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With Love from Big Sur: Building the Couple Bubble

By Jason Brand, LCSW
PACT Ambassador, Level 2
jasonbrand.com

On a rainy Sunday afternoon in May, we wrapped up the Wired for Love Couples Retreat at Esalen in Big Sur, California. I assisted Stan Tatkin and Tracey Boldemann-Tatkin with 30 couples who came to find out how PACT can strengthen their relationship. This scenario illustrates how couples learn to shift their focus from self-protecting to strengthening their couple bubble. The couple bubble is a mutually constructed and maintained eco-system that provides protection from an often challenging outside world. 

Friday Evening: Shelter from the Storm

After taking the winding turns of Highway 1 that opened onto the expanse of the Pacific Ocean, Annie and Sam put down their bags and went to Esalen’s natural hot springs. This was their first couples retreat and, on the drive, both admitted to being more than a little nervous. The baths relaxed their bodies. Their minds still raced with the stresses at home and work.

Once Annie and Sam entered the retreat room, it didn’t take long for a familiar pattern to emerge over a little thing with a long history. Annie did not like the seats Sam had chosen. They were going to be too far away to take part in the eventual action at the front of the room. She could have said something, but she worried Sam would accuse her “of turning everything into a big deal.” She settled into her seat, feeling resentful. Again.

Sam was trying to take care of Annie. She had often told him she wished he could be more assertive, so he took the lead and chose their seats. He even set down extra cushions, but Sam felt his usual shyness, a sense of letting Annie down, a lack of understanding how to make any of it better.

This silent bickering had been an annoying buzz in the background of their lives. Now that the PACT team was asking couples to slow down and hold each other’s gaze, they noticed the buzz was undeniably louder than either cared to admit.

***

The close proximity of the eye-gazing exercises on Friday night helped Annie and Sam see that if they were to going to make the world inside their couple bubble a safer place, they had to create a shared vision of how they would engage with the world. Their bubble had to allow Annie the stimulation to feel engaged and Sam the space to feel safe.

Saturday: Some Pain, Big Gain

As the details of the PACT model unfolded, Sam felt a comforting structure take shape. Sam liked structure, especially one that brought relief to arguments that never moved forward. Annie could sense Sam’s analytical mind engage with the information and loved how this allowed him to be more present in the exercises. It gave her hope that they could end the cycle of Sam needing to withdraw and her feeling like she was stuck with all the feelings.

Annie felt emboldened. They had both enjoyed talking to other couples over breakfast and engaging in the morning session. By lunch, things hit a snag. When Sam steered them to a quiet corner table, Annie followed but did not let it slide. She led with a compromise she knew Sam would reject. “We can sit here, but then we have to volunteer to do an exercise in front of the group this afternoon.”

Sam disagreed with a polarizing statement. “You just don’t get it. Sitting at a table for lunch is nothing like opening up our lives to a group of strangers.”

The next thing they knew, their argument began touching on their different approaches to parenting, sex, and money. They retreated to separate corners. The hope they felt that morning was slipping from their grasp.

While this did not feel good, they both noticed changes. The distress on the other person’s face registered with a new clarity. The hurt felt less like it belonged to one person and more like it hurt them as a couple. They both wanted to let go of the power struggle so they could return to how they felt minutes earlier.

The workshop leaders had talked that morning about the importance of quick repair. This was on Annie’s mind as lunch wound down. She did something she never would have thought to do before the retreat. She suggested they take a quiet walk to settle their nervous systems.

In speaking Sam’s language, she saw his face relax, the sparkle return to his eyes. On their way outside, Sam countered with his own bid by pulling Annie’s hand toward a couple from breakfast, suggesting they have dinner together. Annie could not help smiling.

***

Over lunch, Annie and Sam took the leap of faith they needed. Finding the couple bubble in times of distress requires risk; both partners willing to let go of deeply-held individual ways of seeing the world in order to see their partner’s perspective. In offering to walk, Annie showed Sam her willingness to look for value in a quiet approach. In reaching out to the other couple, Sam showed Annie his willingness to experiment with the limits of his internal comfort zone. From this shared place of greater vulnerability, they could open new possibilities as individuals and a couple.

Sunday: Taking It Home

The highlight on Sunday for Annie and Sam was how they cried together during an exercise, imagining their future. Each had shed tears of joy and frustration over the years, but crying together was something they had not done since the birth of their children. As they saw the tears in the other’s eyes and imagined what they would be like in 5, 10, 15 years, they felt the sweetness of all they had been through and the strength to face all that lay ahead.

As the weekend came to a close, Annie and Sam exchanged email addresses with new friends and gave the workshop leaders big hugs. They also agreed before they got into the car to flag anything that felt difficult and pull over to talk. That didn’t take long.

Sam remembered they had invited friends over that night and was excited to tell them about the retreat. Annie had forgotten the plan and was looking forward to a quiet evening. After pulling over so they could be fully attentive to each other, they argued for a moment and then laughed at their shifts in perspective. They agreed to ask their friends to leave early. Sam and Annie came home and greeted their kids with a new swagger. They looked and felt great, proud of themselves and their hard-earned sense of closeness.

***

One of my favorite parts about assisting at PACT retreats is noticing the way couples move toward each other as the weekend progresses. I see it in the focus of their eyes. They arrive with an external and self focus and, by the end of the retreat, they move toward a focus on the couple.

Of course, one retreat is not a cure-all for the challenges in a deeply committed relationship. Couples like Annie and Sam continue to have their struggles. What they experience at the Wired for Love Retreat is the practice of shifting the focus toward the couple. My hope is that they continue to build a sense of excitement and comfort from within their couple bubble.

Love Notes from Piano Camp

By Susan Orenstein, Ph.D.

PACT Level 2 Therapist, PACT Ambassador

orensteinsolutions.com


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.

Repairing Distress through Vulnerability

By Jason Polk, LCSW, LAC 
PACT level II Therapist 
Denver, CO 
https://coloradorelationshiprecovery.com/

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.  

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References 

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.