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By Carolyn Sharp, LICSW
PACT Level III Therapist
After laughing with Marty about the wonderful date they had, Peter adds, “Of course we had to go to the restaurant you wanted.” With that slight emphasis on going to Marty’s restaurant pick, they go from shared laughter to bulging eyes and hostile voices, following each other out of connection and into attack. All it takes is one wrong comment to spin into the dynamic this high-arousal and high-conflict couple came to address. My heart rate increases and my throat tightens as my mind imagines the session going out of control. With my own arousal rising, I’m in danger of losing my capacity to be helpful.
Christina and Sam stare listlessly at the floor during extended pauses after my questions and comments. Their passivity and disconnection are in charge here, and neither partner makes a move toward closeness or engagement. I feel a yawn forming and can hear every sound outside my window, as boredom threatens my effectiveness. This couple will continue to do what they always do if I don’t activate the energy in the room.
In both these cases, the couple’s work together depends on my ability to self-regulate—to calm myself in the former and to self-activate in the latter. With PACT’s embodied approach (whereby the therapist uses the live felt-experiences of a couple to help them learn new ways of being with one another), my job is to help the couple learn to co-regulate each other’s nervous systems so they can find connection and safety. Their ability to do this is central to forming a secure-functioning relationship.
As a PACT therapist, self-regulation allows me to set the tone for the sessions and to create the frame and expectations for partners’ behavior. Additionally, when I am self-regulated, I have the capacity to marshal all my resources to respond helpfully with any interventions needed. I can’t fall outside my own window of tolerance or allow myself to react from emotion. Central to the skill of self-regulation is awareness of the strengths, challenges, and triggers within my own arousal system. The volume and speed of a couple’s speech can be irritating to my system, but tone and emotion are what cause my heart rate to spike. In the other direction, the slowness of their responses can be lulling, but disengagement between partners is the cause of a drop in my attention and attunement. Being aware of these triggers is the key to my ability to notice and take action.
The use of deliberate practice and repetitive skill-building exercises to automate responses to calm or activate myself when stressed has been enormously helpful to my self-regulation (Rousmaniere, 2016). I practice resetting my system when excited or bored so I can do so in session, without pause. Developing the emotional muscle memory to calm or excite myself makes it more likely that I can do the same in times of stress or in overwhelming situations.
Two of the simplest and most reliable means of self-regulation are exhalation and simple grounding (i.e., the ability to return my attention to my body and the room quickly). Using these has proven invaluable, and I often invite couples to practice them with each other when the room goes “high temperature” or “frozen” (the vernacular I share with couples). Lastly, the PACT serenity prayer serves as a powerful grounding in my role and responsibilities as a therapist. Through self-regulation, I am present with the couple before me and I allow them to practice being in each other’s care. The skills of self-regulation were useful in sessions with the two couples I described.
Peter and Marty came to PACT to learn to head off their explosive conflicts, as well as to help each other get through those conflicts safely. Through attunement and better co-regulation they are learning to do this. My self-regulation is integral to their process as I stay present and tuned in, while fully in my own window of tolerance. With a long, slow whistle on my exhale (indicating a nonverbal “wow” to Peter’s comment about the restaurant), I catch their attention. They are immediately connected through their mutual irritation at my interruption, followed quickly by amusement as they realize I just distracted them from their escalating fight. Being tuned into the energy in the room and its impact on me allows me to use a distraction to help regulate this couple and move them back within their window of tolerance and into each other’s care. Following a repair to one another, we talk about the things they have been practicing at home to get out of these scenarios, and then they practice regulating each other.
Christina and Sam came to therapy for help reigniting the passion and connection they lost over time as they focused all their energy on things outside their connection. Helping them requires me to activate the energy in the room, so I stand up and have them join me and take each other’s hands. Sam follows my request and begins to describe Christina’s face. Tears come as Christina feels Sam’s presence. Describing him, in turn, elicits a big smile, the first he has shown today. I watch them squeeze each other’s hands and then move into a hug. I vocalize the shift made when moving to each other. The listlessness I felt when I paid attention to my own response alerted me to the direction I needed to take to help them move toward each other.
Couple therapy can vacillate between high and low energy, between conflict and disengagement. Unregulated, therapists can quickly follow clients down any number of unproductive paths. Remaining grounded and regulated is our most powerful tool in maintaining our focus on facilitating secure-functioning couples.
