Krista Jordan, Ph.D., ABPP
PACT Level III candidate
“He doesn’t find me attractive,” she lamented, eyes cast downward toward his shoes.
My interest as this couple’s therapist was piqued: the woman before me could easily be mistaken for a model. I turned to him and said, “Tell her what you find attractive about her.”
After an uncomfortable pause, he offered, “I like her hair; it’s dark.”
I felt confused. What about her eyes? Lips? She looked even more dejected, focusing intently on the carpet. “What else?” I queried.
He seemed to be searching for a lost item. “Um, her back is really toned.”
I could see her collapsing further, the corners of her mouths starting to droop. “What about her face?”
He paused. “Um, I like her eyes. They’re kind.”
I began to wonder if we had stumbled upon a deficit. I turned to him and said, “Describe your daughter’s face.”
“She has dark hair, and it’s long. And she’s lanky, tall.”
I turned to his wife and asked, “Does he think your daughter is pretty?”
“Oh yes!” she exclaimed.
I locked eyes with her and said, “He can’t describe her face, just as he can’t describe yours. His brain doesn’t do that well. That’s a deficit.” I explained that his brain does not lock onto facial features, and that has nothing to do with her.
She brightened and looked at him for the first time since the discussion began. “So you do find me attractive?”
“Yes! I’ve just never been good at describing people.”
I could see affect rising in her, and turned to him. “What’s going on with her?” I asked.
“She’s sad I have this deficit.”
“No,” she said, “I’m sad because I’m thinking of middle school when everyone was getting crushes, but no one paid attention to me. I thought, ‘I’m never going to get married because I’m not pretty enough.’ In college, I finally got attention. Boyfriends said I was pretty, and I felt maybe I was okay after all. But you never complimented me like that. I dealt with it because you treated me well and I loved you, but it still hurt.”
I turned to him and said, “Do you see the childhood wound?”
“Yes,” he said, moving closer and taking her hand.
“Tell her she’s beautiful,” I said.
He looked right at her and said, “You’re beautiful!”
She still looked like she was holding back a bit, so I asked him, “How did that land?”
“I don’t think she trusts it.”
I said I agreed. “You need to step it up. Tell her how much you love her eyes, her cheeks, her lips.”
He moved in even closer and echoed my words. I saw relief and pleasure in her face, and asked him, “How is she now?”
He said, “She looks a lot better. Happier!”
When this couple left the session arm in arm, they both had a completely new narrative for their past seven years. They also had a new map to navigate this territory in the future. They had shared an experience that was reparative to both of them. He felt understood rather than judged, and felt empowered to do better by his partner with his newfound knowledge. She felt loved in a way that was reparative of a deep childhood wound that no one meeting her today could have guessed existed.
Without using PACT, I would not have been able to facilitate this beautiful transaction. PACT has taught me to look for deficits as well as defenses, and to generate hypotheses about why people act as they do. I test my hypotheses using interactions I can see and track right there in the session. Finally, and most powerful of all, I then share the data I gathered with the couple who just experienced the event. I show them that “the devil is in the details.” With those details, couples who were lost in misplaced narratives about why their relationships were failing can finally heal, and can do so while maintaining the dignity of both parties.
Susan B. Saint-Rossy, LCSW
PACT Level III candidate
Most couples who come to me identify their main problem as lack of or poor communication. Many times, couples believe that if they just learned to communicate properly, their relationship would be “fixed.” Thus, various therapeutic schools have come up with techniques (e.g., active listening, the use of “I” statements) to give order to a messy, complicated process. From the PACT perspective, these approaches can oversimplify a couple’s situation.
PACT recognizes that communication is complex, nonlinear, and multidimensional—much like poetry. Couples’ communication includes the symbolic language of words, micro-expressions, body language, tone of voice, and other elements. There is no one-to-one correlation between words and meaning, or words and intent.
Considering a couple’s communication with each other to be a poem (with all its symbolism, emotion, heightened sensitivity, and multiple layers of meaning) has helped me understand the PACT therapist’s role and therapeutic stance.
