Andrea and Brent (not their real names) have been married for twenty-three years, and have been struggling since their youngest son left for college. Now that their focus is no longer on their children, the distance between them is apparent. In session, they describe a recent conflict around Andrea’s birthday. Brent usually orchestrates lavish celebrations with many guests, while avoiding the quieter interpersonal aspect of the occasion (which she relishes). Andrea’s most recent birthday took place while they were at an event with extended family, and Brent’s attention was focused on another family member. Andrea felt dropped when Brent didn’t even acknowledge the day with her, and he felt guilty and shut down in the wake of Andrea’s disappointment. Describing the week is painful for both of them: Brent anxiously averts his gaze from Andrea, and hurt is visible in her dim eyes and sad face. Brent looks confused about what to do next.
Although as a PACT therapist I see a deeper issue to take up about protecting their relationship with each other while managing others (their children, extended family; or what we call thirds in PACT parlance), the immediate situation is pressing. The experience is unresolved because there has been no repair. I signal Brent with my eyes to return his gaze to Andrea and prompt him to make an apology to her. He expresses remorse in his own words for missing her birthday. Repair has begun. I roll my chair next to his and whisper an idea that came to me, for him to sing “Happy Birthday” to her. He smiles, pauses for a moment, looks into her eyes and haltingly sings the song we have all heard sung to us since our early childhood. She wells up, and by the end of the song, tears stream down her face. “That was all I wanted,” she says as she folds into his arms.
This was one of those small moments in which love is revealed. Too often, couples come into my office worrying that they are lost to each other, or thinking they have to become different people if they are to find happiness together. As a PACT therapist, it is my job to facilitate small yet powerful experiences that reveal what is true about them as a couple. Finding the chinks in their defensive armor of emotional self-preservation and moving them toward sensitive and loving action helps restore them to each other, and exposes love where it has been obscured or feared lost.
These actions tend to be small and concentrated, yet they convey caring and connection in a deeply personal way. These movements often begin with eye contact, close proximity, and a tone of voice and touch that signal safety and friendliness. Sincere bids that are very specific to each other touch those inner places longing to be known, met, and loved. PACT facilitates couples finding each other in ways that make their relationship feel primary and irreplaceable.
Secure functioning is often about making small moves that have a big impact. When two people learn to do this for each other on a repeated basis, they are naturally motivated to continue this process. The fruition is that love reawakens where there had been a closing into fear, frustration, and distance. Couples experience that the result can be profound, and that the path there can be uncomplicated and workable. It can be as simple as singing “Happy Birthday.”
Copyright Rachel Cahn