Fighting About Hot Topics: “Do What I Want!”

Guest blog by Annette Kreuz Smolinski
Licensed clinical psychologist (Spain), Dipl. Psych. ( Germany),
Trainer and supervisor in couple and family therapy, PACT Level II practitioner
Website: www.ctff-fasedos.com

The annoying truth is that all couples fight. Conflicts are an absolutely normal phenomenon in human systems, and couples are not an exception to this rule. It is unrealistic to think you could avoid having arguments from time to time.

When you face issues such as the education of your child, the sharing of household chores, finances, sexual relations, and your relationships with relatives, some of your partner’s opinions and preferences will inevitably differ from your own. He or she will not just do what you want. However, when it comes to hot topics, you need compromise and acceptance.

The good news is that conflict avoidance is more dangerous to your relationship than is properly handled conflict, or “fighting fair.” The bad news is that if you fight “dirty,” you will ruin your relationship, even if you come up with an agreement that seems to work.

Spain, where I live and work, is a Southern European country with a strong religious tradition. In this environment, couples typically do not go into therapy unless they are extremely distressed. As the literature shows, these kinds of couples are the least likely to achieve successful outcomes from therapy (Snyder, 2006).

When I start therapy with a couple, I don’t know if they are heading for separation or will be able to stay together. However, since I have begun to incorporate PACT techniques, the percentage of couples who stay together has clearly increased.

In my opinion, working on how couples fight is extremely important. I usually include a special session about fighting fairly during the second or third meeting. The rational I give is that partners must learn how to create win-win outcomes for one another. This skill is a must for both partners regardless if they stay together or not. To help with this, the PACT therapist focuses on principles of true mutuality, fairness, justice, and sensitivity, with the emphasis on both partners working toward mutual relief as quickly as possible. Partners are expected to pay close attention to each other’s facial, vocal, and bodily cues for purposes of regulating each other’s emotional state while in conflict. The idea is that as soon as partners are perceived as unfriendly, a biological threat system takes over and prevents either from getting what he or she wants. The required moment-by-moment attention to external social emotional cues helps to keep partners from becoming dysregulated or threatened.

Consider Jorge and Isabel. He is 61, she is 52, and they have been married for 38 years. They have two grown children, both of whom are independent and thriving. A month ago, the psychiatrist who was treating them in individual therapy suggested they separate. She considered Jorge to be pathologically jealous due to his obsessive compulsive disorder. At that time, she referred the couple to me, so they could determine their future.

Jorge had moved out before they came to see me. In our first session, he said, “I only lose my temper with Isabel.” It turned out that at home he is a champion of conflict avoidance. He withdraws until he can’t any more, and then he attacks. Isabel presented her own version of the couple’s estrangement. Both think the other overpowers them.

In the fourth session, an old sensitive issue arises: Jorge has always yearned for a dog. When the kids were small, he talked Isabel into buying one, but the lack of support by him and the children left the dog’s care to the overwhelmed working mother. Isabel banned the dog from the house with “it’s me or the dog.” Jorge now wants a dog if they come together again.

To address this issue, I gave them instructions for the 5-minute argument. The couple must sit face to face, with eye contact, and start to talk about the topic. They must finish within 5 minutes, with both partners feeling okay. This is videotaped and “fed back” to the couple immediately.

For Jorge and Isabel, the turning point came in the third round of 5 minutes when Jorge stated calmly, clearly, and sorrowfully, “Look, the dog is exactly the same issue as our bedroom: I feel you don’t take me into account. I am not in your mind when you make decisions.”

Noticing him tearing up, Isabel reacts softly: “I am so sorry about the bedroom. I promise that won’t happen again. But when you try to impose a dog on me, I feel obliged and I rebel. Instead, I want you to seduce me. That is the only way I will do what you want, because I will want it too.”

Jorge responds: “Will you go on a date with me to visiting an animal shelter, so I can show you the kind of dog I like now? I promise we won’t get any dog until you are totally seduced by the idea!” He smiles, and both laugh.

As a therapist, it is rewarding to see couples start to fight fair, think of conflict resolution as creating a win-win situation and immediately repair wounds produced in the heat of an argument.

Reference:

Snyder, D. K., Castellani, A. M., & Whisman, M. A. (2006). Current status and future directions in couple therapy. Annual Review of Psychology, 57, 317–44.