Rousmaniere, T. (2016). Deliberate practice for early career psychotherapists. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 51(3), 25–29.
By Beth Newton, LCSW, LCAS
PACT Level II, PACT Ambassador
Every week I sit in my office watching couples struggle with coregulation. Coregulation is defined as warm and responsive interactions that provide support and that help someone understand, express, and modulate his or her feelings, thoughts, and behaviors (Gillespie, 2015). Through coregulation, children learn how to manage their attention and emotions in order to complete tasks, control impulses, and solve problems (McClelland & Tominey, 2014). This requires them to attune to subtle cues of distress, curiosity, bids for attention, fear, and joy. The concept of coregulation can also be applied to adult relationships.
As a therapist, I often work with couples in which one or both partners experienced parental misattunments, neglect, or abuse. The fear and insecurity they experienced as children led to poor self-regulation (internal) and coregulation (with another) skills, resulting in stress and lack of attunement in their current relationship. Moreover, if adults experienced chronic childhood stress, their hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis habituated and sustains activity. This “on switch” can lead to underdevelopment of the prefrontal cortex, which moderates social behavior, complex thinking, and decision making (Kumar et al., 2014).
As a PACT therapist, I know that when an individual is not skilled at coregulation—and by extension, self-regulation—he or she will often report that a partner is not safe. Moreover, when the HPA axis is in overdrive, the individual cannot attune to self or a partner. When a partner has experienced dysregulated parents, he or she lacks the capacity to pivot toward a choice that balances the relationship. In the PACT model, we evaluate each partner’s regulatory capacities, and then help the couple deal with compromised skills and capacities.
I work with a couple named Bill and Diego. They have been married for 5 years and have seen at least three couple therapists in that time. Bill’s mother had depression and a personality disorder. His job was to soothe her and ignore his own needs. He reported she did not do anything for him that “wasn’t really about her.” Diego learned at an early age that his homosexuality did not fit into his strict religious household. He reported a great deal of pressure to be good and nice, with no room for self-expression. Both partners developed the belief they would be punished for expressing their own needs and desires.
These men are locked in a cycle of fear that their needs will not be met by their partner. When one begins to talk about a need, the other interrupts with his own need. In our early sessions, they exhibited disorganized behaviors, such as over-control and mild collapse, resistance to receiving or giving compassion or repair, attacking bids for connection and repair, and numerous withdraws from each other and me. This only turned around after I recognized my out of countertransference and stepped in to become the master regulator for Bill and Diego.
To challenge their acting out, I began setting limits for the session. I helped them see that they were rejecting me in the same way that they rejected each other. We agreed that the following behaviors would help them gain control:
- Cooperate with therapy and their PACT therapist
- Agree to take breaks and practice slowed breathing while on break
- Return from break and determine readiness to receive repairs or help
- Agree to accept regulation by the therapist in the form of (a) stopping attacking behavior, (b) coaching for repairs, (c) guidance on emotional expression, (d) encouragement, (e) accountability, (f) repetition of skills
The structure I created each week helped me offer warmth and sincerity when things were really challenging. My ability to act as a regulated parent allowed me to attune to Bill’s and Diego’s underlying fears and to express compassion. They learned how to self-regulate during breaks, accept help, and allow coaching when they did not know what to do. My ability to step in as master regulator moved them toward greater attunement to their own and their partner’s needs.
I still work with Bill and Diego. When they are on break, I continue to help them with breathing, tracking objects or sounds, and muscle relaxation. They work on coregulation during break by practicing statements such as “I love you. I am taking a break so I can come back to us. I promise I’ll be back in 10 minutes.” I use my ability to ground them through structure, compassion, and good-natured challenge, so they can develop coregulation and secure functioning.
Gillespie, L. (2015). It takes two: The role of co-regulation in building self-regulation skills. YC Young Children, 70(3), 94–96.
Kumar, S., Hultman, R., Hughes, D., Michel, N., Katz, B. M., & Dzirasa, K. (2014). Prefrontal cortex reactivity underlies trait vulnerability to chronic social defeat stress. Nature Communications, 5, 4537.
McClelland, M. M., & Tominey, S. L. (2014). The development of self-regulation and executive function in young children. Washington, DC: Zero to Three.
