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Clinton Power, Grad.Dip.Psych.Couns., Gestalt therapist
PACT Level II
When a new couple present to your practice and reveal they are in a polyamorous relationship, you may find the concept of loving multiple people strange, risky, or even fundamentally fraught with problems. The good news is that PACT principles that apply to monogamous couples can be successfully applied to non-monogamous or polyamorous couples.
Non-monogamous couples have sex with other people but are not interested in pursuing dates, romance, or a relationship with their sexual partners. This is often described as an open relationship. In contrast, polyamorous couples hold the premise that one partner cannot meet all their needs and they want to explore having sex or a relationship with someone else. These couples don’t limit themselves to just one person when it comes to affection, romance, flirting, sex, connection, and love. Different configurations can be used for polyamorous relationships, but the most common has a primary relationship, with other relationships that are secondary, or not as important.
When Jill and Stephen showed up in my consulting room, they had been married for 10 years and opened their marriage at the 5-year mark, after reading about the polyamorous lifestyle. They wanted to introduce more novelty and excitement into their relationship. All went smoothly until a year ago, when Stephen started developing very intense feelings for Sonia, a new secondary partner. Jill noticed the love he felt for Sonia was deeper and more intense than what she had seen him show with his other secondary partners. She started to worry that Stephen was going to leave her for Sonia.
As we explored the configuration of their relationship, I realized Stephen and Jill were breaking many of the PACT principles of secure-functioning relationships including:
Put your primary relationship first before all other relationships. Stephen and Jill reported many examples where both partners had put their secondary relationships before their primary relationship. This had caused hurt, bitterness, and resentment that hadn’t been fully discussed or resolved. In our work together, Stephen and Jill started to prioritize each other, which had an immediate soothing effect on their nervous systems and an improvement in their overall relationship.
Have clear relationship boundaries that support the health of the primary relationship. Jill and Stephen never created a joint rules of engagement for their primary and secondary relationships. This meant they weren’t clear about what was okay and what was not okay when it came to seeing other people, causing regular conflict and hurt. In our work together, they created a joint polyamory agreement that laid out what they were each willing to tolerate and not tolerate in their polyamorous relationship.
Go to your primary partner first with important news or life events. Problems were created because Stephen was sharing important news and life events with Sonia first, and sometimes forgetting to tell Jill altogether. This made Jill think she was no longer the most important person in Stephen’s life and fueled her worry that Sonia was more important than her. Once Stephen stopped doing this, Jill started to feel more valued in their relationship.
Manage thirds to protect the primacy of the main relationship. It emerged that Sonia had been undermining the relationship between Jill and Stephen. Even though Stephen knew this, he hadn’t set a firm boundary with Sonia to protect his relationship with Jill, because he was scared of losing Sonia. Stephen started to set firmer boundaries with Sonia to stop this happening. Sonia stopped the undermining behavior and was able to adapt to the new boundaries set by Stephen.
Never threaten the security of the relationship. Over time, Jill felt more threatened by the relationship between Stephen and Sonia. Her response to feeling insecure was to threaten to end their marriage, which led to Stephen feeling distressed and fearful he would lose Jill. Threatening the end of the relationship was the wrong solution and made both feel more insecure. They both committed to not to threaten the end of the relationship, which helped each feel more secure and stable in their primary relationship.
Resolve conflict by finding solutions that work for both partners. This couple could not find solutions to their issues that worked for both of them. Regarding attachment styles, Stephen was an island and Jill was a wave. As soon as Jill was wave-like, Stephen started to retreat and avoid, leaving Jill feeling more isolated. Over time, Stephen developed his tolerance to her wave-like behavior and learned the value of moving in and soothing her, even when he felt like running away. Jill understood that Stephen’s island-like behaviors weren’t personal, and she learned more effective approaches to resolving issues with him that didn’t overwhelm him.
In conclusion, in my experience, polyamorous relationships can work. However, they may be tricky to navigate, and couples need to ensure they’re applying the PACT principles of secure functioning to their primary relationship. As a therapist, it’s essential you put any biases or judgments you have about polyamorous relationships aside when working with these couples. Initial questions you can ask couples include:
- Are you okay with your partner developing romantic relationships with others or do you only want sexual interactions with others?
- Can you have regular sexual partners or do you prefer one-off encounters/hook-ups that are not to be repeated?
