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Discovering New Steps to Shift a Couple’s Dance

by John Grey, Ph.D., PACT faculty, Berkeley CA,


Partners caught in ongoing distress lose sight of how to shift their negative dynamics. Although their dance could change if either made a small but significant move, neither seems to know a move to take things in a positive direction. So rather than acting from a sense of agency, each feels powerless and at the effect of the other.

From a PACT viewpoint, we maintain that each partner has the power to change their mutual dance. We know that, as primary attachment figures, they have a great deal of influence and hold a uniquely powerful position in each others’ brains. Each has the potential to sway the other in a new direction. Part of our work is to expand the repertoire each brings to the dance floor. We point out where they inadvertently step on each other’s feet and demonstrate in real time how a different move here or there relieves distress and helps them feel more connected.

PACT presupposes such moves can be made. In fact, we expect partners to make them and wonder, often aloud, why they don’t. Typically, each professes ignorance over steps to take that would reduce distress. Having no idea about what else to do, an avoidant husband yet again automatically backs away from his wife’s snarky remarks or harsh tone. Or she, acting out angry protest, doesn’t seem to know how to reach for him in a way that pulls him to her, so instead pushes him away.

In PACT, we assume they have it in them to take counterintuitive steps that will lead them to a secure dance. And, like a choreographer, we nudge them in that direction. We instruct them overtly, suggesting moves such as “Get closer, hold hands, gaze into each other’s eyes….” There is also utility in assuming the moves already lie dormant within them, simply waiting to be awakened. I love to uncover hidden resources within partners by presupposing they already exist.

For instance, if they have kids and I already know they provide secure attachment responses to their children, I usually can bank on the mind-altering question “What would you do if this were your precious three-year old child ______?” filling in the blank with whatever behavior seems to be triggering (e.g., crying, throwing a fit, accusing you of being a bad parent, pulling away, hiding in his or her room).

I have been amazed to see how quickly this simple query can add new steps to the dance. For example, the avoidant husband above may move on his own initiative toward his angrily protesting wife and feel renewed strength, empathy, value, and importance as he holds her, reassures her, and calms her—a move he usually made with his daughter, but never conceived of with his mate. At this point, discussing how a younger part of the brain takes us over is often a useful way to strengthen the probability of future caring responses.

It can be profitable to assume people have the inner resources for positive change, but don’t yet quite realize how to hook these up and enact them. Dormant brain circuitry can be plugged in, reweighted, and brought online in their partnership. PACT operates from these kinds of powerful presuppositions. We assume each partner has the power and ability to have a positive impact in their dynamic. We realize how important each is to the other’s brain once they have been elected to the post of primary attachment figure. Knowing infant-caregiver attachment research, we realize the power of the moves partners can make once they fully realize they are in each other’s care. Like patient choreographers, we keep nudging them to dance more securely together.

Copyright John Grey


  1. I’m a fan, but I notice a gendered asymmetry in the language — the husband is “avoidant” but the wife is “snarky” or “harsh.” Why not say the wife is “hurt,” or the husband “cold” and “rejecting” (or even stonewalling). That would make it more symmetrical.


    • John Grey says:

      Thanks for pointing that out. In fact, let’s take it a step further. Any of these reactive behaviors are in no way hooked to gender. They reflect insecure attachment styles — what Stan calls “waves” and “islands” (also called “preoccupied” and “avoidant”). In the above scenario the husband is acting island-ish and the wife is acting wave-ish. It could have just as easily been written the other way around, e.g. an island-ish wife acting avoidant and a wave-ish husband engaging in angry protest.


  2. LuAnn says:

    Are there any PACT therapists in Salt Lake City, Utah?
    Are there intensive Retreats working with your work?


  3. Monika says:

    Hi John,

    I am using PACT in therapy myself. I liked to read your entry. It reminded me of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s writing in ‘A Gift from the Sea’:

    ‘A good relationship has a pattern like a dance and is built on some of the same rules. The partners do not need to hold on tightly, because they move confidently in the same pattern, intricate but gay and swift and free, like a country dance of Mozart’s. To touch heavily would be to arrest the pattern and freeze the movement, to check the endlessly changing beauty of its unfolding. There is no place here for the possessive clutch, the clinging arm, the heavy hand; only the barest touch in passing. Now arm in arm, now face to face, now back to back – it does not matter which. Because they know they are partners moving to the same rhythm, creating a pattern together, and being invisibly nourished by it.

    The joy of such a pattern is not only the joy of creation or the joy of participation, it is also the joy of living in the moment…

    But how does one learn this technique of the dance? Why is it so difficult? What makes us hesitate and stumble? It is fear, I think… it can only be exorcized by its opposite, love… it is this lack of fear that makes for the dance… we leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb. We are afraid it will never return. We insist on permanency, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth, in fluidity – in freedom, in the sense that the dancers are free, barely touching as they pass, but partners in the same pattern…

    The only real security is not in owning or possessing, not in demanding or expecting, not in hoping, even. Security in a relationship lies neither in looking back to what it was in nostalgia, nor forward to what it might be in dread or anticipation, but living in the present relationship and accepting it as it is now…’

    This (ideal, goal-like) description fits with your writing about the couple’s dance, and may add some ideas to it 🙂


  4. John Grey says:

    Thanks for the beautiful quote from a book I also was deeply touched by. As you know, PACT is all about helping couples dance from the loving part of their brains rather than the reactive, primitive, fear-based parts.


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