Tatkin, S. (2017). How couples change: A psychobiological approach to couple therapy (PACT). In M. Solomon & D. J. Siegel (Eds.), How people change: Relationships and neuroplasticity in psychotherapy (pp. 221–246). New York, NY: W. W. Norton.
by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT
As a couple therapist, I know how difficult people can be. Actually, as a person on this planet and a romantic partner to my wife, Tracey, I count myself as one of those difficult people. Indeed, in no way do I put myself above any of the other annoying people out there. Yet here I am, writing about how to be less of a pain in the ass. Well, while I know I can be difficult, I know how not to be too difficult. And the line between them is actually clearer than you might think. Here’s how not to cross it.
When I work with couples, our goal is for them to become secure functioning. Secure functioning partners are least difficult with and toward each other. That’s because they understand their purpose: To ensure each other’s absolute, unequivocal sense of safety and security. Partners are equal stakeholders in this endeavor, therefore, they agree to make life easier for each other, not harder. That’s one of the main principles of secure functioning relationships.
Oh, wait, you think you’re not difficult? Let me tell you, you are. Here’s why:
- Your brain. Though a very impressive organ, your brain is prone to lots of errors, especially in social situations. For example,
- Your brain all too often conflates social cues (faces, voices, movements, postures, words, and phrases) with real danger.
- Your brain is mostly automatic, memory-based, and therefore confuses current events with previous experience via a lightning fast memory and recognition system.
- Your brain constantly replaces missing evidence with made up “facts.”
- Your brain imagines things that are not there.
- Your biology. Your development plays a considerable role in how difficult you are. Your biology affects your ability to:
- Manage your impulses.
- Tolerate frustration.
- Shift your attention at will.
- Manage your state of arousal.
- Socially-emotionally act and react appropriately under stress.
- Make decisions.
- Override what feels good for what does good.
- Remain self-aware in real time.
- Nature. You are genetically predisposed as a homo sapien to be aggressive, self-interested, and prone to dislike people who are “too familiar to ignore, but too different to tolerate.”1
- Nurture. Your experiences and memories shape who you become. If you experienced any trauma, especially in early childhood that remains unresolved, you are likely to be hyper-reactive to threat cues, both internally and externally.
This is not an exhaustive list. The ways to be difficult are limitless. However, that you and I are difficult is not a problem. It’s when we cross the line and become too difficult, that is the problem. How does focusing on secure functioning help?
Secure functioning partners co-create their own kind of social contract which protects them from each other. These are “golden rules” in that they are, if agreed upon, undisputable and therefore help partners rein in difficult behavior.
One golden rule could (and should) be, “We protect each other in public.” Keri and Dave, for example, agreed to this principle. They both decided that it served both a personal and mutual good. In the example below, they are out to dinner with another couple. Dave is an actor and he received news that he won a co-starring role in a major motion picture. He told Keri that he signed a non-disclosure agreement and to keep it to herself.
Keri: [to the other couple] The other night Dave got news that he’s doing the next (fill in the blank).
Dave: [turns his head away in anger]
Keri: What? [raising her shoulders and hands in a disdainful, questioning manner]
Dave: [quietly in her ear] Remember what I told you earlier. Don’t talk about this.
Keri: [out loud] Oh come on. It’s great news. I’m proud of you.
At this point, Keri has stepped over the line and has become too difficult. That she reflexively said something that he explicitly told her not to say breaks an agreed upon principle. However, that she continued to violate the principle when reminded by Dave – that is what defines being too difficult. It also shifts Dave’s experience of Keri from annoying to threatening.
Here’s how it should have gone:
Keri: [to the other couple] The other night Dave got news that he’s doing the next (fill in the blank).
Dave: [turns his head away in anger]
Keri: [covering her mouth in horror, turns to Dave] I’m so sorry. I forgot. I’m so sorry, really I am. [to the other couple] I just betrayed Dave by telling you that. [back to Dave] I am so very sorry I did that.
Dave: [to couple] I’m under an NDA so no one is supposed to know this. Keri’s very excited for me about this. Please, keep this to yourselves.
Keri: [whispers in Dave’s ear] I’m so sorry.
Now that is an example of repair and recognition of being difficult.
Other examples of being too difficult include:
- Persistently not releasing your partner after a satisfactory repair.
- Not being willing to bargain with your partner.
- When bargaining, not providing alternatives following the word “no.”
- Being unwilling to admit your wrongs and make amends.
- Being unwilling to see your partner’s point of view.
- Not being curious.
- Persistently stubborn.
- Persistently inflexible.
- Persistently conflict avoidant.
- Continually failing to check with your partner when discussing them in public.
