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.
By Rick Hupp, LMFT
PACT Level II practitioner
West Hills, CA
When I was a boy, I had a loyal and loving friendship with our family dog, a Labrador retriever mix named Domingo. He was our docile family mascot, and he had a wonderful ability to influence us in a playful manner, whether it was to get us to throw a ball for him, sneak him a snack under the dinner table, or give him a thorough scratching behind the ears. He was mostly by my side, even when sleeping, as my parents had made a special padded nook for him next to my bed.
One morning I awoke to the sounds of him growling. As I looked over to see what the matter was, I realized he was fast asleep but having a bad dream. Whatever was threatening to him in that dream was causing him to respond with an aggressive, defensive stance—rare for his generally happy-go-lucky demeanor. Thinking I was going to offer comfort by waking him from his doggie nightmare, I leaned out to gently pet him. Much to my surprise, as soon I made contact, he lurched around and tried to bite me! I shrieked and pulled back. He pulled back, as well. We were both confused and embarrassed, and sat there looking at each other for a bit. We were startled at first, but then quickly recognized each other as friends. I reached out to pet him again, and this time my gesture was received with his familiar bashful grin as he leaned in as if to say, “I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you at first. Can we be friends again?”
I share this story because it demonstrates some of the maxims and principles that PACT clarifies for couples. For one, a PACT therapist encourages couples to get what they want from each other using attraction and playfulness, rather than intimidation and threat. Domingo’s attempt to bite me had me in retreat, but his bashful grin brought me closer.
Regarding conflict, when clients learn how their “bite fits their partner’s wound”—another PACT maxim—a PACT therapist can prepare them for how they will inevitably activate each other’s past unrepaired pain in the present. We help them recognize the subconscious “family-iar” template installed by insensitive relationships in the past and understand how their current relationship can be an opportunity to heal by proxy. We help them wake up more quickly from their dream-like projections on the present.
I wanted to “lead with relief” (a PACT principle) when I reached out to wake my pal, yet it was startling for him, and didn’t fit what he needed in the moment. Fortunately, in my case, there was no bite, just my doggy’s initial reflexive attempt to defend from a semi-conscious state—much like what happens with couples in therapy! Like being in a bad dream, many couples interact automatically and reflexively from their protective mammalian directive of “thou shall not be killed,” (another PACT maxim) amplified long ago from unjust relationships.
PACT encourages partners to use in vivo activation and repair to replace old experiential memories with new safe experiences to help a cooperative mate appear as a friend instead of a misidentified foe. PACT gives couples the confidence to normalize their automatic survival-based adaptive behaviors, and helps them replace blame with an incentive to develop competent secure-attachment strategies. Just as with my doggie, there is benefit for both in becoming competent at taking care of another. Said another way, “We know our primitive brains are going to get us into trouble, let’s accept that and practice reducing how we threaten each other, and repair more quickly… because it’s good for both of us!” These important PACT maxims and principles help couples put their shame and anger down in favor of picking up compassion and curiosity for their partner’s needs, and creating mutuality and fairness.
It was difficult for me to understand at the time why my loving companion Domingo wanted to bite me when I was only trying to offer comfort. Happily, we made quick work of the repair and returned to the secure joy we both wanted. Years later, I can say that seems like a reasonable goal to have in any relationship!
By Rachel Holland, DClinPsych,
PACT core faculty
Dan and Jane have been married for thirty years and have three sons. They came into therapy following a challenging time in their lives after they faced a number of health, family, and work problems in quick succession. Jane had also suffered a recent traumatic event and was struggling with posttraumatic hyperarousal. She was sensitive to noise and crowds and felt that nowhere was safe anymore. Both Dan and Jane were distressed and looked exhausted in response to these events. Their relationship had become adversarial and verbally aggressive, and they felt like they were “on eggshells” with each other. Both were seeing individual therapists for support, as well as seeking couple therapy.
My initial ideas about this couple included issues related to allostatic load (i.e., the cumulative burden on the nervous system from multiple chronic stressors; McEwen & Seeman, 1999), unresolved trauma, and dissociation in response to multiple traumatic events that were out of their control. I also had a sense they had the potential to be resilient and collaborative.
I took Dan and Jane through the Partner Attachment Inventory (PAI), an intervention tool PACT therapists use to foster engagement. They listened to each other’s attachment narratives and caregiver responses to their bids for care. While they both had experiences of being well fed and having clean clothes, an education, and health care, their descriptions of being loved by parents were patchy. Dan, in particular, was often left to attend to his emotional needs alone.
