By Sefora Janel Ray, MFT
I had no idea when I took the PACT training to become a couples therapist that it would affect my personal life so dramatically. I can confidently say now that the reason I’m in a secure relationship is because I took the PACT training and learned how my attachment style affected my dating life. Through PACT, I gained the understanding and skills that helped me to find the love of my life and to create a fully supportive partnership.
I’m a therapist, so I knew for years that I had what is known in PACT as the wave style of attachment (also called the anxious ambivalent or the angry resistant attachment style). My parents divorced when I was five; both my parents worked full time, and I didn’t get the individualized attention and care from them that I craved. They were both very angry and critical of each other, which sometimes leaked onto my sister and me. In adulthood, I was aware that the lack of attention—from my father, especially—affected my attachment style in relationships with men, but I generally interpreted that to mean I was attracted to the wrong kind of man. I wasn’t sure what else I was doing that was recreating my wave attachment style.
Then PACT taught me a number of things:
1. Being a wave led me to overly rely on talking to regulate my nervous system.
Before PACT, I frequently reached out to people I was dating to “talk,” thinking I wanted to connect with them. In reality, I was trying to regulate my experience of feeling anxious. I wanted to talk about what wasn’t working for me… or how I felt disconnected… or my need for reassurance. The talking was more about feeling dysregulated than about connecting with the other person.
Through watching couples and their styles of attachment in the PACT training, I started to see that I was not taking responsibility for how I was regulating my nervous system. When I began to take full responsibility for my anxious feelings, I took a lot more of those conversations to friends instead of bringing my anxiety to the people I was dating.
2. I realized I was dating a lot of islands.
In other words, I was dating people with an avoidant style of attachment who didn’t crave a sense of connection. They were more comfortable being on their own, and generally felt uneasy with talking, relating, and connecting as a way to support their own nervous systems. They wanted to be alone when they were upset, which was the exact opposite of what I needed from a partner.
I began to identify and understand islands. Whereas I previously had an unconscious attraction to them, I developed an aversion to this style of attachment and stopped choosing them for relationships.
3. I learned to ask questions that showed me someone’s attachment style.
I was being trained to ask questions of my clients to help me identify their attachment styles, so I knew what questions to ask my dates.
I started casually bringing those questions into my early dates, mixed in with conversation and banter: What do you do when you’re stressed? How do you handle conflict? What was your relationship like with your parents? How did your parents respond when you needed something? The answers to these questions were extremely illuminating.
4. I began to visually, somatically, and energetically understand what securely attached people felt and looked like.
This helped me pick them out in crowds and even with just a picture on their online dating profile. Ultimately, this helped me pick out my partner. The training showed me what it looks like when a securely attached partner responds to his or her partner’s cues in a relationship, and I began to expect someone to respond to me in that way.
5. I let go of people who were not meeting my needs.
The PACT training helped me to clarify my needs so well that I stopped trying to fix the person I was dating to fit my attachment style. I also became better at communicating when it was clear that a potential partner and I had different styles of relating and we ultimately weren’t going to be compatible.
6. I noticed my pattern of being angry and disappointed.
I did more concentrated therapy sessions on my anger and my disappointment as these related to my parents and to people I dated. Therapy helped me understand how I brought my disappointment with my dad into my dating life. I created unfair expectations for the people I was dating, right out of the gate. In particular, I expected men who were like my father to change into what I needed, which constantly led to disappointment. Instead, I began to understand that those men would likely never relate to me the way I needed.
7. I practiced receiving.
I started to pay attention when love and attention were given to me, instead of focusing on the lack of love I perceived. I made a practice of appreciating the love and attention my friends and community gave me, and I created a meditation for myself in which I visualized receiving and taking in the care and help I deserve.
8. I slowed down in dating.
Though it was difficult, I started to see that I didn’t need to make the perfect relationship happen all at once. I realized that if someone was interested in me, he would facilitate the next connection or next date, and I didn’t need to make it happen all the time. In the past, my wave attachment style led me to try to connect and get close very quickly with dates in order to know I was okay. As I recognized this tendency, I was able to discern more quickly that someone wasn’t right for me.
9. I was able to recognize my securely attached partner and love of my life.
I was able to recognize from the earliest of interactions with my partner that he was someone I could count on and someone with whom I could be in a secure relationship. He was even a little bit wave oriented: he wanted to talk about things and feel connected, and he was more interested in being with me than being apart.
Even though I recognized that our attachment styles aligned, I still went slower with him than I had in the past. I concentrated on connecting with him purely because I wanted to be connected to him, and less as a means of calming my anxiety. But our attachment styles aligning meant I didn’t feel anxious with him. He wrote to me often, planned dates, communicated, and showed up.
Today, I am incredibly grateful to PACT for supporting my growth and helping me identify and understand how my attachment style affected in my dating life. I continue to use that information to support couples in their relationship dynamics, and I use PACT frequently with my single clients who are trying to find a secure relationship.
