Healing Trauma Relationally Through PACT
By Jeff Cohen, MFT
PACT Level III Therapist, PACT Ambassador
When Gayle and Paul came to see me, it was clear that Gayle felt Paul was the problem. Paul was taciturn to an unusual degree and could be quick to anger. For her part, Gayle presented as highly verbal, competent, and overtly friendly; adept at managing the tasks of their family and her career.
Though I didn’t know of Paul’s trauma when we first met — he lived in terror of upsetting a threatening stepmother and a physically punishing older brother — his manner and speech suggested that he moved through the world in a very protected stance.
It might have been easy to view Paul as the one who needed help. He was extremely literal, arguing about the minutia of his upset with Gayle, and for a long time was unable to understand the concept of providing relief first in an argument. From a PACT perspective, when a willing partner is able to help settle the distressed partner, it helps them both feel more settled and available to hear each other.
Looking in Both Directions
As PACT therapists, we look in both directions to assess a couple’s dynamic. Invariably, the couple alerts us to mirroring sensitivities and areas of injury. We see how primary partners are familiar to each other in recognizable and sometimes unconscious ways stemming from their own family histories.
As it turned out, Gayle had lived through her own family trauma. Her father was physically violent toward her mother and self-destructive. As the eldest child, Gayle become highly functional and competent in taking care of others. Indeed, her self worth was linked to that and to a belief that she needed to be perfect to be loved. Though Paul didn’t have a lot of ground to stand on from his angry and defensive stance, he was correct in pointing to a lack of openness and feeling he received from Gayle.
Initially we had to address Paul’s anger. To do so meant understanding the triggers which set him off so quickly. He was terrified of Gayle leaving him, so any comment along the lines of, “I can’t take this anymore,” would elicit that fear. Gayle’s comments were understandable in the context of their conflicts. As a PACT therapist, I also wanted to help her see how her comments threatened their relationship, so we experimented with other ways she could respond in those moments.
Practicing Neurobiological Responses
Gayle learned to set clear limits and be reassuring at the same time: “Stop! I’m scared when you yell. I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere, but I need you to talk more softly.” When this didn’t work, I asked her to simply sit down on the floor, to make herself small, which we experimented with first in the office.
PACT therapists will have couples act out situations to elicit the neurobiology of their actual responses. In this instance, to the surprise of them both, when Gayle sat down, Paul instantly settled down. Her sitting evoked his shame and guilt for how he was treating her.
We also worked with the internal wall which kept Paul safe and protected but also isolated. As he learned to identify when his wall was going up, I validated how well that wall had served him. “Your five-year-old self didn’t have anything else he could do. Thank goodness you found some way to protect yourself.”
Comments along these lines helped Paul feel compassion for what he had experienced. The acknowledgment allowed his softer side to emerge which, in turn, helped Gayle feel empathic toward him. This is the value of working with one person’s trauma in front of their partner.
Healing Trauma, Seeing Tenderness
“Can you look at her now?” I asked in one session when Paul felt his wall going up.
Since he was accustomed to seeing threat, I deliberately slowed the process down so he could take in what was happening. PACT therapists help couples see and read each other more accurately.
“Notice her eyes, what do you see?”
“Warmth, yeah, that’s right. And what does that warmth convey to you?”
“Caring,” he said. “Tenderness.”
“As you continue to look at her,” I instructed, “notice what happens inside of you as you feel her warmth and caring and tenderness.”
“It’s really hard,” he said, “I want to turn away and shut down.”
We had previously identified the shame he carried about being inadequate, how his anger and shame were intertwined, and how his defensiveness was partly a way to keep himself from having to feel that shame.
So now I reminded him, “Of course you want to turn away. It’s what you learned to do, but it also keeps you feeling alone. Young Paul didn’t have another option, but your adult self does. Let’s see if that younger you can watch as the grown-up you tries something different.”
Integrating the Experience
PACT therapists have couples face each other as a means of coregulating each other; doing so also helps keep them in present time, rather than fixating on negative memories. As Paul continued to look at Gayle and speak about his experience, I narrated what was happening, to help him integrate the experience.
“Notice what you’re doing,” I said. “You’re talking about how frightened you are without reacting to the fear by shutting down. You’re tracking your own experience while staying present with her, all at the same time.”
By slowing my pace and speaking gently, I was also eliciting his own mindfulness, which I knew would be settling and help promote new neural pathways to form around this experience of safety and connection.
“As you’re allowing yourself to be vulnerable now,” I asked, “do you think she likes this?”
This was not a hard question to answer. Gayle was doing her best to hold back tears, but I wanted Paul to register the impact he was having.
He nodded. “Yes, I think she’s very happy.”
Gayle reached out to hold his hands. “I feel so close to you when you let me see this part of you.”
“It’s new to me, too,” he joked.
“Yes, it is,” I affirmed before turning to Gayle. “Can you notice a difference in him?”
Changing the Couple Legacy
PACT therapists often ask questions of people about their partners to encourage them to track each other more carefully and to reveal both what they know and what they misread about each other.
In this case Gayle was right on. “He seems much more open.”
“I feel that, too,” Paul replied. “I feel more open and relaxed inside.”
Paul looked visibly different. “Because you’re more connected to yourself,” I said, “you’re able to feel more connected with Gayle. Can you feel how that is true?”
PACT is an experiential-based model of couples therapy, and I kept directing Paul back into his experience so he could verify for himself what I was observing.