Beatrice and Mel, who are in their fifties and have been married for 18 years, came to me with communication issues as their main problem. The following dialogue occurred in our first session:
Beatrice: Happens all the time over really small decisions or incidents.
Me: (to Mel): Do you know what she’s referring to?
Mel: Yes, but I can’t think of . . .
Beatrice: Like this morning. I asked him if he wanted eggs and toast for breakfast. This one (pointing at Mel) ignored me.
Mel: (very quietly, looking at me, jaw grinding) I said it didn’t matter.
Beatrice: (loudly, with movement in all four limbs) You said it didn’t matter after I asked you at least three times.
Mel: You know what I like for breakfast. So why do you ask? Besides, I can make my own breakfast. You don’t need to make breakfast for me.
Beatrice continued to discuss, with great intensity, how angry she gets when this kind of thing happens. Mel continued to downplay the event, saying Beatrice can get upset about almost anything he does or doesn’t say or do. He just didn’t want her to fix his breakfast. What’s the big deal?
Before I was a PACT therapist, I would have probably lost my patience in this situation. I may have even interrupted because I thought it was going nowhere. Now I know that my job is to look for symbolism; imagery; and evocative language in the words, voice, and nonverbal expressions—to let the poem unfold. I wait, watch, and listen. I take in the emotional tenor of the moment without becoming part of it. I “read the poem” to get my inspiration about what is going on and what to do next.
In this case, I saw that, for Beatrice, asking Mel what he wanted for breakfast is an expression of her wanting to have breakfast with him. Unfortunately, Mel didn’t realize that breakfast is not just breakfast to Beatrice, but is symbolic of much that Beatrice feels she is missing in the marriage.
In poetry, a symbol is an action, object, word, or phrase that takes on a different meaning(s) that is deeper and more significant than the original. In my aha moment with Beatrice and Mel, my contribution to their poem became clear: I could help them understand the richness underneath their communications, as illustrated in this graph:
Just as a student of poetry looks at theme, structure, symbolism, cadence, rhythm, the poet’s life, and any other applicable variables, as a therapist, I take in all the couple’s the words, voices, facial expressions, and movements, as well as my own emotional responses. My inspiration comes, and I decide how I can help shape the poem to take the couple to a more safe and secure-functioning place.
Margaret Martin, LCSW, SEP
PACT Level III candidate
When I started my career, I was a dyed-in-the-wool individual therapist, with little or no interest in couple therapy. My master’s program offered minimal education in couple therapy, and because I had no plans to pursue that, I assumed my training in couples’ work would end there. But then a friend convinced me that taking the PACT training would help me grow as an individual therapist. What began as a tepid dipping of my toes into the pool of couple therapy evolved into a dive into a deep, fulfilling sea. Not only do I love my work with couples, but my training as a couple therapist has enhanced my work with individuals.
The principles that make up the foundation of PACT apply to all kinds of relationships, not just romantic partnerships. Individual clients bring their struggles with partners, ex-spouses, friends, coworkers, parents, and children. Although the PACT approach helps therapists support individual clients in their romantic partnerships, the fundamental principle of PACT—moving couples toward secure-functioning relationships—also applies to a variety of relationship dyads.
Couple therapists sometimes describe encounters with individual therapists who seem to unintentionally undermine the work of couple therapy. This occurs most frequently when an individual therapist, in an effort to support a client, backs the client by throwing the client’s partner under the bus. This does a grave disservice to the client and can be detrimental to the couple relationship. In contrast, individual therapists trained in PACT offer a more balanced perspective when helping clients with difficult relationships, even if seeing couples never becomes part of their practice.
