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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.

Working with Families – PACT Style

By Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT
PACT Co-Founder
http://thepactinstitute.com

Two main issues face the PACT family therapy process: Structure and Attendance.

Structure

A challenge within typical family therapy is the structure that holds some family members to their particular family roles. While viewing members within the system frame is valuable, especially when it comes to various roles different members play, it can also restrict the flow of information as some members expand and express while others contract and remain in the background. 

Using the PACT method to do family therapy may be more effective and convenient for both therapist and family. By dividing family members into pairs, the therapist can do “couple therapy” with various dyadic combinations, thereby freeing members from default role constraints and constrictions encountered when faced with the entire family system.

As long as invited members are of an appropriate age and maturity to participate in a couple-oriented approach, this structure:

  • allows pairings to speak more freely about thoughts and feelings.
  • breaks up alliances or substructures that exacerbate family conflict.
  • increases intimacy between family members.
  • opens more time and space for good work to be done.

Consider holding one or two sessions for at least two to three hours each per configuration to accomplish focused goals. The longer session serves a goal-driven purpose and can lead to satisfactory results for all involved.

Attendance

Family therapy is typically organized by getting most or all family members in for at least one meeting, if not several subsequent sessions. The challenge facing therapists who use this format is legendary: how to get the same people to show up each time. Dyads solve the attendance problem as only two family members meet with the therapist at any given time – father and son, mother and daughter, sister and brother. Again, the only requirement is that children be mature enough to do “couple therapy” with an adult parent.

Frame

The dyad sit on moveable chairs and will spend a majority of session time face to face and eye to eye. However, the first-seating orientation is likely a V-formation with both individuals facing the therapist. This initial PACT session interview structure allows for a back-and-forth interaction between individual and therapist with cross-tracking, cross-questioning, and cross-interpreting. Specifying seating positions allows the therapist to get the lay of the land, so to speak, before putting the couple into the face-to-face position.

When the therapist obtains enough information to move into face-to-face positioning, individuals will then sit closely across from one another. The therapist will begin additional cross-questioning to test and retest early hunches, earlier flagged behaviors, responses, and interactions for further examination.

During this configuration, the therapist may choose to draw partners into an informal trance, the purpose of which is to slow partners down, focus their attention. Cultivating attention and presence ensures that partners keep eyes on each other while the therapist has them sit in silence for about ten minutes. This focusing exercise helps partners build vagal tone, an alert but relaxed state. Focusing and grounding partners in this way also builds a safe container, allowing more emotional “headroom” to tolerate difficult topics and painful admonitions.

Following the initial focusing phase, the therapist can move to difficult questions, bring up historical injuries for clarification and reconciliation, and help partners confront matters of deception, withholding of information, wrongdoing, and other unresolved issues in a safe container. Emphasis should be on truthfulness, clarity, and repair.

Example

Mother and daughter come in after years of estrangement. The session length is four hours, sufficient time to reach the stated purpose for the session. Without unforeseen complications, and if done properly, they should not need a second session.

Mother has not been forthcoming about husband’s disappearance from their family home a decade ago. After 10-15 minutes of focusing the partners on each other’s eyes and tracking the moment-to-moment changes on each other’s faces, I ask my first question.

Therapist [to Mother]: As you look into your daughter’s eyes, tell her the truth about you and her father.

Daughter: (starts to cry)

Mother: (reaches out for Daughter’s hands) You were away at college. Your father was having an affair, or so I believed, and I kicked him out of the house. It turned out I was wrong this time, but only for this one instance. He cheated on me several times during our marriage. I couldn’t trust him.

Daughter: Why did you lie to me? Why didn’t you tell me the truth? You told me he left us for another family. He died a month later, and I never had a chance to speak with him again. How could you continue the lie even after his death? I thought he abandoned us. You turned me against him.

Mother: I know. (lowers her head)

Therapist [to both]: Just hold for a moment. Go back to staying in each other’s eyes. [Moments pass, then to Mother] Tell her why you lied to her and continued to lie.

Mother: I hated him, what he was doing to me and our marriage. I was terrified to tell you the truth.

Therapist: “Terrified.” Why terrified?

Mother: One or two of the affairs were with underage girls. (starts sobbing) Daughter: (face goes white, starts to say something)

Therapist [to Daughter]: Hold for just a moment. Just stay with your mother.

Several minutes go by before the mother recovers enough to speak.

Mother: I felt so ashamed. You knew one of the girls. I couldn’t tell you that your father was a sexual predator. I couldn’t. I know I hurt you. I lied to you and made you think that your father just abandoned you. I was confused. I was afraid maybe that he… maybe he…

Therapist: …molested your daughter?

