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By Lisa Rabinowitz
LCPC, PACT Level 2
We have all been in situations in which we feel misunderstood by our partner. We might be left scratching our head, wondering why our partner just doesn’t get us. PACT therapists recognize that such misunderstandings or misattunements to nonverbal and verbal cues are similar to what can happen with babies and their primary caretaker(s). We know from attachment theory that if the caretaker is unresponsive, punitive, anxious, or inconsistent, then the baby may fear abandonment or withdraw or overreact, developing an insecure attachment. On the other hand, if the caretaker responds in a consistent and reliable manner, then the baby will develop secure attachment, believing the caretaker will be there for him or her in the future. As adults, this kind of signal-response system affects our romantic relationships, whereby we repeat the patterns of our childhood—either with inconsistent and unreliable responding partners or with partners who are reliable, loving, and responsive.
Each of us has a “baby” inside us, and PACT therapists often encourage partners to look for the baby in each other as a way to achieve greater connection and intimacy. As adults, we have an opportunity to respond to that baby in our partner, who wants to be held, cared for, connected to, talked with, cuddled, reassured, encouraged, or comforted. We can also miss each other’s cues and fail to interpret the signals made by the baby. When we miss the baby, an argument may ensue, causing the baby to lock him or herself behind a protective wall, feel scared to come out, scream, rant, or leave the scene of the fight. If we miss seeing the baby, then we can repeat the cycles from childhood. We may be scared to get too close to our partner out of fear that he or she will not take care of the baby inside us, just as our parents failed to do. In our romantic relationship, we can finally get it right and care for and be cared for by our partner, but only if we hear and see the baby in each other.
Sometimes when couples are upset and feeling hurt, their comments become more and more negative and attacking. This can result from reading each other’s faces as negative instead of neutral. For example, if you blankly stare at your partner or pause after your partner asks you a question, your partner’s brain may interpret your face as negative and fill in the pause with all sorts of negative statements. That doesn’t mean you always have to smile (fake smiles are also taken as negative) and make small talk while you try to think how to answer the question, but you need to be aware of how your partner is interpreting your face and your pauses, along with your tone of voice and body posturing.
When we interpret a cue as a threat, we can respond in a fight, flight, or freeze manner: (a) we attack, criticize, or dismiss our partner; (b) we leave the room, or (c) we don’t respond. As the conflict escalates, we act as if our partner is an enemy, seeing any action or statement in a negative light.
Consider the example of Lila and Roberto, who are in the kitchen, preparing for dinner.
Lila: (reaches out for connection) Hey, do you want to spend time together tonight?
Roberto: (looks away) We’ll see.
Lila: (interprets his look as withdrawal) What? You never want to spend time with me! You always want to play on your phone.
Roberto: (misses her need for closeness) It’s not that I don’t want to spend time with you, but (pauses) I’m tired from work.
Lila: (doesn’t know how to create connection, so continues the argument) You always are tired. When are you ever going to make time for me?
In this exchange, Roberto lost an opportunity for connection when he missed the baby in Lila as she reached out. She responded with a fight response, and he continued to overlook the baby. In the following replay, we see how this can be corrected:
Lila: (walks over to Roberto, waits for him to turn and look at her) Hi, honey. Is this a good time to ask you a question?
Roberto: (sees the baby in her) Sure. What did you want to ask?
Lila: (cues that she wants connection) I was wondering if we could spend 15 minutes together after the dishes?
Roberto: (continues to see the baby, offers connection and responsiveness) I was hoping to watch my favorite show for 30 minutes after the dishes, so can we spend time together right after that?
Lila: I’d really appreciate that. Thanks.
The next time things start to get heated between you and your partner, take that as an opportunity to stop, listen, and care for each other. By taking care of the baby within you, you can repair hurts from childhood and strengthen the bonds of your romantic relationship. Here are three tips:
- Stop, listen and look: stop talking, listen to your partner, and look for nonverbal cues from your partner that reveal his or her baby.
- Ask yourself: “What are the nonverbal cues telling me?” “What does the baby need?” “What does my partner need right now?”
- If the argument has started already and you are miscommunicating, replay: ask your partner if you can restart the conversation and take care of the baby inside of him or her.