“You’re also changing your legacy,” I said, wanting to underscore the importance of what was happening. “It wasn’t safe for you to go to anyone when you were young, but notice how available Gayle is when you allow yourself to be more open and vulnerable. Connection may not have been available to you then, but it is now.”
Seeing Paul take up his work made it safe for Gayle to do so as well. “I want more connection but I’m not sure I’m capable,” she admitted, beginning her own process of healing. Gayle was able to recognize that she also carried shame — remember, people are drawn to what is familiar — though she expressed it differently than Paul did.
As they learned to manage each other more effectively, in part by being more responsive to each other’s sensitivities, Paul also started thinking relationally, which was a paradigm shift for him. “I’m safer to her,” he observed one afternoon, “which allows her to show up more.”
Indeed. Partners do this for each other, and PACT is an approach which can teach them how.
By Susan Orenstein, Ph.D.
PACT Level 2 Therapist, PACT Ambassador
Let me start at the beginning of our love story.
My freshman year at Brown University, a resident counselor introduced me to another student because we both had a love of piano. Growing up, when I played for others, they would politely wait until I finished and offer a general compliment. But when the student to whom I had just been introduced heard me play, instead of general platitudes, he offered constructive feedback. I remember being thrown for a loop but also impressed that he truly listened and was authentic in telling me what he thought. Our basis for trust began right there. A few years later we began dating, and for his senior piano recital, we played a duet, Debussy’s “Petite Suite.” That student is now my husband.
Fast forward 30 years.
As new empty-nesters, my husband and I set off for Vermont to attend Kinhaven’s Adult Piano Workshop. The participants, all there to focus on four-hand repertoire, ranged in age from their 50s to 70s. We were greeted warmly by camp veterans, who had been attending this program for as long as 20 years.
My husband and I were initially intimidated by these musicians, talking in detail about piano scores and concert pianists we had never heard of. We tried to feel like we belonged, knowing we were in it together, and focused on doing our best to learn our duet for the student recital, held at the conclusion of the week.
The camp, located on the northeastern edge of the 400,000-acre Green Mountain National Forest, is rustic. We practiced in weathered cabins with rickety chairs, empty except for a magnificent Steinway piano taking center stage. In anticipating this week, we packed books and cued some movies, thinking we would have lots of leisure time.
We also searched online for things to do in Vermont, planning for some day trips. None of that happened. Instead we were joyfully immersed, practicing, side by side on small benches. The time flew by. Practicing together to get our piece up to par for the final recital took intense concentration, coordination, and teamwork. Here are some lessons we took home from the week’s experience.
1. Stay attuned.
Hear each other. It’s not enough to master your part. You need to listen for your partner. Understand the cues for starting and stopping together, for staying together. Look at each other. Breathe together. If your partner is rushing due to anxiety, connect with them to bring them back to the right tempo. Be in the moment.
As a couples therapist, I recognize that being in sync musically involves interpersonal regulation between two nervous systems. In drawing from PACT, the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy, we pay a great deal of attention to each partner’s non-verbal cues, observing facial expressions, breathing, and posture.
We also watch to see how well couples are able to care for each other — some show an innate ability to comfort each other through humor, a gentle touch, or a soothing voice. Alternately, others become defensive or triggered by the other’s upset and unconsciously make matters worse through displays of subtle aggression or by shutting down.
2. Preparation is, forgive the pun, key.
Defining roles and making space for the other person is key to a healthy relationship. Although my husband and I enjoyed our practice time, we occasionally got frustrated when repeating the same mistakes.
At one point in the piece, I was supposed to place my left hand for one beat and then let go so my husband could play the same note with his right hand. I had gotten into the habit of holding the note too long. By not letting go in time, our fingers would clash. It became our inside joke, and it’s a funny memory (guess you had to be there).
To avoid getting in each other’s way on the keyboard, we needed to coordinate our moves and make sure we didn’t hold on too long. Being in a healthy relationship can often require letting go . . . of hurts, resentment, agendas, and, yes, sometimes keys on a piano.
In PACT, we help couples rehearse sticky situations and slow down the interaction so couples can practice new ways of relating that are more constructive. We help our couples think ahead of what challenges are on the horizon (e.g., a trip to visit the in-laws) and then stage a role-play, in which both partners can practice handling the situation with more ease and collaboration.
3. Let your partner shine.
Four-hand piano music is the most dazzling when the voices are highlighted at different times and in different ways. That makes the music nuanced and beautiful. To make that happen, one of us played the melody while the other played more quietly in a supportive, harmonious role.
As a couples therapist, I have witnessed the value of partners being present and caring during critical times of disappointment and loss. Yet, and the research bears this out (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, November 2006), more important are partner responses to each other’s strivings and celebrations of success. Supporting your partner’s dreams and celebrating their time in the limelight are both crucial to being a great partner.
4. Coaching was illuminating.
Each day at piano camp, we had a coaching session from a master pianist. Our coaches listened to our piece, pointing out strengths and blind spots. They showed us specific techniques to bring out motifs and subtle sounds we would never have figured out on our own. We were grateful for the outside perspective – professionals who could take in the whole piece and help us integrate our parts.
As a couples therapist, I have a unique view of the couple. I am trained in both intrapersonal and interpersonal dynamics and can often see complex interplays that the couples themselves might not be aware of. That’s what makes my work so fascinating and also challenging. By being in the room with a couple, I can offer broad and specific feedback and point out blind spots that the couple has been too close to see themselves.