- What’s your policy on sharing your sexual experiences: complete transparency, “don’t ask, don’t tell,” or do tell if you’re asked?
- What sexual activities are okay and not okay (e.g., oral sex, kissing, and mutual masturbation are okay, but vaginal or anal intercourse is not).
- What’s your plan for managing safer sex with each other and your other partners?
I encourage you to maintain a stance of curiosity at all times so you can understand the kind of relationship the polyamorous couple want to create. If you apply the secure-functioning principles of PACT, working with these couples can be extremely rewarding as you help them restore healthy functioning and find love in the way they want.
Amanda Woolveridge, M.App.sci.
PACT Level II
John yanked open the curtains at 10:30 am. Light flooded the bedroom as he placed their one-year-old baby on Susanne, who looked bleary eyed and confused as she struggled to wake up. “He’s been asking for you,” John said, before he disappeared downstairs. In his role as house husband, he had decided that Susanne, who had reluctantly returned to full time work after 9 months at home, had slept in long enough for a weekend.
The day was not off to a good start for Susanne. She felt shocked into wakefulness, jarred by the sudden noise and light, confused by the instant demands of her little son, and completely abandoned by John. Because of her complex developmental childhood trauma history, all the alarm bells in her amygdala jangled simultaneously. The stage was set for her to have what John calls “one of her episodes.” She came thundering down the stairs to let him have it, which led to him walking away from her white hot anger in an attempt to diffuse the situation. Which, in turn, led to Susanne feeling even more misunderstood and abandoned. While John could return to homeostasis quite quickly, it took Susanne days to recover her equilibrium. She needed resolution; he, on the other hand, needed to shut down to protect himself. As a result, this couple unwittingly triggered a trauma response that set them off course and kept them from secure functioning.
In therapy, I wanted to level the playing field. However, although I tried to go after John’s triggers with the PACT skills of cross checking, cross questioning, and even going down the middle, initially his defenses remained ironclad. Literally: he participates in Iron Man competitions and has the sturdy barrel chest of those who train extensively. He has a crew cut and a chiseled face, with a frequent don’t-mess-with-me expression. He often leans back in his chair, sometimes with hands behind his head, one leg crossed over the other. A man in charge. Susanne, on the other hand, has an oval face, with a soulful, sometimes bewildered expression about the eyes.
During one session, Susanne talked about John’s parental tone, his over-managing of her life, and his confusing use of humor. She often feels criticized, which he deflects by saying he is “only joking,” causing her considerable confusion. At that point, I looked more closely at John, and I was able to see the little boy behind the man-in-charge. This brought to mind the PACT motto “Go after the baby.” John also has a trauma history, with a violent stepfather and a teenage mother who was trying to grow up while raising little John. So I told him I could see how painful it was to think about his boyhood experiences. Which he denied. Nevertheless, that was the first session in which John’s ironclad defenses wobbled. He said he’d had enough and needed to leave. Susanne said she could not go in the car with him in this ominous mood.
She nodded after I invited her to look at John and realize that this was about him staying safe, not about threatening her.
I turned to him and said, “It’s important for you to be safe, John, I can see that. It makes sense that hearing Susanne thundering down the stairs that morning after you left the baby with her caused you to shut down, given what you experienced when your stepfather stomped down the corridor to your room to punch you so violently you wet yourself. I can really see the pain that young boy John was in; it’s here right now in the room. But right now, it’s important to remember that you are well-equipped to look after that boy, be kind to him. This is now and that was then, and this is different.”
I turned to Susanne and invited her to recognize the boy who was threatening to walk out. He was no menace to her, and was not her father at all.
I reminded them both of the PACT principle that they were in each other’s care, and that to walk out wouldn’t help them feel safe. It was important to take a breath and come back to their senses, to this moment, to look at each other’s eyes. Something shifted after this session, and they reported having a really good conversation a few days later about how to take better care of each other. During the next session, they were able to do the PACT exercise called Lovers’ Pose to help them move beyond their defences and their triggers, and build trust between them.
Jason Polk, LCSW, LAC
PACT Level II
There is no magic bullet to maintaining and raising children within a blended family (a family with children from multiple relationships), and I am not an expert in the finer points of day-to-day interactions in a blended family. But while working with couples who have blended families, I have observed that they do better when they follow one basic principle: they hold each other as primary in the relationship—or we could say, as the king and queen of the household.