The PACT model supports therapists taking a pro-relationship stance. This means a belief in putting the needs of the relationship first, before individual needs. Being pro-relationship includes an understanding that in a healthy relationship, what’s good for one is good for the other. Having adopted this mindset, I look at the dynamics of relationships differently than I did in the past. Consequently, I have a different approach with individual clients regarding their relationships. When I take a pro-relationship stance, I avoid blaming one individual for relational discord, and recognize instead that both parties in the relationship contribute to conflict and misunderstandings. By bringing my pro-relationship stance to individual sessions, I better help clients test old beliefs about relationships and develop new ways of looking at their partners and their relationship dynamics.
Before becoming a couple therapist, I periodically bought into my individual clients’ narratives about their partners. In those instances, I accepted at face value the client’s description of his or her partner as being insensitive, lacking empathy, or being just an out-and-out jerk. In so doing, I was complicit in the client’s drawing of a line in the sand of the relationship. I hadn’t learned to ask classic PACT questions, such as, “What do you know about your partner’s childhood that would make him respond that way? Who treated him like that as a child?” In couples’ sessions, PACT therapists use these kinds of questions to help couples look beyond the knee-jerk reactions they have to their partner’s behavior (“he’s a jerk”). They begin to see any number of other possible explanations for a partner’s unwanted behavior. For example, one partner may realize that his wife’s inability to apologize and make a repair following an argument stems from no one ever having done that for her as a child, rather than “she’s a jerk.”
I now use this same curiosity and inquiry with individual clients regarding their complaints about partners (and siblings, coworkers, friends, parents). As a result, I see the change in clients’ negative views of their partners. By challenging their narrow assumptions and tendency to label, clients develop a better understanding of their loved one. This shift in my approach helps clients develop their own pro-relationship stance and move toward secure-functioning relationships.
Jason Brand, LCSW
PACT Level II
Video games used to have joysticks—simple black boxes with a red trigger button and a stick for movement. Today they have controllers that are multi-buttoned, provide sensory feedback, and obey spoken commands. In many families, I see a longing to return to the joyful days of the joystick. In these families, the controller has become far more than just a way to manipulate video games on the digital screen; it is the nexus of a power struggle for healthy development in the child.
Michael, age fourteen, was caught up in this kind of family drama. Unlike kids who act out and do dangerous things outside the home, Michael was “acting in” by refusing to do anything away from the digital screen. His parents had lost control. They swung between desperate extremes. In one moment, they were gently delivering dinner to the computer because he refused to come to the table and eat. In the next, they were violently pulling the router out of wall to block access to his online game. In the process, they had become a parental team divided. In order to help their son, they needed skills that would allow them to maneuver together less like a Space Invaders and more like Call of Duty.
Working with families such as Michael’s, I developed a number of skills: accessing difficult-to-reach boys, providing a place for families to talk together about feelings, negotiating the sticks and carrots of behavior plans, partnering with schools and other wraparound services, and seeking often elusive answers to how digital technologies affect family life. I realized, however, that to be truly effective in a family system where the child has collapsed into the home, couple dynamics have to be addressed. Michael’s parents needed to learn how to support each other before they could expect to successfully provide a structure that supported their child.
Michael’s parents came through my door looking for individual therapy for their son and not a deep dive into their own relationship. It was a sell to get them to think about the entrenched problem from a different perspective, let alone experience the joy and pain of their relationship in real time.
My desire to be artful in my ability to firmly and lovingly confront couples who need to take control of the video game controller led me to PACT. I am learning to do PACT as a “verb” so the couples I work with can do it for themselves and their children. I am learning to stay calm so I can act on inspiration and not fear. I am learning to enter painful areas that divide couples, without losing faith in their ability to find better solutions by functioning as a team. I am engaged in a process of learning by doing, together. When we do this we run on all cylinders: brain, body, past and present.
Through my work at PACT, I have seen that:
- When parents function as a team, it is far easier to get a child from the computer to the dinner table with the appropriate amount of empathy and clear rules.
- Understanding the neurological shift necessary for a teenager to go from screened-up to sacked-out can be tremendously helpful for parents in building empathy, setting up clear limits, and getting their teen to go to sleep.
- When parents see themselves as the master regulators and grasp the importance of helping their partner to co-regulate (i.e., not “lose it”), they are far less likely to get into repetitive cycles of fight/flight showdowns with their child.