As my husband and I traveled home, we reminisced about piano camp. We reviewed the highlights of the week, critiqued the meals and lodging, and talked about who we wanted to stay in touch with in the coming year. We also discussed what pieces we’d like to learn and how to make time to practice before piano camp next summer. We returned feeling refreshed, accomplished and connected, now able to play our new piece – “Peer Gynt,” by the way, if you want to listen online.
By Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT
Two main issues face the PACT family therapy process: Structure and Attendance.
A challenge within typical family therapy is the structure that holds some family members to their particular family roles. While viewing members within the system frame is valuable, especially when it comes to various roles different members play, it can also restrict the flow of information as some members expand and express while others contract and remain in the background.
Using the PACT method to do family therapy may be more effective and convenient for both therapist and family. By dividing family members into pairs, the therapist can do “couple therapy” with various dyadic combinations, thereby freeing members from default role constraints and constrictions encountered when faced with the entire family system.
As long as invited members are of an appropriate age and maturity to participate in a couple-oriented approach, this structure:
- allows pairings to speak more freely about thoughts and feelings.
- breaks up alliances or substructures that exacerbate family conflict.
- increases intimacy between family members.
- opens more time and space for good work to be done.
Consider holding one or two sessions for at least two to three hours each per configuration to accomplish focused goals. The longer session serves a goal-driven purpose and can lead to satisfactory results for all involved.
Family therapy is typically organized by getting most or all family members in for at least one meeting, if not several subsequent sessions. The challenge facing therapists who use this format is legendary: how to get the same people to show up each time. Dyads solve the attendance problem as only two family members meet with the therapist at any given time – father and son, mother and daughter, sister and brother. Again, the only requirement is that children be mature enough to do “couple therapy” with an adult parent.
The dyad sit on moveable chairs and will spend a majority of session time face to face and eye to eye. However, the first-seating orientation is likely a V-formation with both individuals facing the therapist. This initial PACT session interview structure allows for a back-and-forth interaction between individual and therapist with cross-tracking, cross-questioning, and cross-interpreting. Specifying seating positions allows the therapist to get the lay of the land, so to speak, before putting the couple into the face-to-face position.
When the therapist obtains enough information to move into face-to-face positioning, individuals will then sit closely across from one another. The therapist will begin additional cross-questioning to test and retest early hunches, earlier flagged behaviors, responses, and interactions for further examination.
During this configuration, the therapist may choose to draw partners into an informal trance, the purpose of which is to slow partners down, focus their attention. Cultivating attention and presence ensures that partners keep eyes on each other while the therapist has them sit in silence for about ten minutes. This focusing exercise helps partners build vagal tone, an alert but relaxed state. Focusing and grounding partners in this way also builds a safe container, allowing more emotional “headroom” to tolerate difficult topics and painful admonitions.
Following the initial focusing phase, the therapist can move to difficult questions, bring up historical injuries for clarification and reconciliation, and help partners confront matters of deception, withholding of information, wrongdoing, and other unresolved issues in a safe container. Emphasis should be on truthfulness, clarity, and repair.
Mother and daughter come in after years of estrangement. The session length is four hours, sufficient time to reach the stated purpose for the session. Without unforeseen complications, and if done properly, they should not need a second session.
Mother has not been forthcoming about husband’s disappearance from their family home a decade ago. After 10-15 minutes of focusing the partners on each other’s eyes and tracking the moment-to-moment changes on each other’s faces, I ask my first question.
Therapist [to Mother]: As you look into your daughter’s eyes, tell her the truth about you and her father.
Daughter: (starts to cry)
Mother: (reaches out for Daughter’s hands) You were away at college. Your father was having an affair, or so I believed, and I kicked him out of the house. It turned out I was wrong this time, but only for this one instance. He cheated on me several times during our marriage. I couldn’t trust him.
Daughter: Why did you lie to me? Why didn’t you tell me the truth? You told me he left us for another family. He died a month later, and I never had a chance to speak with him again. How could you continue the lie even after his death? I thought he abandoned us. You turned me against him.
Mother: I know. (lowers her head)
Therapist [to both]: Just hold for a moment. Go back to staying in each other’s eyes. [Moments pass, then to Mother] Tell her why you lied to her and continued to lie.
Mother: I hated him, what he was doing to me and our marriage. I was terrified to tell you the truth.
Therapist: “Terrified.” Why terrified?
Mother: One or two of the affairs were with underage girls. (starts sobbing) Daughter: (face goes white, starts to say something)
Therapist [to Daughter]: Hold for just a moment. Just stay with your mother.
Several minutes go by before the mother recovers enough to speak.
Mother: I felt so ashamed. You knew one of the girls. I couldn’t tell you that your father was a sexual predator. I couldn’t. I know I hurt you. I lied to you and made you think that your father just abandoned you. I was confused. I was afraid maybe that he… maybe he…
Therapist: …molested your daughter?
Daughter: (with a soft voice) He did. Twice when I was about 12. I never told you. I never thought you would believe me.
Later in this session and in this face-to-face configuration, the therapist might install secure-functioning principles in order to midwife a reparative trajectory or pathway for moving the dyad forward into the future. Moving the couple into the future is also a device to fulfill their agreed upon therapeutic goals.
Therapist [to Mother]: Now as you realize the consequences of withholding the truth from each other, do you believe you both made the right decisions?
