ourselves and others, but also determine how we will operate in future relationships. They also influence the development of brain structures responsible for affect regulation later in life. These memories (when manifest in psychobiological reflexive behaviors\micromovements in the body and face) can either refute or support our conscious narratives. They also influence how we move toward and away from people and how we get people to move toward and away from us, particularly in times of threat. This is one way that the past can be seen as taking place in the present.

Accessing these processes and capacities in real time can provide clues about the subpsychological issues related to attachment organization and arousal regulation that underlie high and chronic levels of distress in couples. Armed with this information, a PACT therapist does not rely on verbal report alone while assessing what is really going on when a couple present in therapy. This is where bottom-up interventions are particularly potent because they are designed to access processes encoded in procedural memory. The PACT therapeutic stance is focused on moving couples toward secure functioning and uses both top-down as well as bottom-up interventions to do so. In attachment terms, secure functioning is characterized by qualities such as attentiveness, true mutuality, attunement, and sensitivity. These qualities are considered optimal for psychological and neurological development, as well as for social-emotional functioning.

In PACT, using bottom-up interventions (e.g., asking questions to elicit psychobiological responses; staging specific interactional events; and tracking moment-to-moment shifts in internal states, as registered on the face and in the body, and bringing them into awareness) can lead to powerful revelations about what is really going on with a couple in chronic distress. Subsequently, this positions the couple to move in the direction of repair and development, and toward safety and security.

Sarah and Erik are in their mid 30s and have been together for 8 years. They present complaining of exhaustion, miscommunication, and frequent arguments that leave them feeling little other than frustrated. In session, they appear to exhibit frequent moments of misattunement, and attentiveness and mutual sensitivity are lacking in their interactions. This is reinforced by their respective attachment histories, which appear to be characterized by insecure parenting.

In session, as Sarah begins to express feelings of hopelessness about things ever getting better, I notice her voice volume begin to increase, her speech become pressured, and her tone become sharp. As I cross track between Sarah and Erik, I notice that Erik several times breathes in as if to speak but does not. As Sarah continues to speak, Erik grows increasingly silent and still. His face is flushed, and his breathing shallow.

I use a bottom-up intervention to ask Sarah to notice what is happening to Erik. “He’s doing what he always does. Just sitting there.” she says.

To validate how she might experience him in this moment, I then wonder out loud if she’s aware of how she sounds and how that might affect Erik. As we examine together the moment-to-moment shifts in this real-time interaction, Sarah recognizes that her harsh tone and voice volume, more than her words themselves, trigger on a psychobiological level Erik’s early experiences with intrusive caregivers, leading him to grow more silent and still, as he did when he was a child. Erik sees that his self-protective and reflexive behaviors trigger Sarah’s childhood experience of inconsistent caregiver availability and neglect, and as such, only serve to escalate her distress.

Further moment-to-moment tracking in session reveals that Sarah is negativistic when Erik attempts to reach out to her in real time with the comfort she reportedly longs for. In the wake of this awareness, Sarah’s face turns flat, her eyes dart, and her body freezes. I point this out and ask each of them to notice what is happening.

Sarah is able to report that she sees her partner reaching out, but that she can’t go to him. Erik becomes aware that he feels conflicted—both wanting to reach out but not being certain how to, or only doing so in small ways, and fearing rejection. This new information reframes the couple’s difficulties as issues related to giving and receiving comfort—issues that are rooted in early experience and are now being expressed on a psychobiological level.

At one point, I roll my chair closer to Sarah to provide support through proximity, while directing a cross comment to Erik: “Remember when Sarah told the story about falling down the stairs and hurting herself, and no one came for a long time… and when they did come, they didn’t really help her ? I wonder if that happened to her more than once, and if that is part of what is happening to her when she hurts in some way and needs you to help? Maybe she can’t receive it now, just as she didn’t receive it then.”

Erik nods. From the way he leans forward and the gentle look he gives Sarah, I sense that this cross comment both brings him out of his shell and also helps him feel closer to Sarah, while allowing Sarah, the space to explore her feelings.