The Red and Blue of Marriage

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,
stantatkin.com

A study by Harvard University researchers that looked at data for more than five million families, and that was recently featured in The New York Times, found that where you live in the United States greatly influences your chances of getting married. The study parsed the data according to political affiliation (blue versus red counties and states), as well as population density (big town versus small town). In a nutshell, if you were brought up in or even have moved to a liberal-thinking, densely populated, metropolitan area, such as New York City or Washington DC, you are less likely to marry than if you lived in a small town, in the deep South, or generally anywhere in a red state.

We also know from Pew Research Center findings that 80% of Conservatives think society benefits when people consider marriage their priority, while 77% of Liberals think other priorities are more beneficial. We only have to think of same-sex marriage, abortion, the Confederate flag, immigration, and countless other issues to realize how deeply divided our society is. Marriage, it seems, is one more issue that divides us. This debate was the subject of Cahn and Carbone’s Red Families v. Blue Families (2010), and proponents from each side of the debate continue to seek data that will advantage their views.

It may be that marriage in its current form is undergoing a change. Or perhaps, as some like to predict, it is being phased out entirely. For instance, many Millennials claim they are not interested in committed, long-term love relationships. They are more comfortable with groupings of individuals and less drawn to pair bonding. One thing we can say for certain, however, is that even if the forms are changing, relationships themselves are not being phased out. Families aren’t being phased out. Falling in love is not an archaic experience. Just walk down the street and look around. Just turn on the TV. Just scan the Internet. People are pairing up in some form or another.

I think we should also admit that we don’t have a crystal ball. It is premature to draw conclusions about the long-term future of marriage. The participants in the Harvard study are only old enough to yield data up to the age of 30. We don’t know if they will move away from their current Liberal perspective and adopt more Conservative views by the time they reach 40. Many in previous generations have done so.

From a PACT perspective, we can consider whether researchers would find different results if they focused on our definition of secure-functioning relationships between two people rather than on more conventional definitions, such as whether families are “intact” or “stable.” While being intact and stable are certainly correlates of secure functioning, they do not necessarily include all the beliefs and behaviors that make a marriage secure. Ultimately, I believe that people pair bond for the purpose of obtaining a safe and secure union. That may look one way in blue states and another way in red states, but our job as therapists is to look beyond the politics and concentrate on improving the lives of those who come to us for help.

References

Leonhardt, D. (2015, July 1). Intact families, continued: The red-county advantage. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/01/upshot/intact-families-continued-the-red-county-advantage.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=second-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0&abt=0002&abg=0

Leonhardt, D., & Quealy, K. (2015, May 15). How your hometown affects your chances of marriage. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/05/15/upshot/the-places-that-discourage-marriage-most.html?abt=0002&abg=1&_r=2#Relationships

Pew Research Center. (2014, June 26). Compare political typology groups. Retrieved from http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/26/typology-comparison/marriage-and-children/

Cahn, N., & Carbone, J. (2010). Red families v. blue families: Legal polarization and the creation of culture. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Working Through Betrayal – Regret to Redemption

Guest blog by Eva Van Prooyen, M.F.T., PACT faculty, Los Angeles CA
Website:  www.evavp.com
Email:  Eva@ThePACTInstitute.com

When a betrayal has been discovered in their relationship, couples come to therapy feeling lost, disoriented, confused, and angry. They may even wonder if there is hope. Infidelity strips away happiness and threatens emotional security. It can come in a variety of ways, including contempt, neglect, indifference, violence, lying, and affairs. Information is discovered that forces the deceived partner to reevaluate history. Partners are left asking: Who am I? Who were we? Who are we?

Couples can come through painful infidelity, but only if the perpetrator shows regret, if there is transparency, and if both partners want to get back into the relationship. Under these conditions, a skilled PACT therapist can set up an architecture to work through betrayals.

The first phase is to address the fact that the victim has experienced a trauma that can never be undone, and that it has to run its course.

The perpetrator at this point has no power to negotiate. Although this is a temporary role, the perpetrator must simply sit there and take the rage and inquiry of the deceived. The perpetrator has to deal with feelings of shame, guilt, and regret and has to express a commitment and desire to want to get back into the relationship.

PACT therapists understand that no one would blame either partner for wanting to get out. At the same time, the therapist is there to offer support if both partners want to stay. Often, the perpetrator turns out to be both the cause and the cure. There is no sweeter repair than one genuinely originated by the most important person in your life.

The next phase is aimed at resolution, and must come in the form of real-time, stable, consistent support for the deceived. Transparency is paramount, and couples soon realize this is what their relationship needed from the beginning. The deceiver has no right to hide anything or withhold information.