Debra L. Kaplan, MA, LPC, CSAT-S
PACT level 1
Couple therapy is challenging, and some clinicians find it too intimidating to attempt. They worry, for example, that a misattuned observation could alienate not just one but both partners. There are also potential issues involving tact, timing of interventions, and poor management of session structure. For a PACT therapist, the greater challenge lies not in working with what is known but rather in what often underlies why couples seek therapy: their inability to tolerate and regulate individual and dydadic stress. Addressing the early development of partners’ attachment experiences with their primary caregivers provides the PACT therapist with vital information about intrusions in the couple bond, as well as helps to assess the partners’ capacities for coregulation (the ability to manage their emotions, as well as know when and how to soothe or excite each other).
Intrusions into a relationship might be due to children, work, family, or other life stressors and are a normal part of life. Secure-functioning couples tolerate these interruptions and maintain coregulation, even if the intrusions stress their ability to preserve their couple bond. However, some partners are unable to tolerate this and turn to a “safe third” outside the relationship—such as a person, place, or thing. This is called triangulation. Individuals who experienced insecure attachment by caregivers are more likely to use triangulation in adult romantic relationships. This can create betrayal and abandonment if one or both partners focus prolonged attention on a safe third, to the exclusion of the other.
A PACT therapist will address triangulation using a technique we call management of thirds. This intervention helps the couple shift toward secure functioning and coregulation.
Kristin and Leo came to couple therapy several years ago to resolve their endless arguing. She shared that they often included their son in their arguments, and now they were on the brink of separation.
Kristin was an only child, and her parents divorced when she was young. Her childhood was fraught with tension and hostility due to her parents competing for her attention. She remembers feeling lonely and invisible when her parents argued about her, which is similar to how she feels when she and Leo argue.
Leo’s mother was a stay-at-home mom, and his father worked at the family business. Leo’s father had several affairs, which led to violent arguments in the home. To make matters worse, Leo’s mother vented her anger about the affairs to Leo, and he felt caught in the middle.
Early in our work, Kristin and Leo arrived at a session in the throes of an argument about the previous evening. They took their place in the office and continued the fight.
Leo: [to therapist] She does this to me every time. She makes me out to be the heavy. Do you see what I have to put up with? Maybe you can talk some sense into her.
Kristin: [to therapist] And he’s worried about my behavior! Why can’t he see what he does? It was when he decided to get involved that our son couldn’t take it and stormed off and locked himself in his room.
Leo: [to therapist] Wise kid, right? He’s learning early.
Therapist: I’m curious. Most if not all of your arguments focus on your son, correct?
Leo: [to therapist] I’m telling you. She doesn’t see what she does, but our son certainly does. He’s smart to run from her.
Therapist: From what I can tell, he runs from both of you.
Leo and Kristin: What do you mean?
Therapist: You’re both trying to win my approval in this session and not trying to communicate with one another. I’m not surprised your son runs for cover. I suspect you use your son just like you are using me—for his approval.
Leo: That sounds like a lot of pressure for him to have to deal with.
Kristin: I feel awful.
Therapist: You both use me much like you were used by your parents. Kristin, you felt lonely and invisible. Leo, your mother vented her anger to you about your father. Maybe it’s time you speak directly to each other and begin to recognize and honor each other. You don’t need your son’s approval, but he needs you to learn how to handle your own problems. Let’s begin with what you need from each other.
After this session, Kristin and Leo started the tough but valuable work of caretaking their relationship. Their childhoods had not taught them about healthy dyadic communication or emotional regulation. I helped them see that they used their son much in the same way their parents used them. Moreover, their triangulation included using me, their therapist, as a safe third. When they turned to address me, I redirected them into the care of their partner, where their focus needed to be. The PACT technique of management of thirds interrupted their triangulation by helping them coregulate and operate as a securely functioning two-person system.
Inga Gentile, MFT
“Why does she always seem to get clingy right when I have to go out of town for work?”
“Why does he lock himself in his office after work and watch Netflix while I’m alone in the living room?”
Many couples experience confusion and frustration related to often repeated scenarios like these. But it’s not a sign that your partner doesn’t love you. Or that you’re not the right fit.
There’s actually a psychobiological reason these scenarios play out among couples everywhere. It’s called implicit memory. Implicit memory begins at birth and is unconscious and nonverbal. It precedes declarative memory, which refers to the conscious recollection of facts and events. Implicit memory, on the other hand, because it involves older, more primitive parts of your brain, operates rapidly and largely outside of your awareness.
How does implicit memory play out in your relationships? One way is through your attachment style. Your attachment style is based on your experiences early on in life, and the type of care you received from your parents or first caregivers. Those experiences – especially in the first two years of life as the brain structures needed to support declarative memory develop – become stored as implicit memory and drive much of the way you act and interact with those closest to you. These implicit memories can be activated by everyday events, like separations and reunions, and because there isn’t an awareness that you are remembering something as there is with declarative memory, it can be mystifying.
Seen in this light, a partner who clings at the moment her loved one is leaving isn’t intentionally trying to make her partner’s life difficult; she may have early experiences of separation that induce distress and in turn activate her attachment system to seek proximity and comfort.