- Continually disregarding your partner when together in public.
- Persistently (and unapologetically) failing to keep your word.
- Persistently talking too much.
- Persistently talking too little.
Again, this is by no means a definitive list. But notice the wording in here. It’s not about reflexively doing something that makes you difficult for your partner. It’s about the refusal to stop when cued that makes you too difficult. It’s also about the refusal to repair the hurt and makes things right.
We are all fundamentally automatic creatures – all day, every day. Our brain cannot possibly remember the countless changes in behavior our partners require under various circumstances. That’s why telling your partner to never again embarrass you in public, while understandable, can never work. Your partner will do something again, and likely without any malicious intent. It will be far more effective to remind your partner just before entering a public situation. “When we go in, please don’t make any jokes at my cost, okay?” If your partner is not too difficult, they will comply. If they don’t, well, now you have a problem. If they slip (which should not happen), and remain unapologetic, it’s likely time to move on.
Because we are all mostly automatic, we shouldn’t be faulted for many of the knee-jerk behaviors we do without thought and, at times, without intention. We are, however, responsible for what we do after we do something stupid, thoughtless, or insensitive. We are all difficult in one way or another. The challenge for secure functioning couples is in not crossing the line to becoming too difficult.
- Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (p. 18). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Uri Talmor, M.A., L.P.C.
PACT Level II
A couple come into my office, already in argument mode. They emanate Neanderthal-reptilian contempt, talking over each other, and perceiving most of what comes out of the other’s mouth as an attack.
Immediately, some snarky down-the-middle possible responses fill my mind: “You two are really good at hurting each other.” Or “You’re both really good at making the other person wrong.”
I take a deep breath, soften a little on the inside. It hurts to watch them; there is so much pain. I wonder, “Is this what their children feel? Is this what I felt growing up?”
She’s crying now, but he’s continuing to talk. Why hasn’t he slowed down? Where’s his sensitivity to her pain? He’s missing her. Doesn’t he see she’s gone?
With some couples, these types of mis-attuned moments are chronic. They seem to be trapped in altered states of angst, unable to fully see the human they’re partnered with. Usually I take for granted that these people care about each other, based on where I’ve seen them go in previous sessions, but there are periods when the care has been sucked clear out of the room.
In such moments, I turn to the tools I’ve learned from PACT that can help me shift these mis-attunement ruts. In particular, I juxtapose these couple therapy moments with a memory of volunteering for a Level II demo with Stan. It was a short demo but made a powerful imprint on me.
There I was, sitting in front of a male colleague (for context, I’m heterosexual) and Stan was watching us. We made eye contact, role playing a couple I had asked a question about. Stan threw out a couple of comments, and in a matter of what seemed like seconds, I felt like I had entered a relationship wind tunnel. The rest of the room fell away, and I felt focused on, aware of, and connected to this colleague in a way I rarely experience with anyone. My whole being was attuned to him, to what was happening between us. It was easy; graceful; and as cliché as it may sound, a flow state.
I was stunned at how quickly Stan got us there, using cross-questions and cross-comments. His timing was perfect; his own tone of voice and regulation seemed at ease and relaxed. We could both rest in his care, as he gently prompted us to be in each other’s. The two of us shifted quickly into a state of secure functioning because we could feed off how solidly Stan was with us.
As PACT therapists, our own self-care is so important. One of the most valuable things I can bring to couples is my own ability for co-regulation. To this end, I’d like to share some tips that work for me.
- Early bedtime. I’m a different creature on days when I’ve fallen into auto-regulating to YouTube until the wee hours. I’ve asked my partner to help hold me accountable, to drag me to bed if she has to. What self-care practice would most improve your ability to self-regulate?
- Consistent peer consultation. I’m lucky to live in an area where PACT has taken off, so I have a handful of colleagues with whom I can get together and share cases. Every time we touch base, I feel recharged and rejuvenated. You can also do this with colleagues long distance.
- The PACT serenity prayer. I find it to be such a simple and powerful reminder.
- The breath. I pause and self-regulate throughout the session with my breath. Usually it doesn’t take long, especially when combined with mindful acceptance. I’ve observed Stan do this simply by getting up and grabbing his smoothie from somewhere else in the room. With some couples, that’s all it takes; with others, I need more frequent internal support so I can stay with them. Pause, allow, soften, breathe, appreciate.
