By Debra Campbell, MS, LMFT
PACT Ambassador, Level 3
When a couple comes to our office, they bring a dynamic in the relationship that pains them. Neither partner sees the issue in the same way, and they don’t know how to solve it. Often, they’ve argued about it repeatedly. Talking about it just starts the argument again.
The rate at which the disagreement escalates is an indicator of how many times they’ve argued the same issue. We know they’re not dealing with anything new because the brain deals with novelty much more slowly than something we have habituated. How, as therapists, can we help the couple slow down and experience something new?
In PACT Couples Therapy, we use proximity, micro-expression, and body language to achieve more constructive outcomes that have a lasting effect outside of session. Here’s a familiar scenario:
Last fall, Rebecca and Bob were running late to their therapy session. They had struck a patch of bad weather, both literally and figuratively. These well-educated professionals have been married for about a year. By the time they arrive, Rebecca is in tears. Bob is red in the face.
I can cut the tension between them with a knife as we walk down the hall to my office. They each sit in a rolling chair. Bob crosses his arms and pushes away. Rebecca looks at me, grits her jaw, and fights tears. She declares, “This Kavanaugh trial is going to destroy our marriage!”
The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing had stirred up some old hurts as well as a historical style of arguing for them. My job is to slow them down so they can experience the argument differently. By doing this, they build new beliefs and gain skills that they can immediately implement outside the office to create safety in the relationship.
Prior to learning PACT, this situation would have been stressful as the therapist. Couples often come to session wanting the therapist to play referee or give solutions. With PACT, the direction is clear – they’re in each other’s care.
I instruct them to face each other, adjust their rolling chairs to eye level, and scoot into each other. They reluctantly agree and slowly move toward each other. Knee to knee, they’re two to three feet away from each other’s face. At this distance, the visual system has the highest acuity for every minute detail and movement on each other’s face.
Suddenly, the couple attunes to the present. Now we are dealing in real time with what is actually happening between them, not historical data or a pre-rehearsed argument. They are able to incorporate new information. When the micro-expression of their partner matches what is being said, a new reality sets in. The couple falls in love in each other’s eyes.
Couples misread each other. Instead, they tend to see what they have experienced in past relationships, generally with their family of origin. This contributes to overall misunderstandings and myths in the relationship. Rebecca and Bob are face to face, eye to eye, as I ask the following questions and check that they accurately read each other’s facial expressions:
Me: What do you seen on her face?
Bob: She is sad, but it is a manipulation. She always gets upset if I disagree with her. [He sighs.]
Me: Is he right?
Rebecca: I’m sad, but it isn’t because he disagrees with me, it’s because I was date raped in college and the trial has been very difficult to watch. Obviously, Kavanaugh is guilty, but he will likely get approved anyway because it is so hard to prove what happened, just like what happened to me in college. [more tears]
Me: What do you see on his face?
Rebecca: He looked angry, but less so now…something else, I can’t place it.
Me: Is she right?
Bob: Yes and no… I was angry before, but now I’m more hurt. I know that happened to her and I feel terrible about it. I would kill that guy if I ran into him. At the same time, I feel scared for all men if the judicial system can find someone guilty without proof. I want to protect her and myself at the same time but it seems impossible…
Me: Do you believe him?
Rebecca: [slowly] Usually not, but right now, yes.
Me: Where do you see it?
Rebecca: In his eyes. I can see he is scared but also that he cares about me. His shoulders are more relaxed, too. His arms aren’t crossed.
Couples often make the mistake of communicating without looking at each other – especially when things start to go sideways. The lack of facial cuing contributes to their misunderstandings.
Me: Do you guys usually have these conversations face to face?
Bob and Rebecca: [Both shake heads, indicating no.]
Rebecca: This argument just went down in the car.
Bob: We talk about this kind of stuff side by side while watching the news . . .
Rebecca: . . . or cleaning the house or cooking in the kitchen. . .
I suspect that they are misreading each other based upon their experiences from their families of origin. I want to expose that by testing their expertise on each other’s history.
Me: Did Bob have manipulative parents?
Rebecca: His father and mother are so manipulative to this day. I can completely understand why that would bother him, if he thought I were manipulating.
Me: Is she right?
Bob: Yes, my parents are manipulative. My relationship with them is strained.
Me: Does Rebecca manipulate you?
Bob: No . . . she really doesn’t. [His face relaxes.] She protects me.
Me: Did her parents protect her growing up?
Bob: Financially, they took care of her. She always had what she needed . . . went to a private school, etc.
Me: What about emotionally?
Bob: Well . . . no, I guess not. Her family doesn’t talk about personal stuff at all. I can understand how she might want that from me. I told you, honey, I would kill the guy who raped you if I could.