Every species of mammal uses the limbic system—the social, emotional, relational part of the brain—to create strong bonds that provide safety and a felt sense of security. Adult-child bonding is especially crucial for the development of the complex human brain and nervous system, and the development of an internal felt sense of security in the world—both real and perceived. When parents are too often inattentive of their child’s emotional needs, this bonding does not happen optimally, and the injury of insecurity can prevail.
Memories, especially negative ones, are extremely powerful in influencing our perception of the world and our behaviors. Our subjective experience is colored by our past. All experiences, at any age, involving fear and threat are “velcroed” into the memory system in the interest of self-protection, but memories from childhood have particular potency. Children do not survive very long without parental attention and protection, and times of parental inattention, misattunement, and neglect are perceived as profoundly threatening. These memories become deeply wired into the brain and imprinted in the mind. (This is the basis for the value of inner child work in modern psychotherapy.) Many of the patients we work with are reacting from these often implicit and unconscious, velcroed threat memories and their activation, without proper awareness and attention from their partner.
PACT therapists understand the workings of this internal safety and security system, and the importance of this area in our work with couples. As PACT therapists, we motivate movement from projected, negative, internalized relational blueprints toward secure functioning within the primary partnership. In moving couples in this direction, we understand the importance of partners “holding each other in mind,” especially in these places of old injury. We ask them to take on the mantle of the attending parent in these areas of distress by holding their partner and their partner’s history in mind.
Toward this end, I often do the following exercise with my patients. My wife’s passion for yoga helped me envision this practice, so I affectionately call it the Secure Family Asana. (Āsana is a Sanskrit term to describe yoga postures that can promote change.)
At an appropriate place in a couple’s treatment, I invite them to sit face to face and interactively regulate each other. I have both partners imagine their arms around both their own inner child and their partner’s inner child (see Figure 1). I ask the couple to imagine being attentive parents to the places of childhood insecurity, and for this to be mutual, face to face and eye to eye.
Using this imagery and practicing it externally can promote the replacement of insecure blueprints within the procedural memory system. An internalized felt sense of comforting safety can then enhance secure functioning within the couple in times of distress, rather than the repetition of injury from the original memory patterns.
As PACT therapists, we know that secure functioning is characterized by a balance of valuing both self and the relationship. Therefore, we encourage couples to tend their own historical and present-time hurts, as well as be there for their partner’s hurts. Two strong, secure, internalized partners regulate these past injuries and their repetitive projected activations together. Old hurts are securely attended to in a mutual manner, rather than being allowed to take over and threaten the partnership.
This Secure Family Asana exercise embodies the tending of self and other, in both past and present. It encourages the healing of old hurts, and the growth of an internalized reparative family system. Couples can practice it to powerfully support their movement toward secure functioning.
Copyright Lon Rankin
Emotional development doesn’t happen in isolation. The entire field of psychotherapy rests upon the premise that one human being can help another to move beyond vestigial strategies developed in the context of the distant past and to live life in a way that is less encumbered by personal history. We consider this to be emotional or psychological growth. Part of the blessing of being human is that this process can be ongoing as we learn, grow, and continue to develop across our entire lifespan.
As a PACT therapist, PACT trainer, and husband who continues to put PACT principles to the test in my own marriage, I have been awed by the acceleration of development and maturation that occurs within a committed partnership when both parties co-create a foundation of secure functioning. This is the bedrock that PACT helps couples stand upon, and that supports a resurgence of development where there has been regression, idleness, and apathy.
Many models of couple therapy have merit. What sets PACT apart is its understanding about how the processes of emotional maturation, individuation, and differentiation actually occur. We are biologically wired for curiosity, creativity, and learning, but these functions can only take place when the experience of safety and security is online. When our safety and security are perceived to be at risk, our attention and behaviors are dominated by the tasks of mobilizing away from threat (fleeing), subduing danger (fighting), or shutting down (collapse). When processes organized around the drive for survival consume a relationship, couples stay in an immature state where there is no room for practicing and learning to occur. As clinicians, when we witness these behaviors in the therapy, we consider such ineffective strategies to be “acting out.”