- Work on my own issues. I can’t imagine a day when I won’t be in my own therapy or doing some form of personal growth work. Most of us were born into internships; doing our work is a necessity. If you haven’t done your own PACT therapy, I recommend putting that high on your priority list.
By Sefora Janel Ray, MFT
I had no idea when I took the PACT training to become a couples therapist that it would affect my personal life so dramatically. I can confidently say now that the reason I’m in a secure relationship is because I took the PACT training and learned how my attachment style affected my dating life. Through PACT, I gained the understanding and skills that helped me to find the love of my life and to create a fully supportive partnership.
I’m a therapist, so I knew for years that I had what is known in PACT as the wave style of attachment (also called the anxious ambivalent or the angry resistant attachment style). My parents divorced when I was five; both my parents worked full time, and I didn’t get the individualized attention and care from them that I craved. They were both very angry and critical of each other, which sometimes leaked onto my sister and me. In adulthood, I was aware that the lack of attention—from my father, especially—affected my attachment style in relationships with men, but I generally interpreted that to mean I was attracted to the wrong kind of man. I wasn’t sure what else I was doing that was recreating my wave attachment style.
Then PACT taught me a number of things:
1. Being a wave led me to overly rely on talking to regulate my nervous system.
Before PACT, I frequently reached out to people I was dating to “talk,” thinking I wanted to connect with them. In reality, I was trying to regulate my experience of feeling anxious. I wanted to talk about what wasn’t working for me… or how I felt disconnected… or my need for reassurance. The talking was more about feeling dysregulated than about connecting with the other person.
Through watching couples and their styles of attachment in the PACT training, I started to see that I was not taking responsibility for how I was regulating my nervous system. When I began to take full responsibility for my anxious feelings, I took a lot more of those conversations to friends instead of bringing my anxiety to the people I was dating.
2. I realized I was dating a lot of islands.
In other words, I was dating people with an avoidant style of attachment who didn’t crave a sense of connection. They were more comfortable being on their own, and generally felt uneasy with talking, relating, and connecting as a way to support their own nervous systems. They wanted to be alone when they were upset, which was the exact opposite of what I needed from a partner.
I began to identify and understand islands. Whereas I previously had an unconscious attraction to them, I developed an aversion to this style of attachment and stopped choosing them for relationships.
3. I learned to ask questions that showed me someone’s attachment style.
I was being trained to ask questions of my clients to help me identify their attachment styles, so I knew what questions to ask my dates.
I started casually bringing those questions into my early dates, mixed in with conversation and banter: What do you do when you’re stressed? How do you handle conflict? What was your relationship like with your parents? How did your parents respond when you needed something? The answers to these questions were extremely illuminating.
4. I began to visually, somatically, and energetically understand what securely attached people felt and looked like.
This helped me pick them out in crowds and even with just a picture on their online dating profile. Ultimately, this helped me pick out my partner. The training showed me what it looks like when a securely attached partner responds to his or her partner’s cues in a relationship, and I began to expect someone to respond to me in that way.
5. I let go of people who were not meeting my needs.
The PACT training helped me to clarify my needs so well that I stopped trying to fix the person I was dating to fit my attachment style. I also became better at communicating when it was clear that a potential partner and I had different styles of relating and we ultimately weren’t going to be compatible.
6. I noticed my pattern of being angry and disappointed.
I did more concentrated therapy sessions on my anger and my disappointment as these related to my parents and to people I dated. Therapy helped me understand how I brought my disappointment with my dad into my dating life. I created unfair expectations for the people I was dating, right out of the gate. In particular, I expected men who were like my father to change into what I needed, which constantly led to disappointment. Instead, I began to understand that those men would likely never relate to me the way I needed.
7. I practiced receiving.
I started to pay attention when love and attention were given to me, instead of focusing on the lack of love I perceived. I made a practice of appreciating the love and attention my friends and community gave me, and I created a meditation for myself in which I visualized receiving and taking in the care and help I deserve.
8. I slowed down in dating.
Though it was difficult, I started to see that I didn’t need to make the perfect relationship happen all at once. I realized that if someone was interested in me, he would facilitate the next connection or next date, and I didn’t need to make it happen all the time. In the past, my wave attachment style led me to try to connect and get close very quickly with dates in order to know I was okay. As I recognized this tendency, I was able to discern more quickly that someone wasn’t right for me.
