By Kate Balestrieri, Psy.D., CSAT-S, CST
PACT Level 2 Therapist
All couples fight. Therapists know this. Couples (most couples) know this. But in the moment, it feels like annihilation for a couple ill-prepared to stay attuned and remain committed to a secure-functioning endeavor.
Disagreements and fights are healthy, and the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy (PACT) model works with couples to help them preserve their relationship and fight in a manner respectful to one another and the bond they share. Tatkin (2018) notes the crux of disrupted efforts to remain coregulated and attuned during a fight are the brain’s
- negativity biases;
- insecure attachment patterns.
Regressions into fight, flight, or freeze can occur and, if left unrepaired, can become the status quo as partners unconsciously or consciously perceive threats to the sustainability of their relationship.
Insidious old habits related to self-protection die hard. They can impale longevity of any couple, if they are not keyed in to attunement and coregulation opportunities during conflict. That is where the PACT therapist can help.
Couples fight about sex and money but are not always aware of how they weaponize sex and money in their fighting. Carnes (2015) refers to the fusion of sexual thoughts and behavior with anger as eroticized rage. Fellow PACT therapist, Debra Kaplan (2013) coined the term monetized rage to depict the expression of anger through financial betrayal.
From a PACT lens, the weaponization of sex and money can introduce poorly managed thirds into a coupleship, wedging these two essential elements of relational survival between partners, and obfuscating authentic intimacy.
Insecure Attachment Patterns
The obvious examples of such rage are events like extramarital affairs and hiding money from a partner. More commonplace are the not-so-obvious moves that perpetuate a ripple effect of impulsive self-protection, relational implosion, and distancing. In the moment, the protective self tracks a win, but the result of that win thwarts the very security said strategies aimed to achieve.
In hindsight, it can be a real biting of the nose to spite the face effort. But self-protective and adaptive strategies persist. Eventually, couples call a PACT therapist to help them identify when those unmet needs or fears compel such behavior and to guide them into protecting each other, ensuring the long-term survival of the coupleship and long-term self-protection.
Any commoditization of a partner’s worth, financially, sexually, or otherwise in service of one’s own ego can volley a devasting blow to the coupleship. Safety is breached because one partner has consciously, or unconsciously, chosen to objectify the other.
What makes this act even murkier? The lines of appropriate boundaries, or safety needs for secure functioning, are different within each coupleship and, likely, for each partner.
Sociocultural influences, such as religious values, gender role expectations, and racial and economic factors make some acts a declaration of rage or war, while others an expectation and demonstration of loyalty.
Helping couples discover and navigate the lines together is the dance of the PACT therapist. It disentangles unconscious expectations within the dyad to establish a new social contract; one built with explicitly outlined principles of governance. Volitional agreements are key. Often the fear of conflict compels placation, which begets resentment, anger, and rageful acts.
PACT therapists are cued into the couple’s implicit and explicit agreements. They challenge any such pseudo-activation in service of breaking old neurobiological and attachment-based defaulted dynamics.
Consider Richard and Jennifer. Asian-Americans in their early forties, they are outwardly the quintessential couple: big house, expensive cars, designer clothes, healthy and high-achieving children. Their friends are effusive with envious praise. Born in the states, they both report feeling more American than Asian, yet both endorse unwavering loyalty to cultural expectations of gender roles, wealth derivation, and conflict avoidance.
In their 10 years together, the couple has weathered a few storms, including financial turbulence, infertility problems, and multiple infidelities. Her hefty shopping sprees and abject disregard for the couple’s agreed upon budget followed each of his sexual betrayals and were conscious endeavors to even the score.
In their first session, Richard remarks that he is “not mad” at Jennifer for spending $25,000 on a handbag following the discovery of his most recent affair and says he “deserved it.”
Jennifer’s father is alcoholic, demanding and petulant. Her mother is quiet but endlessly critical: Jennifer isn’t “pretty enough.” She has “let [her]self go” in recent years. Her mother and husband constantly criticize her post-partum body and fashion choices. Jennifer feels worthless, not valued by her husband, family, or cultural community.
Richard’s father is medically compromised and lives abroad. His mother is harsh and was unavailable through his childhood years. She questions Richard’s professional competence yet requires him to be financially responsible for his three younger sisters when their respective marriages ended. Financial objectification was a burden placed on Richard early in life.
The volume of thirds present for Richard and Jennifer are plentiful, yet neither partner is willing to set boundaries with their families or to prioritize secure functioning within their dyad.
When invited to outline their shared principles of governance (Tatkin, 2018), both partners readily align their sole priority around image and impression management: being seen as successful and “having it all together” to avoid bringing shame to themselves or their families. Unfortunately, this does little to engender secure functioning.
Being seen as the perfect, wealthy couple requires them to act in direct opposition to what would meet their relational needs: authenticity, connection, and attunement. Here is where the PACT magic begins.
Over the first several sessions, it becomes clear that Richard is an island and Jennifer an obvious wave. Richard remains stoic and seemingly frozen. Jennifer cries frequently and dramatically in sessions. They act in parallel, refusing to make eye contact for the first three sessions, even when invited to do so.
To the outside observer, these shared responses may look like fear, shame, cultural default, or avoidance, and may be all of the above. Nonetheless, when their behavior is brought to light and reframed as joining, they both smirk and, for the first time, they lock eyes in session.
From this point, the couple feels safer. As a result, they quickly dive into a long list of resentments and injuries to their sense of secure functioning, all originally wielded at one another in the form of sexual and financial exploitation and withholding.
Using the five-minute argument (Tatkin, 2018), Richard and Jennifer go frame by frame with each other to recount a series of events. They maintain eye contact and stay individually and co-regulated. Both invested in problem solving, they have the fight they needed to have years ago because they are now able to safely self-activate and immediately address any felt ruptures. Creating containment with the exercise and a platform for mutual attunement, this couple is able to benefit from the framework of the PACT model.
Carnes, P. (2015). Facing the Shadow: Starting Sexual and Relationship Recovery, Third Edition. Carefree, AZ: Gentle Path Press.
Kaplan, D. (2013). For Love and Money: Exploring Sexual & Financial Betrayal in Relationships. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Tatkin, S. (2018). We Do: Saying Yes to a Relationships of Depth, True Connection and Enduring Love. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.