Rebecca leaves her chair to sit on Bob’s lap, curls into him, and cries as he holds her and rubs her back. When the crying calms, she resumes her seat. A spark renews in their eyes and a tangible feeling of connection.
Physical touch generally calms the nervous system faster and better than any other method of soothing. When couples can rely on each other for soothing, they become each other’s safe place. Couples that function securely can calm each other down using eye contact, proximity, tone of voice, body language, and physical touch. They act as an emotional resource to each other, a soft landing. Instead of relying on themselves to calm down or someone outside the partnership to soothe them, they rely upon each other. This interactive regulation is generally very healing when they have not received such emotional support in their families of origin.
PACT therapists assess a couple’s ability to accurately read each other’s facial expressions and body language. We do this by going granular. We ask questions about what their partner is feeling, where they see it, and checking with the partner to make sure they got it right. This is often where we expose new data:
- They don’t read each other’s faces accurately.
- They mistakenly apply historical data from their childhood relationships to their current relationship.
- They have never learned that you can tell when someone is telling the truth by their facial expression, tone, body language, and timing.
Instinctually, as therapists, we are trained to reflect whatever we see back to our clients. However, reflecting back that they have clearly had this argument before and that this is not new material does little in and of itself to change the dynamic. By putting them face to face, eye to eye, going slowly, and checking, we force them to address the reality in front of them. This present focus attunes them to live, novel data that creates an immediate shift in their affect and understanding. The truth lies in their facial expression, body language, tone of voice, and timing.
By Lisa Rabinowitz, LCPC
PACT Level II Therapist
In your romantic relationship, paying attention to your partner’s responses and attitudes is especially prudent. Observing impressions and reactions can help you become more in tune with a partner’s likes and dislikes. I refer to this practice as “obtaining your partner’s ‘owner manual.’”
For example, if I say the word rollercoaster, most people have a strong response, whether positive or negative. If I then plan a trip to an amusement park with my partner – and I love amusement parks – that’s great for me, but did I think about my partner and his reaction?
What if my partner hates amusement parks? The above example could be a win-lose situation if one of us likes rollercoasters and one of us does not. Pro-relationship couples promote win-win situations. Therefore, I need to know more detailed information about my partner to increase my chances of win-win opportunities with him.
Inevitably, your lives get busy. Time marches on. However, if you want your partner to feel important and loved, you must continue to update your knowledge and understanding of this person on a monthly, weekly, and daily basis. You need to be observant, like Sherlock Holmes. What makes her smile? What makes her feel sad? What triggers and irritates him? What brings him joy and happiness?
I’m not suggesting that you stalk your partner and start looking in his phone or following her when she leaves the house, but do you know what matters most to this person? In case you’re asking yourself, “Why does all this detail matter?” it does matter. When you know and understand your partner, then you can predict what may be perceived as threatening, which then creates insecurities.
In addition, you can learn the fastest ways to soothe and comfort your partner whenever he or she becomes hurt, which inevitably happens. I suggest when you notice X about your partner, you should be cautious and check in with a question, such as, “I think I noticed your face change to a sad expression. Did that just upset you?” Nonverbal cues, such as a change in facial expression, can help you better understand your partner and add new information to your partner’s “owner manual.” Here are a few scenarios to help illustrate why gathering this type of information about your partner is important.
Angie and Steve have been dating for a little over a year. Last week Steve stopped to buy her a hydrangea plant. Angie felt letdown as she wondered, “Why is he giving me blue hydrangeas when he knows I love yellow roses?” You might say, “It’s just flowers, so what? Why does that matter?” The reason it matters is because Angie wants to know she matters, just as your partner wants to know you are paying attention and noticing her likes and dislikes, interests, triggers, sensitivities, and what makes her tick.
Another example of paying attention to details happened to me last month. My husband said he really liked the chicken dish I made. How did I respond? I proceeded to make the same chicken dish every weekend that month! He had to politely let me know that, while it was delicious, he likes variety and asked if I could make a different chicken dish.
After our conversation, I realized that I should have known my husband likes variety. Even though I have eaten oatmeal for breakfast every day for the past 10 years (OK, a little exaggeration), he has a different type of breakfast almost every day. And, he regularly comments on my singular breakfast choice. How did I miss that?
Of course, you need to realize that you and your partner will make mistakes and overlook things that seem inconsequential. I share this example of paying attention to what my spouse said because as a committed partner, I want my husband to know I care about him, just as he shows me that he cares about me. Each of us can practice paying attention on a daily basis so we become more attuned to what matters to our spouses and more connected as couples.
In one of my sessions, Elizabeth and Rafael were discussing a conversation they had about going out of town so they could spend time together. Their lives were exceptionally busy, and Elizabeth kept saying, “Yes, we should go out of town, but now is not a good time.” Rafael was trying to reach out to his wife, but Elizabeth was not understanding his needs. In our conversation, I brought up information he had shared in a previous session. As a child, his parents were unavailable to him and would constantly cancel plans. As a result, he was sensitive to Elizabeth’s lack of commitment to spending time together.