This may sound straightforward enough, but it is not always easy to put into practice, especially because overt and covert allegiances and alliances are often formed among each partner’s own children within the blended family. In therapy, parents often justify these allegiances and alliances by recounting the numerous difficulties they have been through with their respective children. For example, one partner may feel guilty about how his or her children had to experience several years of a difficult marriage (and ultimately divorce) with the children’s other parent (now the ex). Parents may be overly protective and give preferential treatment and resources to their own children, while neglecting their partner and stepchildren. I have heard one partner say in front of the other, “My child is the most important person to me.”
Fundamentally, there is nothing wrong with this sentiment. Your children should be very, very, very important to you. However, you become a better parent—and thus better able to serve your own children and stepchildren—by making the relationship with your adult partner primary.
The primary partner (the person you married, or are cohabitating with) is the one who is best able to regulate your emotions and best able to take care of you. Children should not be put into a position to take care of their parents, and they are not very good at the job. Partners put themselves in the best position to receive care by demonstrating and expressing to each other that their relationship is primary. If one partner feels demoted, or that he or she is losing to the children, that partner will be less likely to provide support to the other, and consequently, problems are more likely to ensue.
Tom and Jenn came to therapy with the goal of learning communication techniques to deal with their teenage daughter. Tom had a 16-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, and Tom and Jenn have a 4-year-old son together. Tom felt guilt about what his daughter had to endure during his first marriage and what she faces now: a rotating weekend schedule, as well as Jenn’s frustration because she thinks his daughter is wildly disrespectful and entitled.
On the surface this may seem complicated, but it soon became clear that what they needed wasn’t specific communication skills per se, but rather just to hold each other as primary. They had stopped taking care of and supporting each other in favor of becoming entrenched in what they perceived as the best course for parenting within these circumstances. They had grown apart and shut out their most powerful ally for their predicament: each other.
In PACT, there is an exercise called the king and queen pose that is effective with affairs, but I also found it effective for Tom and Jenn. During a therapy session, I had Tom move to his knees, hold Jenn’s hands, and look up into her eyes and say, “You are my queen…” It was as if Jenn had been waiting a very long time to hear something like that. Her demeanor softened, and her eyes became teary. When it was Jenn’s turn, I had her say to Tom, “You are my king…” Hearing this, Tom softened, as well. It was as if he had been waiting a long time to put down his heavy shield.
Thus, the cornerstone of their therapy was to remind each other of their royalty (i.e., to each other as king and queen). Their reactions to the pose signaled what was missing and what they yearned for. Tom and Jenn needed to learn how to take the armor off and allow themselves to be positively influenced by each other—to allow space for their royalty to come through. This involved learning ways to take care of and soothe each other, being the first to know about important matters, as well as understanding that all important family decisions are decided together—including the best way to handle their daughter.
Because they had more appreciation and intimacy in their relationship, they had more resources to work with their daughter. They reported feeling better with their daughter and started to observe improvements in her behavior. Tom and Jenn discovered they were more powerful and effective operating together and making their relationship primary. That was the best thing they could do for their kids.
Eda Arduman, Ma.
PACT Level II therapist
Agreeing to disagree can be easier said than done. Some people believe that their beliefs and values constitute their character, and thus can’t be changed. But a relationship in which change is disallowed will not be successful in the long term. The process of understanding a partner—including the risk of having to change in unexpected ways—can be bewildering. For example, who takes the leadership role? Who follows? The couple must learn to negotiate their differences, as well as any resulting conflicts, while creating and maintaining secure functioning.
I work in Istanbul, a city that bridges two continents, and cross-cultural couples are common in my practice. I want to share one example. Roland is Belgian, and Didem is Turkish. They met while students at a university in London, and have been married for 13 years, with two children. She works as an executive, he as a consultant. They joint parent very well and have no financial problems, and their sex life is fine. However, Didem started to complain about feelings of loneliness. She reported in couple therapy that she gave Roland feedback about how he could communicate better with her and be more expressive, but he resisted her efforts. He, however, insisted there was no problem.
As a PACT-trained therapist, I aim to guide couples toward secure functioning, and to do so in a way that allows them to jointly discover what this principle could mean for them. Instead of taking what a couple say at its surface value, I continually track their neurobiological cues and microexpressions to uncover the truth.
My work with Didem and Roland advanced through three stages as I guided them toward secure functioning. First, we created a relational space that allowed Roland to really connect with Didem’s loneliness.