- If parents are aware of their attachment histories, they are better able to help their child to feel seen and heard, while also encouraging his or her healthy development.
Obviously, PACT therapy for the couple is not a substitute for the learning and social-emotional scaffolding kids such as Michael require. However, it is far easier for parents to successfully locate and get these supports in place when they feel supported in their couple relationship. Overall, I find that parents who have experienced PACT stop wishing for the return of the joystick era and feel they know the right buttons to push to be more in control of all the relationships in their family.
Sara Slater, MSW, LICSW
PACT Level III candidate
Apparently the pregnant couple in my office didn’t want to talk about preparing for baby at all. Instead, in the first minutes of their first session, Meg launched into her frustrations about their house and the dog and Rob’s work and their finances. Her hands were folded protectively over her belly, while Rob remained silent, leaning back in his chair, arms folded behind his head. The more she escalated, the calmer he appeared. Neither looked much at the other; both frequently turned to me, with a look that said, “See what I’m dealing with?” No one mentioned the baby, except to answer that she was due in about six weeks.
So, what was happening here? Instead of nestling into their couple bubble, joyfully anticipating the baby to be, or supporting each other through fluctuating anxieties and preparations, they were retreating into attacking, blaming, and generally feeling abandoned by one another. The growing presence before them was actually coming between them. They were literally making a third, with all the potential for mismanagement and an ensuing threat to their relationship.
A third, as defined from the PACT perspective, is anyone or anything that intrudes on the couple bubble, or makes it difficult to form one. In Wired for Love, Stan reminds us that “couples who handle thirds poorly typically do so before they even enter into their relationship.” And here it was: descriptions of one another that were neither complimentary nor constructive; blame for their conflict on things or people outside of themselves, and efforts to engage me in validating the rightness of one over the other. It wasn’t hard to see that these behaviors, left unaddressed, would soon become part of their parenting. Baby would simply serve the role they were trying to get me to play.
Successful management of thirds comes from the shared conviction that everything outside the two partners is indeed outside, and must be handled accordingly. It involves a commitment to putting the couple first, and a willingness to form agreements and make plans about how to manage the demands of people, objects, and tasks outside of the dyad. What I was seeing reflected an inability to effectively attach to one another and to form a safe and protected space for themselves. It is from this space that partners support one another in navigating the world outside them—and that includes how they handle their children.
In a securely attached couple, both partners are willingly the go-to person for the other; their ability to be curious and interested in one another leads to productive discussions about how best to handle the many things that can trip them up, leaving both feeling unsafe and unsupported. Visits with in-laws, time apart, challenging work situations: those are the thirds, and how they are handled is either the stuff of separateness and conflict or of deepening understanding and closeness.
In their fights about the house, for example, both Meg and Rob were putting “self” above “us.” They were replicating what was familiar to both from their earliest memories: neither expected a caregiver to understand or care about his or her needs, so both got stuck in handling things “my way,” which left them feeling unseen and alone. Once they understood this and were able to declare that each truly wanted to take care of the other, they could then talk about what they wanted their home to feel like, and how they might create that space together.
Did this new insight mean they were ready for baby and would never let her come between them? Undoubtedly, they would make mistakes, but they had begun to feel the warmth that comes from knowing what to do for your partner, and the strength of handling situations collaboratively. So when they began to argue about their birthing prep (another third), we “went PACT:” up from the rolling chairs and over to the couch to explore moment by moment what was happening, so they could figure out how to do this thing together. They sat down and turned their attention toward one another.
Michele McCormick, Ph.D.
PACT Level III candidate
Newport Beach, CA
The body tells the story. In contrast with traditional psychoanalysts, PACT-trained therapists need not take an extensive life history in the first session to discern how a client’s past affects how he or she relates to his or her partner. Sure, early histories eventually emerge during the highly interactive Partner Attachment Interview. However, for a PACT therapist, the way a couple interact in the realm of the body becomes a powerful early assessment of where they are with each other. Are they securely attached? Are they safely in one another’s care?