Whether dating or married, every couple gets busy and caught up in their own lives. At times, one partner may even feel stuck doing all the listening without the equal opportunity of being heard. However, couples who understand and listen to each other’s needs and counter with solutions stay connected.
Elizabeth shared her concerns about the relationship, too. In the end, the couple worked out that, when Rafael asks her to spend time with him, Elizabeth could say, “I’d love to spend the weekend with you. Would X date work for you?” By giving her husband a specific date, he felt that she was making him and the relationship a priority, healing old hurts and pain from his childhood. The couple made a date – just the two of them – for 3 months from our appointment. We discussed how to be understanding of individual schedules and, on balance, the need to make time for each other.
- Slow down and focus on your partner’s feelings and reactions to situations.
- Take note: if you are talking about X and your partner turns away or looks down, check to see if he is upset or if something is bothering him.
- Create win-win situations by thinking about your partner.
As partners, it’s essential for us to have our partner’s owner manual. When we don’t, we risk being seen as threatening or not loving our spouse. Frequently, partners end relationships because one partner didn’t know what really mattered to the other. If you begin to hear statements such as, “You just don’t know me,” “You don’t get me,” “You don’t seem to really care about me,” take action. Find a reputable PACT therapist in your area to help you “know each other,” reduce insecurities and increase your connection. When you take the time to obtain your partner’s owner manual, you begin communicating “I want to understand you,” which will improve the likelihood of a secure relationship.
Tatkin, Stan. (2016). Wired for dating: How understanding neurobiology and attachment style
can help you find your ideal mate (p. 31). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Tatkin, Stan. (2018). We do: Saying yes to a relationship of depth, true connection, and enduring
love. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.
By Lindsey Walker, LMFT
PACT Ambassador and Level II Therapist
Couples therapists often struggle with how to sort through the many feelings and complicated relational dynamics that arise in couple therapy sessions. You have two people, both hurt. Each come with a different perspective, combined with years of history and unresolved conflicts, and they are looking to you to figure it all out.
By walking into your office, they invite you into their relationship. As a therapist, you join them through attunement. As a PACT therapist, you combine your attunement with identifying the couple’s observable behavior, which enables you to determine what they have not yet integrated into a secure-functioning relationship.
When you mind your own experience with couples, while simultaneously observing how they interact with each other, they provide you with real-time information about who they are and how they handle their relationship. As you gain this information, you can feed it back to them. This helps them build an understanding of how they are functioning. It also creates opportunities for them to move away from destructive dynamics.
In one session, Rochelle and Brandon sit as far back in their seats as possible, leaning away from one another without trying to be obvious. A line of tension runs through their bodies, which tells me they are not fully relaxed.
I look at one member of the couple and see her folding in on herself, hands tucked under her legs, which are crossed. She bites her lower lip. Her partner’s body twists toward her. However, his neck cranes to look at me whenever discussing his feelings or experience.
I take these observations in and then turn my focus inward to take note of my own senses. Am I feeling something strongly? Seeing any notable pictures in my mind’s eye? How’s my body handling the stress of the situation? What ideas are coming to mind? Is there something I’m moved to say here? How pressing is it? My breath is shallow. I feel tension in the room and also inside of me. Most notably, I feel stuck — if someone asked me to speak, it would seem impossible.
As therapists, through our attunement, we experience the relational wounds that our couples bring to us. This body-to-body exchange of information is communicated so quickly. Couples often miss it, which is why they end up in therapy, stuck in repetitive cycles.
In the example of Rochelle and Brandon, when I look inward, I get information about what it feels like to be with them, which the couple needs for themselves. Closeness is difficult for them. Internally, I interpret their body postures combined with historical information I have gathered about them: they deal with the tension of intimacy by either turning inward (Rochelle), or toward something or someone else (Brandon). Speaking openly about their more vulnerable experiences is not something they know how to do.
From the neck down, Brandon shows me that he wants to be with his partner. From the neck up, however, his eyes plead with me, asking to know whether or not he’s safe to turn all the way toward Rochelle. I feel a great sadness well up in me.
I feel that these two are mourning the loss of closeness in their relationship, and they don’t yet know how to connect over it. When they are not in the therapy room, they resort to old patterns of attack/defend in the face of vulnerability. As a result of not knowing how to express his more vulnerable self safely, Brandon gives his sadness to me, instead of to Rochelle. Though she is facing him, Rochelle does not signal to him (or to me) that she is ready for what he has to offer. She is too preoccupied with managing her own anxiety.