If your partner is sensitive in this way, move towards them, physically or verbally. Embrace them, look them in the eyes and say something like, “I know you get anxious when I go away. I want you to know I’ll never leave you.” If you’re the one in distress, be aware of your response and take responsibility. Ask your partner for what you need: “It’s hard for me when you leave. Can you please hug me tight and tell me that I’m the only person for you ever?”
The partner who locks himself in his office isn’t necessarily trying to punish his partner by being withholding but may have difficulties with transitions from one state (work) to another (home) and may lean towards “alone time” as a way to reset—again, a possible adaptation to early relational experiences.
One sensitive way to respond: Say in a friendly tone, “I know you need some time alone. Netflix together in the living room in 10 minutes, baby!” Conversely, the partner could take responsibility for his hardwired tendency by understanding that, although it might feel unfamiliar, learning to “reset” in the presence of his partner can actually be soothing, on a nervous system level.
Appreciating that memory exists in many forms—both conscious and unconscious—can help you create mutually satisfying and safe relationships: Understand what drives your own reactions. Learn what drives those of your partner. Take responsibility for your own automatic reactions. And be sensitive to those of your partner.
Learn and practice new ways of meeting and caring for one another’s implicit memories in the present and watch what happens in the future.
Allison Howe, LMHC
PACT Level II
Saratoga Springs, NY
As PACT-trained therapists, it is perplexing when we find ourselves working with a couple who are not moving into secure functioning. There are a number of factors to consider: Is there a deal breaker that hasn’t been addressed? Are both partners truly committed? Are resources outside the therapy office allocated to restructuring the relationship?
As we work to move couples from a one-person psychological system into a two-person system, we are facilitating the development of skills. Learning to have relaxed and mutually satisfying conversations requires skill. However, when partners demonstrate curiosity and interest in their partner, they are taking an essential step forward. Their time and attention are a precious resource and are too often in short supply.
The changes we are endorsing require clear messaging, repetition, and lots of support. The job of a PACT therapist is to help couples gain clarity and understand that creating new neural pathways in the brain requires practice. This is the reality. The reflexive systems are deeply rooted, and it is unrealistic to believe we can create a new system without time, attention, and practice.
In the same way a coach gives his or her athlete a training plan, I encourage couples to practice outside the therapy session. Recently, I worked with a couple who are making forward strides. However, I observed a missed opportunity at our last meeting. More specifically, there wasn’t a clear structure in place for them to reflect and review the changes that were indeed taking place. The following dialogue took place:
Carmen: “Did you notice how I handled things differently this week? “
Liam: “I’m not sure what you are referring to. Are you talking about the conversation on our porch with my friend Tim? “
Carmen: “Yes. That is what I’m talking about. “
Liam: “Well, I know I handled things differently!”
This couple was consciously considering the way they do business with each other, but I observed that as time elapsed, their memory of the event became a bit unclear in terms of detail and sequence. While positive steps in a secure direction were being taken, not sharing these experiences was a lost opportunity. So I had them do the following exercise, which is designed to gather evidence of progress.
Exercise: REVEAL, RECOGNIZE, REINFORCE
Instructions for therapist: Have couple sit face to face. Encourage both partners to keep their messages friendly and succinct.
Step 1: REVEAL:
Partner A: Take a moment to reflect on your recent interactions or experiences with your partner. Identify a behavior aligned with your secure-functioning goals. Examples include but are not limited to distress relief, quick repair, contact maintenance, or management of thirds. Reveal the behavior to your partner.
Step 2: RECOGNIZE:
Partner B responds to Partner A by acknowledging this positive step.
Step 3: REINFORCE:
Discuss together how this change is positive for the relationship. This is a moment to feel good together. Switch and repeat the steps with Partner B moving to Step #1.
When Carmen and Liam used this exercise in our session, the following dialogue occurred.
Carmen: “Remember when Tim was visiting? Well, I did what I usually do. I became sarcastic and made a joke at your expense. Tim noticed. I’m sure you did. But that’s not the change!”
Liam: “What did you do differently?”
Carmen: [REVEAL] “I came up to you before bed, looked into your eyes, and said I was sorry for it. It’s not okay for me to do that anymore.”
Liam: [RECOGNIZE] “I do remember you coming up to me and apologizing. I appreciated it. Thank you, and it matters to me that you are paying attention.”
Carmen: [REINFORCE] “I want to repair things quickly the way I did that night. That’s so much better for us. I also want to quit being snarky with you. I know these changes are good for us.”
Liam: “I agree. This feels so much better than the old ways. Now can I tell you my change? [REVEAL] I was bothered by your joke, especially in front of Tim. I made a conscious decision in that moment that I wanted to change how I handled it. You know, I withdraw from you when this kind of thing happens. I decided that has to stop. I decided I was going to let this go and not punish you with my silence. If I was feeling upset the next morning, I promised myself to talk to you about it.”
