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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.
Michele McCormick, Ph.D.
PACT Level III candidate
Newport Beach, CA
The body tells the story. In contrast with traditional psychoanalysts, PACT-trained therapists need not take an extensive life history in the first session to discern how a client’s past affects how he or she relates to his or her partner. Sure, early histories eventually emerge during the highly interactive Partner Attachment Interview. However, for a PACT therapist, the way a couple interact in the realm of the body becomes a powerful early assessment of where they are with each other. Are they securely attached? Are they safely in one another’s care?
Alex came to therapy to fight for his 6-year relationship. He described feeling neglected by Cindy. They had not had sex in more than a year, and he longed for intimacy. He believed Cindy did not love him and he demanded she agree to marry him within the next 30 days to prove her devotion. Cindy’s belief was that she did love him, but felt his temper drove her to keep her distance.
Making use of the body through PACT’s Toward and Away intervention, this couple’s comfort with physical proximity told a very different story than presented in their initial verbal narrative: Alex stood silently still in one corner of the office while I directed Cindy to, “Walk toward him and stop where you think you should.” She stopped four feet from him.
When I asked her to gradually step closer, Alex became increasingly agitated. When Cindy was within a foot, he suddenly turned his body away from her, his discomfort palpable. Alex broke the silence: “Can we stop? This is just too weird for me.” While his avoidance of closer contact might indicate past trauma, in that moment, it showed the couple that Alex may not have been as ready for the intimacy and commitment as his demands indicated.
Because PACT’s approach incorporates the importance of neurobiology and arousal regulation between partners, couples actively and efficiently learn right there in the office what blocks them and what heals them. PACT is so much more than a “he said, she said” talking cure with the therapist playing the role of judge and determining who’s right and who’s wrong. Instead, a couple’s metaphorical and very real relational dance is revealed through posture, proximity, facial expression, pupil dilation or constriction, the capacity to sustain eye contact, hand gestures, a dip of the chin, and facial micro movements. As a couple sit in rolling chairs facing one another, arousal regulation takes center stage. While I remain interested in what they are saying, I am even more enthralled with how they are moving. I have come to respect the phrase “The body never lies”.
When Marie and Steven initiated therapy, they were on their seventh couple therapist. Married for 18 years, they claimed they were living parallel lives in a sexless marriage. Steven was an accomplished engineer and bronze sculptor, and lived very much in his head. He showed up for therapy highly motivated. Marie came in kicking and screaming. She was all about wanting to feel it. His motto was “You’ve got to work at it, and here’s my three-step plan.” Her mantra was “If I’m not feeling it, I just can’t do it.”
Not yet trained as a PACT therapist, I initially used a traditional seating arrangement with this couple. Each week, they came in and sat down at either end of the couch, as far apart as possible. Steven rarely reached out to or moved toward Marie. While his body was often turned toward her, his gaze stayed fixed on me despite my attempts to redirect him toward her. Her body typically turned slightly away from him.
Invoking the language of a Shakespearian tragi-drama, I thought Steven “did-est proclaimeth too much”. The relentlessness of his expressed love for Marie in no way matched his physical proximity seeking. His body and his mind told very different stories. While Marie was clear about her entrenched ambivalence, Steven appeared to be equally ambivalent about actualizing intimacy. If I had focused exclusively on words I would have missed the centrality of his ambivalence, which ultimately informed my interventions.
With PACT’s strategic use of rolling chairs, I was able to orchestrate more face-to-face contact for this couple. Even then, they initially began each session rolled back and away from one another. I then introduced them to simple eye-gazing—both in session and at home—which was the shift they needed to once again find their couple bubble.
As a therapist informed by PACT’s integrative theoretical model, I continue to analyze my clients’ narrative content. These brief case examples, however, also illustrate the importance of reading the body. My understanding of how neurobiology informs PACT’s dynamic interventions has radically increased my ability to move couples in the direction of secure attachment and deeper intimacy. The body knows how to love!
by Beth O’Brien, PhD, licensed psychologist
PACT Level III candidate
“Fast acting, long lasting.” Those are the words one couple used to describe their experience of PACT in session with me. As a PACT Level III candidate, I find that once each partner learns to really understand the other and how the other works, their relationship runs more smoothly.