As I help Erik and Sarah explore what is happening within and between them, she is able to have a somatoaffective experience that links some of her present difficulties in her relationship to her experiences of neglect and abandonment in childhood. She is able to get in touch with her grief as it felt in her body when she was a child, as well as give words to it now. This is something she was denied at critical junctures in her childhood. In turn, her husband, who so often felt frozen and unable to respond to her complaints, begins to feel he can have a meaningful impact on his partner.

It is interesting to note that Sarah’s prosody toward her husband changes in subsequent sessions, as her voice takes on a softer, more modulated tone. And Erik, although still less talkative than Sarah, is now willing to risk sharing more with her. Individually and together, they are positioned to move toward greater collective safety and security in their relationship, which in turn can foster mutual resilience, growth, and development.


Copyright Inga Gentile

The End: Take It Off the Table

Guest blog by Jami Faletti, M.F.T., PACT faculty, Los Angeles, CA

Have you noticed the crazy number of articles, blogs, and quizzes circulating on social media right now asking you to question your relationship? Just look at your Facebook feed and you’ll see it’s teeming with titles such as “Should You End Your Relationship?” and “How to Tell if You’re with the Right Person.” These articles seem to prey upon, pander to, and perhaps even inspire our worst thinking—that we chose the wrong person or are in the wrong relationship

You can probably tell my hackles are up a bit because PACT therapists know this is the worst place to start if you want to improve your situation. In fact, the first order of business when a couple comes to a PACT therapist is to take any and all threats to the relationship off the table. Unless someone is actually leaving, it doesn’t make sense to do otherwise.

This isn’t about staying or going, or about good or bad partner picking. It’s about what you stand for as a couple, and the operating agreements you have or have not made with each other. If the end of your relationship is on the table in times of stress or trouble, I’m here to tell you… “Houston, you have a problem.” At the base of all couple agreements must be the understanding that you never ever threaten the relationship itself because it’s the boat you sail in, and confidence in your boat is what allows you to make those trans-Atlantic journeys together despite the weather.

The point of a primary attachment relationship is to protect, energize, and manage each other more efficiently than you can do alone. You are better at the job of caring for and fuelling each other when all the death threats to the relationship are removed. Imagine what you could accomplish together if, no matter what (true deal breakers aside), the relationship were safe. No matter who is at fault, you two agreed to lead with relief, calm each other down, take care of each other, and then deal with the issues. Think how this would change your relationship.

This idea of mutually assured safety with another person is entirely self-interested, yet is still pro-relationship. Making this move serves you best. You will do better in all areas of your life, relationship, career, and parenting. You’ll also be healthier if you aren’t worrying about whether your relationship will survive or not. This frees you up to be more creative, productive, present, spontaneous, and loving. It provides the secure base you need to tackle the outside world and accomplish big things individually and as a couple. Taking the end off the table makes space for you to feel happier, do better, and go further.

If you haven’t already done so, sit down together today and make the kind of fresh start that will change things for the better. Make each other safe. Declare your allegiance to one another’s well-being, and put the relationship’s end to rest once and for all. Take each other as is and get on with life, fights, annoyances, struggles, and all. Claim your person and be claimed. Stop wondering if your partner is right for you. Instead, put that reclaimed energy toward creating and capitalizing on an environment where you’ll be nourished and nourishing. It’s from here that you will get what you probably need most and quite possibly have never had: a true home in each other.


Copyright Jami Faletti

PACT and Love: Small Moves, Big Movement

Guest blog by Rachel Cahn, MA, LPC, PACT faculty, Boulder, CO

Andrea and Brent (not their real names) have been married for twenty-three years, and have been struggling since their youngest son left for college. Now that their focus is no longer on their children, the distance between them is apparent. In session, they describe a recent conflict around Andrea’s birthday. Brent usually orchestrates lavish celebrations with many guests, while avoiding the quieter interpersonal aspect of the occasion (which she relishes). Andrea’s most recent birthday took place while they were at an event with extended family, and Brent’s attention was focused on another family member. Andrea felt dropped when Brent didn’t even acknowledge the day with her, and he felt guilty and shut down in the wake of Andrea’s disappointment. Describing the week is painful for both of them: Brent anxiously averts his gaze from Andrea, and hurt is visible in her dim eyes and sad face. Brent looks confused about what to do next.