Carmen: [RECOGNIZE] [smiles] “Thank you. I have suffered a lot when you pull away from me. I know that is a big change for you.”
Liam: [REINFORCE] “A big change. And a good one.”
Carmen: [REINFORCE] “This feels like a big deal. We are on a better path.”
What does this exercise accomplish? Having the couple face one another while mutually amplifying the positive enables coregulation. Learning to uphold Grice’s maxims for the quality, quantity, relevance, and manner of the message fosters secure functioning. Additionally, focusing couples on true behavioral changes makes the implicit fully explicit. This exercise encourages increased interdependence, with a focus on both self and other. Finally, with the focus on positive change, the exercise can bring much needed vitality to a couple as they make sustainable change.
Inga Gentile, MFT
Many couples tell me they simply don’t have the time they need to set aside to address issues in their relationship daily. They are too tired at night, mornings are too hectic, and their days are a blur. However, there are things they can do and ways they can be toward one another to help create greater safety and security in their relationship.
One way to increase secure functioning in your relationship is to be aware of the core vulnerabilities that underlie chronic distress for you and your partner. Stan Tatkin (2012) talked about the three or four core vulnerabilities most people have, usually rooted in childhood experiences. Secure-functioning couples realize it is their job to be aware of such vulnerabilities and to tend to injuries when needed. They don’t spend a lot of time complaining that an injury shouldn’t be there or shouldn’t ache so much; rather, they make a point of creating quality moments during which they can say and do things that have a positive impact on each other’s self-esteem and sense of security.
This is important when you find yourselves in a distressed situation as well as when you are in either a non-distressed situation or a situation that is building toward a point of distress. In each case, you can make an effort to circumvent or diffuse reactions linked to your core vulnerabilities. Do this by knowing what makes each of you feel bad as well as what makes you feel good. Use this information often in large and small ways.
Paul and Anna are a couple in their thirties with no children. One of Paul’s core vulnerabilities is a fear of being blamed. Another vulnerability is feeling he can’t get it right with those he loves. When he senses that Anna might blame him, he freezes or withdraws. Fear of abandonment and fear of being a burden are two of Anna’s core vulnerabilities. She experiences Paul’s freezing and withdrawal as abandonment of her. Experiencing his withdrawal as abandonment confirms her belief that she is a burden to him, and she often responds by amping up her criticism of him.
After they worked in therapy to uncover their core vulnerabilities and reshape their narrative around who they are and why they behave as they do, Paul and Anna began to practice in real time saying and doing things to shift the other’s state, and then paying attention to what happens. In session, we worked on their physical impulses to move toward or away from one another in moments of distress. Here is one example of how that played out at home.
When Paul comes home from work, Anna is in the kitchen washing dishes. As soon as he walks in, she begins to complain to him about her day. He picks up a yogurt and starts to eat it. She says, “I can’t believe you can just stand there and eat when I told you I haven’t eaten all day.”
Instead of feeling blamed and withdrawing, Paul makes the decision to move toward Anna in a friendly (and unexpected) way. As she is speaking, he offers a spoonful of his yogurt, holding it up to her mouth for her to eat. She tastes the yogurt and begins to laugh.
In this quality moment, Paul shifts Anna’s state and assuages her core vulnerability of being a burden. He is able to listen closely to her words, feel her distress, and understand that she is hungry. Because he isn’t feeling attacked, his impulse is to nurture her. This is mutually rewarding because Anna expects to be abandoned, especially when she is fussy, and instead feels soothed. Additionally, she is touched by his ability to get it right with her in a way that perhaps no one else could.
This couple demonstrated an ability to soothe and to give each other what they most need in the present, thus bypassing their core vulnerabilities. When it comes to such quality moments, frequency and precision (and not necessarily duration) go a long way toward creating a greater sense of safety and security.
Tatkin, S. (2012). Wired for love: How understanding your partner’s brain can help you defuse conflicts and spark intimacy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
by Carolyn Sharp, LICSW
PACT level 3 candidate
One of the richest aspects of the PACT approach is the experiential, embodied nature of the sessions. Over the course of a 2- to 3-hour session, couples develop a felt understanding of one another and of a new way of relating. As a PACT practitioner, I am continually awed by the power of this approach to help couples reach new levels of connection and healing. In the last year, I began offering couple therapy intensives and retreats as two ways to multiply and deepen that experience over many hours on back-to-back days, and provide opportunities for PACT interventions on steroids.
In a call to me, Bess described through tears her love for her husband of 15 years, Theo, and the ways she had hurt him despite this love. Emotional infidelities had created fissures in the trust and safety of their connection, and both were questioning whether they could get it back. Because of the critical nature of their struggle, they decided to commit to an intensive, where they would spend 3 days in therapy and go deeper into the source of a very hurtful pattern. They would spend 7 hours each day in sessions, with long blocks for lunch. At night, they would continue to work on their connection through assigned exercises.