Second, building on this, Didem was able to realize how lonely Roland himself was, as someone who lives in a foreign country. Because communications between them occurs in what is to him a foreign language, he is never sure if he is on the right track or not. As a result of this dynamic, Didem became more dominant and he became more passive and withdrawn during the 14 years of their marriage.
Finally, I led them in a real-time exercise so they could reflect in a playful way on the polarized patterns of activity and passivity in their relationship. I asked Roland to blindfold Didem and take her on a walk through the room. He barked clear, curt orders at her, and when she resisted, he said, “Trust me.” Each time he mentioned trust, and she followed him obediently, I was reminded of the walk of shame in Game of Thrones.
After they completed the exercise, Didem said she felt safe with Roland and that she loved when he touched her. He looked at me victoriously.
I then questioned why Roland had used curt commands. He said he had no patience for people who don’t trust. At this point, Didem burst into tears and was able to share her feelings of rejection when he treated her in that manner. Until then, she had hidden her frustration because she felt guilt for having moved Roland to her country, and for any unhappiness that caused him. She had let her resentment build in isolation from him. At the same time, he felt increasingly distant and started to passively resist even more. The result was a pseudo-secure relationship that lacked honesty. The ability to tolerate conflict was also lacking.
In terms of PACT attachment styles, Roland was an anchor, veering when under stress toward island, and Didem an anchor veering toward wave. Her fear of intimidating him had caused her to repress her needs for expression. He, on the other hand, needed his space and felt he did not fit into her emotional climate. They were frozen in their assumptions about themselves and each other, and moving farther and farther apart. As a result of therapy, they are now actively seeking ways to allow their joint space to expand so they can feel less threatened by their differences, and can agree to disagree in a manner that enriches their relationship.
Krista Jordan, Ph.D., ABPP
PACT Level III candidate
“He doesn’t find me attractive,” she lamented, eyes cast downward toward his shoes.
My interest as this couple’s therapist was piqued: the woman before me could easily be mistaken for a model. I turned to him and said, “Tell her what you find attractive about her.”
After an uncomfortable pause, he offered, “I like her hair; it’s dark.”
I felt confused. What about her eyes? Lips? She looked even more dejected, focusing intently on the carpet. “What else?” I queried.
He seemed to be searching for a lost item. “Um, her back is really toned.”
I could see her collapsing further, the corners of her mouths starting to droop. “What about her face?”
He paused. “Um, I like her eyes. They’re kind.”
I began to wonder if we had stumbled upon a deficit. I turned to him and said, “Describe your daughter’s face.”
“She has dark hair, and it’s long. And she’s lanky, tall.”
I turned to his wife and asked, “Does he think your daughter is pretty?”
“Oh yes!” she exclaimed.
I locked eyes with her and said, “He can’t describe her face, just as he can’t describe yours. His brain doesn’t do that well. That’s a deficit.” I explained that his brain does not lock onto facial features, and that has nothing to do with her.
She brightened and looked at him for the first time since the discussion began. “So you do find me attractive?”
“Yes! I’ve just never been good at describing people.”
I could see affect rising in her, and turned to him. “What’s going on with her?” I asked.
“She’s sad I have this deficit.”
“No,” she said, “I’m sad because I’m thinking of middle school when everyone was getting crushes, but no one paid attention to me. I thought, ‘I’m never going to get married because I’m not pretty enough.’ In college, I finally got attention. Boyfriends said I was pretty, and I felt maybe I was okay after all. But you never complimented me like that. I dealt with it because you treated me well and I loved you, but it still hurt.”
I turned to him and said, “Do you see the childhood wound?”
“Yes,” he said, moving closer and taking her hand.
“Tell her she’s beautiful,” I said.
He looked right at her and said, “You’re beautiful!”
She still looked like she was holding back a bit, so I asked him, “How did that land?”
“I don’t think she trusts it.”
I said I agreed. “You need to step it up. Tell her how much you love her eyes, her cheeks, her lips.”
He moved in even closer and echoed my words. I saw relief and pleasure in her face, and asked him, “How is she now?”
He said, “She looks a lot better. Happier!”
When this couple left the session arm in arm, they both had a completely new narrative for their past seven years. They also had a new map to navigate this territory in the future. They had shared an experience that was reparative to both of them. He felt understood rather than judged, and felt empowered to do better by his partner with his newfound knowledge. She felt loved in a way that was reparative of a deep childhood wound that no one meeting her today could have guessed existed.