Mother: No. The secrets I kept led you away from me. You lost your father and then you lost me. I was wrong to keep this from you. And, I am so very sorry that I didn’t check with you earlier when I found out what your father was doing with underage children. That was horrible. I should have protected you. I should have made it okay for you to come to me.
Daughter: I blamed you for Dad leaving us. All that time I thought it was you. I didn’t tell you about what Dad did to me. I never thought I would. I wanted to think he was my only ally.
Therapist: Neither of you have been honest or forthcoming with the other. You both have been feeling alone, isolated, bound by secrecy and shame. Isn’t it about time for that to end? Your husband, your father, is no longer here. It’s just the two of you now. What will be the future of this relationship? What should the future be? What do you want it to be?
With partners still face to face in close proximity, the therapist can, and should, facilitate a process whereby both partners can forge a new relationship based on what they learn and want going forward. In this particular form of family therapy – though this example might seem complex for one session – the therapist acts as a consultant and facilitator with an agreed upon purpose and goal.
Each family dyadic combination requires a unique clarification of purpose, procedure, and goal for the session. Many variables exist. Suffice to say, each dyad has distinctive issues and concerns relating to history, age, and family role.
Dyadic sessions require a minimum of two to three hours. In general, I book three to four hours to get the job done. It’s not that future sessions are off the table. Rather, when using this modality, the therapist should be highly focused and time efficient so the “couple” finds clarity and relief as quickly as possible. If appropriate, the couple therapist should encourage ongoing individual therapy for both people.
As in all PACT therapy, the therapist is tasked with getting accurate detailed information from both individuals. Among methods for obtaining truthful information:
- disciplined testing and retesting of hunches
- finely-tuned monitoring of somatic reactions
- monitoring of collaborative and coherent speech
Only with accurate, detailed data that arises from each individual’s narratives, implicit and explicit behaviors, and partner reactions, can the therapist adequately formulate interventions and a treatment pathway for the dyad. Leading the session by following each partner step by step – remaining present to the interpersonal field and alert to the actual interactive sequence – helps mitigate therapist overreach, false assumptions, misappraisals, and personal bias.
Next time you are tasked with seeing a family or family members, consider forming various dyadic combinations instead of working with the family in its entirety. I think you will find this PACT approach more rewarding, more enlightening, and more effective.
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.
By Debra Campbell, MS, LMFT
PACT Ambassador, Level 3
When a couple comes to our office, they bring a dynamic in the relationship that pains them. Neither partner sees the issue in the same way, and they don’t know how to solve it. Often, they’ve argued about it repeatedly. Talking about it just starts the argument again.
The rate at which the disagreement escalates is an indicator of how many times they’ve argued the same issue. We know they’re not dealing with anything new because the brain deals with novelty much more slowly than something we have habituated. How, as therapists, can we help the couple slow down and experience something new?
In PACT Couples Therapy, we use proximity, micro-expression, and body language to achieve more constructive outcomes that have a lasting effect outside of session. Here’s a familiar scenario:
Last fall, Rebecca and Bob were running late to their therapy session. They had struck a patch of bad weather, both literally and figuratively. These well-educated professionals have been married for about a year. By the time they arrive, Rebecca is in tears. Bob is red in the face.
I can cut the tension between them with a knife as we walk down the hall to my office. They each sit in a rolling chair. Bob crosses his arms and pushes away. Rebecca looks at me, grits her jaw, and fights tears. She declares, “This Kavanaugh trial is going to destroy our marriage!”
The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing had stirred up some old hurts as well as a historical style of arguing for them. My job is to slow them down so they can experience the argument differently. By doing this, they build new beliefs and gain skills that they can immediately implement outside the office to create safety in the relationship.
Prior to learning PACT, this situation would have been stressful as the therapist. Couples often come to session wanting the therapist to play referee or give solutions. With PACT, the direction is clear – they’re in each other’s care.
I instruct them to face each other, adjust their rolling chairs to eye level, and scoot into each other. They reluctantly agree and slowly move toward each other. Knee to knee, they’re two to three feet away from each other’s face. At this distance, the visual system has the highest acuity for every minute detail and movement on each other’s face.
Suddenly, the couple attunes to the present. Now we are dealing in real time with what is actually happening between them, not historical data or a pre-rehearsed argument. They are able to incorporate new information. When the micro-expression of their partner matches what is being said, a new reality sets in. The couple falls in love in each other’s eyes.
Couples misread each other. Instead, they tend to see what they have experienced in past relationships, generally with their family of origin. This contributes to overall misunderstandings and myths in the relationship. Rebecca and Bob are face to face, eye to eye, as I ask the following questions and check that they accurately read each other’s facial expressions:
Me: What do you seen on her face?
Bob: She is sad, but it is a manipulation. She always gets upset if I disagree with her. [He sighs.]
Me: Is he right?
Rebecca: I’m sad, but it isn’t because he disagrees with me, it’s because I was date raped in college and the trial has been very difficult to watch. Obviously, Kavanaugh is guilty, but he will likely get approved anyway because it is so hard to prove what happened, just like what happened to me in college. [more tears]
Me: What do you see on his face?
Rebecca: He looked angry, but less so now…something else, I can’t place it.
Me: Is she right?
Bob: Yes and no… I was angry before, but now I’m more hurt. I know that happened to her and I feel terrible about it. I would kill that guy if I ran into him. At the same time, I feel scared for all men if the judicial system can find someone guilty without proof. I want to protect her and myself at the same time but it seems impossible…
Me: Do you believe him?
