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The Poetry of Couple Communication

Susan B. Saint-Rossy, LCSW
PACT Level III candidate
Ashburn, VA
www.relationship-therapist.com

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:

Screen Shot 2017-08-14 at 12.17.16 PM

Just as a student of poetry looks at theme, structure, symbolism, cadence, rhythm, the poets 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.

 

Using PACT in Individual Therapy: A Pro-Relationship Stance 

Margaret Martin, LCSW, SEP
PACT Level III candidate
Austin, TX
margaretmartinlcsw.com

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.

The Ghosts of Injuries Past

Carolyn Sharp, LICSW
Pact Level III candidate
www.carolynsharp.com

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.

Choose a Win-Win Resolution With Your Partner

By Lindsey Walker, LMFT
PACT Level II practitioner
Seattle, WA
http://www.lindseywalker.com

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.

Working With Traumatized Couples Using PACT

By Rachel Holland, DClinPsych,
PACT core faculty
Buckinghamshire, UK
rachelholland@thepactinstitute.com

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.

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References

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

 

The PACT Therapeutic Stance

by Melissa Ferrari – Dip. of Couns.& Comm/Adv. Dip in Transactional Analysis
PACFA Clinically Registered  Psychotherapist & Couple Therapist
PACT LEVEL III Practitioner
Sydney, Australia

I love being a couple therapist, and after 18 years, I am pretty confident I know what I’m doing—mostly. What I love about the work is the sense of honor I feel when a couple engage me in their process and I can help them create a better relationship. Each and every time I embark on that journey, I commit to it fully and I give it my all. It is such a privilege.

As you can imagine, I’ve learned many skills and worked with a range of modalities. Some of these have stayed with me, but many have been left behind. Not only is it my professional responsibility to stay on top of what’s new in clinical practice and what the clinical evidence tells us about what works and what doesn’t, but for me it’s also important to keep learning, to stay fresh and connected as a way of keeping the work alive.

Keeping the work alive and trusting the evidence is a big part of what drew me to training in PACT. Having studied levels I and II, I’ve used the techniques time and time again—so much so that PACT has proven itself to me. I’ve now completed one module of level III, and I am so confident the approach is a good fit that I am committed to working toward certification.

What makes me so certain about PACT? It’s been really rewarding clinically, and the concept of pushing couples through the funnel of secure functioning has been the most containing way of working as a couple therapist I have experienced. PACT has settled me and provided the right frame for me to grow in confidence and effectiveness. For me, it comes down to holding the steady concept of secure functioning and using this to contain my work. Trusting this process has led to success with couples, no matter what their issues may be, in ways I could not have imagined.

I don’t like sounding evangelical, but I have to say the PACT process simply works! And it works across the gamut of issues with which couples grapple. Whether it’s dealing with the devastation of an affair, the pain of financial pressures, corrosive mistrust, or the trap of addiction cycles, PACT cuts through the noise and guides the couple in how to pay attention to each other so attunement becomes their primary objective.

The benefits that result from looking, watching, and observing each other and integrating these skills into daily life are the creation of a mindful environment, which in turn promotes growth for the couple. It’s very powerful to observe.

PACT has increased my confidence as a therapist and taken my foundation of strong skills and lifted me to the next level. In my work, this translates into the faith that I am able to take on a couple for therapy even if they present as complex (e.g., couples in which one or both have personality disorders). I no longer feel concerned that a personality disorder may emerge in therapy or that it will become too hard to manage the therapy. The frame of secure functioning can be used on any couple who want a more rewarding relationship, filled with trust and security. I am very grateful for the PACT approach, and while I believe it’s an approach that works best for certain types of therapists, for me, the glove fits perfectly.  

Restoring Love with the Scaffold of Secure Functioning

by Eda Arduman, Ma., clinical psychologist couple therapist
Level 2 PACT therapist
Istanbul Bilgi University clinical supervisor instructor
Clinical Psychology MFT Master Program

It has been said that intimate relationships are not for the faint hearted, yet research shows us time and time again that the pleasure and reliability of relationships provide us with the resiliency to overcome the challenges life often presents. Some of the hurdles life throws are external (e.g., an economic crisis or severe illness of a loved one or divorce of parents) and others are internal (e.g., states of ambivalence, self-sabotage, and depression). Sometimes an external event spurs an internal reaction that interrupts movement; the braking mechanism acts as a counterforce to expansion and results in contraction.

The PACT therapist works with couples in severe conflict who are responding at a pace at which their minds cannot keep up with their words. The couple are trying to say things to each other, but their brains are simply registering each other’s microexpressions, tone of voice, and gestures. The more they try to talk, the more things spiral out of control. Though humorous in a Woody Allen movie, remaining in a state of high arousal for a prolonged period of time with no resolution can take a heavy toll on both partners.