Without using PACT, I would not have been able to facilitate this beautiful transaction. PACT has taught me to look for deficits as well as defenses, and to generate hypotheses about why people act as they do. I test my hypotheses using interactions I can see and track right there in the session. Finally, and most powerful of all, I then share the data I gathered with the couple who just experienced the event. I show them that “the devil is in the details.” With those details, couples who were lost in misplaced narratives about why their relationships were failing can finally heal, and can do so while maintaining the dignity of both parties.
Susan B. Saint-Rossy, LCSW
PACT Level III candidate
Most couples who come to me identify their main problem as lack of or poor communication. Many times, couples believe that if they just learned to communicate properly, their relationship would be “fixed.” Thus, various therapeutic schools have come up with techniques (e.g., active listening, the use of “I” statements) to give order to a messy, complicated process. From the PACT perspective, these approaches can oversimplify a couple’s situation.
PACT recognizes that communication is complex, nonlinear, and multidimensional—much like poetry. Couples’ communication includes the symbolic language of words, micro-expressions, body language, tone of voice, and other elements. There is no one-to-one correlation between words and meaning, or words and intent.
Considering a couple’s communication with each other to be a poem (with all its symbolism, emotion, heightened sensitivity, and multiple layers of meaning) has helped me understand the PACT therapist’s role and therapeutic stance.
Beatrice and Mel, who are in their fifties and have been married for 18 years, came to me with communication issues as their main problem. The following dialogue occurred in our first session:
Beatrice: Happens all the time over really small decisions or incidents.
Me: (to Mel): Do you know what she’s referring to?
Mel: Yes, but I can’t think of . . .
Beatrice: Like this morning. I asked him if he wanted eggs and toast for breakfast. This one (pointing at Mel) ignored me.
Mel: (very quietly, looking at me, jaw grinding) I said it didn’t matter.
Beatrice: (loudly, with movement in all four limbs) You said it didn’t matter after I asked you at least three times.
Mel: You know what I like for breakfast. So why do you ask? Besides, I can make my own breakfast. You don’t need to make breakfast for me.
Beatrice continued to discuss, with great intensity, how angry she gets when this kind of thing happens. Mel continued to downplay the event, saying Beatrice can get upset about almost anything he does or doesn’t say or do. He just didn’t want her to fix his breakfast. What’s the big deal?
Before I was a PACT therapist, I would have probably lost my patience in this situation. I may have even interrupted because I thought it was going nowhere. Now I know that my job is to look for symbolism; imagery; and evocative language in the words, voice, and nonverbal expressions—to let the poem unfold. I wait, watch, and listen. I take in the emotional tenor of the moment without becoming part of it. I “read the poem” to get my inspiration about what is going on and what to do next.
In this case, I saw that, for Beatrice, asking Mel what he wanted for breakfast is an expression of her wanting to have breakfast with him. Unfortunately, Mel didn’t realize that breakfast is not just breakfast to Beatrice, but is symbolic of much that Beatrice feels she is missing in the marriage.
In poetry, a symbol is an action, object, word, or phrase that takes on a different meaning(s) that is deeper and more significant than the original. In my aha moment with Beatrice and Mel, my contribution to their poem became clear: I could help them understand the richness underneath their communications, as illustrated in this graph:
Just as a student of poetry looks at theme, structure, symbolism, cadence, rhythm, the poet’s life, and any other applicable variables, as a therapist, I take in all the couple’s the words, voices, facial expressions, and movements, as well as my own emotional responses. My inspiration comes, and I decide how I can help shape the poem to take the couple to a more safe and secure-functioning place.
Margaret Martin, LCSW, SEP
PACT Level III candidate
When I started my career, I was a dyed-in-the-wool individual therapist, with little or no interest in couple therapy. My master’s program offered minimal education in couple therapy, and because I had no plans to pursue that, I assumed my training in couples’ work would end there. But then a friend convinced me that taking the PACT training would help me grow as an individual therapist. What began as a tepid dipping of my toes into the pool of couple therapy evolved into a dive into a deep, fulfilling sea. Not only do I love my work with couples, but my training as a couple therapist has enhanced my work with individuals.
The principles that make up the foundation of PACT apply to all kinds of relationships, not just romantic partnerships. Individual clients bring their struggles with partners, ex-spouses, friends, coworkers, parents, and children. Although the PACT approach helps therapists support individual clients in their romantic partnerships, the fundamental principle of PACT—moving couples toward secure-functioning relationships—also applies to a variety of relationship dyads.