Alex came to therapy to fight for his 6-year relationship. He described feeling neglected by Cindy. They had not had sex in more than a year, and he longed for intimacy. He believed Cindy did not love him and he demanded she agree to marry him within the next 30 days to prove her devotion. Cindy’s belief was that she did love him, but felt his temper drove her to keep her distance.
Making use of the body through PACT’s Toward and Away intervention, this couple’s comfort with physical proximity told a very different story than presented in their initial verbal narrative: Alex stood silently still in one corner of the office while I directed Cindy to, “Walk toward him and stop where you think you should.” She stopped four feet from him.
When I asked her to gradually step closer, Alex became increasingly agitated. When Cindy was within a foot, he suddenly turned his body away from her, his discomfort palpable. Alex broke the silence: “Can we stop? This is just too weird for me.” While his avoidance of closer contact might indicate past trauma, in that moment, it showed the couple that Alex may not have been as ready for the intimacy and commitment as his demands indicated.
Because PACT’s approach incorporates the importance of neurobiology and arousal regulation between partners, couples actively and efficiently learn right there in the office what blocks them and what heals them. PACT is so much more than a “he said, she said” talking cure with the therapist playing the role of judge and determining who’s right and who’s wrong. Instead, a couple’s metaphorical and very real relational dance is revealed through posture, proximity, facial expression, pupil dilation or constriction, the capacity to sustain eye contact, hand gestures, a dip of the chin, and facial micro movements. As a couple sit in rolling chairs facing one another, arousal regulation takes center stage. While I remain interested in what they are saying, I am even more enthralled with how they are moving. I have come to respect the phrase “The body never lies”.
When Marie and Steven initiated therapy, they were on their seventh couple therapist. Married for 18 years, they claimed they were living parallel lives in a sexless marriage. Steven was an accomplished engineer and bronze sculptor, and lived very much in his head. He showed up for therapy highly motivated. Marie came in kicking and screaming. She was all about wanting to feel it. His motto was “You’ve got to work at it, and here’s my three-step plan.” Her mantra was “If I’m not feeling it, I just can’t do it.”
Not yet trained as a PACT therapist, I initially used a traditional seating arrangement with this couple. Each week, they came in and sat down at either end of the couch, as far apart as possible. Steven rarely reached out to or moved toward Marie. While his body was often turned toward her, his gaze stayed fixed on me despite my attempts to redirect him toward her. Her body typically turned slightly away from him.
Invoking the language of a Shakespearian tragi-drama, I thought Steven “did-est proclaimeth too much”. The relentlessness of his expressed love for Marie in no way matched his physical proximity seeking. His body and his mind told very different stories. While Marie was clear about her entrenched ambivalence, Steven appeared to be equally ambivalent about actualizing intimacy. If I had focused exclusively on words I would have missed the centrality of his ambivalence, which ultimately informed my interventions.
With PACT’s strategic use of rolling chairs, I was able to orchestrate more face-to-face contact for this couple. Even then, they initially began each session rolled back and away from one another. I then introduced them to simple eye-gazing—both in session and at home—which was the shift they needed to once again find their couple bubble.
As a therapist informed by PACT’s integrative theoretical model, I continue to analyze my clients’ narrative content. These brief case examples, however, also illustrate the importance of reading the body. My understanding of how neurobiology informs PACT’s dynamic interventions has radically increased my ability to move couples in the direction of secure attachment and deeper intimacy. The body knows how to love!
Carolyn Sharp, LICSW
Pact Level III candidate
We all know the scene: a couple begin discussing a current challenge for them and are quickly down the rabbit hole of past injuries. “Why do you keep bringing that up?”
Jenny and Michelle have had a tumultuous relationship. They met right after college, fell in love quickly, and married after a year. They soon moved internationally for Jenny’s work, which was possible because Michelle had told Jenny her own work was mobile. However, Jenny soon discovered that Michelle had hidden things from her during their courtship, and lied about her work and financial history. These breaches led to a crisis and eventually divorce.