The final phase is for the deceived to let the perpetrator out of the doghouse, honoring the new and improved version of their relationship.

Joe and Susan, a couple married for 6 years, both 38-years-old, with a 5-year-old son, came to couple therapy a year after a set of sexual encounters was discovered. Joe, a financial executive, had worked overtime for the past few years because he was eager to create financial security for the next few generations of his family, after himself being raised in poverty. Susan, a stay-at-home mom, had been disgruntled with Joe’s fatigue and over-focus on work. Feeling neglected, she became involved with a man she’d met online. Joe came home one day to surprise his wife with flowers and lunch and caught the two of them in the act, on his desk, in his home office.

After that, Joe was unable to focus at work. His sleep was disturbed, and he cycled between numbness and rage. Claiming it was her only affair, Susan was immediately remorseful. But she felt lost about to how to “build a bridge back” to her husband. Neither wanted to end their relationship. They tried unsuccessfully to piece themselves back together over the course of a year, but Joe was disturbed by the images that replayed in his mind, and he didn’t fully believe Susan. She tried to be forthcoming with information, but that often resulted in finger pointing and defensiveness when she found herself on the receiving end of Joe’s anger and interrogations.

My first task when I saw Joe and Susan was to address the fact that a trauma had occurred that had to run its course. This healing process was interrupted for Joe by Susan’s inability to tolerate her own shame and her anger at being neglected. She needed support bearing her (hopefully temporary) role of having zero bargaining power and enduring Joe’s rage and inquiry.

The next task was aimed at resolution. This had to come in the form of Susan giving support to Joe. She had to accept that she had no right to hide anything because any holding back would be re-traumatizing for Joe.

Finally, Joe had to let Susan out of the doghouse, honor the renewed version of their relationship, and let genuine repair take hold. He had to allow her a turn at being angry, and set more time aside for simply being together with his wife and son. Both needed to explore how they were culpable. They had to deepen their understanding of one another and learn how to care for the person they chose to marry. It was time for genuine repair take hold. They were even able to reveal shared intimate fantasies to one another, which led them to Joe’s home office for a late-night rendezvous (after a ceremonial burning of the desk).

Through their couple therapy, Joe realized the impact of his neglect on his family and how his over-focus on earning money had hurt everyone. Susan was able to claim her passive-aggressive acting out, and came to deeply understand the intention behind Joe’s need to work. She became the protector of that part of him, and made it easier for them to spend time together.

On the other side of working through betrayal with a PACT therapist, a relationship will not look like it did before. Couples can come up with inspiring, creative workarounds that ultimately strengthen their relationship. Having seen many couples come through difficult times, I have great trust in people’s ability to create amazing solutions that align their hearts, minds, and intentions toward secure functioning.

Applying the Three PACT Domains

Guest blog by Mary Ackerman, MIC, BASS (Cllg); CARE Counselling Hong Kong, PACT Level II practitioner
Website: carecounsellinghk.com

Philippe and Grace, who have been married for twelve years, are clients in my clinical practice in Hong Kong. He is French Swiss and works in finance, and she is Korean American and works as an auctioneer. They have three daughters. They sought therapy after Grace found out that Philippe had been paying for prostitutes on his overseas travel. He admitted to fathering a child in the Philippines.

When I asked why they had come to therapy, both said, “To save our marriage.”

As I worked with them, I found it helpful to observe the influence of the three domains of PACT: attachment theory, arousal regulation, and neuroscience. An overwhelming sense of anger and fear ran through each session, and these domains helped me understand this challenging couple so I could develop an effective treatment approach.

First, their attachment styles were key. Philippe is a wave. He causes disturbance in the marriage because he wants to connect, yet fears connecting. Grace is also a wave. As such, she has not been able to provide any sense of steadiness or security in the relationship. Despite parenting three children, neither partner feels the two of them really belong together. Each is preoccupied with fear, anger, and ambivalence about being close.

Next were their arousal regulation styles. As waves, both Philippe and Grace carry with them fears about being abandoned by a partner. Each travels a lot and finds the separation disruptive to their connection with each other and with their children. In addition, each feels discomfort when alone. Philippe soothes himself by seeing prostitutes and having a second family overseas. Grace tends to look toward food and alcohol for comfort, especially when Philippe is out of town.

With respect to neuroscience, both Philippe and Grace have primitives that are permanently in a state of readiness for danger, quick to jump at the slightest sign of threat. This leads to very frequent and heated arguments. Philippe’s ambassadors tend to come online before Grace’s do. Even so, he finds it nearly impossible to assuage Grace’s fears because she withdraws and does not respond to his overtures.