Couple therapists sometimes describe encounters with individual therapists who seem to unintentionally undermine the work of couple therapy. This occurs most frequently when an individual therapist, in an effort to support a client, backs the client by throwing the client’s partner under the bus. This does a grave disservice to the client and can be detrimental to the couple relationship. In contrast, individual therapists trained in PACT offer a more balanced perspective when helping clients with difficult relationships, even if seeing couples never becomes part of their practice.
The PACT model supports therapists taking a pro-relationship stance. This means a belief in putting the needs of the relationship first, before individual needs. Being pro-relationship includes an understanding that in a healthy relationship, what’s good for one is good for the other. Having adopted this mindset, I look at the dynamics of relationships differently than I did in the past. Consequently, I have a different approach with individual clients regarding their relationships. When I take a pro-relationship stance, I avoid blaming one individual for relational discord, and recognize instead that both parties in the relationship contribute to conflict and misunderstandings. By bringing my pro-relationship stance to individual sessions, I better help clients test old beliefs about relationships and develop new ways of looking at their partners and their relationship dynamics.
Before becoming a couple therapist, I periodically bought into my individual clients’ narratives about their partners. In those instances, I accepted at face value the client’s description of his or her partner as being insensitive, lacking empathy, or being just an out-and-out jerk. In so doing, I was complicit in the client’s drawing of a line in the sand of the relationship. I hadn’t learned to ask classic PACT questions, such as, “What do you know about your partner’s childhood that would make him respond that way? Who treated him like that as a child?” In couples’ sessions, PACT therapists use these kinds of questions to help couples look beyond the knee-jerk reactions they have to their partner’s behavior (“he’s a jerk”). They begin to see any number of other possible explanations for a partner’s unwanted behavior. For example, one partner may realize that his wife’s inability to apologize and make a repair following an argument stems from no one ever having done that for her as a child, rather than “she’s a jerk.”
I now use this same curiosity and inquiry with individual clients regarding their complaints about partners (and siblings, coworkers, friends, parents). As a result, I see the change in clients’ negative views of their partners. By challenging their narrow assumptions and tendency to label, clients develop a better understanding of their loved one. This shift in my approach helps clients develop their own pro-relationship stance and move toward secure-functioning relationships.
Carolyn Sharp, LICSW
Pact Level III candidate
We all know the scene: a couple begin discussing a current challenge for them and are quickly down the rabbit hole of past injuries. “Why do you keep bringing that up?”
Jenny and Michelle have had a tumultuous relationship. They met right after college, fell in love quickly, and married after a year. They soon moved internationally for Jenny’s work, which was possible because Michelle had told Jenny her own work was mobile. However, Jenny soon discovered that Michelle had hidden things from her during their courtship, and lied about her work and financial history. These breaches led to a crisis and eventually divorce.
When Jenny and Michelle came to therapy, they had reconciled and were in a hurry to return to their earlier romantic feelings. However, in session, their discussion inevitably returns to the original injury. When they look to me in frustration, I ask if the original wound was ever repaired, and the room falls quiet. “Well, what am I supposed to do?” Michelle asks. “It was ten years ago!” Jenny says.
We know from our studies in PACT that injuries must be tended to quickly so they do not enter into procedural memory. Strong eye contact, physical touch, and the right words can soothe many hurts and create connection. Error correction is one of the strongest means of building connection: we demonstrate our willingness to be vulnerable to our partner, we show our partner that he or she is more important to us than being right, and we put the health of the relationship above all else.
However, we often form relationships without having learned what it means to adequately repair injury. As a result, many couples carry built-up hurts, both big (affairs and large betrayals) and small (repeated slights). It is common for couples to have unattended injuries in a relationship, without any idea how to mend them successfully. Couples often avoid dealing directly with these wounds because of shame and regret for their mistakes or fear of old pain resurfacing. When triggered, old hurts—both within the couple and from their early life—pop back up, and couples often retreat into exasperation and hopelessness. The PACT therapist’s job is to confront the injuries the couple want to avoid; only by leveraging the pain can true repair occur.