9. I was able to recognize my securely attached partner and love of my life.
I was able to recognize from the earliest of interactions with my partner that he was someone I could count on and someone with whom I could be in a secure relationship. He was even a little bit wave oriented: he wanted to talk about things and feel connected, and he was more interested in being with me than being apart.
Even though I recognized that our attachment styles aligned, I still went slower with him than I had in the past. I concentrated on connecting with him purely because I wanted to be connected to him, and less as a means of calming my anxiety. But our attachment styles aligning meant I didn’t feel anxious with him. He wrote to me often, planned dates, communicated, and showed up.
Today, I am incredibly grateful to PACT for supporting my growth and helping me identify and understand how my attachment style affected in my dating life. I continue to use that information to support couples in their relationship dynamics, and I use PACT frequently with my single clients who are trying to find a secure relationship.
Debra L. Kaplan, MA, LPC, CSAT-S
PACT level 1
Couple therapy is challenging, and some clinicians find it too intimidating to attempt. They worry, for example, that a misattuned observation could alienate not just one but both partners. There are also potential issues involving tact, timing of interventions, and poor management of session structure. For a PACT therapist, the greater challenge lies not in working with what is known but rather in what often underlies why couples seek therapy: their inability to tolerate and regulate individual and dydadic stress. Addressing the early development of partners’ attachment experiences with their primary caregivers provides the PACT therapist with vital information about intrusions in the couple bond, as well as helps to assess the partners’ capacities for coregulation (the ability to manage their emotions, as well as know when and how to soothe or excite each other).
Intrusions into a relationship might be due to children, work, family, or other life stressors and are a normal part of life. Secure-functioning couples tolerate these interruptions and maintain coregulation, even if the intrusions stress their ability to preserve their couple bond. However, some partners are unable to tolerate this and turn to a “safe third” outside the relationship—such as a person, place, or thing. This is called triangulation. Individuals who experienced insecure attachment by caregivers are more likely to use triangulation in adult romantic relationships. This can create betrayal and abandonment if one or both partners focus prolonged attention on a safe third, to the exclusion of the other.
A PACT therapist will address triangulation using a technique we call management of thirds. This intervention helps the couple shift toward secure functioning and coregulation.
Kristin and Leo came to couple therapy several years ago to resolve their endless arguing. She shared that they often included their son in their arguments, and now they were on the brink of separation.
Kristin was an only child, and her parents divorced when she was young. Her childhood was fraught with tension and hostility due to her parents competing for her attention. She remembers feeling lonely and invisible when her parents argued about her, which is similar to how she feels when she and Leo argue.
Leo’s mother was a stay-at-home mom, and his father worked at the family business. Leo’s father had several affairs, which led to violent arguments in the home. To make matters worse, Leo’s mother vented her anger about the affairs to Leo, and he felt caught in the middle.
Early in our work, Kristin and Leo arrived at a session in the throes of an argument about the previous evening. They took their place in the office and continued the fight.
Leo: [to therapist] She does this to me every time. She makes me out to be the heavy. Do you see what I have to put up with? Maybe you can talk some sense into her.
Kristin: [to therapist] And he’s worried about my behavior! Why can’t he see what he does? It was when he decided to get involved that our son couldn’t take it and stormed off and locked himself in his room.
Leo: [to therapist] Wise kid, right? He’s learning early.
Therapist: I’m curious. Most if not all of your arguments focus on your son, correct?
Leo: [to therapist] I’m telling you. She doesn’t see what she does, but our son certainly does. He’s smart to run from her.
Therapist: From what I can tell, he runs from both of you.
Leo and Kristin: What do you mean?
Therapist: You’re both trying to win my approval in this session and not trying to communicate with one another. I’m not surprised your son runs for cover. I suspect you use your son just like you are using me—for his approval.
Leo: That sounds like a lot of pressure for him to have to deal with.
Kristin: I feel awful.
Therapist: You both use me much like you were used by your parents. Kristin, you felt lonely and invisible. Leo, your mother vented her anger to you about your father. Maybe it’s time you speak directly to each other and begin to recognize and honor each other. You don’t need your son’s approval, but he needs you to learn how to handle your own problems. Let’s begin with what you need from each other.
After this session, Kristin and Leo started the tough but valuable work of caretaking their relationship. Their childhoods had not taught them about healthy dyadic communication or emotional regulation. I helped them see that they used their son much in the same way their parents used them. Moreover, their triangulation included using me, their therapist, as a safe third. When they turned to address me, I redirected them into the care of their partner, where their focus needed to be. The PACT technique of management of thirds interrupted their triangulation by helping them coregulate and operate as a securely functioning two-person system.