Couples often begin their first counseling session pointing their finger at the other partner. They blame, explain, and defend. I understand that they are angry and hurt, and it took a while for them to come to counseling. As our sessions continue, the partners experience the benefit of safe and secure functioning, and this becomes the primary goal for their relationship and how they want to be with one another. Through PACT interventions, they begin to collaborate more. “I” becomes “we.” They look out for one another more. What the other person says and needs matters more.
Wouldn’t anyone want that level of mutual care in his or her relationship? When I saw that Drs. Stan Tatkin and Tracey Boldemann-Tatkin were leading a Wired for Love Retreat at the beautiful Shambhala Center in Colorado, my husband and I decided we were in. I was eager to take off my therapist hat for the retreat weekend and be on the receiving end of PACT teachings and principles.
I did have some reservations, though. How many other couples would be attending? Would we have to air our dirty laundry in front of people we didn’t know? Would privacy and confidentiality be respected?
My concerns disappeared after our initial group session. Twenty-five couples attended, which allowed for an intimate setting. Most of the exercises were done with our partner, not as small group exercises. Confidentiality was paramount. Stan and Tracey, along with trainers Jeff Pincus and Rachel Cahn, were warm and welcoming. At one point, Stan revealed a difference of opinion he and Tracey were having, and that proved to be a role model for opening up and acknowledging that even couples who deeply love each other can struggle. Stan and Tracey then shared with us how they resolved their difference, which was very impactful to the group.
Topics for the retreat included How to Form a Couple Bubble, Becoming an Expert on One Another, Fighting Well, and How Your Partnership Can Heal. One of my favorite topics was How to Rekindle Love Through Eye Contact. In this exercise, we quietly gazed into our partner’s eyes. With our busy schedule, my husband and I often communicate across one room to another, or speak while tending to other duties. So looking into each other’s eyes felt like a treat. We laughed, we teared up, and we were reminded that the wonderful person sitting before us was the person we chose to be with all those years ago.
My husband said he liked getting to know the other couples. He found it touching to hear their stories about how they met and how their relationship developed. On the last day of the retreat, a few couples worked directly with Stan in front of the group on their particular issue. By this time, trust had built within the group, and it seemed perfectly natural to listen, be supportive, and root for resolution. To some extent, the concerns shared in this exercise were similar to those all of us had dealt with or were dealing with at present. The work these couples did with Stan validated our own journeys and gave us concrete tools to move forward in healing and growing as a couple.
My husband and I look back at the Wired for Love Retreat with fondness and great appreciation. We have become closer because of it. And yes, we gaze into each other’s eyes more often. Since the retreat, I’ve put my therapist hat back on, but I believe that I am able to bring a new depth and richness to my work after having experienced the rewards of PACT with my own partner.
by John Grey, PhD
PACT core faculty
Like many couples who arrive for their first session, Robert and Susan initially sat down facing me rather than each other. Both in their mid fifties, they had been married for seventeen years and had two children they loved very much. As Susan started describing what brought them to my office, I saw Robert’s facial expression occasionally change. But Susan did not see this. As she complained about not feeling very important to him, she didn’t notice Robert’s momentary grimaces. If she had seen these, she might have realized that she had a big impact on him.
A basic principle of secure functioning is that couples are in each other’s care. Part of the PACT method is to help partners accurately recognize their moment-to-moment impact on each other, and to help each use his or her power to better care for the other and thereby increase shared satisfaction.
One step in this approach is to turn partners to face one another, and to recognize what is actually occurring in each other. As Susan went on to complain, “The only thing meaningful to him is work,” I asked her what Robert’s facial response was. This time she saw his slight grimace. I asked her what she thought it indicated. “He’s thinking I’m too needy.”