Secure functioning both requires and facilitates each partner to develop emotionally, take pro-relationship risks with each other, and be collaborative. As PACT therapists, we expect this from our clients. We see their potential, and we are willing to push them when necessary so that they actually taste their capacity to be better. During a session, this may be in the form of directing them to reach out even when their instinctual impulse is to withdraw, to maintain eye contact when the habitual tendency is to gaze avert, or to say something loving when the reflex is to attack or defend.
Through such practicing, each member of the dyad risks shedding old, primitive defenses to become a more resilient and robust adult. Each takes greater responsibility for the current state of the relationship, and for moving it forward toward deeper satisfaction. This is true differentiation. PACT helps couples become their best adult selves in a relationship where growth and personal development are a natural outcome of love and commitment.
Copyright Jeff Pincus
Healthy, secure relationships are a source of vital energy. PACT therapists know people feel good when they understand how to be successful partners. We are energized by a secure connection to another person. Our need to be securely attached is so powerful that it can get us through the hardest of times and help us float through day-to-day routines with ease, skill, and grace.
Secure functioning is based on a high degree of respect for one another’s experience. Interactions and shared experiences are fair, just, and sensitive. If your partner feels even slightly unwanted, undervalued, disliked, unseen, or unimportant, he or she will—quite frankly—act weird and underperform in the relationship.
Insecurity and insecure attachment negatively affect brain performance. Development can be slowed down because the brain is using most of its resources to manage being in survival mode instead of being free to move toward evolution, growth, and complexity.
In general, couples can get tripped up in creating a secure and healthy relationship and end up not liking their partners, situations, or experiences because they don’t know what to do or how to manage them. This can leave them feeling badly about themselves as well as their partner.
In line with the main treatment goals of PACT, couples are encouraged (and ultimately expected) to both know themselves and know their partner. That is, to know who they are and how they move through the world, and also to understand who their partner is, and how he or she operates. To be clear, that is not how they wish their partner operates, but how their partner actually operates, navigates, and maneuvers through the world. This knowledge, which requires a healthy dose of curiosity and attention, creates a strong foundation of understanding. It pushes forth the secure-functioning principles that “your partner is your responsibility and in your care,” and “you are responsible for knowing how to manage your partner.” Your partner then holds a sacred and honored position no one else in the world gets to occupy. That said, we often joke that actual wedding vows should probably include, “I take you to be my perfect pain in the butt.”
PACT teaches couples how to manage their partners so they can move and shift them into better states of mind and moods; lower their stress level; and decrease their sense of threat, anxiety, and depression.
The idea of being responsible for knowing and caring for your partner in this way and putting the relationship first tends to be the hard sell for some couples. When you truly understand the benefits of adopting this idea, the stance of “but it’s always about them, it never gets to be about me” loses its power as an argument.
My answer is, “You do this because it serves you and is good for you. You get your needs met by shoring up the vulnerabilities in your partner so he or she can in return do the same for you. You both get the benefits of that investment.”
Love and genuine connection create libidinal energy—life force energy that can be renewed in an instant through a simple act of friendliness, a glance, a look, a moment, and a knowing that “my person likes me.” Part of creating a secure relationship is making sure you are helping your partner perform at an optimal level. To do that, messages that communicate “I’m good at you,” “I’m good at being with you,” and “You are in my care” must be reflected every day.
If you want to put this into practice, one way I encourage that is to pay attention to everything your partner hears you say about him or her. What messages are you conveying? Another thing you can do is to introduce your partner to other people, when you are together in public, in a way that is elevating.
PACT principles help couples enjoy the experience of being loved for who they are, as well as appreciate all the day-to-day benefits their relationship brings.
Copyright Eva Van Prooyen
by Elaine Tuccio, LCSW, PACT faculty, Austin, TX
One of the most common complaints made by couples who come to therapy is that they feel they do not know how to communicate well with one another. The words “we have problems communicating,” or something along those lines, are often preceded or followed by a deep sigh—the signal of long-held misery and defeat.
The PACT therapist using the Partner Attachment Inventory (PAI) can obtain enough information within the first session to help a couple see that their problems are not simply communication. In fact, where couples tend to falter most is in reading signs and signals—the nonverbal cadence on which primary attachment relationships are built. Life’s forces have caused drift in their relationships. A mix of financial stress, betrayal, conflicting priorities of career and family, and addictions have thrown them into survival mode. As a result of early unmet developmental needs and attachment injuries, they find themselves at sea in their adult romantic partnership. Instead of smooth sailing, they tack too much or lean too little.