Mother: Yes.

Daughter: (with a soft voice) He did. Twice when I was about 12. I never told you. I never thought you would believe me.

Later in this session and in this face-to-face configuration, the therapist might install secure-functioning principles in order to midwife a reparative trajectory or pathway for moving the dyad forward into the future. Moving the couple into the future is also a device to fulfill their agreed upon therapeutic goals.

Therapist [to Mother]: Now as you realize the consequences of withholding the truth from each other, do you believe you both made the right decisions?

Mother: No. The secrets I kept led you away from me. You lost your father and then you lost me. I was wrong to keep this from you. And, I am so very sorry that I didn’t check with you earlier when I found out what your father was doing with underage children. That was horrible. I should have protected you. I should have made it okay for you to come to me.

Daughter: I blamed you for Dad leaving us. All that time I thought it was you. I didn’t tell you about what Dad did to me. I never thought I would. I wanted to think he was my only ally.

Therapist: Neither of you have been honest or forthcoming with the other. You both have been feeling alone, isolated, bound by secrecy and shame. Isn’t it about time for that to end? Your husband, your father, is no longer here. It’s just the two of you now. What will be the future of this relationship? What should the future be? What do you want it to be?

With partners still face to face in close proximity, the therapist can, and should, facilitate a process whereby both partners can forge a new relationship based on what they learn and want going forward. In this particular form of family therapy – though this example might seem complex for one session – the therapist acts as a consultant and facilitator with an agreed upon purpose and goal.

Overview

Each family dyadic combination requires a unique clarification of purpose, procedure, and goal for the session. Many variables exist. Suffice to say, each dyad has distinctive issues and concerns relating to history, age, and family role.

Dyadic sessions require a minimum of two to three hours. In general, I book three to four hours to get the job done. It’s not that future sessions are off the table. Rather, when using this modality, the therapist should be highly focused and time efficient so the “couple” finds clarity and relief as quickly as possible. If appropriate, the couple therapist should encourage ongoing individual therapy for both people.

As in all PACT therapy, the therapist is tasked with getting accurate detailed information from both individuals. Among methods for obtaining truthful information:

  • disciplined testing and retesting of hunches
  • corroboration
  • finely-tuned monitoring of somatic reactions
  • monitoring of collaborative and coherent speech

Only with accurate, detailed data that arises from each individual’s narratives, implicit and explicit behaviors, and partner reactions, can the therapist adequately formulate interventions and a treatment pathway for the dyad. Leading the session by following each partner step by step – remaining present to the interpersonal field and alert to the actual interactive sequence – helps mitigate therapist overreach, false assumptions, misappraisals, and personal bias.

Next time you are tasked with seeing a family or family members, consider forming various dyadic combinations instead of working with the family in its entirety. I think you will find this PACT approach more rewarding, more enlightening, and more effective.

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Techniques to Help Distressed Couples Slow Down and Reconnect

By Debra Campbell, MS, LMFT
PACT Ambassador, Level 3
gocuris.com/debracampbell.html

When a couple comes to our office, they bring a dynamic in the relationship that pains them.  Neither partner sees the issue in the same way, and they don’t know how to solve it.  Often, they’ve argued about it repeatedly. Talking about it just starts the argument again.

The rate at which the disagreement escalates is an indicator of how many times they’ve argued the same issue.  We know they’re not dealing with anything new because the brain deals with novelty much more slowly than something we have habituated.  How, as therapists, can we help the couple slow down and experience something new?

In PACT Couples Therapy, we use proximity, micro-expression, and body language to achieve more constructive outcomes that have a lasting effect outside of session. Here’s a familiar scenario:

Last fall, Rebecca and Bob were running late to their therapy session. They had struck a patch of bad weather, both literally and figuratively. These well-educated professionals have been married for about a year.  By the time they arrive, Rebecca is in tears. Bob is red in the face.

I can cut the tension between them with a knife as we walk down the hall to my office. They each sit in a rolling chair. Bob crosses his arms and pushes away. Rebecca looks at me, grits her jaw, and fights tears. She declares, “This Kavanaugh trial is going to destroy our marriage!”

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing had stirred up some old hurts as well as a historical style of arguing for them. My job is to slow them down so they can experience the argument differently. By doing this, they build new beliefs and gain skills that they can immediately implement outside the office to create safety in the relationship.

Proximity

Prior to learning PACT, this situation would have been stressful as the therapist.  Couples often come to session wanting the therapist to play referee or give solutions. With PACT, the direction is clear – they’re in each other’s care.