Reenacting hurtful conversations in extremely slow motion helps couples see how these injuries have become stored in the automatic brain. Viewing injuries as stored, and responses to them as automatic, begins to reduce shame and defensiveness, opening the door to curiosity and compassion. Continued practice with declarations, using face-to-face attention and careful recognition of changes in each partner, promotes inquiry into whatever is driving the reaction. Learning to lead with relief facilitates a sense of safety and trust.
As Jenny and Michelle return over and over to the incidences of dishonesty, secrecy, and attack that marred their early relationship, gradual change occurs. Michelle is slowly getting better at dropping the explanations when she sees the hurt that comes out as flashes of anger and accusation. She says, “I’m so sorry for all the secrets I kept from you, Jenny. I know it hurt you. I am sorry. I love you.” And Jenny is learning to drop the escalations and insults she used to get Michelle’s attention and instead to take in her apologies without shame. She says, “Thank you. I know you didn’t mean it. I’m sorry for not making more space for you to tell me in your own way. I’m sorry for being judgmental about your ways of doing things. I love you.”
With practice, protecting the self from feelings of inadequacy and shame becomes secondary to providing whatever a partner needs to feel safe in the relationship. In return, receiving such care allows the injured one to drop the attack: he or she no longer needs to shame his or her partner again for the old injury. Both partners can receive care and provide soothing in return. Over time, this mutuality of care leads to healing the ghosts of injuries past, and to a much stronger connection in the present.
By Lindsey Walker, LMFT
PACT Level II practitioner
You’re lying in bed, curled to one side, your blankets pulled up tight and cozy. It’s cool and quiet, and the night has long fallen around you. “Ah, sweet slumber,” you think, “just moments away.” But wait, what’s this? Your mind is racing as if you’ve just had your morning cup, and your heart is fluttering to match. You’re far from slowing down, yet a little voice inside keeps trying to convince you it is time for bed and you’ll be drifting off to sleep in no time.
If only you and your partner hadn’t just had that fight.
Mere inches away, the love of your life is also pretending to sleep. What a fantastic game of charades you find yourselves in—each keeping up your act while guessing if the other is actually sleeping or is just lying there and waiting. You both want the other to reach out, say something, do something, acknowledge the other’s existence. But pride gets the better of you, and neither one of you moves.
Tick. Tock. The minutes are eating away at your much-needed rest. Thankfully, long before the morning light, it dawns on you that the best way to get your precious Zs is to show your partner some sign that you are still in it together—to offer relief.
You realize you have a choice. You don’t have to listen to the voice that says, “Okay, I’ll lie here until I pass out, and we can deal in the morning. And, boy, will I have won this if I can fall asleep, having gotten in those smart remarks.”
Instead, you can tell yourself, “Reach out. Touch her. It will be okay. Really. Let her know that you love her and care for her. You can make her feel better…”
Only the second option is pro-relationship. It allows for quick repair in a way that is beneficial to both of you. Many couples do not realize that winning an argument often looks different from what they imagine. It’s not about one person ending up the champ and the other knocked out, bloodied, down for the count on the floor of the ring. To really win in a relationship, both partners need to win. And on occasion, both need to lose.
Many couples who come in for therapy find this kind of pro-relationship stance tricky to envision. They are used to a winner-loser model of arguing, which is usually rooted in some kind of unfairness they experienced growing up. PACT offers tools to help them realize they do have a choice in their relationship.
Specifically—and paradoxically—devotion to your partner’s well-being is more supportive and more protective, and offers more opportunities for growth for you, than does putting yourself first. If you and your partner have conflicts that leave you with sleepless nights, a PACT therapist may guide you through a reenactment of the night’s events. This will slow down what happened so you can gain valuable insight not only about your partner, but also about your own thoughts and feelings. You will have the opportunity to move away from your wired-in, habitual reactions that are focused on self-preservation and to move toward greater mutuality.
A PACT therapist is also adept at guiding you through the powerful arena of touch so you can discover each other’s sensitivities and strengthen your ability to feel and understand what is soothing for the other. This enables each partner to truly become an expert at helping the other be calm in an anxious moment. By choosing a simple, friendly touch, you both begin to melt. Your bodies respond to the connection—slowing, calming, comforting, and bringing you back to a place where you can really talk, listen, and be open to one another.
If you are able to use simple touch after that late-night argument, and just hold one another to make amends, you have at your disposal a powerful means of quick repair. Then, soon after, you will both drift off to a restful night’s sleep.