In sum, these partners are mired in a place where they do not serve as each other’s go-to people, where thirds are allowed to take precedence, and where they lack rituals to reengage after being apart. It takes time for them to come back together again, and they are often unable to reconnect before one or both are overseas for yet another trip. The result? No resolution, no learning to reconnect.

Although working with these clients could be a long process, especially given their travel demands, I believe they are sincere in wanting to save their marriage. I decided to focus my initial strategy on PACT’s tenth guiding principle, as defined in Wired for Love: partners can minimize each other’s stress and optimize each other’s health. As waves, Philippe and Grace will benefit from learning to regulate each other’s arousal and lower their threat levels. Within this overall goal, I began by introducing several simple yet oh-so-effective interventions. I suggested experimenting with launching and landing rituals to help them reconnect after their travels. I also suggested they text and Skype regularly during their travels so they can stay connected. These and other related strategies quickly helped Philippe and Grace begin to build a secure base.

Copyright Mary Ackerman

Our Automatic Brain: Everything New Will Soon Be Old

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,
stantatkin.com

Our brains are remarkable organs. They take in and use massive amounts of information from inside and outside our bodies and allow us to go through about 90% of our day automatically. We can get from point A to point B while checking our emails, talking to others in the subway, drinking coffee, or doing any number of tasks simultaneously. Our brains are on automation, running our lives, making decisions, and doing what needs to be done, with little thought required. Our automatic brains are cheap to run and extremely fast and efficient. That’s a very good thing when you consider how much that ability would cost if we had to use the very expensive novelty-oriented parts of our brain. If we couldn’t rely on automation, we’d never be able to accomplish much of anything.

The automatic brain is made up of old memories, some of which are explicit, but most of which are implicit, or outside our awareness. This is called procedural memory. We know it because everything we have learned—riding a bicycle, driving a car, dancing a routine—has become something our body knows.

Imagine you and I are on our first date. We are both excited by this new creature before us (assuming we are interested in each other, of course). Our aliveness is apparent, and our attention is focused intensely on each other’s face, body, smell, touch, and maybe even taste. You and I want to know everything about the other. We are fully present, and wonderful neurochemicals are coursing through our blood, brain, and body, much like cocaine. That is nature’s love potion working on us. Delicious, isn’t it? Would you like to have a bit more?

But I have good and bad news for you. First the bad first. The beautiful, fascinating, mysterious new thing that you are will be automated by my brain very soon. And your brain will automate me soon, too. When that happens, we will become familiar, and our novelty-seeking brains will no longer pay each other so much attention. Instead, we will draw from our vast reservoir of memories and experiences to do our daily business.

What is potentially bad news about this is that we think we know each other, but we don’t really. So we will make mistakes. We’ll operate from memory, which does not require presence, attention, error correction, and the other fancy things our brain does when faced with newness. For example, my brain will automatically see you as if you were my ex-wife or my mother or my father, and base its reactions on those memories.

Oh! I almost forgot: the good news. Due to the automatic brain, our relationship will seem easier, more comfortable, and more familiar. Probably the best news is that automation does not have to become a problem. This is because the antidote to automation is presence and attention to detail. By that I mean that you become habituated to attending to the details of your partner’s face, voice, body, movements, and words and phrases. When you are together, stay present in your body and don’t wander off into your own thoughts, your cell phone, and or other potential partners across the room. Keep your eyes on the ball—and that ball is your partner. Pay attention as if you’ve never seen or heard him or her before.

Paying close attention engages your brain’s novelty-loving parts. You’re telling it, “Hey, this person is unpredictable, surprising, beautifully complex, and the one on whom I am placing all my bets.” Much like a sign I once saw in Las Vegas: “You have to be here to win!”

King and Queen: Protecting the Couple Relationship

Guest blog by Rachel Holland, DClinPsych, PACT faculty, Buckinghamshire, UK
Email: rachelholland@thepactinstitute.com

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

Guest blog by Inga Gentile, MFT, PACT faculty, Bardu, Norway
Website: www.ingagentile.com
Email: Inga@ThePACTInstitute.com
“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
Website: jamifaletti.com
Email: jami@thepactinstitute.com
 

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
Website: www.rachelcahn.com
Email: rachelcahn@thepactinstitute.com

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
Website: LonRankin.com
Email: Lon@ThePACTInstitute.com

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

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