I instruct them to face each other, adjust their rolling chairs to eye level, and scoot into each other. They reluctantly agree and slowly move toward each other. Knee to knee, they’re two to three feet away from each other’s face. At this distance, the visual system has the highest acuity for every minute detail and movement on each other’s face.

Suddenly, the couple attunes to the present. Now we are dealing in real time with what is actually happening between them, not historical data or a pre-rehearsed argument. They are able to incorporate new information. When the micro-expression of their partner matches what is being said, a new reality sets in. The couple falls in love in each other’s eyes.

Micro-expression

Couples misread each other. Instead, they tend to see what they have experienced in past relationships, generally with their family of origin. This contributes to overall misunderstandings and myths in the relationship.  Rebecca and Bob are face to face, eye to eye, as I ask the following questions and check that they accurately read each other’s facial expressions:

Me: What do you seen on her face?

Bob: She is sad, but it is a manipulation.  She always gets upset if I disagree with her. [He sighs.]

Me:  Is he right?

Rebecca: I’m sad, but it isn’t because he disagrees with me, it’s because I was date raped in college and the trial has been very difficult to watch.  Obviously, Kavanaugh is guilty, but he will likely get approved anyway because it is so hard to prove what happened, just like what happened to me in college. [more tears]

Me:  What do you see on his face?

Rebecca: He looked angry, but less so now…something else, I can’t place it.

Me:  Is she right?

Bob: Yes and no… I was angry before, but now I’m more hurt.  I know that happened to her and I feel terrible about it.  I would kill that guy if I ran into him.  At the same time, I feel scared for all men if the judicial system can find someone guilty without proof.  I want to protect her and myself at the same time but it seems impossible…

Me:  Do you believe him?

Rebecca: [slowly] Usually not, but right now, yes.

Me: Where do you see it?

Rebecca: In his eyes. I can see he is scared but also that he cares about me. His shoulders are more relaxed, too. His arms aren’t crossed.

Couples often make the mistake of communicating without looking at each other – especially when things start to go sideways.  The lack of facial cuing contributes to their misunderstandings.

Me:  Do you guys usually have these conversations face to face?

Bob and Rebecca: [Both shake heads, indicating no.]

Rebecca:  This argument just went down in the car.

Bob:  We talk about this kind of stuff side by side while watching the news . . .

Rebecca:  . . . or cleaning the house or cooking in the kitchen. . .

I suspect that they are misreading each other based upon their experiences from their families of origin. I want to expose that by testing their expertise on each other’s history.

Me:  Did Bob have manipulative parents?

Rebecca:  His father and mother are so manipulative to this day.  I can completely understand why that would bother him, if he thought I were manipulating.

Me:  Is she right?

Bob:  Yes, my parents are manipulative. My relationship with them is strained.

Me:  Does Rebecca manipulate you?

Bob:  No . . . she really doesn’t. [His face relaxes.] She protects me.

Me:  Did her parents protect her growing up?

Bob:  Financially, they took care of her. She always had what she needed . . . went to a private school, etc.

Me:  What about emotionally?

Bob:  Well . . . no, I guess not. Her family doesn’t talk about personal stuff at all. I can understand how she might want that from me. I told you, honey, I would kill the guy who raped you if I could.

Body Language

Rebecca leaves her chair to sit on Bob’s lap, curls into him, and cries as he holds her and rubs her back. When the crying calms, she resumes her seat.  A spark renews in their eyes and a tangible feeling of connection.

Physical touch generally calms the nervous system faster and better than any other method of soothing. When couples can rely on each other for soothing, they become each other’s safe place. Couples that function securely can calm each other down using eye contact, proximity, tone of voice, body language, and physical touch. They act as an emotional resource to each other, a soft landing. Instead of relying on themselves to calm down or someone outside the partnership to soothe them, they rely upon each other. This interactive regulation is generally very healing when they have not received such emotional support in their families of origin.

PACT therapists assess a couple’s ability to accurately read each other’s facial expressions and body language. We do this by going granular. We ask questions about what their partner is feeling, where they see it, and checking with the partner to make sure they got it right. This is often where we expose new data:

  • They don’t read each other’s faces accurately.
  • They mistakenly apply historical data from their childhood relationships to their current relationship.
  • They have never learned that you can tell when someone is telling the truth by their facial expression, tone, body language, and timing.

Instinctually, as therapists, we are trained to reflect whatever we see back to our clients.  However, reflecting back that they have clearly had this argument before and that this is not new material does little in and of itself to change the dynamic. By putting them face to face, eye to eye, going slowly, and checking, we force them to address the reality in front of them.  This present focus attunes them to live, novel data that creates an immediate shift in their affect and understanding. The truth lies in their facial expression, body language, tone of voice, and timing.

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.