I asked Robert if she was accurate. It turns out she wasn’t. He was actually thinking he was “a failure as a mate in Susan’s eyes.” What’s more, he reported feeling pain in his heart about this.
Clearly, Susan had a huge impact on Robert. Hearing him say what was really going on inside was surprising to her. She hadn’t believed he felt very much about her at all. She seemed shocked to hear that what he thought she felt about him mattered a great deal to him.
How could Susan have missed this for so long, and instead have built up a false belief that Robert did not consider her to be all that important? Partly, this was due to not accurately seeing her impact. Of course, this went both ways. For years, Robert also missed seeing his impact on her.
As unresolved upsets build over time, couples often end up believing inaccurate, negative theories about each other. A decrease in eye contact facilitates such a buildup of misconceptions. Instead of seeing our partner, we see the cartoon our brain makes up about him or her. It seems a cruel irony that just as couples need to better see and understand one another, they so often end up looking toward each other less.
This was true for Robert and Susan. Instead of seeing and understanding one another, they made far less eye contact than they had earlier in their relationship. Now they missed seeing important visual cues about the ongoing impact they each had on one another. Instead, they “saw” each other mostly through the lenses of their negative mental theories, such as “I don’t really matter” or “I’m a failure.”
Contrast this with the time when they were first together. Then, Robert and Susan often gazed at each other. They also frequently touched and held each other. Touch and eye contact are powerful biological forces that promote feelings of security and emotional connection. But by this point in their relationship, this couple’s strong forms of interactive caring had dropped away.
Restoring such vital channels of connection can help you and your partner better see, understand, and care for each other. It is especially important to remember this when you get upset with your partner. Beware of your tendency to drop eye contact and touch, and to over-rely on mental interpretations. Just because you think something is true doesn’t make it true.
Curiosity can be a powerful antidote to mental misconceptions. Don’t be afraid to explore what is really happening inside your partner. It pays to look into his or her eyes and wonder more about the complex, marvelous person with whom you chose to spend your life. Seeing and understanding your impact helps you to better care for one another and to make your relationship a truly loving place to share.
By Ellen Boeder, MA, LPC
PACT Level II practitioner
When I witness a couple move from fear and blame into trust and genuine care, I am inspired to feel hope for humanity. Protecting our loved ones and providing real relief to each other are qualities our entire world needs right now. And this starts in romantic partnerships. The primary relationships within our own homes are powerful resources that can provide needed comfort and safety in a difficult, uncertain, and challenging world.
A couple who willingly embark on improving the security in their relationship will learn how much is possible when they have truly cultivated a secure-functioning relationship. They work in the present moment to discover who each of them is as an individual; practice new ways of being in relationship that may feel vulnerable but that strengthen their connection; and challenge themselves to do the work of creating a mutual, safe, and just two-person system. They will not want to revert to anything less than this once they have experienced how impactful and necessary a secure intimate relationship is.
But what about couples who struggle to get on board with the work of building a secure-functioning relationship? I may know how important security is for the long-term health of the individuals and the relationship, but my clients often don’t. They come in for help, but are ambivalent about therapy, as well as about their relationship. Instead of participating collaboratively in therapy, they may repeatedly act out their ambivalence, despair, frustration, anger, and other unconscious feelings and agendas. The try to make therapy, or the therapist, the problem. Our sessions can feel like one step forward, two steps back.
I find I have to work hard to stay oriented and clear in my stance with these couples. The challenge in these sessions for me is countertransference. The definition of countertransference has evolved over decades, but can be thought of as the therapist’s experience of thoughts, emotions, and body sensations in relationship to the client. We all work with this material within ourselves as therapists—because we are human, after all—and our own experience must be identified, observed, and sorted through. The awareness and skillful use of countertransference can be a pivotal factor in helping these couples.
PACT supplies a framework to address acting out, and to use countertransference, so that a couple can get back to the task of therapy. The antidote to acting out is already in our hands: Stan Tatkin speaks about “pushing couples down the tube of secure functioning.” By pressuring the couple to assert themselves, to take a stand, to use each other fully, to make the relationship their highest priority, to create agreements, and to act in ways that cultivate and demonstrate mutuality, a PACT therapist directs the couple back to the work of creating a safe and secure foundation for their relationship.