When Jenny and Michelle came to therapy, they had reconciled and were in a hurry to return to their earlier romantic feelings. However, in session, their discussion inevitably returns to the original injury. When they look to me in frustration, I ask if the original wound was ever repaired, and the room falls quiet. “Well, what am I supposed to do?” Michelle asks. “It was ten years ago!” Jenny says.
We know from our studies in PACT that injuries must be tended to quickly so they do not enter into procedural memory. Strong eye contact, physical touch, and the right words can soothe many hurts and create connection. Error correction is one of the strongest means of building connection: we demonstrate our willingness to be vulnerable to our partner, we show our partner that he or she is more important to us than being right, and we put the health of the relationship above all else.
However, we often form relationships without having learned what it means to adequately repair injury. As a result, many couples carry built-up hurts, both big (affairs and large betrayals) and small (repeated slights). It is common for couples to have unattended injuries in a relationship, without any idea how to mend them successfully. Couples often avoid dealing directly with these wounds because of shame and regret for their mistakes or fear of old pain resurfacing. When triggered, old hurts—both within the couple and from their early life—pop back up, and couples often retreat into exasperation and hopelessness. The PACT therapist’s job is to confront the injuries the couple want to avoid; only by leveraging the pain can true repair occur.
Reenacting hurtful conversations in extremely slow motion helps couples see how these injuries have become stored in the automatic brain. Viewing injuries as stored, and responses to them as automatic, begins to reduce shame and defensiveness, opening the door to curiosity and compassion. Continued practice with declarations, using face-to-face attention and careful recognition of changes in each partner, promotes inquiry into whatever is driving the reaction. Learning to lead with relief facilitates a sense of safety and trust.
As Jenny and Michelle return over and over to the incidences of dishonesty, secrecy, and attack that marred their early relationship, gradual change occurs. Michelle is slowly getting better at dropping the explanations when she sees the hurt that comes out as flashes of anger and accusation. She says, “I’m so sorry for all the secrets I kept from you, Jenny. I know it hurt you. I am sorry. I love you.” And Jenny is learning to drop the escalations and insults she used to get Michelle’s attention and instead to take in her apologies without shame. She says, “Thank you. I know you didn’t mean it. I’m sorry for not making more space for you to tell me in your own way. I’m sorry for being judgmental about your ways of doing things. I love you.”
With practice, protecting the self from feelings of inadequacy and shame becomes secondary to providing whatever a partner needs to feel safe in the relationship. In return, receiving such care allows the injured one to drop the attack: he or she no longer needs to shame his or her partner again for the old injury. Both partners can receive care and provide soothing in return. Over time, this mutuality of care leads to healing the ghosts of injuries past, and to a much stronger connection in the present.
by Beth O’Brien, PhD, licensed psychologist
PACT Level III candidate
“Fast acting, long lasting.” Those are the words one couple used to describe their experience of PACT in session with me. As a PACT Level III candidate, I find that once each partner learns to really understand the other and how the other works, their relationship runs more smoothly.
Couples often begin their first counseling session pointing their finger at the other partner. They blame, explain, and defend. I understand that they are angry and hurt, and it took a while for them to come to counseling. As our sessions continue, the partners experience the benefit of safe and secure functioning, and this becomes the primary goal for their relationship and how they want to be with one another. Through PACT interventions, they begin to collaborate more. “I” becomes “we.” They look out for one another more. What the other person says and needs matters more.
Wouldn’t anyone want that level of mutual care in his or her relationship? When I saw that Drs. Stan Tatkin and Tracey Boldemann-Tatkin were leading a Wired for Love Retreat at the beautiful Shambhala Center in Colorado, my husband and I decided we were in. I was eager to take off my therapist hat for the retreat weekend and be on the receiving end of PACT teachings and principles.
I did have some reservations, though. How many other couples would be attending? Would we have to air our dirty laundry in front of people we didn’t know? Would privacy and confidentiality be respected?