Consider Chuck and Tina, who are committed, loving parents to a child with cerebral palsy. In therapy, Chuck voiced frustration that his wife would not talk with him. Tina listened to every word as she held back tears, bit her lower lip, and wrung her hands, then stammered out words to defend herself. Both partners were clearly expressive, but in their own learned attachment style of communication. Tina’s parents had poured all their energy into their kids, but she couldn’t recall them talking at length with one another. They divorced when she was ten. Chuck’s father left when he was two. His doting mother never remarried, and he spent a lot of time alone in front of the television. The PAI helped this couple discover that neither was raised with examples of partners negotiating. This significant finding built hope for Chuck and Tina and helped them see that both wanted to communicate but they did not know how—yet.
Old-time sailors knew to be on the lookout for atmospheric changes, to stay in constant communication with their shipmates, and to point ahead always. As young sailors, they were guided by masters of the sea and learned to expect the best but plan for the worst, and leave nothing to chance. Not everyone entering a relationship is fortunate enough to be launched in a boat rigged for all sailing conditions. PACT therapists are trained to be master navigators at the helm. We help couples help themselves on rocky seas, in and out of narrow channels, and around sandbars. We teach them to distinguish between a red sky in the morning and a red sky at night so they can avoid storms that may be brewing and instead delight in life as it is—wonderful, unpredictable, painful, loving, beautiful, and forever changing.
Copyright Elaine Tuccio
Burnout is common among psychotherapists. Countless articles and books deal with reasons for and prevention of burnout. However, some instances of burnout are nearly impossible to prevent, given dysfunctional institutional settings, demanding and taxing work hours, and a difficult and acting out clientele. Many commentators have opined that psychotherapists may lack sufficient self-care to counter the ongoing stress of dealing with the psychological pain and trauma of their patients, especially in the context of isolation characteristic of this profession.
For me, becoming a PACT therapist has proven to be the best burnout prevention. This approach requires a strong therapeutic frame and a complex set of skills that is rooted in a defined conceptual foundation. It also allows a freedom I have not experienced in other therapeutic approaches. This is the freedom to make use of one’s self and to allow spontaneity in the therapy room. This, in turn, makes work not only more fun and more exciting, but also more rewarding.
PACT focuses on the expressions and signals of the autonomic nervous system. PACT therapy is a bottom-up, show-me process. As therapists, we have to know about our own facial expressions, gestures, and how we come across to others, so we can regulate more intentionally and effectively. To be master regulators who can facilitate a more real, truthful, and authentic relationship between partners, we have to be able to regulate ourselves.
The emphasis in PACT is on “regulating,” which does not mean controlling or being neutral or reserved. I remember being in a psychoanalytic training group 22 years ago and feeling I had to apply a sense of carefulness and guardedness because self-expression that revealed too much about my personhood would contaminate the therapeutic work. That stance required me to exhibit reserve and the control of emotional expression in order to be seen as a neutral figure upon whom the patient could project his or her inner processes. The interaction was limited, and spontaneity rare.
As humans, we can feel and see the difference between a limbic smile and a social smile. Our patients can detect the difference between artificial warmth and authentic warmth, and between simulated empathy and authentic empathy. Because we are in the business of limbic regulation, as therapists we can’t rely on social and artificial signaling in our interactions with couples. We have to be able to bring into play real responses.
Our patients can detect our fear and will not trust us if we pretend. If we are overly guarded, we will not be effective in our attempts to move a couple toward secure functioning. We need both a sense of our own security and a sense of freedom to be able to let feelings, thoughts, impulses, and desires arise and guide our interactions so they do not create a “minefield” and resemble the more careful and guarded stance of previous approaches.
My freedom starts when I greet a couple in the waiting room. I am really happy to see them. I look forward to being with them. I can’t help but smile. I think it is a limbic smile. It is part of “falling in love” with the couples with whom I work. Ten years ago, I did not always fall in love with the couples with whom I worked. But now I do.
An essential challenge to becoming a PACT therapist is to move oneself toward secure functioning. With a stance of secure functioning, the internal regulatory and emotional field of the therapist is not experienced as a minefield that necessitates stepping carefully and gingerly. Rather, the internal vicissitudes can be trusted, and the freedom to risk spontaneous expression can be modeled for the couple.