Inga Gentile, MFT
“Why does she always seem to get clingy right when I have to go out of town for work?”
“Why does he lock himself in his office after work and watch Netflix while I’m alone in the living room?”
Many couples experience confusion and frustration related to often repeated scenarios like these. But it’s not a sign that your partner doesn’t love you. Or that you’re not the right fit.
There’s actually a psychobiological reason these scenarios play out among couples everywhere. It’s called implicit memory. Implicit memory begins at birth and is unconscious and nonverbal. It precedes declarative memory, which refers to the conscious recollection of facts and events. Implicit memory, on the other hand, because it involves older, more primitive parts of your brain, operates rapidly and largely outside of your awareness.
How does implicit memory play out in your relationships? One way is through your attachment style. Your attachment style is based on your experiences early on in life, and the type of care you received from your parents or first caregivers. Those experiences – especially in the first two years of life as the brain structures needed to support declarative memory develop – become stored as implicit memory and drive much of the way you act and interact with those closest to you. These implicit memories can be activated by everyday events, like separations and reunions, and because there isn’t an awareness that you are remembering something as there is with declarative memory, it can be mystifying.
Seen in this light, a partner who clings at the moment her loved one is leaving isn’t intentionally trying to make her partner’s life difficult; she may have early experiences of separation that induce distress and in turn activate her attachment system to seek proximity and comfort.
If your partner is sensitive in this way, move towards them, physically or verbally. Embrace them, look them in the eyes and say something like, “I know you get anxious when I go away. I want you to know I’ll never leave you.” If you’re the one in distress, be aware of your response and take responsibility. Ask your partner for what you need: “It’s hard for me when you leave. Can you please hug me tight and tell me that I’m the only person for you ever?”
The partner who locks himself in his office isn’t necessarily trying to punish his partner by being withholding but may have difficulties with transitions from one state (work) to another (home) and may lean towards “alone time” as a way to reset—again, a possible adaptation to early relational experiences.
One sensitive way to respond: Say in a friendly tone, “I know you need some time alone. Netflix together in the living room in 10 minutes, baby!” Conversely, the partner could take responsibility for his hardwired tendency by understanding that, although it might feel unfamiliar, learning to “reset” in the presence of his partner can actually be soothing, on a nervous system level.
Appreciating that memory exists in many forms—both conscious and unconscious—can help you create mutually satisfying and safe relationships: Understand what drives your own reactions. Learn what drives those of your partner. Take responsibility for your own automatic reactions. And be sensitive to those of your partner.
Learn and practice new ways of meeting and caring for one another’s implicit memories in the present and watch what happens in the future.
Jason Brand, LCSW
PACT Level II
Video games used to have joysticks—simple black boxes with a red trigger button and a stick for movement. Today they have controllers that are multi-buttoned, provide sensory feedback, and obey spoken commands. In many families, I see a longing to return to the joyful days of the joystick. In these families, the controller has become far more than just a way to manipulate video games on the digital screen; it is the nexus of a power struggle for healthy development in the child.
Michael, age fourteen, was caught up in this kind of family drama. Unlike kids who act out and do dangerous things outside the home, Michael was “acting in” by refusing to do anything away from the digital screen. His parents had lost control. They swung between desperate extremes. In one moment, they were gently delivering dinner to the computer because he refused to come to the table and eat. In the next, they were violently pulling the router out of wall to block access to his online game. In the process, they had become a parental team divided. In order to help their son, they needed skills that would allow them to maneuver together less like a Space Invaders and more like Call of Duty.
Working with families such as Michael’s, I developed a number of skills: accessing difficult-to-reach boys, providing a place for families to talk together about feelings, negotiating the sticks and carrots of behavior plans, partnering with schools and other wraparound services, and seeking often elusive answers to how digital technologies affect family life. I realized, however, that to be truly effective in a family system where the child has collapsed into the home, couple dynamics have to be addressed. Michael’s parents needed to learn how to support each other before they could expect to successfully provide a structure that supported their child.
Michael’s parents came through my door looking for individual therapy for their son and not a deep dive into their own relationship. It was a sell to get them to think about the entrenched problem from a different perspective, let alone experience the joy and pain of their relationship in real time.