Ferhat and Şirin came to therapy when their son was a year and a half old. They were stuck in a cycle of discontentment. Until the birth of their son, they shared hobbies and had a satisfying relationship. Now, however, they frequently argued about parenting responsibilities and time spent together or apart. Both have the insecure attachment style PACT refers to as island, and thus they were in the habit of solving problems through individualistic solutions. “Let’s just be happy alone” was their motto.

During our initial session, it came out that Şirin had survived a life-threatening bike accident just before her pregnancy. A car hit and nearly killed her. During the debriefing process, she claimed that what bothered her most was not the accident itself but seeing the bike totaled. She had lost all desire to buy or even ride another bike. She had no idea her loss of interest might be the result of trauma.

Having trained in Eye Movement Desensıtızatıon Reprocessing (EMDR), I decided to apply EMDR in conjunction with my PACT skills. EMDR protocol requires the patient to establish a safe haven in his or her mind. The corresponding PACT protocol entails using the partner as the safe retreat and moving the couple toward secure functioning. I had Sirin sit on Ferhat’s lap because face-to-face interaction was too dysregulating for both of them while in high-arousal states. He was able to hug her back with his body and stroke her arms with open palms in a firm manner.

The exploration went fairly smoothly until we came to the memory of another bike. Sirin’s face became still, and she started trembling and had difficulty following the movement of my hand—all signs of the disorganized-type dysregulatıon. She froze and started to talk about the bike her parents bought her when she was 13, at the same time they told her they were getting divorced. Her face lost affect and her hand began to shake. Even though her body was trembling, her voice and words were dissociated from the rest of her body. She continued to talk about the bike her parents had given her and how she used to ride off to freedom on it.

Noticing the dissociation, her husband moved forward and started to stroke her face. This annoyed her, and she brushed him off. With my support, he began rubbing her arms and knees as she continued to talk about the bike. I urged him to stroke her with wide palms because small finger brushes were ticklish for her. She started to shake and sob. She moved onto her husband’s lap, where he held her firmly as she continued to share how her life changed following her parents’ divorce.

As they jointly calmed down, Sirin and Ferhat were able to move into the fear they had regarding their own relationship. The ruined bike symbolized the loss of an internal as well as external vehicle that took Sirin to freedom. The ruin of the bike, followed by multiple surgeries and months of immobility, and then her pregnancy and all the infant-related responsibilities had resulted in her internally and externally relinquishing her freedom. This resulted in her coming to the unconscious, erroneous conclusion that her husband was the guardian to the jail her traumas had constructed.

Working with PACT allowed Sirin to experience that freedom was possible with her husband. Having built a scaffold of secure functioning, the couple were able to complete the cycle of rupture and repair at a real level, without falling into old habits. They expressed a new felt intimacy and trust, which had been missing in their relationship since the accident.

Mentor Couples

by Allison Howe, LMHC
PACT Level II practitioner
Saratoga Springs, NY
Email: ahowelmhc@gmail.com

Do you and your partner have any mentor couples in your lives? A number of couples in my practice report that they don’t have a mentor couple in their social or support network. Yet mentor couples are important because they model the principles of secure functioning. They protect each other in our presence, and we can see and learn from the fair and sensitive ways in which they interact.

Years ago, my husband and I met such a couple, Rhonda and Pat, and they advised us to not become “married singles.” We didn’t fully know what they meant, although now we do. Married singles are partners who are married but spend little time together. They operate mainly as a one-person system. PACT therapists believe couples can design their marriage in any way they see fit. If the design works for both individuals, the marriage can flourish. My husband and I saw that spending time together kept Rhonda and Pat grounded and helped them thrive. For example, they wrote, “2005 held some adventures for us but we never wander far from the most important part of our lives—our family.”

PACT therapists work to help partners clarify who they are as a couple and what they are doing together in life. More specifically, they clarify what they truly value in their life together. Rhonda and Pat both deeply value their professional careers. When they were in their fifties, they began to notice they were spending too much time at work. They told us, “We realize that we need to stop and smell the roses.” This is a common issue in couple therapy; PACT refers to it as management of thirds. The couple have a limited amount of resources with which to care for one another and their relationship. When resources are spent in areas outside the relationship, the relationship can be compromised. Rhonda and Pat addressed this by choosing to make changes that allowed them to spend more time outside work doing things they enjoyed together. This included gardening, traveling, and spending time with family and friends.