Although as a PACT therapist I see a deeper issue to take up about protecting their relationship with each other while managing others (their children, extended family; or what we call thirds in PACT parlance), the immediate situation is pressing. The experience is unresolved because there has been no repair. I signal Brent with my eyes to return his gaze to Andrea and prompt him to make an apology to her. He expresses remorse in his own words for missing her birthday. Repair has begun. I roll my chair next to his and whisper an idea that came to me, for him to sing “Happy Birthday” to her. He smiles, pauses for a moment, looks into her eyes and haltingly sings the song we have all heard sung to us since our early childhood. She wells up, and by the end of the song, tears stream down her face. “That was all I wanted,” she says as she folds into his arms.

This was one of those small moments in which love is revealed. Too often, couples come into my office worrying that they are lost to each other, or thinking they have to become different people if they are to find happiness together. As a PACT therapist, it is my job to facilitate small yet powerful experiences that reveal what is true about them as a couple. Finding the chinks in their defensive armor of emotional self-preservation and moving them toward sensitive and loving action helps restore them to each other, and exposes love where it has been obscured or feared lost.

These actions tend to be small and concentrated, yet they convey caring and connection in a deeply personal way. These movements often begin with eye contact, close proximity, and a tone of voice and touch that signal safety and friendliness. Sincere bids that are very specific to each other touch those inner places longing to be known, met, and loved. PACT facilitates couples finding each other in ways that make their relationship feel primary and irreplaceable.

Secure functioning is often about making small moves that have a big impact. When two people learn to do this for each other on a repeated basis, they are naturally motivated to continue this process. The fruition is that love reawakens where there had been a closing into fear, frustration, and distance. Couples experience that the result can be profound, and that the path there can be uncomplicated and workable. It can be as simple as singing “Happy Birthday.”


Copyright Rachel Cahn

The Secure Family Asana

Guest blog by Lon Rankin, LPCC, PACT faculty, Santa Fe, NM

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.

Figure 1

 PACT Asana jpeg







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.

Copyright Lon Rankin

Accelerating Development with PACT

Guest blog by Jeff Pincus, LCSW, PACT faculty, Boulder, CO

Emotional development doesn’t happen in isolation. The entire field of psychotherapy rests upon the premise that one human being can help another to move beyond vestigial strategies developed in the context of the distant past and to live life in a way that is less encumbered by personal history. We consider this to be emotional or psychological growth. Part of the blessing of being human is that this process can be ongoing as we learn, grow, and continue to develop across our entire lifespan.

As a PACT therapist, PACT trainer, and husband who continues to put PACT principles to the test in my own marriage, I have been awed by the acceleration of development and maturation that occurs within a committed partnership when both parties co-create a foundation of secure functioning. This is the bedrock that PACT helps couples stand upon, and that supports a resurgence of development where there has been regression, idleness, and apathy.

Many models of couple therapy have merit. What sets PACT apart is its understanding about how the processes of emotional maturation, individuation, and differentiation actually occur. We are biologically wired for curiosity, creativity, and learning, but these functions can only take place when the experience of safety and security is online. When our safety and security are perceived to be at risk, our attention and behaviors are dominated by the tasks of mobilizing away from threat (fleeing), subduing danger (fighting), or shutting down (collapse). When processes organized around the drive for survival consume a relationship, couples stay in an immature state where there is no room for practicing and learning to occur. As clinicians, when we witness these behaviors in the therapy, we consider such ineffective strategies to be “acting out.”

Secure functioning both requires and facilitates each partner to develop emotionally, take pro-relationship risks with each other, and be collaborative. As PACT therapists, we expect this from our clients. We see their potential, and we are willing to push them when necessary so that they actually taste their capacity to be better. During a session, this may be in the form of directing them to reach out even when their instinctual impulse is to withdraw, to maintain eye contact when the habitual tendency is to gaze avert, or to say something loving when the reflex is to attack or defend.

Through such practicing, each member of the dyad risks shedding old, primitive defenses to become a more resilient and robust adult. Each takes greater responsibility for the current state of the relationship, and for moving it forward toward deeper satisfaction. This is true differentiation. PACT helps couples become their best adult selves in a relationship where growth and personal development are a natural outcome of love and commitment.