My purpose in their relationship in this moment is to contain the experiences that they are not yet equipped to handle within themselves or their relationship. I recognize this via my own felt experience, what I see in them, and how Brandon is interacting with me. I prepare to help move them toward each other.
Brandon starts to talk to me. I want him to know that what he is saying is valuable, so I focus my attention on him. This kind of affirmation can serve as a bridge for him to contain his own experience within their relationship. Yet, the goal of couple’s work is to help them find affirmation and support within the couple system. Knowing this, I want to turn them back toward one another to see how they handle each other in this vulnerable moment.
Now a therapist can take many directions, all lead to the same essential thing. Here are several possibilities, including the PACT methods of cross-questioning, cross-commenting, or going down the middle:
- To her: “Does he always look away from you when he’s feeling vulnerable?”
- To her: “He’s about to tell me something important, and I don’t want you to miss it. What happens when you ask him to look at you?”
- To him: “There’s something you want to tell her, but you feel more comfortable telling me. Why?”
- To him: “Experiment with turning your head to face her. Look her in the eye, and tell her what you just told me.”
- To both of them: “You want to be close, but it’s hard for you to fully let go.”
- To both of them: “It’s hard to speak about how you feel with one another.”
- To both of them: “You guys are so sad together, but you don’t know how to share it.”
With these interventions, you’ve taken what you discovered about them and used it to highlight how they operate with one another. This helps them:
- Identify a feeling they have so they can begin to integrate it into their couple system.
- Increase awareness of how they react to one another in tense situations.
- Own the idea that there is something they want together (though in some cases, not) and for which they are both responsible.
Couples therapy moves fast. Your couples signal to you all the time about their distresses, their hopes, their worries, the ghosts from the past that they struggle with. Your ability to be pulled into their system, and yet retain the sense of your own experience and observational abilities while in it, is one of the best tools you can use to help them heal their relationship.
By Jason Polk, LCSW, LAC
PACT level II Therapist
Repair is one of the most important things for couples to master. If there was an incident or argument that caused one or both of you distress, repair moves you back into harmony, or at least to a neutral state where you’re both calm and are no longer lobbing hurtful words or actions at each other.
Repair is the place where you reconnect as lovers, or at least as partners. In order to repair and reconnect, we have to give something for our partner to connect to. And what we can’t connect to is anger, blame, or self-pity. So, we need to pause and become aware of what’s underneath this protective armor and share that. This is called vulnerability. In PACT, it can be called taking care of our self.
If you take the time to self-reflect on the feeling that your anger is protecting, through the lens of PACT, you’re activating what Dr. Stan Tatkin (2011) has dubbed your “ambassadors.” Our ambassadors are the smart parts of our brain that are less reactive, and flexible enough to come up with a win-win solution. We may call this self-reflection, relational mindfulness, or creating a bigger space between our feelings and behavior. To find what your anger is protecting, you may have to take space.
For a relationally skilled move, you can tell your partner, “Please give me some space so I can collect my thoughts, and then I’ll come back.” The idea is, when you come back to the table and lead with vulnerability, you’re providing the best opportunity to reconnect and repair.
Initiating repair is one of the most difficult things we do because, in a way, we have to lower ourselves. In We Do, Tatkin (2018) talks about how other mammals lower themselves in some manner to convey friendliness. One way we humans lower ourselves and convey friendliness is by sharing vulnerability. Here’s an example from my practice:
Bob and Nancy were in my office working on ways to avoid their conflicts escalating out of control. Bob has a sensitivity to losing connection, and Nancy has a sensitivity to feeling trapped or controlled. Bob has indulged in anger to protect what is vulnerable to him—that is, feeling that he’s not a priority when Nancy wishes to spend time with others. Bob has yet to express that in a vulnerable way, in a way that Nancy would be receptive to. Since he has not lowered himself and has only led with anger, Nancy defends herself with anger. Her anger protects her own vulnerability, or fear of feeling trapped and controlled. And so their negative cycle ensues.
The reality, however, is that Nancy does want to spend time with Bob. She’s just yet to learn skillful ways to preserve her autonomy and her relationship and unwittingly thinks they are mutually exclusive. Nancy’s work has been to understand that she can stand up for her autonomy without anger.
In therapy, Nancy has begun to understand the origin of Bob’s raw spot, which has increased her empathy. She has also learned to speak to that raw spot—that sensitivity to losing connection.
We replayed a recent conflict. Nancy planned an evening with her friends, and she was getting ready to leave. Bob was staying home that night and his vulnerable feelings began to arise as he was feeling that she had chosen another night with others and not him. Bob was asked to self-reflect on what was underneath his anger. When he found it, he was asked to face Nancy. He said, “The actual reason I was mad was because when you go out a lot with your friends, I feel like you don’t want to spend time with me.” His voice was calm, and his words were from the heart.
