By Edna Avraham, LMFT
PACT Ambassador, Level III Therapist
The Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy (PACT) focuses on helping and coaching couples to “secure” each other in order to reduce threat, thrive, and grow closer. While they are designed for couples who want to deepen their connection, PACT principles can also apply to uncoupling or divorcing parents.
Some of the secure-functioning principles are:
- Thinking in terms of WE, the two people in the couple
- Making the relationship a priority over other relationships in your life
- Being sensitive and considerate of each other’s known vulnerabilities, and being able to predict how the other member of the couple may perceive your actions
- Being transparent and turning to each other for support and comfort.
Following these principles creates a secure foundation for each member of the couple to feel cared for, prioritized, loved, and considered.
Divorcing couples are often in a constant state of threat: flooded with fears, uncertainty, anger, sadness, and guilt. Whether the leaver or the left, each partner is experiencing a huge loss of the family they know and expected to keep. Now they are facing an uncertain future relationally and financially. For divorcing couples with children, applying certain secure-functioning guidelines can help create a sense of safety and security for the children.
Tina and Tom were married 13 years and together 15 years. They have two children ages 12 and 8. Tom is a businessman who traveled 70 percent of the time, while Tina is a full-time mother. Tom announced his decision to divorce and move in with his new love, whom he met at work.
Tina was devastated, shocked, and angry. The most difficult issue for her was Tom’s decision to significantly reduce his travel time so he can share custody with the kids fifty-fifty. Tina felt that Tom had not been emotionally available to the children, that she was the go-to parent all these years, and that she had earned her right to be the parent with whom the kids remain most of the time.
Tom had his own version of justifying his demands. He had traveled to provide for the family and sacrificed time with his children, and now he did not want to lose more time with them. He blamed her for not being there for him when he was home and not understanding how hard he worked.
She blamed him for “living his single lifestyle while traveling” and focusing on his needs first when home. Clearly, they had not achieved secure functioning during their marriage. Could they make it happen in the divorce?
As they ceased to be a couple, Tina and Tom began transforming their relationship into a partnership of co-parenting. Within that framework, it was clear that collaboration, mutual care, and respect for the other in each of their roles as parents would create a secure co-parenting relationship as well as secure relationships with their children. The challenges of developing this capacity, however, were significant.
The major challenge of divorce is, of course, the end of coupling and the building of a new life without a partner. Doing that in the face of rejection, emotional injury, anxiety, uncertainty, guilt, shame, and increased stress should not be underestimated. Part of the work in a collaborative divorce is to have deep empathy for the pain of the loss of the marriage.
The PACT therapist understands that the feelings of anger, blame, attack, shame, and general sense of threat and insecurity need to be handled with care. For the majority of people, divorce is a traumatic experience. The therapist must balance the internal dynamics of each partner and at the same time weave in secure-functioning principles that will be most useful for each parent and for the entire family.
Divorce is an earth-shattering experience for families. The uncoupling process has a different speed for the two partners. Usually the person who initiates the divorce is more ready to move on because they have been thinking, contemplating and planning it for a while. The person who is being left tends to take longer to adjust and accept the new reality and deal with the loss.
As their therapist/coach, I first needed to support each of them with empathy for their subjective experience. In order to help them understand and empathize with each other’s intentions and investments in the family, we used communication tools that, with practice in the office, enabled them to acknowledge the hurt and disappointment they each felt. They also benefited from additional individual support. They each had their own therapists and, over time, were able to separate their own emotional war with each other from their children’s needs and suffering.
In our joint sessions, we spoke about what they want their children to remember about their divorce. I asked them to:
- think about what is most important for each child to suffer the least damage.
- redefine their future relationship as parenting partners.
- discuss their vision of what their relationship will become now that they are uncoupled.
We identified their common link: the attachment and precious relationship they each had with their children. This created leverage and an incentive they could both focus on. We discussed what each honors about the other as a parent, and how they want their relationship to be with each other in the future as well as with their children. Which of the secure-functioning principles could apply to them as parents outside of the couple relationship?
They agreed to:
- make each other a priority as the other parent. That even when they are with other partners, they will always be present as parents for their children, making decisions together and being each other’s go-to person regarding the children’s concerns.
- respect each other’s role as a parent and never disparage each other in front of their children, family, or community.
- think as “WE, the parents,” and be sensitive to ensure each other’s secure place with the children and each other.
- remember each other’s vulnerabilities and protect each other from feeling excluded or isolated as parents.
The therapist must carefully weave in secure-functioning principles, paying attention to the client’s emotional readiness to make the shift into a secure co-parenting relationship. They are no longer a couple, but they can still be great parents to their treasured children – and perhaps even good friends. Throughout this difficult journey, these principles benefit all members of the family.