Woodworking has been a lifelong hobby for Pat, and he recently completed a conference table for his office. Hobbies bring such satisfaction and meaning to life, yet they can compete for relationship resources in some partnerships. It was clear that Rhonda and Pat were not going to let that happen, as Rhonda shared, “I’m now beginning to turn wood. Took a private lesson and made my first bowl.”

One of the treasures Rhonda and Pat found in marriage is how to create novel experiences together. One year, they shared, “We spent hours on vacation viewing art. It was awe inspiring.” They cruised the Greek isles and said, “We felt like a king and queen.” PACT therapists are trained in the fundamentals of neurobiology and know that after courtship ends, the brain will categorize a partner as familiar and familial. One of the challenges for couples is to keep the flame of vitality burning. Our mentor couple showed us that having shared experiences that are pleasurable is a great way to fuel our partnership.

Recently, they celebrated 39 years of marriage. Rhonda wrote in their most recent greeting card, “We hope to go at least another 39. We are as happy today as we were on day one. In fact, it seems like just yesterday that he was wooing me. Nice thing is that he stills woos me whether it is with flowers or a balloon or having the house work done when arrive home from a business trip. I wooed him with my cooking while we were dating and I’m still cooking his favorite dishes today. Maybe this on-going wooing will result in getting us through the next 39 years.” Wooing is a courtship behavior but can fall off the grid in many marriages. PACT recommends that couples attract one another with friendliness, compassion, interest, and understanding to move relationships, instead of using fear, shame, or guilt.

Our mentor couple are thriving, and they truly epitomize how a secure-functioning relationship can withstand the test of time. Mentor couples can guide and inspire other couples by the unspoken sense of safety and security that exists in their union. A couple striving to form a secure-functioning relationship can be greatly supported by being in the company of a mentor couple.

Working with Challenging Couples 

by Elaine G. Tuccio, LCSW, PACT faculty, Austin, TX
Email: etuccio@sbcglobal.net

Challenging couples are difficult to work with if all the therapist knows to do is referee the flow of conversation and inappropriate behaviors. PACT-trained therapists, on the other hand, have numerous therapeutic tools that can be used to move these couples toward secure functioning.

For example, the PACT therapist sees acting out in session as an opportunity for staging an intervention toward secure functioning. Our training teaches us that it is usually best to sit back and observe, as if tracking the plot in a suspenseful detective novel. Underneath the precarious nature of challenging partners’ harmful defensive behaviors a relationship is waiting to be saved. Despite appearances, couples bring lots of resources, such as healthy drives and capacities that may be hidden under years of erroneous narratives about themselves, their significant other, and the world at large. The PACT therapist speaks to these resources, not to the defenses.

How might a couple find each other and go toward a coherence that at first may feel threatening? It takes a deft touch to lead the couple in this way; even a seasoned therapist is likely to feel his or her theoretical knowledge and intervention skills are being tested. It is essential for the therapist to stay present and relational when working with challenging couples. The therapist should not have to work harder than the couple. This means making proficient use of self-regulation to engender an impenetrable therapeutic stance. Dr. Stan Tatkin writes, “In all therapeutic approaches, the therapist takes a stance that suggests his or her beliefs about where the therapy should go. This stance must be clear, coherent, and consistent if good therapy is to occur…. The PACT therapist moves partners down the tube of secure functioning.”

A common clinical error therapists make when working with primitive defenses from a partner or couple is becoming drawn into their story and into their use of these defenses in emotional attacks against each other. Forgotten or overlooked are the intentional aspects of these learned defenses for survival, and how they may show up as either running away from or running toward the other. It is important to study the moment-by-moment enactments of these defenses because that can increase understanding about how, why, and when they developed. Doing this requires steady use of PACT intervention skills so the couple can flex their tacit resources and self-correct destructive patterns in real time.

Reactive patterns of negative thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, as well a sensitivity to threat, become structured into family and couple systems and often point to transgenerational trauma. Throughout their lives, these partners have tried without much support to manage the painful symptoms of early traumatized defense systems. Couples do not expect patterns that have existed for decades to be remedied in a few sessions. Yet, in my experience with PACT, a great deal is often accomplished quite quickly.

Highly insecure partners and couples need certain attachment experiences to be able to develop essential relationship capacities for play, calm, trust, security, and touch. PACT gives them a process for moving from insecure functioning to a secure means of connection through increasing their awareness of destructive, dead-end defenses. One challenge these couples face is that they do not have a sense of their own boundaries or those of their partners. They were raised in environments where the map to a relational model of secure functioning was never laid down. They fall off the edges all the time. In these instances, the therapist needs to be ready to use acting out as an opportunity for increasing the partners’ awareness of unhealthy defense systems and for setting up secure-functioning experiences. To do this safely, it is critical that the therapist maintain a strong therapeutic stance that allows him or her to soften, shift, probe, and provide relief from these defenses.

