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.