This was a huge move for Bob, and it provided the opportunity for Nancy to connect with him and respond in a manner different from their cycle. With some coaching, she was able to respond in a way that kept her autonomy and a positive relationship with Bob. She said, “Bob, you know it’s important for me to spend time with my friends. Tonight I’m going out with them, but tomorrow I’m all yours.” Bob’s vulnerable move gave Nancy the space to speak to his fear by saying, “Tomorrow I’m all yours.” Even though this was a reenactment, when she said that, there was visible relief for Bob as well as for Nancy.
Nancy could also have initiated repair by self-reflecting and stating, “Bob, I love you dearly. When you’re upset about me spending time with my friends, I feel trapped and controlled.”
Although these repair initiations are not 100% surefire, when they’re accompanied with friendly body language such as tilting of the head, eye contact, or touch, the chances of a fruitful conversation increase dramatically.
If a first attempt at repair doesn’t work, simply continue with a friendly frame and just go with, “How can I make this better?”
The next time an argument causes you and your partner distress, take some time to self-reflect on what your anger, blame, or self-pity is protecting. In this way, you take care of yourself. Sharing what you find in a friendly manner is how you take care of your partner. Practicing such relational mindfulness is how you handle conflict and repair in a secure functioning relationship.
Tatkin, S. (2011). Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.
Tatkin, S. (2018). We Do: Saying Yes to a Relationship of Depth, True Connection, and Enduring Love. Boulder: Sounds True.
By Carolyn Sharp, LICSW
PACT Level III Therapist
After laughing with Marty about the wonderful date they had, Peter adds, “Of course we had to go to the restaurant you wanted.” With that slight emphasis on going to Marty’s restaurant pick, they go from shared laughter to bulging eyes and hostile voices, following each other out of connection and into attack. All it takes is one wrong comment to spin into the dynamic this high-arousal and high-conflict couple came to address. My heart rate increases and my throat tightens as my mind imagines the session going out of control. With my own arousal rising, I’m in danger of losing my capacity to be helpful.
Christina and Sam stare listlessly at the floor during extended pauses after my questions and comments. Their passivity and disconnection are in charge here, and neither partner makes a move toward closeness or engagement. I feel a yawn forming and can hear every sound outside my window, as boredom threatens my effectiveness. This couple will continue to do what they always do if I don’t activate the energy in the room.
In both these cases, the couple’s work together depends on my ability to self-regulate—to calm myself in the former and to self-activate in the latter. With PACT’s embodied approach (whereby the therapist uses the live felt-experiences of a couple to help them learn new ways of being with one another), my job is to help the couple learn to co-regulate each other’s nervous systems so they can find connection and safety. Their ability to do this is central to forming a secure-functioning relationship.
As a PACT therapist, self-regulation allows me to set the tone for the sessions and to create the frame and expectations for partners’ behavior. Additionally, when I am self-regulated, I have the capacity to marshal all my resources to respond helpfully with any interventions needed. I can’t fall outside my own window of tolerance or allow myself to react from emotion. Central to the skill of self-regulation is awareness of the strengths, challenges, and triggers within my own arousal system. The volume and speed of a couple’s speech can be irritating to my system, but tone and emotion are what cause my heart rate to spike. In the other direction, the slowness of their responses can be lulling, but disengagement between partners is the cause of a drop in my attention and attunement. Being aware of these triggers is the key to my ability to notice and take action.
The use of deliberate practice and repetitive skill-building exercises to automate responses to calm or activate myself when stressed has been enormously helpful to my self-regulation (Rousmaniere, 2016). I practice resetting my system when excited or bored so I can do so in session, without pause. Developing the emotional muscle memory to calm or excite myself makes it more likely that I can do the same in times of stress or in overwhelming situations.
Two of the simplest and most reliable means of self-regulation are exhalation and simple grounding (i.e., the ability to return my attention to my body and the room quickly). Using these has proven invaluable, and I often invite couples to practice them with each other when the room goes “high temperature” or “frozen” (the vernacular I share with couples). Lastly, the PACT serenity prayer serves as a powerful grounding in my role and responsibilities as a therapist. Through self-regulation, I am present with the couple before me and I allow them to practice being in each other’s care. The skills of self-regulation were useful in sessions with the two couples I described.
Peter and Marty came to PACT to learn to head off their explosive conflicts, as well as to help each other get through those conflicts safely. Through attunement and better co-regulation they are learning to do this. My self-regulation is integral to their process as I stay present and tuned in, while fully in my own window of tolerance. With a long, slow whistle on my exhale (indicating a nonverbal “wow” to Peter’s comment about the restaurant), I catch their attention. They are immediately connected through their mutual irritation at my interruption, followed quickly by amusement as they realize I just distracted them from their escalating fight. Being tuned into the energy in the room and its impact on me allows me to use a distraction to help regulate this couple and move them back within their window of tolerance and into each other’s care. Following a repair to one another, we talk about the things they have been practicing at home to get out of these scenarios, and then they practice regulating each other.