Copyright Jeff Pincus

Esalen Couples Retreat 2015 — Wired for Love: An Insider’s Guide to Your Relationship


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Working Bottom Up in PACT

Guest blog by Karen Berry, PhD, PACT faculty, New York, NY

Bottom-up interventions are the bread and butter of PACT. These interventions can be simple to execute, yet powerful in their effect. For example, the therapist can ask partners to face one another, with the therapeutic intention of using eye gazing to reduce their allostatic load. Compared with habitual long, slow, top-down conversations, bottom-up interventions more readily empower the couple to use their neurological systems to affect change in the relationship.

All clinicians have seen how a couple can become reactive and operated out of conditioned responses from childhood. Their brains can register threat in nano seconds. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) moves at lightning speed in response to facial gestures, dangerous words and phrases, jerky gestures, tone and prosody, as well as general body language. PACT therapists watch moment-to-moment shifts of the ANS, implicit expressions in the face, voice, eyes, and body posture and body language to assess what is happening between partners’ two nervous systems. Content takes a backseat to process.

Sam and Margaret have been married for almost 10 years, and their marriage has been sexless for the last 5 years. Margaret is troubled by their lack of sex and wants closeness in their relationship again. Sam bows his head and shamefully admits he has had no interest. Using an enactment of the couple reuniting after a day apart allows me as a PACT therapist to take a closer look at what’s actually going on for them.

Sam is in the den with the boys, and Margaret comes in to say a momentary hello, but then launches into questioning him about the whys and hows of his day with the children. As she is standing over him, he is sinking into the couch, disinterested. His guard is clearly up.

I have them reenact this event several times. I ask Margaret to give a sincerely warm hello to her man, who has been at home caring for the kids all day. I begin to notice subtle shifts in both their bodies, which reflects their increased friendliness. Then I ask her to sit alongside Sam after the warm hello and make eye contact while she checks in with him about the day. As they do this, I observe more shifts in both their nervous systems. They are more relaxed and they begin to move closer to each other.

Lastly I ask Margaret to sit on the floor while inquiring about the boys. The result is amazing. Sam shifts dramatically. She looks at me and says, “Do you see what I see?” I nod. Sam’s face is soft and engaged, and he’s leaning in warmly toward her. As they continue talking, the warmth becomes sensual and exciting for both of them. This couple have begun to lay the groundwork for increased friendliness and possibilities for play between them.

As PACT therapists, we regard sex as an aspect of play. If partners are unable to play together, it is highly unlikely they will engage sexually. And when the partner who wants sex operates in ways that are perceived as threatening, with little or no self-awareness, her or she is unlikely to attract the other to genuinely say yes to sex.

The use of bottom-up interventions makes PACT a “show me therapy,” rather than a “tell me therapy.” PACT therapists work in real time with couples in the office, reenacting psychobiological scenarios that can make palpable and possible differences at home.

Copyright Karen Berry

Power Couples…Activate!

Guest blog by Eva Van Prooyen, M.F.T., PACT faculty, Los Angeles CA

Healthy, secure relationships are a source of vital energy. PACT therapists know people feel good when they understand how to be successful partners. We are energized by a secure connection to another person. Our need to be securely attached is so powerful that it can get us through the hardest of times and help us float through day-to-day routines with ease, skill, and grace.

Secure functioning is based on a high degree of respect for one another’s experience. Interactions and shared experiences are fair, just, and sensitive. If your partner feels even slightly unwanted, undervalued, disliked, unseen, or unimportant, he or she will—quite frankly—act weird and underperform in the relationship.

Insecurity and insecure attachment negatively affect brain performance. Development can be slowed down because the brain is using most of its resources to manage being in survival mode instead of being free to move toward evolution, growth, and complexity.

In general, couples can get tripped up in creating a secure and healthy relationship and end up not liking their partners, situations, or experiences because they don’t know what to do or how to manage them. This can leave them feeling badly about themselves as well as their partner.

