by John Grey, PhD
PACT core faculty
Like many couples who arrive for their first session, Robert and Susan initially sat down facing me rather than each other. Both in their mid fifties, they had been married for seventeen years and had two children they loved very much. As Susan started describing what brought them to my office, I saw Robert’s facial expression occasionally change. But Susan did not see this. As she complained about not feeling very important to him, she didn’t notice Robert’s momentary grimaces. If she had seen these, she might have realized that she had a big impact on him.
A basic principle of secure functioning is that couples are in each other’s care. Part of the PACT method is to help partners accurately recognize their moment-to-moment impact on each other, and to help each use his or her power to better care for the other and thereby increase shared satisfaction.
One step in this approach is to turn partners to face one another, and to recognize what is actually occurring in each other. As Susan went on to complain, “The only thing meaningful to him is work,” I asked her what Robert’s facial response was. This time she saw his slight grimace. I asked her what she thought it indicated. “He’s thinking I’m too needy.”
I asked Robert if she was accurate. It turns out she wasn’t. He was actually thinking he was “a failure as a mate in Susan’s eyes.” What’s more, he reported feeling pain in his heart about this.
Clearly, Susan had a huge impact on Robert. Hearing him say what was really going on inside was surprising to her. She hadn’t believed he felt very much about her at all. She seemed shocked to hear that what he thought she felt about him mattered a great deal to him.
How could Susan have missed this for so long, and instead have built up a false belief that Robert did not consider her to be all that important? Partly, this was due to not accurately seeing her impact. Of course, this went both ways. For years, Robert also missed seeing his impact on her.
As unresolved upsets build over time, couples often end up believing inaccurate, negative theories about each other. A decrease in eye contact facilitates such a buildup of misconceptions. Instead of seeing our partner, we see the cartoon our brain makes up about him or her. It seems a cruel irony that just as couples need to better see and understand one another, they so often end up looking toward each other less.
This was true for Robert and Susan. Instead of seeing and understanding one another, they made far less eye contact than they had earlier in their relationship. Now they missed seeing important visual cues about the ongoing impact they each had on one another. Instead, they “saw” each other mostly through the lenses of their negative mental theories, such as “I don’t really matter” or “I’m a failure.”
Contrast this with the time when they were first together. Then, Robert and Susan often gazed at each other. They also frequently touched and held each other. Touch and eye contact are powerful biological forces that promote feelings of security and emotional connection. But by this point in their relationship, this couple’s strong forms of interactive caring had dropped away.
Restoring such vital channels of connection can help you and your partner better see, understand, and care for each other. It is especially important to remember this when you get upset with your partner. Beware of your tendency to drop eye contact and touch, and to over-rely on mental interpretations. Just because you think something is true doesn’t make it true.
Curiosity can be a powerful antidote to mental misconceptions. Don’t be afraid to explore what is really happening inside your partner. It pays to look into his or her eyes and wonder more about the complex, marvelous person with whom you chose to spend your life. Seeing and understanding your impact helps you to better care for one another and to make your relationship a truly loving place to share.