Jacob and Michael, married almost 30 years, came to therapy also on the verge of separation. Deeply entrenched habits of disconnection and avoidance had landed them in a place of bitterness and hostility. Early PACT sessions helped them clarify their intentions to stay together and their ownership of their respective contributions to their problems. Having learned new habits and acquired a better understanding of their wired responses, they signed up for a retreat my colleague Sara Slater and I developed as an opportunity to deepen their connection through a guided practice over a long weekend.
Through their intensive of 20 therapy hours over 3 days, Bess and Theo continually deepened their understanding and commitment to the process, learning things about each other that they had never imagined. That focused time alone with a therapist created safety to discuss very vulnerable and deeply personal mistakes in the relationship. With no downtime between sessions to distract from the process, they remained focused on repairing and rebuilding, and spent their evenings in powerful connection. Over the course of the intensive, Theo fully completed repair with Bess, and was honestly and deeply forgiven. Simultaneously, Bess came to a felt understanding of the ways she had betrayed and abandoned Theo, and was able to repair and develop ways of maintaining her care of him. By the end of the third day, they not only had a return to early feelings of love and interest in one another but had built on it with plans and agreements for maintaining their connection. Sitting with this couple for 3 days, I watched them fall back in love with each other, and they left looking younger, lighter, and more deeply connected in ways that can take much longer in traditional PACT sessions.
At our retreat, Michael and Jacob, together with five other couples, were led through a shared experience of exploration of each other and of their relationship, interspersed with relaxation and recreation. Sitting in circle with the community of couples—each in different phases of their relationship, with varied challenges—Michael and Jacob found a commonality of struggle in maintaining connection and desire through the hiccups and setbacks of life. Over the 3 days together in a bucolic setting, the experiential exercises and activities led them through a progressively deepening process, challenging them to further understand and work through the habits that had led to disconnection. These couples built a community of understanding and accountability through shared struggle and laughter, as well as the care offered for their common vulnerabilities. This allowed each couple to relax while breaking down barriers and deepening their commitments. In sessions following the retreat, Jacob and Michael had left behind their defensiveness and were able to regularly reach toward each other in ways I had not seen them do. Now, months later, they have found a level of intimacy and safety with each other that they never had before.
The opportunity to do intensive, sustained work in a residential retreat or therapy intensive creates a unique means of deepening connection that is very different from couple therapy sessions. Investing an entire weekend in a setting where the only focus is on each other and the relationship magnifies the awareness and presence in the work together. When I began offering retreats and intensives, I naively thought that just having more time with a couple would lead to greater rewards. Instead, I found that being in a setting away from life, the intention to commit to a substantial block of time and resources, and the process that unfolds over multiple days together combine to contribute to the greatest growth.
by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT
Many partners ask me how to take care simultaneously of themselves and of their partner. In practical terms, this can be difficult to carry off. Similarly, some couple therapists find it difficult to convey the principle of simultaneous care to couples they treat. This blog shows you how to incorporate this principle into your practice and your relationship.
First, we have a neurobiological reality to circumnavigate. Human beings are largely driven by self-interests, particularly when overtired, overstressed, or under-resourced, and even more so when threatened. When partners engage in conflict, it is vital to understand the tendency to mistake even a loved one as adversarial, or worse, predatory. The predisposition to error in this direction is a feature of the human impulse to survive. The brain centers responsible for mistaking a friend for a foe are famously expeditious, indiscriminate, and ruthless. This primitive facet of the mind and body is untamable; no amount of therapy will prevent most threat recognition from triggering a reflexive behavior. Though insecurely attached individuals (and those with unresolved trauma) are more likely to trigger easily and often, secure individuals are not immune to acting like the animals we all are. The smart thing for couple therapists to do is to work with this issue so couples can learn how to circumvent the tendency to shoot first and ask questions later.1
It can be helpful for partners to think in terms of fire prevention and fire extinguishing. The therapist can help them become trained firefighters. See a glowing ember and put it out fast! Engulfed in a blaze, dump a lot of cold water everywhere! Eventually, the couple are guided toward becoming good stewards of their safety and security, and that begins and ends with the principles of taking care of the self and other at the same time. However, the therapist may have to triage fire extinguishing and prevention, and determine which is most urgent.
Insecure-functioning partners are inclined to take care of themselves only. One person takes a stand for himself or herself, while fully disregarding the other partner’s sensitivities, sensibilities, concerns, fears, wants, and historical injuries. Partners prime each other with dog-whistle-like behavioral cues that telegraph threatening intensions. An astute therapist can quickly detect these implicit signals prior to them becoming explicit. Video replay (if immediate) is sometimes helpful, though a rapidly kindled couple can become fired up with this technique. For these couples, the principle of self/other simultaneous care must come last in the treatment plan. They set too many fires and may “gladly” let them burn.2
The human capacity to cooperate and collaborate dates back to the beginning of the H. sapiens species, It’s in our DNA to share, bargain, trade, and keep the peace. Our species would have otherwise died out with the Neanderthals. Fairness is not a modern invention. For two autonomous individuals to get what they want and need, they have to ensure both parties benefit or they will get nothing but trouble. That stratagem must always be in play to keep the peace and to prosper. Neanderthals did not have the brain capacity to bargain, trade, or imagine win-win scenarios. We are, by contrast, supposed to have that capacity, and yet we seem to be Neanderthal in our love relationships!