Rebecca: [slowly] Usually not, but right now, yes.
Me: Where do you see it?
Rebecca: In his eyes. I can see he is scared but also that he cares about me. His shoulders are more relaxed, too. His arms aren’t crossed.
Couples often make the mistake of communicating without looking at each other – especially when things start to go sideways. The lack of facial cuing contributes to their misunderstandings.
Me: Do you guys usually have these conversations face to face?
Bob and Rebecca: [Both shake heads, indicating no.]
Rebecca: This argument just went down in the car.
Bob: We talk about this kind of stuff side by side while watching the news . . .
Rebecca: . . . or cleaning the house or cooking in the kitchen. . .
I suspect that they are misreading each other based upon their experiences from their families of origin. I want to expose that by testing their expertise on each other’s history.
Me: Did Bob have manipulative parents?
Rebecca: His father and mother are so manipulative to this day. I can completely understand why that would bother him, if he thought I were manipulating.
Me: Is she right?
Bob: Yes, my parents are manipulative. My relationship with them is strained.
Me: Does Rebecca manipulate you?
Bob: No . . . she really doesn’t. [His face relaxes.] She protects me.
Me: Did her parents protect her growing up?
Bob: Financially, they took care of her. She always had what she needed . . . went to a private school, etc.
Me: What about emotionally?
Bob: Well . . . no, I guess not. Her family doesn’t talk about personal stuff at all. I can understand how she might want that from me. I told you, honey, I would kill the guy who raped you if I could.
Rebecca leaves her chair to sit on Bob’s lap, curls into him, and cries as he holds her and rubs her back. When the crying calms, she resumes her seat. A spark renews in their eyes and a tangible feeling of connection.
Physical touch generally calms the nervous system faster and better than any other method of soothing. When couples can rely on each other for soothing, they become each other’s safe place. Couples that function securely can calm each other down using eye contact, proximity, tone of voice, body language, and physical touch. They act as an emotional resource to each other, a soft landing. Instead of relying on themselves to calm down or someone outside the partnership to soothe them, they rely upon each other. This interactive regulation is generally very healing when they have not received such emotional support in their families of origin.
PACT therapists assess a couple’s ability to accurately read each other’s facial expressions and body language. We do this by going granular. We ask questions about what their partner is feeling, where they see it, and checking with the partner to make sure they got it right. This is often where we expose new data:
- They don’t read each other’s faces accurately.
- They mistakenly apply historical data from their childhood relationships to their current relationship.
- They have never learned that you can tell when someone is telling the truth by their facial expression, tone, body language, and timing.
Instinctually, as therapists, we are trained to reflect whatever we see back to our clients. However, reflecting back that they have clearly had this argument before and that this is not new material does little in and of itself to change the dynamic. By putting them face to face, eye to eye, going slowly, and checking, we force them to address the reality in front of them. This present focus attunes them to live, novel data that creates an immediate shift in their affect and understanding. The truth lies in their facial expression, body language, tone of voice, and timing.
By Lisa Rabinowitz, LCPC
PACT Level II Therapist
In your romantic relationship, paying attention to your partner’s responses and attitudes is especially prudent. Observing impressions and reactions can help you become more in tune with a partner’s likes and dislikes. I refer to this practice as “obtaining your partner’s ‘owner manual.’”
For example, if I say the word rollercoaster, most people have a strong response, whether positive or negative. If I then plan a trip to an amusement park with my partner – and I love amusement parks – that’s great for me, but did I think about my partner and his reaction?
What if my partner hates amusement parks? The above example could be a win-lose situation if one of us likes rollercoasters and one of us does not. Pro-relationship couples promote win-win situations. Therefore, I need to know more detailed information about my partner to increase my chances of win-win opportunities with him.
Inevitably, your lives get busy. Time marches on. However, if you want your partner to feel important and loved, you must continue to update your knowledge and understanding of this person on a monthly, weekly, and daily basis. You need to be observant, like Sherlock Holmes. What makes her smile? What makes her feel sad? What triggers and irritates him? What brings him joy and happiness?
I’m not suggesting that you stalk your partner and start looking in his phone or following her when she leaves the house, but do you know what matters most to this person? In case you’re asking yourself, “Why does all this detail matter?” it does matter. When you know and understand your partner, then you can predict what may be perceived as threatening, which then creates insecurities.
In addition, you can learn the fastest ways to soothe and comfort your partner whenever he or she becomes hurt, which inevitably happens. I suggest when you notice X about your partner, you should be cautious and check in with a question, such as, “I think I noticed your face change to a sad expression. Did that just upset you?” Nonverbal cues, such as a change in facial expression, can help you better understand your partner and add new information to your partner’s “owner manual.” Here are a few scenarios to help illustrate why gathering this type of information about your partner is important.
Angie and Steve have been dating for a little over a year. Last week Steve stopped to buy her a hydrangea plant. Angie felt letdown as she wondered, “Why is he giving me blue hydrangeas when he knows I love yellow roses?” You might say, “It’s just flowers, so what? Why does that matter?” The reason it matters is because Angie wants to know she matters, just as your partner wants to know you are paying attention and noticing her likes and dislikes, interests, triggers, sensitivities, and what makes her tick.
Another example of paying attention to details happened to me last month. My husband said he really liked the chicken dish I made. How did I respond? I proceeded to make the same chicken dish every weekend that month! He had to politely let me know that, while it was delicious, he likes variety and asked if I could make a different chicken dish.