According to PACT, a therapist is more like a host who can make the couple feel at ease than like an intimidating expert. PACT therapists develop the capacity to relax and then move in. They find a rhythm in their work that includes spontaneity and the ability to trust their own sources of inspiration. In the words of Stan Tatkin, we move from inspiration rather than pressure.
Copyright Hans Stahlschmidt
by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,
In matters of betrayal—lying, cheating, stealing—the breach of the attachment system is acute and often long lasting and can be understood neurologically as a trauma-related problem.
Franklin and Zeynep, a couple in their early 40s with two young children, came to therapy because of a discovered set of sexual affairs. Franklin, an American-born academician, was found to have an affair with one of his students. Zeynep, a Turkish-born emergency room nurse, discovered the affair after accidentally viewing Franklin’s phone text messages. The texts were explicitly sexual and contained incontrovertible evidence of Franklin’s deceptions and betrayals. Although Franklin was contrite and desperately wanted to be let back into the relationship, he had great difficulty dealing with Zeynep’s unrelenting preoccupation with his affair. She wanted to know details. Fearful of making matters worse, he refused to give details. Zeynep would wake up in the middle of the night crying, and suddenly burst into a rage while they drove to dinner. She did not want Franklin to touch her. He was not to sleep in their marital bed. Franklin’s patience was at an end. He began to believe that Zeynep was purposely punishing him and was invested in making his life a living hell. Neither partner wanted the relationship to end, but neither could escape the strong wake of the betrayal itself.
PACT therapists will recognize that betrayal by a primary attachment figure is likely to be processed as trauma. Betrayals in adult romantic partnerships most commonly revolve around sex and/or finances, but central to all betrayals is the matter of deception. Partners who feel deceived by their loved ones suffer a particular kind of loss that can affect the historical memory of that relationship. Deceived partners will review the entire relationship in an attempt to reorganize their experiences of self and other. This review reorients the memory toward doubt, fear, and rage. In Zeynep’s case, we see that she could not stop thinking about Franklin’s betrayal and demanding details. Even though he did not provide details, her brain filled in its own details, which fed her doubt and fear. Flooded by these emotions, she would alternately withdraw from him and rage at him.
Once initiated, this review process cannot be interrupted because the brain must reorganize and adapt to the new information. As in PTSD, the brain and body must metabolize the trauma and cope with amygdalar hyperactivity as the amygdala responds to multiple internal and external triggers. However, different from PTSD, betrayal forces a hippocampal review and re-contextualization of the past with new information from the present. PTSD usually does not compel the brain to review past events; in fact, victims of PTSD commonly wish to avoid any review of the traumatic event, and their hippocampal function can be compromised by the traumatic event.
Betrayal, therefore, usually leads to a preoccupation with the new reality-shattering information. This presents an enormous challenge to the couple attempting to recover from it. Like Zeynep, the victim cannot stop being preoccupied with the past, present, and future, nor escape the emotional volatility that accompanies this process. The perpetrator therefore must tolerate the other partner’s perseveration and emotional volatility, as well as the constant questioning, grief, and anger that come with the healing process. In this case, Franklin had to learn patience for the couple to have any chance at rebuilding their relationship. Somewhat ironically, the perpetrator is in a unique position as not only the cause of the trauma but also its solution. This is not an easy task for the perpetrator to perform. Yet, the PACT therapist takes the position that the betraying partner must provide ongoing and sufficient support to regulate disturbing states related to the trauma whenever they arise.
Copyright © 2003-2014 Stan Tatkin, PsyD – all rights reserved
by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,
A deal breaker is an issue that looks like it cannot be solved. Many couples face issues related to religion or sexuality or money or children. They might feel—and you might think—such deal breakers must lead to the end of the relationship.
For instance, one partner says, “I must have children or my life won’t be worth living.”
The other says with equal strength, “I’m not the parent type. I don’t even like children and I will never have one.”
After a long pause, the first says, “Okay. We should buy a house together.”
Or perhaps one partner says, “I want my children raised as Muslims. That’s nonnegotiable.”
The other says, “I want my children raised Catholic. That’s how it’s going to be.”