The couple is the smallest unit of a social group. As such, it must operate under social rules if it is to survive. Though the couple represents a hierarchy with regard to children, its own structure is preferably egalitarian. So, if a couple seek real happiness, harmony, and freedom from chronic distress, they must be willing to care for themselves and each other at the same time, or suffer the consequences. A couple therapist cannot make a couple do this, but the therapist can and should expect nothing less.
If partners are good at fire extinguishing and becoming better at fire prevention, but could improve their skillfulness, the following exercise can be done during session. Video playback can be additionally helpful in giving the couple immediate feedback.
Here are the rules:
- A time frame is established.
- The partners must remain orderly and stick to one topic/subject only; refrain from talking over each other (too much); and keep the back and forth going, without one person holding the stage too long.
- Each partner must present his or her wish, fear, or complaint, along with his or her full understanding of the other’s wishes, fears, or complaints. Usually, the latter is best done before presenting one’s own agenda.3
- If the topic involves a wish or want, partners must flow into bargaining mode (e.g., back and forth of suggestions, options, bids, offers). Neither partner can say no without making a counter offer or suggestion.
- Both partners are expected to pay close attention to both narratives, and explicit and implicit facial and gestural cueing. They are tasked with cross-checking what they hear with what they see and sense.
- Partners must not become bogged down, or they will go down the rabbit hole toward threat (“You’re not happy.” “No, I’m fine.” No, you’re not.”).
- Partners must not become distracted or derailed by their sensitivity to the other’s facial or gestural cues (“Why did you give me that look?” “I didn’t give you a look.” “Why are you being so snippy?”).
- The partners must achieve something at the end of the time limit, and both must ensure the other’s well-being by the end. They must finish as lovers, not business partners.
- There must be no residue of unhappiness, unless one partner is appropriately feeling down after accepting his or her own misdeed.
Before a couple can understand the principle of simultaneous self and other care, their therapist must fully understand and practice it himself or herself. Therapists shouldn’t expect clients to do what they cannot or won’t do themselves.
Can anyone apply this principle flawlessly at all times? Of course not. But this is a principle worthy of practice. It’s one of the best ways to prevent fires in our closest relationships.
- Some endogenous and exogenous strategies can dampen threat perceptions and responses. Regarding the former, 10 to 15 minutes of a mindfulness exercise known to increase parasympathetic tone can raise the threshold for a fight/flight response and increase recovery time. Additionally, some empirical clinical reports show response-time delays and lowered threat perception in individuals who are mildly under the influence of cannabis, CBD, MDMA, benzodiazepines, Kratom, or beta blockers. Obviously, a couple therapist cannot ethically recommend medications or street drugs.
- Some couples may be captured by a runaway noradrenergic, hypothalamic process they can’t overcome with conventional interventions. Noradrenaline is responsible for focus and attention. Highly kindled fight/flight reactions include hypervigilance and hyperfocus on a partner’s threat cues.
- The therapist should help the partners lead with relief (known in PACT terminology as disarming the partner’s “primitives” before proceeding).
- When one partner accepts having hurt the other, it is important to experience the pain. Just don’t wallow in it or make the hurt partner pay by withdrawing.
Relationships are messy, and all couples experience conflict. Becoming skillful at repairing those conflicts quickly is the ultimate goal, but when we are in distress, under threat, or in the heat of an argument, it can be hard to stay connected to the (higher cortical) parts of our brain, which use intelligence to create and maintain peace and harmony. The (lower/subcortical) fast-acting, survival-oriented parts of our brain are poised to quickly identify danger and respond with a rapid reflex, directing us straight into battle.
Winston and Abby, a couple in their mid-30s, came to couple therapy 5 years into their marriage because they had “stalled,” were having the “same type of fight,” and felt “resentment and fatigue” were setting in. They wanted to stay together but were stuck in a never-ending loop of finger pointing. Both stated that they wanted to feel understood, but neither would make a move to show an iota of understanding or give the other person what they were asking for. Without resolve or relief, this futile process was draining hope and energy from the relationship.
PACT couple therapists look at how important stages of development were handled throughout life for each partner. We collect an in-depth assessment of early childhood experiences that reveal the quality of attachment each partner had with a primary caregiver. This information provides an understanding of the skill set partners bring to their adult relationship. Questions I asked Winston and Abby included “When you were young, what did your parents’ relationship/marriage look like to you?” “Did you ever see them fight?” “Did you ever see them apologize to one another?”
Winston reported a childhood in which his father worked a lot, leaving him to caretake his depressed mother, who dodged taking responsibility for her impact on her son. His parents had bouts of shouting and blowups laced with criticisms of each other, and he couldn’t recall if he ever saw them apologize. After a long silence, Winston said he didn’t believe (even as an adolescent) he had received an apology.