Therapeutically, the means to success in working with challenging couples is to first understand the characteristics of secure-functioning relationships. Next is to develop and maintain a therapeutic stance that takes threats off the table and leads these partners down the path to secure functioning. My own approach includes four psychobiological expectations for the couple: safety, coherence, holding their agreements, and functioning securely. During the session, I see my job as naming, normalizing, and providing practice in each of these. For transformation and integration to occur, these must be repeated in every session, as long as the couple remains in therapy.

In sum, when we challenge couples to be makers of a secure-functioning relational map, they are pressed to navigate each other’s needs and their own primitive defense systems. Their new map charts not only the boundaries of a healthy relationship, but its topography, as well. Partners who function more securely naturally reach for one another. No one gets stranded in his or her own narrative. They feel safe in each other’s care. What the therapist may see as challenging at the start of therapy is actually the vitality partners can use to forge stronger love and commitment in previously uncharted relational territory. They leave therapy with an earned security that provides them a landing they can trust going forward.

The Boomerang Effect

by Eva Van Prooyen, M.F.T., PACT faculty, Los Angeles, CA
Website: www.evavp.com
Email: Eva@ThePACTInstitute.com

Loving in a way that supports, energizes, and grows a long-term relationship means loving your partner the way he or she needs to be loved. Many well-intended people unconsciously get caught instead in the destructive loop of offering their partner the kind of support, care, attention, and love they themselves thrive on, only to be left feeling unseen, unsuccessful, misunderstood, and lonely, which often leads to defensiveness and fighting.

Aligned with a related PACT therapeutic goal—knowing who your partner is and how he or she operates—comes this question: Are you using that information to help your partner do a good job for you?

Successful couples arm themselves with detailed owner’s manuals that explain how each partner maneuvers through and makes sense of his or her world. Partners then put that unique and distinctive information to use on a regular basis by tailoring their love specifically to their partner. This in turn fuels and boosts the partner’s self-esteem.

During a recent couple session, a high-energy and very social wife declared she was “tired of cheerleading” her “lazy” husband, who would not respond to all the “pumping him up” she found herself “continually” doing with respect to his job. The husband, a quiet and productive man, slumped in his chair, his eyes downcast. Although not in the exact job of his dreams, he works full time in an industry he loves, and is able to support his wife and eight-year-old daughter. When the wife said she wished he networked in the same fashion she did in order to move up to the next level of “personal achievement,” he explained that he felt criticized. He admitted to avoiding his wife’s “constant barrage of rah-rah” by “checking out,” which left his wife feeling dismissed, hopeless, and ineffective at motivating the man she loves.

The husband, on the other hand, complained his wife ignored or trivialized his efforts to have his family enjoy one another and the home they have created, and show “grace” for what they already have. “We live really well, but I feel like it’s not enough for her. She usually wants us to go out instead of staying in for family movie night, going on a hike with just the three of us, or using our custom outdoor kitchen,” he said.

“I love our life, but I’m freaked out you don’t care about trying new things and meeting new people. You seem like you’re asleep at the wheel when you check out like that,” she said.

In an attempt to get him motivated, the wife was unintentionally devaluing him, and missed showing appreciation for the resources and contributions he brought to their family. Conversely, his attempts to get his wife to slow down and appreciate their life left her feeling disconnected, bored, and frantic.

Addressing the couple I asked, “So, who between you actually responds to cheerleading and being pumped up?”

After a long silence, the husband looked up and said, “My wife does.”

“And who between you thrives on simple words of appreciation?”

“He does,” she said.

“And you’re both offering those things to the other one, right?” I said, with a knowing smile.

They both chuckled. The husband had no use for cheerleading, and his wife had no use for simple, day-to-day appreciations…or so they thought. In fact, he would have use for the rah-rah if he could give it to his wife. If he did, it would boomerang back to him in the form of a happy, calm partner who feels safe, secure, and able to be more present in the relationship. And vice versa for the wife, if she could give simple words of appreciation to her husband. What you send out to your partner will come right back to you.

When partners don’t understand one another, they amplify what seems negative. Sometimes the behavior or request you find most annoying from your partner is the very thing he or she needs most, but that you resist giving. With the boomerang effect, you can give out what your partner thrives on, and then watch the reward come back to you. This way, you both thrive.

Ultimately, your partner is only as good as you believe him or her to be. So use the information you have gained to help your partner do a good job for you, and trust your partner will do the same, so you can both walk through the world feeling, safe, secure, sexy, and loved.