Christina and Sam came to therapy for help reigniting the passion and connection they lost over time as they focused all their energy on things outside their connection. Helping them requires me to activate the energy in the room, so I stand up and have them join me and take each other’s hands. Sam follows my request and begins to describe Christina’s face. Tears come as Christina feels Sam’s presence. Describing him, in turn, elicits a big smile, the first he has shown today. I watch them squeeze each other’s hands and then move into a hug. I vocalize the shift made when moving to each other. The listlessness I felt when I paid attention to my own response alerted me to the direction I needed to take to help them move toward each other.
Couple therapy can vacillate between high and low energy, between conflict and disengagement. Unregulated, therapists can quickly follow clients down any number of unproductive paths. Remaining grounded and regulated is our most powerful tool in maintaining our focus on facilitating secure-functioning couples.
Rousmaniere, T. (2016). Deliberate practice for early career psychotherapists. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 51(3), 25–29.
By Beth Newton, LCSW, LCAS
PACT Level II, PACT Ambassador
Every week I sit in my office watching couples struggle with coregulation. Coregulation is defined as warm and responsive interactions that provide support and that help someone understand, express, and modulate his or her feelings, thoughts, and behaviors (Gillespie, 2015). Through coregulation, children learn how to manage their attention and emotions in order to complete tasks, control impulses, and solve problems (McClelland & Tominey, 2014). This requires them to attune to subtle cues of distress, curiosity, bids for attention, fear, and joy. The concept of coregulation can also be applied to adult relationships.
As a therapist, I often work with couples in which one or both partners experienced parental misattunments, neglect, or abuse. The fear and insecurity they experienced as children led to poor self-regulation (internal) and coregulation (with another) skills, resulting in stress and lack of attunement in their current relationship. Moreover, if adults experienced chronic childhood stress, their hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis habituated and sustains activity. This “on switch” can lead to underdevelopment of the prefrontal cortex, which moderates social behavior, complex thinking, and decision making (Kumar et al., 2014).
As a PACT therapist, I know that when an individual is not skilled at coregulation—and by extension, self-regulation—he or she will often report that a partner is not safe. Moreover, when the HPA axis is in overdrive, the individual cannot attune to self or a partner. When a partner has experienced dysregulated parents, he or she lacks the capacity to pivot toward a choice that balances the relationship. In the PACT model, we evaluate each partner’s regulatory capacities, and then help the couple deal with compromised skills and capacities.
I work with a couple named Bill and Diego. They have been married for 5 years and have seen at least three couple therapists in that time. Bill’s mother had depression and a personality disorder. His job was to soothe her and ignore his own needs. He reported she did not do anything for him that “wasn’t really about her.” Diego learned at an early age that his homosexuality did not fit into his strict religious household. He reported a great deal of pressure to be good and nice, with no room for self-expression. Both partners developed the belief they would be punished for expressing their own needs and desires.
These men are locked in a cycle of fear that their needs will not be met by their partner. When one begins to talk about a need, the other interrupts with his own need. In our early sessions, they exhibited disorganized behaviors, such as over-control and mild collapse, resistance to receiving or giving compassion or repair, attacking bids for connection and repair, and numerous withdraws from each other and me. This only turned around after I recognized my out of countertransference and stepped in to become the master regulator for Bill and Diego.
To challenge their acting out, I began setting limits for the session. I helped them see that they were rejecting me in the same way that they rejected each other. We agreed that the following behaviors would help them gain control:
- Cooperate with therapy and their PACT therapist
- Agree to take breaks and practice slowed breathing while on break
- Return from break and determine readiness to receive repairs or help
- Agree to accept regulation by the therapist in the form of (a) stopping attacking behavior, (b) coaching for repairs, (c) guidance on emotional expression, (d) encouragement, (e) accountability, (f) repetition of skills
The structure I created each week helped me offer warmth and sincerity when things were really challenging. My ability to act as a regulated parent allowed me to attune to Bill’s and Diego’s underlying fears and to express compassion. They learned how to self-regulate during breaks, accept help, and allow coaching when they did not know what to do. My ability to step in as master regulator moved them toward greater attunement to their own and their partner’s needs.
I still work with Bill and Diego. When they are on break, I continue to help them with breathing, tracking objects or sounds, and muscle relaxation. They work on coregulation during break by practicing statements such as “I love you. I am taking a break so I can come back to us. I promise I’ll be back in 10 minutes.” I use my ability to ground them through structure, compassion, and good-natured challenge, so they can develop coregulation and secure functioning.
Gillespie, L. (2015). It takes two: The role of co-regulation in building self-regulation skills. YC Young Children, 70(3), 94–96.