One of them follows this deal breaker with, “Have you decided whether you want go to Hawaii this year for Christmas?”
Notice this tendency to kick the can down the road. Why do so many couples avoid deal-breaker issues or simply defer them? The answer may seem obvious. When partners are at the precipice of the cliff that represents the end of their relationship, they flinch. Nobody wants to break up. Relationships are sticky like that. “Say it ain’t so!” And so it isn’t.
Islands, and waves, and even anchors may opt to bend reality and defer loss. However, couples with deal breakers in their basement inevitably seek therapy to circumnavigate the proverbial elephant in the room that just won’t go away. The therapist can’t help but feel their pain, feel the sense of impending doom that has been buried so partners can enjoy another month, another year, or a decade without having to face reality.
But is every deal breaker an actual deal breaker? From the PACT point of view, often it is not.
Because couples indulge in kick-the-can-down-the-road avoidance, they have no reason to believe denial isn’t the best course of action. However, a PACT therapist can help the couple arrive at a creative solution that is win-win—a solution that leaves no residue and has no victim and no perpetrator. For this to happen, partners need to be held with their feet at the edge of the cliff.
“Necessity is the mother of invention.” So, supposedly, said Plato. In this case, necessity places the couple between a rock and a hard place and holds them there. Perhaps the rock is what they absolutely insist upon, and the hard place represents the consequences for ensuring they get what they want. For a couple not dealing with a deal breaker, the consequence is most certainly loss.
I think it is very difficult for the average couple to do this on their own. I suspect anchors would be more readily able to make sacrifices needed to assuage abandonment fears. Although making choices that could end a relationship has never been nor will ever be easy, a PACT therapist can help partners see their way through what looks like a foregone conclusion. When I hold a couple in a deal-breaker tension, I bite my nails along with the couple as we face the potential end of their relationship. My only solace is my faith in the human capacity to create solutions where none seem possible.
It is only under conditions in which partners must choose between this or that and accept their losses that win-win accords can be forged. The PACT therapist must be the villain in this scenario. Forcing partners who have been avoiding their deal-breaker issue to resolve it once and for all is a radical move. However, I believe it is the PACT therapist’s duty to guide couples toward a real future and not conspire in the very human tendency to bend reality in the face of loss.
Copyright © 2003-2014 Stan Tatkin, Psy.D. – all rights reserved
Join me, Allan Schore, Dan Siegel, Sir Richard Bowlby, Philip Bromberg, Pat Ogden, Lou Cozolino, Gay Bradshaw, Alex Katehakis, Drew Pinsky, Margaret Wilkinson, Ruth Lanius, Darcia Narvaez, Jennifer McIntosh, Christopher Kennedy Lawford, and Judith R. Schore for this year’s annual UCLA conference sponsored by Lifespan Learning. UCLA March 14-16 2014, Brochure
by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,
- Thou shalt protect the safety and security of thy relationship at all costs.
- Thou shalt base thy relationship on true mutuality, remembering that all decisions and actions must be good for thee AND for thine partner.
- Thou shalt not threaten the existence of the relationship, for so doing would benefit no one.
- Thou shalt appoint thy partner as go-to person for all matters, making certain thy partner is first to know—not second, third, or fourth—in all matters of importance.
- Thou shalt provide a tether to thy partner all the days and nights of thy life, and never fail to greet thy partner with good cheer.
- Thou shalt protect thy partner in public and in private from harmful elements, including thyself.
- Thou shall put thy partner to bed each night and awaken with thy partner each morning.
- Thou shalt correct all errors, including injustices and injuries, at once or as soon as possible, and not make dispute of who was the original perpetrator.
- Thou shalt gaze lovingly upon thy partner daily and make frequent and meaningful gestures of appreciation, admiration, and gratitude.
- Thou shalt learn thy partner well and master the ways of seduction, influence, and persuasion, without the use of fear or threat.
Tatkin, S. (2011). Ten Commandments for a Secure-Functioning Relationship. In J. K. Zeig & T. Kulbatski (Eds.), For Couples: Ten Commandments for Every Aspect of Your Relationship Journey. Phoenix: Zeig, Tucker & Theisen, Inc. Publishers.
© 2003-2013 Stan Tatkin, Psy.D. — all rights reserved