By Rachel Holland, DClinPsych,
PACT core faculty
Dan and Jane have been married for thirty years and have three sons. They came into therapy following a challenging time in their lives after they faced a number of health, family, and work problems in quick succession. Jane had also suffered a recent traumatic event and was struggling with posttraumatic hyperarousal. She was sensitive to noise and crowds and felt that nowhere was safe anymore. Both Dan and Jane were distressed and looked exhausted in response to these events. Their relationship had become adversarial and verbally aggressive, and they felt like they were “on eggshells” with each other. Both were seeing individual therapists for support, as well as seeking couple therapy.
My initial ideas about this couple included issues related to allostatic load (i.e., the cumulative burden on the nervous system from multiple chronic stressors; McEwen & Seeman, 1999), unresolved trauma, and dissociation in response to multiple traumatic events that were out of their control. I also had a sense they had the potential to be resilient and collaborative.
I took Dan and Jane through the Partner Attachment Inventory (PAI), an intervention tool PACT therapists use to foster engagement. They listened to each other’s attachment narratives and caregiver responses to their bids for care. While they both had experiences of being well fed and having clean clothes, an education, and health care, their descriptions of being loved by parents were patchy. Dan, in particular, was often left to attend to his emotional needs alone.
The couple were also able to hear each other report a number of traumatic events dating back to childhood and young adulthood, in addition to the recent events. They were surprised during this process because they had not been aware of some of the events that the other faced.
The PACT therapist leads with relief. This means that the couple, particularly after the first session, should leave with some contextual understanding and a shift in arousal that gives them a sense of hope. PACT is a bottom-up method, but also includes top-down interventions, such as interpretation and psychoeducation.
In this case, I offered Dan and Jane the explanation that following a traumatic event, the amygdala, the smoke detector of our brain, is hypersensitive to threat and will respond to neutral signals, let alone threatening ones. Essentially, a partner in a state of fear and dysregulation presents as psychobiologically frightening to his or her partner. Partners start to “walk on eggshells,” which paradoxically makes them look more predatory to their partner’s frightened and overwhelmed nervous system. As a result, the relationship becomes a place in which no one feels safe, confirming the partners’ earlier experiences that relationships are not to be trusted.
My initial goal in working with Dan and Jane was to establish safety though arousal regulation by working toward relaxed quiet-love states so they could begin think in a contingent manner (Siegel, 1999). Rather than having Dan and Jane tell me about their problems, I invited them to show me their struggles in real time.
They reenacted a scene in which Jane was sitting, staring into space. Dan noticed and came over to her to attempt to wake her up. He started talking at her about plans for their garden in an attempt to engage her. Jane exploded at him, gesticulating and shouting. He looked distressed and retreated back into the house. Jane said that what she really wanted was for him to come closer and hold her.
I interpreted Jane for Dan, and explained that people can dissociate, or space out, in response to overwhelming emotions. A partner can look apparently normal, but be in a state of deep distress (Nijenhuis, Van der Hart, & Steele, 2004). Dan was concerned about Jane, but his attempt to pop her out of a dissociated state backfired. His retreat made sense, given his attachment style and his current distress.
I gave Dan and Jane a chance to reenact this experience again, encouraging them to slow down, and inviting Dan to approach Jane gently. He did this by reaching for her hand, holding it for some time, and then with a quiet prompt from me, saying her name softly. She warmed to him and slowly lifted her gaze to his. As their arousal level fell, they continued to hold hands. I watched, waited, and then invited them to find each other’s eyes if they could. They gazed into each other’s eyes and were able to hold the pose. I used corralling comments, such as “You’re in each other’s care” and “You’re safe together,” to help them move further into a quiet, relaxed, and loving state.
For couples affected by trauma, a romantic relationship has the potential to further kindle trauma and retraumatize. Instead, the PACT therapist can support the traumatized couple by working with arousal regulation and attachment style to guide them to find safety and security in their relationship. The romantic relationship thus becomes the couple’s posttrauma secure base.
McEwen, B. S., & Seeman, T. (1999). Protective and damaging effects of mediators of stress: Elaborating and testing the concepts of allostasis and allostatic load. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 896, 30–47.
Nijenhuis, E. R. S., Van der Hart, O., & Steele, K. (2004). Trauma-related structural dissociation of the personality. Retrieved from http://www.trauma-pages.com/a/nijenhuis-2004.php
Siegel, D. J. (1999). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. New York, NY: Guilford Press