After our conversation, I realized that I should have known my husband likes variety. Even though I have eaten oatmeal for breakfast every day for the past 10 years (OK, a little exaggeration), he has a different type of breakfast almost every day. And, he regularly comments on my singular breakfast choice. How did I miss that?
Of course, you need to realize that you and your partner will make mistakes and overlook things that seem inconsequential. I share this example of paying attention to what my spouse said because as a committed partner, I want my husband to know I care about him, just as he shows me that he cares about me. Each of us can practice paying attention on a daily basis so we become more attuned to what matters to our spouses and more connected as couples.
In one of my sessions, Elizabeth and Rafael were discussing a conversation they had about going out of town so they could spend time together. Their lives were exceptionally busy, and Elizabeth kept saying, “Yes, we should go out of town, but now is not a good time.” Rafael was trying to reach out to his wife, but Elizabeth was not understanding his needs. In our conversation, I brought up information he had shared in a previous session. As a child, his parents were unavailable to him and would constantly cancel plans. As a result, he was sensitive to Elizabeth’s lack of commitment to spending time together.
Whether dating or married, every couple gets busy and caught up in their own lives. At times, one partner may even feel stuck doing all the listening without the equal opportunity of being heard. However, couples who understand and listen to each other’s needs and counter with solutions stay connected.
Elizabeth shared her concerns about the relationship, too. In the end, the couple worked out that, when Rafael asks her to spend time with him, Elizabeth could say, “I’d love to spend the weekend with you. Would X date work for you?” By giving her husband a specific date, he felt that she was making him and the relationship a priority, healing old hurts and pain from his childhood. The couple made a date – just the two of them – for 3 months from our appointment. We discussed how to be understanding of individual schedules and, on balance, the need to make time for each other.
- Slow down and focus on your partner’s feelings and reactions to situations.
- Take note: if you are talking about X and your partner turns away or looks down, check to see if he is upset or if something is bothering him.
- Create win-win situations by thinking about your partner.
As partners, it’s essential for us to have our partner’s owner manual. When we don’t, we risk being seen as threatening or not loving our spouse. Frequently, partners end relationships because one partner didn’t know what really mattered to the other. If you begin to hear statements such as, “You just don’t know me,” “You don’t get me,” “You don’t seem to really care about me,” take action. Find a reputable PACT therapist in your area to help you “know each other,” reduce insecurities and increase your connection. When you take the time to obtain your partner’s owner manual, you begin communicating “I want to understand you,” which will improve the likelihood of a secure relationship.
Tatkin, Stan. (2016). Wired for dating: How understanding neurobiology and attachment style
can help you find your ideal mate (p. 31). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Tatkin, Stan. (2018). We do: Saying yes to a relationship of depth, true connection, and enduring
love. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.
By Lindsey Walker, LMFT
PACT Ambassador and Level II Therapist
Couples therapists often struggle with how to sort through the many feelings and complicated relational dynamics that arise in couple therapy sessions. You have two people, both hurt. Each come with a different perspective, combined with years of history and unresolved conflicts, and they are looking to you to figure it all out.
By walking into your office, they invite you into their relationship. As a therapist, you join them through attunement. As a PACT therapist, you combine your attunement with identifying the couple’s observable behavior, which enables you to determine what they have not yet integrated into a secure-functioning relationship.
When you mind your own experience with couples, while simultaneously observing how they interact with each other, they provide you with real-time information about who they are and how they handle their relationship. As you gain this information, you can feed it back to them. This helps them build an understanding of how they are functioning. It also creates opportunities for them to move away from destructive dynamics.
In one session, Rochelle and Brandon sit as far back in their seats as possible, leaning away from one another without trying to be obvious. A line of tension runs through their bodies, which tells me they are not fully relaxed.
I look at one member of the couple and see her folding in on herself, hands tucked under her legs, which are crossed. She bites her lower lip. Her partner’s body twists toward her. However, his neck cranes to look at me whenever discussing his feelings or experience.
I take these observations in and then turn my focus inward to take note of my own senses. Am I feeling something strongly? Seeing any notable pictures in my mind’s eye? How’s my body handling the stress of the situation? What ideas are coming to mind? Is there something I’m moved to say here? How pressing is it? My breath is shallow. I feel tension in the room and also inside of me. Most notably, I feel stuck — if someone asked me to speak, it would seem impossible.
As therapists, through our attunement, we experience the relational wounds that our couples bring to us. This body-to-body exchange of information is communicated so quickly. Couples often miss it, which is why they end up in therapy, stuck in repetitive cycles.
In the example of Rochelle and Brandon, when I look inward, I get information about what it feels like to be with them, which the couple needs for themselves. Closeness is difficult for them. Internally, I interpret their body postures combined with historical information I have gathered about them: they deal with the tension of intimacy by either turning inward (Rochelle), or toward something or someone else (Brandon). Speaking openly about their more vulnerable experiences is not something they know how to do.
From the neck down, Brandon shows me that he wants to be with his partner. From the neck up, however, his eyes plead with me, asking to know whether or not he’s safe to turn all the way toward Rochelle. I feel a great sadness well up in me.
I feel that these two are mourning the loss of closeness in their relationship, and they don’t yet know how to connect over it. When they are not in the therapy room, they resort to old patterns of attack/defend in the face of vulnerability. As a result of not knowing how to express his more vulnerable self safely, Brandon gives his sadness to me, instead of to Rochelle. Though she is facing him, Rochelle does not signal to him (or to me) that she is ready for what he has to offer. She is too preoccupied with managing her own anxiety.
