By Rick Hupp, LMFT
PACT Level II practitioner
West Hills, CA
When I was a boy, I had a loyal and loving friendship with our family dog, a Labrador retriever mix named Domingo. He was our docile family mascot, and he had a wonderful ability to influence us in a playful manner, whether it was to get us to throw a ball for him, sneak him a snack under the dinner table, or give him a thorough scratching behind the ears. He was mostly by my side, even when sleeping, as my parents had made a special padded nook for him next to my bed.
One morning I awoke to the sounds of him growling. As I looked over to see what the matter was, I realized he was fast asleep but having a bad dream. Whatever was threatening to him in that dream was causing him to respond with an aggressive, defensive stance—rare for his generally happy-go-lucky demeanor. Thinking I was going to offer comfort by waking him from his doggie nightmare, I leaned out to gently pet him. Much to my surprise, as soon I made contact, he lurched around and tried to bite me! I shrieked and pulled back. He pulled back, as well. We were both confused and embarrassed, and sat there looking at each other for a bit. We were startled at first, but then quickly recognized each other as friends. I reached out to pet him again, and this time my gesture was received with his familiar bashful grin as he leaned in as if to say, “I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you at first. Can we be friends again?”
I share this story because it demonstrates some of the maxims and principles that PACT clarifies for couples. For one, a PACT therapist encourages couples to get what they want from each other using attraction and playfulness, rather than intimidation and threat. Domingo’s attempt to bite me had me in retreat, but his bashful grin brought me closer.
Regarding conflict, when clients learn how their “bite fits their partner’s wound”—another PACT maxim—a PACT therapist can prepare them for how they will inevitably activate each other’s past unrepaired pain in the present. We help them recognize the subconscious “family-iar” template installed by insensitive relationships in the past and understand how their current relationship can be an opportunity to heal by proxy. We help them wake up more quickly from their dream-like projections on the present.
I wanted to “lead with relief” (a PACT principle) when I reached out to wake my pal, yet it was startling for him, and didn’t fit what he needed in the moment. Fortunately, in my case, there was no bite, just my doggy’s initial reflexive attempt to defend from a semi-conscious state—much like what happens with couples in therapy! Like being in a bad dream, many couples interact automatically and reflexively from their protective mammalian directive of “thou shall not be killed,” (another PACT maxim) amplified long ago from unjust relationships.
PACT encourages partners to use in vivo activation and repair to replace old experiential memories with new safe experiences to help a cooperative mate appear as a friend instead of a misidentified foe. PACT gives couples the confidence to normalize their automatic survival-based adaptive behaviors, and helps them replace blame with an incentive to develop competent secure-attachment strategies. Just as with my doggie, there is benefit for both in becoming competent at taking care of another. Said another way, “We know our primitive brains are going to get us into trouble, let’s accept that and practice reducing how we threaten each other, and repair more quickly… because it’s good for both of us!” These important PACT maxims and principles help couples put their shame and anger down in favor of picking up compassion and curiosity for their partner’s needs, and creating mutuality and fairness.
It was difficult for me to understand at the time why my loving companion Domingo wanted to bite me when I was only trying to offer comfort. Happily, we made quick work of the repair and returned to the secure joy we both wanted. Years later, I can say that seems like a reasonable goal to have in any relationship!