My concerns disappeared after our initial group session. Twenty-five couples attended, which allowed for an intimate setting. Most of the exercises were done with our partner, not as small group exercises. Confidentiality was paramount. Stan and Tracey, along with trainers Jeff Pincus and Rachel Cahn, were warm and welcoming. At one point, Stan revealed a difference of opinion he and Tracey were having, and that proved to be a role model for opening up and acknowledging that even couples who deeply love each other can struggle. Stan and Tracey then shared with us how they resolved their difference, which was very impactful to the group.
Topics for the retreat included How to Form a Couple Bubble, Becoming an Expert on One Another, Fighting Well, and How Your Partnership Can Heal. One of my favorite topics was How to Rekindle Love Through Eye Contact. In this exercise, we quietly gazed into our partner’s eyes. With our busy schedule, my husband and I often communicate across one room to another, or speak while tending to other duties. So looking into each other’s eyes felt like a treat. We laughed, we teared up, and we were reminded that the wonderful person sitting before us was the person we chose to be with all those years ago.
My husband said he liked getting to know the other couples. He found it touching to hear their stories about how they met and how their relationship developed. On the last day of the retreat, a few couples worked directly with Stan in front of the group on their particular issue. By this time, trust had built within the group, and it seemed perfectly natural to listen, be supportive, and root for resolution. To some extent, the concerns shared in this exercise were similar to those all of us had dealt with or were dealing with at present. The work these couples did with Stan validated our own journeys and gave us concrete tools to move forward in healing and growing as a couple.
My husband and I look back at the Wired for Love Retreat with fondness and great appreciation. We have become closer because of it. And yes, we gaze into each other’s eyes more often. Since the retreat, I’ve put my therapist hat back on, but I believe that I am able to bring a new depth and richness to my work after having experienced the rewards of PACT with my own partner.
by John Grey, PhD
PACT core faculty
Like many couples who arrive for their first session, Robert and Susan initially sat down facing me rather than each other. Both in their mid fifties, they had been married for seventeen years and had two children they loved very much. As Susan started describing what brought them to my office, I saw Robert’s facial expression occasionally change. But Susan did not see this. As she complained about not feeling very important to him, she didn’t notice Robert’s momentary grimaces. If she had seen these, she might have realized that she had a big impact on him.
A basic principle of secure functioning is that couples are in each other’s care. Part of the PACT method is to help partners accurately recognize their moment-to-moment impact on each other, and to help each use his or her power to better care for the other and thereby increase shared satisfaction.
One step in this approach is to turn partners to face one another, and to recognize what is actually occurring in each other. As Susan went on to complain, “The only thing meaningful to him is work,” I asked her what Robert’s facial response was. This time she saw his slight grimace. I asked her what she thought it indicated. “He’s thinking I’m too needy.”
I asked Robert if she was accurate. It turns out she wasn’t. He was actually thinking he was “a failure as a mate in Susan’s eyes.” What’s more, he reported feeling pain in his heart about this.
Clearly, Susan had a huge impact on Robert. Hearing him say what was really going on inside was surprising to her. She hadn’t believed he felt very much about her at all. She seemed shocked to hear that what he thought she felt about him mattered a great deal to him.
How could Susan have missed this for so long, and instead have built up a false belief that Robert did not consider her to be all that important? Partly, this was due to not accurately seeing her impact. Of course, this went both ways. For years, Robert also missed seeing his impact on her.
As unresolved upsets build over time, couples often end up believing inaccurate, negative theories about each other. A decrease in eye contact facilitates such a buildup of misconceptions. Instead of seeing our partner, we see the cartoon our brain makes up about him or her. It seems a cruel irony that just as couples need to better see and understand one another, they so often end up looking toward each other less.
This was true for Robert and Susan. Instead of seeing and understanding one another, they made far less eye contact than they had earlier in their relationship. Now they missed seeing important visual cues about the ongoing impact they each had on one another. Instead, they “saw” each other mostly through the lenses of their negative mental theories, such as “I don’t really matter” or “I’m a failure.”