My purpose in their relationship in this moment is to contain the experiences that they are not yet equipped to handle within themselves or their relationship. I recognize this via my own felt experience, what I see in them, and how Brandon is interacting with me. I prepare to help move them toward each other.
Brandon starts to talk to me. I want him to know that what he is saying is valuable, so I focus my attention on him. This kind of affirmation can serve as a bridge for him to contain his own experience within their relationship. Yet, the goal of couple’s work is to help them find affirmation and support within the couple system. Knowing this, I want to turn them back toward one another to see how they handle each other in this vulnerable moment.
Now a therapist can take many directions, all lead to the same essential thing. Here are several possibilities, including the PACT methods of cross-questioning, cross-commenting, or going down the middle:
- To her: “Does he always look away from you when he’s feeling vulnerable?”
- To her: “He’s about to tell me something important, and I don’t want you to miss it. What happens when you ask him to look at you?”
- To him: “There’s something you want to tell her, but you feel more comfortable telling me. Why?”
- To him: “Experiment with turning your head to face her. Look her in the eye, and tell her what you just told me.”
- To both of them: “You want to be close, but it’s hard for you to fully let go.”
- To both of them: “It’s hard to speak about how you feel with one another.”
- To both of them: “You guys are so sad together, but you don’t know how to share it.”
With these interventions, you’ve taken what you discovered about them and used it to highlight how they operate with one another. This helps them:
- Identify a feeling they have so they can begin to integrate it into their couple system.
- Increase awareness of how they react to one another in tense situations.
- Own the idea that there is something they want together (though in some cases, not) and for which they are both responsible.
Couples therapy moves fast. Your couples signal to you all the time about their distresses, their hopes, their worries, the ghosts from the past that they struggle with. Your ability to be pulled into their system, and yet retain the sense of your own experience and observational abilities while in it, is one of the best tools you can use to help them heal their relationship.
By Jason Polk, LCSW, LAC
PACT level II Therapist
Repair is one of the most important things for couples to master. If there was an incident or argument that caused one or both of you distress, repair moves you back into harmony, or at least to a neutral state where you’re both calm and are no longer lobbing hurtful words or actions at each other.
Repair is the place where you reconnect as lovers, or at least as partners. In order to repair and reconnect, we have to give something for our partner to connect to. And what we can’t connect to is anger, blame, or self-pity. So, we need to pause and become aware of what’s underneath this protective armor and share that. This is called vulnerability. In PACT, it can be called taking care of our self.
If you take the time to self-reflect on the feeling that your anger is protecting, through the lens of PACT, you’re activating what Dr. Stan Tatkin (2011) has dubbed your “ambassadors.” Our ambassadors are the smart parts of our brain that are less reactive, and flexible enough to come up with a win-win solution. We may call this self-reflection, relational mindfulness, or creating a bigger space between our feelings and behavior. To find what your anger is protecting, you may have to take space.
For a relationally skilled move, you can tell your partner, “Please give me some space so I can collect my thoughts, and then I’ll come back.” The idea is, when you come back to the table and lead with vulnerability, you’re providing the best opportunity to reconnect and repair.
Initiating repair is one of the most difficult things we do because, in a way, we have to lower ourselves. In We Do, Tatkin (2018) talks about how other mammals lower themselves in some manner to convey friendliness. One way we humans lower ourselves and convey friendliness is by sharing vulnerability. Here’s an example from my practice:
Bob and Nancy were in my office working on ways to avoid their conflicts escalating out of control. Bob has a sensitivity to losing connection, and Nancy has a sensitivity to feeling trapped or controlled. Bob has indulged in anger to protect what is vulnerable to him—that is, feeling that he’s not a priority when Nancy wishes to spend time with others. Bob has yet to express that in a vulnerable way, in a way that Nancy would be receptive to. Since he has not lowered himself and has only led with anger, Nancy defends herself with anger. Her anger protects her own vulnerability, or fear of feeling trapped and controlled. And so their negative cycle ensues.
The reality, however, is that Nancy does want to spend time with Bob. She’s just yet to learn skillful ways to preserve her autonomy and her relationship and unwittingly thinks they are mutually exclusive. Nancy’s work has been to understand that she can stand up for her autonomy without anger.
In therapy, Nancy has begun to understand the origin of Bob’s raw spot, which has increased her empathy. She has also learned to speak to that raw spot—that sensitivity to losing connection.
We replayed a recent conflict. Nancy planned an evening with her friends, and she was getting ready to leave. Bob was staying home that night and his vulnerable feelings began to arise as he was feeling that she had chosen another night with others and not him. Bob was asked to self-reflect on what was underneath his anger. When he found it, he was asked to face Nancy. He said, “The actual reason I was mad was because when you go out a lot with your friends, I feel like you don’t want to spend time with me.” His voice was calm, and his words were from the heart.
This was a huge move for Bob, and it provided the opportunity for Nancy to connect with him and respond in a manner different from their cycle. With some coaching, she was able to respond in a way that kept her autonomy and a positive relationship with Bob. She said, “Bob, you know it’s important for me to spend time with my friends. Tonight I’m going out with them, but tomorrow I’m all yours.” Bob’s vulnerable move gave Nancy the space to speak to his fear by saying, “Tomorrow I’m all yours.” Even though this was a reenactment, when she said that, there was visible relief for Bob as well as for Nancy.