Kumar, S., Hultman, R., Hughes, D., Michel, N., Katz, B. M., & Dzirasa, K. (2014). Prefrontal cortex reactivity underlies trait vulnerability to chronic social defeat stress. Nature Communications, 5, 4537.
McClelland, M. M., & Tominey, S. L. (2014). The development of self-regulation and executive function in young children. Washington, DC: Zero to Three.
Tatkin, S. (2017). How couples change: A psychobiological approach to couple therapy (PACT). In M. Solomon & D. J. Siegel (Eds.), How people change: Relationships and neuroplasticity in psychotherapy (pp. 221–246). New York, NY: W. W. Norton.
by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT
As a couple therapist, I know how difficult people can be. Actually, as a person on this planet and a romantic partner to my wife, Tracey, I count myself as one of those difficult people. Indeed, in no way do I put myself above any of the other annoying people out there. Yet here I am, writing about how to be less of a pain in the ass. Well, while I know I can be difficult, I know how not to be too difficult. And the line between them is actually clearer than you might think. Here’s how not to cross it.
When I work with couples, our goal is for them to become secure functioning. Secure functioning partners are least difficult with and toward each other. That’s because they understand their purpose: To ensure each other’s absolute, unequivocal sense of safety and security. Partners are equal stakeholders in this endeavor, therefore, they agree to make life easier for each other, not harder. That’s one of the main principles of secure functioning relationships.
Oh, wait, you think you’re not difficult? Let me tell you, you are. Here’s why:
- Your brain. Though a very impressive organ, your brain is prone to lots of errors, especially in social situations. For example,
- Your brain all too often conflates social cues (faces, voices, movements, postures, words, and phrases) with real danger.
- Your brain is mostly automatic, memory-based, and therefore confuses current events with previous experience via a lightning fast memory and recognition system.
- Your brain constantly replaces missing evidence with made up “facts.”
- Your brain imagines things that are not there.
- Your biology. Your development plays a considerable role in how difficult you are. Your biology affects your ability to:
- Manage your impulses.
- Tolerate frustration.
- Shift your attention at will.
- Manage your state of arousal.
- Socially-emotionally act and react appropriately under stress.
- Make decisions.
- Override what feels good for what does good.
- Remain self-aware in real time.
- Nature. You are genetically predisposed as a homo sapien to be aggressive, self-interested, and prone to dislike people who are “too familiar to ignore, but too different to tolerate.”1
- Nurture. Your experiences and memories shape who you become. If you experienced any trauma, especially in early childhood that remains unresolved, you are likely to be hyper-reactive to threat cues, both internally and externally.
This is not an exhaustive list. The ways to be difficult are limitless. However, that you and I are difficult is not a problem. It’s when we cross the line and become too difficult, that is the problem. How does focusing on secure functioning help?
Secure functioning partners co-create their own kind of social contract which protects them from each other. These are “golden rules” in that they are, if agreed upon, undisputable and therefore help partners rein in difficult behavior.
One golden rule could (and should) be, “We protect each other in public.” Keri and Dave, for example, agreed to this principle. They both decided that it served both a personal and mutual good. In the example below, they are out to dinner with another couple. Dave is an actor and he received news that he won a co-starring role in a major motion picture. He told Keri that he signed a non-disclosure agreement and to keep it to herself.
Keri: [to the other couple] The other night Dave got news that he’s doing the next (fill in the blank).
Dave: [turns his head away in anger]
Keri: What? [raising her shoulders and hands in a disdainful, questioning manner]
Dave: [quietly in her ear] Remember what I told you earlier. Don’t talk about this.
Keri: [out loud] Oh come on. It’s great news. I’m proud of you.
At this point, Keri has stepped over the line and has become too difficult. That she reflexively said something that he explicitly told her not to say breaks an agreed upon principle. However, that she continued to violate the principle when reminded by Dave – that is what defines being too difficult. It also shifts Dave’s experience of Keri from annoying to threatening.
Here’s how it should have gone:
Keri: [to the other couple] The other night Dave got news that he’s doing the next (fill in the blank).
Dave: [turns his head away in anger]
Keri: [covering her mouth in horror, turns to Dave] I’m so sorry. I forgot. I’m so sorry, really I am. [to the other couple] I just betrayed Dave by telling you that. [back to Dave] I am so very sorry I did that.
Dave: [to couple] I’m under an NDA so no one is supposed to know this. Keri’s very excited for me about this. Please, keep this to yourselves.
Keri: [whispers in Dave’s ear] I’m so sorry.
Now that is an example of repair and recognition of being difficult.
Other examples of being too difficult include:
- Persistently not releasing your partner after a satisfactory repair.
- Not being willing to bargain with your partner.
- When bargaining, not providing alternatives following the word “no.”
- Being unwilling to admit your wrongs and make amends.