Abby reported her parents had a traditional marriage, with her father working and mother running the home. She recalled her parents bickered a lot and handled things passive aggressively. She never really knew if or how they made up or if things were okay between them. Her eyes widened when she heard Winston say he’d never been on the receiving end of an apology, and said the same was true for her.
Neither had any experience with constructive cycles of conflict to resolution. They had arrived at this place in their relationship without any practice or proof that doing specific things to create repair was possible. They didn’t have skills that would allow them to help each other feel better, or create a win-win.
For Winston and Abby, it was time to put a stop to accumulating memories of unfairness and unresolved hurt. In session, we enacted a typical fight, with the intention that they try something new to resolve harm they had caused each other. Here is a brief exchange from the beginning of that session:
Therapist: Look at him and say, “I’m sorry I embarrassed you at dinner.”
Abby: I can’t. It feels too hard. I want to… but I feel stuck.
Therapist: Of course it is hard. I’m asking you to do something for your partner that was never done for you, something that doesn’t live in your body—yet. It is good for Winston to hear this from you, but it is also good for you. You both need to know how to do this and deserve to feel better together.
Abby: I want to, but I almost physically can’t.
Therapist: Winston, look at her and say, “I want you to feel important and I’m so sorry you have spent a single moment on this earth feeling undervalued by me.”
Winston: Oh boy. I believe those things, but it’s so hard to say.
Winston and Abby recognized their inability to deliver a sincere apology to one another, and saw how this inability impeded them even at a physical level. It was clear that this inability came from their lack of prior experience with receiving apologies. Both then made the effort to move through their discomfort with the unknown and toward a new type of secure functioning. After a few slow and clunky apologies, they started to relax and could see how they were affecting one another. They agreed to make calming one another in times of upset a priority, and worked on softening their tone of voice, reaching out with a reassuring touch, and showing one another a friendly face. What’s more, they promised to do all of that in the heat of an argument.
Repairing hurt and injury with your partner requires putting the relationship first and learning to engage the more evolved, solution-oriented parts of the brain. Since this process of change entails making moves that can feel counterintuitive, it is often misinterpreted as wrong; however, this is precisely the right kind of hard work for long-lasting, loving relationships. Henry Ford is credited with saying, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” Doing something new (especially under distress) may be hard to do, but as Winston and Abby illustrate for us, it can be done.
Patricia Williams, LCSW
Westchester, NY & Vermont
PACT Level 2
As a couple therapist, it has long been a passion of mine to help couples prepare for the birth of a child, not only prenatally but post birth, as well. There is substantial evidence that marital satisfaction declines when couples have children, and early interventions to counteract that are lacking (Cowan & Hetherington, 1991). In my experience, few couples are prepared for how pregnancy and the addition of a third (or subsequent children) will challenge their relationship and what they can do to make it an optimal experience as a foundation for themselves and their family.
I love the term birth bubble. Jen Pifer, who works as a doula and is also well versed in the principles of PACT, used those words to describe what she strives for when assisting in childbirth. When asked if she would add her voice to this article, she said, “My goal is to help couples become scaffolding for each other and to identify that structure as something they can nurture and maintain.”
Most pregnancy/birth-related professionals are not trained to help pregnant couples build on their relational strengths, assess and manage their natural apprehensions, and create safety and a secure bubble. A birth bubble can strengthen the relationship and thus increase security and safety neurobiologically and emotionally in utero and beyond for the infant. Jen, for example, told an expectant father, “She knows birth, but you are the expert on her. Together, we will look for signs that her pain has become suffering.”
A growing body of multidisciplinary research supports the idea that optimal human development occurs within relationship from the beginning (even preconception). Birth and bonding are a critical developmental process for the parents and baby and form core patterns with life-long implications (Weinstein, 2016).
Lila and Sam are a high-functioning couple in their early 40s, married for 8 years. They are pregnant with their first child. They were referred to me by their midwife, who was concerned about Lila’s anxiety and her reports of tensions between herself and Sam. I can see their strengths as a couple: they maintain eye contact, express their deep love and appreciation for one another, and seem to operate as a two-person system fairly well. They collaborate when telling a story and understand the importance of having each other’s back. As they describe the tensions between them, they seem to have some difficulty soothing each other, as well as finding the baby in each other.
Given the shortness of time before their due date, I want to help them reveal their fears. I decide to use the PACT intervention Lover’s Pose. Following my instructions, Sam lies in Lila’s lap, where he gazes into her eyes and begins to share his worries of not being enough when she will need him. At first Lila is awkward and not sure what to do. With a little prompting, she strokes his head and quietly reassures him that she trusts him more than anyone in the world. She says how much she appreciates and needs him, and that it is okay for him to be afraid.
Then they switch positions. Lila with some difficulty shares her fear of how Sam will react to seeing her at her most vulnerable, both emotionally and physically. She reaches for him and weeps in his arms. He reassures her that she will be safe with him. He affirms that her vulnerability makes him feel closer to her and says how much he loves her body as it is and that he wants more than anything to be her rock in this process. He tells her that he is her king and will make sure that both she and their child will have the most support possible. They agree to make sure that when the delivery time comes, all the supporting professionals in the room understand they need to be able to lock eyes and have contact with each other.
