by Inga Gentile, LMFT (California), licensed psychologist (Norway)
PACT core faculty, Tromsø, Norway
A couple’s relationship is especially vulnerable to crisis during key transition points in life, such as the birth of a baby, the formation of a first romantic relationship, adolescence, a chronic illness, and the frailty and illnesses of aging (Staton & Ooms, 2012). From a psychobiological perspective, relationships operating under insecure models of functioning are even more vulnerable to distress at these junctures. This is because insecure models, as one-person psychological systems, tend to promote behaviors and attitudes that are not pro-relationship, and therefore partners can perceive each other as insensitive and unfair. During highly vulnerable periods, partners need one another more than at other times, yet insecure partners are not able to be there for each other. Often partners come to therapy at these times either as result of the transition itself or as a result of other behaviors triggered by the event.
Conversely, a secure model of functioning is characterized by sensitivity, fairness, and true mutuality. A secure-functioning relationship is by nature a two-person psychological system, and therefore pro-relationship. In a Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy (PACT), the focus is on moving couples in the direction of secure functioning. Although the principles of secure functioning provide guidelines for optimal human development and well-being, how secure functioning is demonstrated in a relationship can vary greatly from culture to culture, and even from couple to couple.
As with any new skill or information, to have true meaning for a couple, secure functioning has to carry personal meaning. In my inpatient work with couples at a clinic in Norway, when I see spontaneous moments of connection between partners, I point them out. If possible, I do this in a way that gives the couple a metaphor or symbol of what secure functioning means for them. We make it something they can refer back to again and again throughout therapy and in their relationship going forward.
A couple who were in their late thirties and had been together for five years came to therapy following increasing isolation, loneliness, and fighting after the birth of their first child. Both had grown up in coastal fishing villages in northern Norway, and this common background became a point of reference for them. During one session, while heading into a mutually dysregulating situation, we hit upon a metaphor that illustrated how they were tethered to one another: it was a type of knot used to secure boats in a harbor. In that moment, they touched each other’s hands and both linked their thumbs and index fingers as a symbol of their connectedness. This symbolic linking initiated a bottom-up state shift, and their escalation dissipated. First experienced physically, the gesture then could be translated metaphorically and given meaning psychologically. This became a gesture they could wordlessly return to in moments of difficulty, as well as in play.
Another couple, who were in their early fifties and had been together for twelve years, came to therapy because of awkwardness, isolation, frustration, and loneliness in their relationship after their youngest child (her daughter, his step-daughter) left home. Also, the husband, who had always been the rock in their relationship, had become ill. Although they became acutely aware of their isolation as a result of these stressors, in some ways it had always been there. In therapy, they saw that the isolation and misattunement they had been struggling with mirrored their early experiences in their families of origin.
One day in session, they coined the term “everyday security.” This became a symbolic expression, a mantra they could call on, to remind themselves of their new understanding about who they were—not only what they wanted to be, but also what they believed they could be together. In this way, secure functioning went from being a distant principle to something that applied to them personally. The idea of creating and maintaining a safety and security system and a shared couple identity proved to be powerful for them, and terming it “everyday security” underscored the social contract of “having each other’s backs” at all times. This was something neither had growing up.
I have found that these kinds of personalized symbols and metaphors provide helpful tools for couples moving toward secure functioning. The right symbol can lift partners out of the conceptual realm and into their moment-to-moment experience. The two couples I described were able to use their symbols to help integrate the concept of secure functioning into the fabric of their relationship. When a couple can experience belonging to each other, understand what that looks like for each of them, and also become aware of their automatic defenses against it, they are poised to experience secure functioning not only as something to be practiced under distress, but as a way of engaging with each other at all times.
Staton, J., & Ooms, T. (2012). “Something important is going on here!” Making connections between marriage, relationship quality and health implications for research and healthcare systems, programs and policies. Wingspread Conference Proceedings. Retrieved from http://www.healthymarriageinfo.org/resource-detail/index.aspx?rid=3984