In line with the main treatment goals of PACT, couples are encouraged (and ultimately expected) to both know themselves and know their partner.  That is, to know who they are and how they move through the world, and also to understand who their partner is, and how he or she operates. To be clear, that is not how they wish their partner operates, but how their partner actually operates, navigates, and maneuvers through the world. This knowledge, which requires a healthy dose of curiosity and attention, creates a strong foundation of understanding. It pushes forth the secure-functioning principles that “your partner is your responsibility and in your care,” and “you are responsible for knowing how to manage your partner.” Your partner then holds a sacred and honored position no one else in the world gets to occupy. That said, we often joke that actual wedding vows should probably include, “I take you to be my perfect pain in the butt.”

PACT teaches couples how to manage their partners so they can move and shift them into better states of mind and moods; lower their stress level; and decrease their sense of threat, anxiety, and depression.

The idea of being responsible for knowing and caring for your partner in this way and putting the relationship first tends to be the hard sell for some couples. When you truly understand the benefits of adopting this idea, the stance of “but it’s always about them, it never gets to be about me” loses its power as an argument.

My answer is, “You do this because it serves you and is good for you. You get your needs met by shoring up the vulnerabilities in your partner so he or she can in return do the same for you. You both get the benefits of that investment.”

Love and genuine connection create libidinal energy—life force energy that can be renewed in an instant through a simple act of friendliness, a glance, a look, a moment, and a knowing that “my person likes me.” Part of creating a secure relationship is making sure you are helping your partner perform at an optimal level. To do that, messages that communicate “I’m good at you,” “I’m good at being with you,” and “You are in my care” must be reflected every day.

If you want to put this into practice, one way I encourage that is to pay attention to everything your partner hears you say about him or her. What messages are you conveying? Another thing you can do is to introduce your partner to other people, when you are together in public, in a way that is elevating.

PACT principles help couples enjoy the experience of being loved for who they are, as well as appreciate all the day-to-day benefits their relationship brings.

Copyright Eva Van Prooyen

Red Sky in the Morning, Sailors Take Warning

Guest blog by Elaine Tuccio, LCSW, PACT faculty, Austin, TX

One of the most common complaints made by couples who come to therapy is that they feel they do not know how to communicate well with one another. The words “we have problems communicating,” or something along those lines, are often preceded or followed by a deep sigh—the signal of long-held misery and defeat.

The PACT therapist using the Partner Attachment Inventory (PAI) can obtain enough information within the first session to help a couple see that their problems are not simply communication. In fact, where couples tend to falter most is in reading signs and signals—the nonverbal cadence on which primary attachment relationships are built. Life’s forces have caused drift in their relationships. A mix of financial stress, betrayal, conflicting priorities of career and family, and addictions have thrown them into survival mode. As a result of early unmet developmental needs and attachment injuries, they find themselves at sea in their adult romantic partnership. Instead of smooth sailing, they tack too much or lean too little.

Consider Chuck and Tina, who are committed, loving parents to a child with cerebral palsy. In therapy, Chuck voiced frustration that his wife would not talk with him. Tina listened to every word as she held back tears, bit her lower lip, and wrung her hands, then stammered out words to defend herself. Both partners were clearly expressive, but in their own learned attachment style of communication. Tina’s parents had poured all their energy into their kids, but she couldn’t recall them talking at length with one another. They divorced when she was ten. Chuck’s father left when he was two. His doting mother never remarried, and he spent a lot of time alone in front of the television. The PAI helped this couple discover that neither was raised with examples of partners negotiating. This significant finding built hope for Chuck and Tina and helped them see that both wanted to communicate but they did not know how—yet.

Old-time sailors knew to be on the lookout for atmospheric changes, to stay in constant communication with their shipmates, and to point ahead always. As young sailors, they were guided by masters of the sea and learned to expect the best but plan for the worst, and leave nothing to chance. Not everyone entering a relationship is fortunate enough to be launched in a boat rigged for all sailing conditions. PACT therapists are trained to be master navigators at the helm. We help couples help themselves on rocky seas, in and out of narrow channels, and around sandbars. We teach them to distinguish between a red sky in the morning and a red sky at night so they can avoid storms that may be brewing and instead delight in life as it is—wonderful, unpredictable, painful, loving, beautiful, and forever changing.

Copyright Elaine Tuccio

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