My desire to be artful in my ability to firmly and lovingly confront couples who need to take control of the video game controller led me to PACT. I am learning to do PACT as a “verb” so the couples I work with can do it for themselves and their children. I am learning to stay calm so I can act on inspiration and not fear. I am learning to enter painful areas that divide couples, without losing faith in their ability to find better solutions by functioning as a team. I am engaged in a process of learning by doing, together. When we do this we run on all cylinders: brain, body, past and present.
Through my work at PACT, I have seen that:
- When parents function as a team, it is far easier to get a child from the computer to the dinner table with the appropriate amount of empathy and clear rules.
- Understanding the neurological shift necessary for a teenager to go from screened-up to sacked-out can be tremendously helpful for parents in building empathy, setting up clear limits, and getting their teen to go to sleep.
- When parents see themselves as the master regulators and grasp the importance of helping their partner to co-regulate (i.e., not “lose it”), they are far less likely to get into repetitive cycles of fight/flight showdowns with their child.
- If parents are aware of their attachment histories, they are better able to help their child to feel seen and heard, while also encouraging his or her healthy development.
Obviously, PACT therapy for the couple is not a substitute for the learning and social-emotional scaffolding kids such as Michael require. However, it is far easier for parents to successfully locate and get these supports in place when they feel supported in their couple relationship. Overall, I find that parents who have experienced PACT stop wishing for the return of the joystick era and feel they know the right buttons to push to be more in control of all the relationships in their family.
Sara Slater, MSW, LICSW
PACT Level III candidate
Apparently the pregnant couple in my office didn’t want to talk about preparing for baby at all. Instead, in the first minutes of their first session, Meg launched into her frustrations about their house and the dog and Rob’s work and their finances. Her hands were folded protectively over her belly, while Rob remained silent, leaning back in his chair, arms folded behind his head. The more she escalated, the calmer he appeared. Neither looked much at the other; both frequently turned to me, with a look that said, “See what I’m dealing with?” No one mentioned the baby, except to answer that she was due in about six weeks.
So, what was happening here? Instead of nestling into their couple bubble, joyfully anticipating the baby to be, or supporting each other through fluctuating anxieties and preparations, they were retreating into attacking, blaming, and generally feeling abandoned by one another. The growing presence before them was actually coming between them. They were literally making a third, with all the potential for mismanagement and an ensuing threat to their relationship.
A third, as defined from the PACT perspective, is anyone or anything that intrudes on the couple bubble, or makes it difficult to form one. In Wired for Love, Stan reminds us that “couples who handle thirds poorly typically do so before they even enter into their relationship.” And here it was: descriptions of one another that were neither complimentary nor constructive; blame for their conflict on things or people outside of themselves, and efforts to engage me in validating the rightness of one over the other. It wasn’t hard to see that these behaviors, left unaddressed, would soon become part of their parenting. Baby would simply serve the role they were trying to get me to play.
Successful management of thirds comes from the shared conviction that everything outside the two partners is indeed outside, and must be handled accordingly. It involves a commitment to putting the couple first, and a willingness to form agreements and make plans about how to manage the demands of people, objects, and tasks outside of the dyad. What I was seeing reflected an inability to effectively attach to one another and to form a safe and protected space for themselves. It is from this space that partners support one another in navigating the world outside them—and that includes how they handle their children.
In a securely attached couple, both partners are willingly the go-to person for the other; their ability to be curious and interested in one another leads to productive discussions about how best to handle the many things that can trip them up, leaving both feeling unsafe and unsupported. Visits with in-laws, time apart, challenging work situations: those are the thirds, and how they are handled is either the stuff of separateness and conflict or of deepening understanding and closeness.
In their fights about the house, for example, both Meg and Rob were putting “self” above “us.” They were replicating what was familiar to both from their earliest memories: neither expected a caregiver to understand or care about his or her needs, so both got stuck in handling things “my way,” which left them feeling unseen and alone. Once they understood this and were able to declare that each truly wanted to take care of the other, they could then talk about what they wanted their home to feel like, and how they might create that space together.
Did this new insight mean they were ready for baby and would never let her come between them? Undoubtedly, they would make mistakes, but they had begun to feel the warmth that comes from knowing what to do for your partner, and the strength of handling situations collaboratively. So when they began to argue about their birthing prep (another third), we “went PACT:” up from the rolling chairs and over to the couch to explore moment by moment what was happening, so they could figure out how to do this thing together. They sat down and turned their attention toward one another.