Nancy could also have initiated repair by self-reflecting and stating, “Bob, I love you dearly. When you’re upset about me spending time with my friends, I feel trapped and controlled.”
Although these repair initiations are not 100% surefire, when they’re accompanied with friendly body language such as tilting of the head, eye contact, or touch, the chances of a fruitful conversation increase dramatically.
If a first attempt at repair doesn’t work, simply continue with a friendly frame and just go with, “How can I make this better?”
The next time an argument causes you and your partner distress, take some time to self-reflect on what your anger, blame, or self-pity is protecting. In this way, you take care of yourself. Sharing what you find in a friendly manner is how you take care of your partner. Practicing such relational mindfulness is how you handle conflict and repair in a secure functioning relationship.
Tatkin, S. (2011). Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.
Tatkin, S. (2018). We Do: Saying Yes to a Relationship of Depth, True Connection, and Enduring Love. Boulder: Sounds True.
By Carolyn Sharp, LICSW
PACT Level III Therapist
After laughing with Marty about the wonderful date they had, Peter adds, “Of course we had to go to the restaurant you wanted.” With that slight emphasis on going to Marty’s restaurant pick, they go from shared laughter to bulging eyes and hostile voices, following each other out of connection and into attack. All it takes is one wrong comment to spin into the dynamic this high-arousal and high-conflict couple came to address. My heart rate increases and my throat tightens as my mind imagines the session going out of control. With my own arousal rising, I’m in danger of losing my capacity to be helpful.
Christina and Sam stare listlessly at the floor during extended pauses after my questions and comments. Their passivity and disconnection are in charge here, and neither partner makes a move toward closeness or engagement. I feel a yawn forming and can hear every sound outside my window, as boredom threatens my effectiveness. This couple will continue to do what they always do if I don’t activate the energy in the room.
In both these cases, the couple’s work together depends on my ability to self-regulate—to calm myself in the former and to self-activate in the latter. With PACT’s embodied approach (whereby the therapist uses the live felt-experiences of a couple to help them learn new ways of being with one another), my job is to help the couple learn to co-regulate each other’s nervous systems so they can find connection and safety. Their ability to do this is central to forming a secure-functioning relationship.
As a PACT therapist, self-regulation allows me to set the tone for the sessions and to create the frame and expectations for partners’ behavior. Additionally, when I am self-regulated, I have the capacity to marshal all my resources to respond helpfully with any interventions needed. I can’t fall outside my own window of tolerance or allow myself to react from emotion. Central to the skill of self-regulation is awareness of the strengths, challenges, and triggers within my own arousal system. The volume and speed of a couple’s speech can be irritating to my system, but tone and emotion are what cause my heart rate to spike. In the other direction, the slowness of their responses can be lulling, but disengagement between partners is the cause of a drop in my attention and attunement. Being aware of these triggers is the key to my ability to notice and take action.
The use of deliberate practice and repetitive skill-building exercises to automate responses to calm or activate myself when stressed has been enormously helpful to my self-regulation (Rousmaniere, 2016). I practice resetting my system when excited or bored so I can do so in session, without pause. Developing the emotional muscle memory to calm or excite myself makes it more likely that I can do the same in times of stress or in overwhelming situations.
Two of the simplest and most reliable means of self-regulation are exhalation and simple grounding (i.e., the ability to return my attention to my body and the room quickly). Using these has proven invaluable, and I often invite couples to practice them with each other when the room goes “high temperature” or “frozen” (the vernacular I share with couples). Lastly, the PACT serenity prayer serves as a powerful grounding in my role and responsibilities as a therapist. Through self-regulation, I am present with the couple before me and I allow them to practice being in each other’s care. The skills of self-regulation were useful in sessions with the two couples I described.
Peter and Marty came to PACT to learn to head off their explosive conflicts, as well as to help each other get through those conflicts safely. Through attunement and better co-regulation they are learning to do this. My self-regulation is integral to their process as I stay present and tuned in, while fully in my own window of tolerance. With a long, slow whistle on my exhale (indicating a nonverbal “wow” to Peter’s comment about the restaurant), I catch their attention. They are immediately connected through their mutual irritation at my interruption, followed quickly by amusement as they realize I just distracted them from their escalating fight. Being tuned into the energy in the room and its impact on me allows me to use a distraction to help regulate this couple and move them back within their window of tolerance and into each other’s care. Following a repair to one another, we talk about the things they have been practicing at home to get out of these scenarios, and then they practice regulating each other.
Christina and Sam came to therapy for help reigniting the passion and connection they lost over time as they focused all their energy on things outside their connection. Helping them requires me to activate the energy in the room, so I stand up and have them join me and take each other’s hands. Sam follows my request and begins to describe Christina’s face. Tears come as Christina feels Sam’s presence. Describing him, in turn, elicits a big smile, the first he has shown today. I watch them squeeze each other’s hands and then move into a hug. I vocalize the shift made when moving to each other. The listlessness I felt when I paid attention to my own response alerted me to the direction I needed to take to help them move toward each other.
Couple therapy can vacillate between high and low energy, between conflict and disengagement. Unregulated, therapists can quickly follow clients down any number of unproductive paths. Remaining grounded and regulated is our most powerful tool in maintaining our focus on facilitating secure-functioning couples.
Rousmaniere, T. (2016). Deliberate practice for early career psychotherapists. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 51(3), 25–29.