At the end, Sam and Lila talk to their baby and tell him they can’t wait to meet him and are so grateful to be his parents. Although these two have more work ahead, it feels as if they are on their way to providing real safety for each other, and through that, for their new family.
Jen says the best birthers are couples who rely on how strong and capable they are together. Inevitably, she says, birth asks couples to embrace the unknown. It asks them to be flexible and exposed, to accept “not getting it right” and being totally vulnerable together. “Wouldn’t it be great,” she says, “if we could reach couples during this time in their lives, as they prepare for the birth of their child, when they feel most vulnerable and ripe for guidance, information, tools.” We believe the PACT principles can help not only couples but also birth professionals make this possible
Cowan, P., & Hetherington, M. (1991). Family transitions. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Weinstein, A. D. (2016). Prenatal development and parents’ lived experiences. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
Kara Hoppe, MA, LMFT
PACT Level 2
Los Angeles, CA
I recently became a parent to a beautiful baby boy, and I can speak from my own experience when I say that the struggle of mothering and coupling is real. I now have a new appreciation for the complexity and depth of parenting and partnering. By bringing that experience to my work with couples who are parents, I have found that honing in and practicing win-wins are two of the many PACT skills key to supporting a couple as parents.
Negotiating win-wins (i.e., where both partners win) can be a game changer for couples, especially couples with kids. It takes courage to ask for what we need as individuals and parents, and asking for what we need/want is fundamental to achieving a win-win. This process can lead to a secure-functioning relationship for the couple and to individuation for each partner. The couples I work with love win-wins because the goals are not to compromise but to be open and honest about what each partner wants, to be flexible and creative with each other to arrive at a win-win, and then to claim that win-win. Additionally, there are no victims/martyrs in win-wins.
Rose and Will have a 3-year-old girl, Joy, and are struggling with their couple connection. They present wanting communication tools, but as I cross-question, cross-track, and cross-comment, I realize that part of the reason both partners feel so lonely is that they have no win-wins. Each solution or decision they arrive at has a winner and a loser. This pattern goes back before they were parents and before they were partners, but it has been amplified due to parenthood.
I introduce the concept of win-wins to Rose and Will, and they get excited at the idea of both getting some version of what they want. Also, they marvel that they have never considered that a possibility. Will is naturally very funny and exclaims, “I thought I would always get what I wanted, and Rose would always be pissed at me.” They both laugh, so I joke about how fun that sounds. Then I press further: “So that’s the jam? Rose yields to your needs and harbors resentment, and you let this continue?” Will stops laughing. “Yeah. Sometimes. Actually, often.” I continue to press: “How do you know she’s not happy about the decisions you guys make?” Will has an ready answer: “Because she becomes cold and snappy with me.” I turn to Rose: “Is this true?” She cops to it. I suggest we use our time to try something different and I encourage them to pick an easy way to practice finding a win-win. They decide on their morning routine.
Rose begins by whining: “You get to sleep in and I don’t, and on top of having to get up early with Joy, I’m always late to work. No win-win here!” I help Rose find clarity on what she wants: “Do you want Will to wake up with Joy?” “No. I love our quiet morning cuddles.” Then she straightens up in her rolling chair and says, “What I need help with is giving Joy breakfast.” I see fear in her eyes as she waits for Will to response. Before he can say anything, I point this out to Will. He softens and looks down. I do a gentle down the middle: “It’s hard for both of you guys to be vulnerable and ask directly for what you need.” They both nod. Then Will responses in a calm voice, “I can give Joy breakfast, but I need you to let me do it my way.”
And with that, Rose and Will are engaged in their first win-win in therapy. I’m there to help them find clarity, empathy, and further awareness for themselves and each other, but they are doing the work to arrive at their win-win. The process takes the rest of the session, with a few fits and starts, and has a victorious ending for both Rose and Will. They are proud of themselves and happy with their new morning routine.
Personally, I can relate to why this is so hard for many couples with children. Without support and psycho-education about win-wins, it would have been easy to get into a lose-lose rut in my relationship post baby. That pressure I—and many moms—feel to do it all can be a relationship killer. Also, it’s hard to stay present to relationship sabotages when there is another being to care for; one or both parents are physically, psychologically, or otherwise depleted; and the relationship itself has changed so dramatically. Parents undergo huge personal transformations during parenthood, and those internal changes shift the entire landscape, so even if a couple were securely functioning before baby, they mostly likely will need some support post baby. It’s important to normalize this for the couples during therapy. I like to share that the skills and principles of PACT have been incredibly helpful in my marriage and that it is a daily practice for my and my partner to be securely functioning. That way, they know they are not alone in the struggle to navigate a thriving coupledom as parents and can relax a bit into the process. Making it a daily practice gives both partners ample opportunities for win-wins.