- Being unwilling to see your partner’s point of view.
- Not being curious.
- Persistently stubborn.
- Persistently inflexible.
- Persistently conflict avoidant.
- Continually failing to check with your partner when discussing them in public.
- Continually disregarding your partner when together in public.
- Persistently (and unapologetically) failing to keep your word.
- Persistently talking too much.
- Persistently talking too little.
Again, this is by no means a definitive list. But notice the wording in here. It’s not about reflexively doing something that makes you difficult for your partner. It’s about the refusal to stop when cued that makes you too difficult. It’s also about the refusal to repair the hurt and makes things right.
We are all fundamentally automatic creatures – all day, every day. Our brain cannot possibly remember the countless changes in behavior our partners require under various circumstances. That’s why telling your partner to never again embarrass you in public, while understandable, can never work. Your partner will do something again, and likely without any malicious intent. It will be far more effective to remind your partner just before entering a public situation. “When we go in, please don’t make any jokes at my cost, okay?” If your partner is not too difficult, they will comply. If they don’t, well, now you have a problem. If they slip (which should not happen), and remain unapologetic, it’s likely time to move on.
Because we are all mostly automatic, we shouldn’t be faulted for many of the knee-jerk behaviors we do without thought and, at times, without intention. We are, however, responsible for what we do after we do something stupid, thoughtless, or insensitive. We are all difficult in one way or another. The challenge for secure functioning couples is in not crossing the line to becoming too difficult.
- Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (p. 18). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Uri Talmor, M.A., L.P.C.
PACT Level II
A couple come into my office, already in argument mode. They emanate Neanderthal-reptilian contempt, talking over each other, and perceiving most of what comes out of the other’s mouth as an attack.
Immediately, some snarky down-the-middle possible responses fill my mind: “You two are really good at hurting each other.” Or “You’re both really good at making the other person wrong.”
I take a deep breath, soften a little on the inside. It hurts to watch them; there is so much pain. I wonder, “Is this what their children feel? Is this what I felt growing up?”
She’s crying now, but he’s continuing to talk. Why hasn’t he slowed down? Where’s his sensitivity to her pain? He’s missing her. Doesn’t he see she’s gone?
With some couples, these types of mis-attuned moments are chronic. They seem to be trapped in altered states of angst, unable to fully see the human they’re partnered with. Usually I take for granted that these people care about each other, based on where I’ve seen them go in previous sessions, but there are periods when the care has been sucked clear out of the room.
In such moments, I turn to the tools I’ve learned from PACT that can help me shift these mis-attunement ruts. In particular, I juxtapose these couple therapy moments with a memory of volunteering for a Level II demo with Stan. It was a short demo but made a powerful imprint on me.
There I was, sitting in front of a male colleague (for context, I’m heterosexual) and Stan was watching us. We made eye contact, role playing a couple I had asked a question about. Stan threw out a couple of comments, and in a matter of what seemed like seconds, I felt like I had entered a relationship wind tunnel. The rest of the room fell away, and I felt focused on, aware of, and connected to this colleague in a way I rarely experience with anyone. My whole being was attuned to him, to what was happening between us. It was easy; graceful; and as cliché as it may sound, a flow state.
I was stunned at how quickly Stan got us there, using cross-questions and cross-comments. His timing was perfect; his own tone of voice and regulation seemed at ease and relaxed. We could both rest in his care, as he gently prompted us to be in each other’s. The two of us shifted quickly into a state of secure functioning because we could feed off how solidly Stan was with us.
As PACT therapists, our own self-care is so important. One of the most valuable things I can bring to couples is my own ability for co-regulation. To this end, I’d like to share some tips that work for me.
- Early bedtime. I’m a different creature on days when I’ve fallen into auto-regulating to YouTube until the wee hours. I’ve asked my partner to help hold me accountable, to drag me to bed if she has to. What self-care practice would most improve your ability to self-regulate?
- Consistent peer consultation. I’m lucky to live in an area where PACT has taken off, so I have a handful of colleagues with whom I can get together and share cases. Every time we touch base, I feel recharged and rejuvenated. You can also do this with colleagues long distance.
- The PACT serenity prayer. I find it to be such a simple and powerful reminder.
- The breath. I pause and self-regulate throughout the session with my breath. Usually it doesn’t take long, especially when combined with mindful acceptance. I’ve observed Stan do this simply by getting up and grabbing his smoothie from somewhere else in the room. With some couples, that’s all it takes; with others, I need more frequent internal support so I can stay with them. Pause, allow, soften, breathe, appreciate.
- Work on my own issues. I can’t imagine a day when I won’t be in my own therapy or doing some form of personal growth work. Most of us were born into internships; doing our work is a necessity. If you haven’t done your own PACT therapy, I recommend putting that high on your priority list.
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.