Contrast this with the time when they were first together. Then, Robert and Susan often gazed at each other. They also frequently touched and held each other. Touch and eye contact are powerful biological forces that promote feelings of security and emotional connection. But by this point in their relationship, this couple’s strong forms of interactive caring had dropped away.
Restoring such vital channels of connection can help you and your partner better see, understand, and care for each other. It is especially important to remember this when you get upset with your partner. Beware of your tendency to drop eye contact and touch, and to over-rely on mental interpretations. Just because you think something is true doesn’t make it true.
Curiosity can be a powerful antidote to mental misconceptions. Don’t be afraid to explore what is really happening inside your partner. It pays to look into his or her eyes and wonder more about the complex, marvelous person with whom you chose to spend your life. Seeing and understanding your impact helps you to better care for one another and to make your relationship a truly loving place to share.
By Ellen Boeder, MA, LPC
PACT Level II practitioner
When I witness a couple move from fear and blame into trust and genuine care, I am inspired to feel hope for humanity. Protecting our loved ones and providing real relief to each other are qualities our entire world needs right now. And this starts in romantic partnerships. The primary relationships within our own homes are powerful resources that can provide needed comfort and safety in a difficult, uncertain, and challenging world.
A couple who willingly embark on improving the security in their relationship will learn how much is possible when they have truly cultivated a secure-functioning relationship. They work in the present moment to discover who each of them is as an individual; practice new ways of being in relationship that may feel vulnerable but that strengthen their connection; and challenge themselves to do the work of creating a mutual, safe, and just two-person system. They will not want to revert to anything less than this once they have experienced how impactful and necessary a secure intimate relationship is.
But what about couples who struggle to get on board with the work of building a secure-functioning relationship? I may know how important security is for the long-term health of the individuals and the relationship, but my clients often don’t. They come in for help, but are ambivalent about therapy, as well as about their relationship. Instead of participating collaboratively in therapy, they may repeatedly act out their ambivalence, despair, frustration, anger, and other unconscious feelings and agendas. The try to make therapy, or the therapist, the problem. Our sessions can feel like one step forward, two steps back.
I find I have to work hard to stay oriented and clear in my stance with these couples. The challenge in these sessions for me is countertransference. The definition of countertransference has evolved over decades, but can be thought of as the therapist’s experience of thoughts, emotions, and body sensations in relationship to the client. We all work with this material within ourselves as therapists—because we are human, after all—and our own experience must be identified, observed, and sorted through. The awareness and skillful use of countertransference can be a pivotal factor in helping these couples.
PACT supplies a framework to address acting out, and to use countertransference, so that a couple can get back to the task of therapy. The antidote to acting out is already in our hands: Stan Tatkin speaks about “pushing couples down the tube of secure functioning.” By pressuring the couple to assert themselves, to take a stand, to use each other fully, to make the relationship their highest priority, to create agreements, and to act in ways that cultivate and demonstrate mutuality, a PACT therapist directs the couple back to the work of creating a safe and secure foundation for their relationship.
Sometimes I need to consult with my PACT peers and supervisors as I wade through the uncomfortable feelings of countertransference I know will eventually lead me to the clarity I need to intervene. Ultimately, I have to give back to the couple the discomfort they don’t want to feel, that they disown to temporarily feel better without really getting better. As I support them to become aware of and cope with the feelings that have been unregulated and unconscious, they have a chance to move forward.
To grow in security, a couple must also grow in complexity. They have to expand their awareness of themselves and each other, and learn to be a two-person system. They need to face the learned behaviors and beliefs about relationship that they are acting out and that sabotage their long-term security. Focusing on the subtleties of adult attachment and secure functioning, as well as skillful use of countertransference, can help even the most “difficult” couples learn to function in the here and now in a fair, friendly, and mutual way. Not only do primary relationships benefit greatly from this work, but our entire world benefits from having mature adults who can respond well to each other.