Sometimes I need to consult with my PACT peers and supervisors as I wade through the uncomfortable feelings of countertransference I know will eventually lead me to the clarity I need to intervene. Ultimately, I have to give back to the couple the discomfort they don’t want to feel, that they disown to temporarily feel better without really getting better. As I support them to become aware of and cope with the feelings that have been unregulated and unconscious, they have a chance to move forward.
To grow in security, a couple must also grow in complexity. They have to expand their awareness of themselves and each other, and learn to be a two-person system. They need to face the learned behaviors and beliefs about relationship that they are acting out and that sabotage their long-term security. Focusing on the subtleties of adult attachment and secure functioning, as well as skillful use of countertransference, can help even the most “difficult” couples learn to function in the here and now in a fair, friendly, and mutual way. Not only do primary relationships benefit greatly from this work, but our entire world benefits from having mature adults who can respond well to each other.
By Michelle Rae, M.S.W., RSW
PACT Level II practitioner
Can you imagine living in a world where every person—adult and child alike—started and ended his or her day feeling loved and connected to another? In a culture that values independence, autonomy, and self-reliance, and that views vulnerability and interdependence as weaknesses, knowing how to operate as a two-person system (one that promotes taking care of me and you at the same time) can feel like an incredibly foreign idea. Yet, research tells us that children who are securely attached have the confidence to explore their world. They know that their caregivers have their backs and will be there to catch them should they stumble or fall, no matter what. The same is true in adult romantic relationships. The need for secure attachment is not something we outgrow.
Part of what drew me to PACT was a desire to improve my own marriage. The more I studied PACT, the more I became aware that I was in an insecure-functioning relationship. And as a result, sadly, it ended. At the same time, I was drawn to work with couples in my practice so I could help them make the most of their “we” system. I might not have had that fully yet in my own life, but I understood its significance.
“We have each other’s backs,” “Fairness, justice, and sensitivity” and other PACT maxims resonate strongly for me. Although seemingly straightforward, these concepts can be difficult to put into practice. We naturally feel bad when the person we love most in this world and who loves us just as deeply can’t figure out how to work collaboratively and cooperatively when conflict arises. This kind of problem is often what leads partners into my office. It rarely has to do with the specifics of what they are fighting about, and has everything to do with not knowing how to work with and manage one another.
We enter adulthood with a blueprint for relationships that is informed primarily by our experiences growing up within our family of origin. For better or worse, we import our knowledge about intimate relationships from what we knew in that family. In most cases, our caretakers were figuring things out as they went, doing the best they could as they tried to parent us. Thus, most of us carry scars and relational wounds that show up in our intimate relationships, often without warning or awareness of where these came from.
Couples who are attuned to one another learn to anticipate where their vulnerabilities and landmines lie. When these relationship time bombs are detonated, secure-functioning couples work quickly to soothe and relieve each other of distress.
Perhaps, aside from a newborn baby, there is nothing more beautiful to watch than a couple in connection with one another. The way they gaze at each other lovingly, the attunement and synchronization of their movements, and how they anticipate the other make for a beautiful dance of intimacy. These two people exist in a private world, with its own rules, culture, and principles to guide them. When done mindfully, in a secure-functioning manner, the results are life changing—not only for the two in the couple system, but for all those who come into contact with them.
Often, however, when couples come into my office, they are the opposite of beautiful to watch. They are lost in their anger and hurt, and unwilling or unable to acknowledge, let alone attend to, their partner’s hurts, as well. However, I find it something of beauty to watch as couples get on board with and commit to being in a truly two-person system. It is so satisfying to see the transformative power of PACT as they adjust the lenses through which they view each other. I feel fortunate that couples allow me the privilege of being with them at their most fragile, and of using the principles of PACT to guide them toward a much more fulfilling relationship that embodies what it means to be secure functioning.