The couple were also able to hear each other report a number of traumatic events dating back to childhood and young adulthood, in addition to the recent events. They were surprised during this process because they had not been aware of some of the events that the other faced.
The PACT therapist leads with relief. This means that the couple, particularly after the first session, should leave with some contextual understanding and a shift in arousal that gives them a sense of hope. PACT is a bottom-up method, but also includes top-down interventions, such as interpretation and psychoeducation.
In this case, I offered Dan and Jane the explanation that following a traumatic event, the amygdala, the smoke detector of our brain, is hypersensitive to threat and will respond to neutral signals, let alone threatening ones. Essentially, a partner in a state of fear and dysregulation presents as psychobiologically frightening to his or her partner. Partners start to “walk on eggshells,” which paradoxically makes them look more predatory to their partner’s frightened and overwhelmed nervous system. As a result, the relationship becomes a place in which no one feels safe, confirming the partners’ earlier experiences that relationships are not to be trusted.
My initial goal in working with Dan and Jane was to establish safety though arousal regulation by working toward relaxed quiet-love states so they could begin think in a contingent manner (Siegel, 1999). Rather than having Dan and Jane tell me about their problems, I invited them to show me their struggles in real time.
They reenacted a scene in which Jane was sitting, staring into space. Dan noticed and came over to her to attempt to wake her up. He started talking at her about plans for their garden in an attempt to engage her. Jane exploded at him, gesticulating and shouting. He looked distressed and retreated back into the house. Jane said that what she really wanted was for him to come closer and hold her.
I interpreted Jane for Dan, and explained that people can dissociate, or space out, in response to overwhelming emotions. A partner can look apparently normal, but be in a state of deep distress (Nijenhuis, Van der Hart, & Steele, 2004). Dan was concerned about Jane, but his attempt to pop her out of a dissociated state backfired. His retreat made sense, given his attachment style and his current distress.
I gave Dan and Jane a chance to reenact this experience again, encouraging them to slow down, and inviting Dan to approach Jane gently. He did this by reaching for her hand, holding it for some time, and then with a quiet prompt from me, saying her name softly. She warmed to him and slowly lifted her gaze to his. As their arousal level fell, they continued to hold hands. I watched, waited, and then invited them to find each other’s eyes if they could. They gazed into each other’s eyes and were able to hold the pose. I used corralling comments, such as “You’re in each other’s care” and “You’re safe together,” to help them move further into a quiet, relaxed, and loving state.
For couples affected by trauma, a romantic relationship has the potential to further kindle trauma and retraumatize. Instead, the PACT therapist can support the traumatized couple by working with arousal regulation and attachment style to guide them to find safety and security in their relationship. The romantic relationship thus becomes the couple’s posttrauma secure base.
McEwen, B. S., & Seeman, T. (1999). Protective and damaging effects of mediators of stress: Elaborating and testing the concepts of allostasis and allostatic load. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 896, 30–47.
Nijenhuis, E. R. S., Van der Hart, O., & Steele, K. (2004). Trauma-related structural dissociation of the personality. Retrieved from http://www.trauma-pages.com/a/nijenhuis-2004.php
Siegel, D. J. (1999). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. New York, NY: Guilford Press
by Jeff Pincus, LCSW, and Rachel Cahn, LPC
PACT faculty members
Emails: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Most people would agree that relationships, especially love relationships, are incredibly complex. Most honest psychotherapists would add that couple therapy itself can be extremely complicated, and that it isn’t always clear how best to intervene with a couple who are distrustful, disconnected, and in the midst of pain. With so many moving parts, what should the effective PACT therapist focus on? The answer is affect, and helping the couple attend to each other’s affect by tolerating it and responding appropriately. Affect regulation theory offers a succinct lens through which to view how skilled PACT therapists can be most effective in helping a couple move toward a secure-functioning relationship.
What is affect?
According to psychologist Daniel Hill, affect is “the somatic representation of the state of the organism.” Affect is the way it feels to be the person we are, in the present moment. It is our subjective experience of existence, reflected through our biology. It is the experience of emotion in the body.
Skilled PACT therapists can quickly discern a partner’s affect by tracking facial expressions (including micro-expressions), tone of voice, and body movements. Based on what is revealed, the PACT therapist facilitates appropriate experience that allows the affect to come into clearer focus for both partners.
Secure-functioning couples are able to tolerate a range of affect and are curious about what they might learn about themselves and each other by paying attention to it. This includes being with and understanding higher-arousal states, such as excitement, anger, and fear, as well as lower-arousal states, such as sadness, disappointment, and shame. They also note what brings about pleasant and unpleasant affective states, so that over time, they better understand the causes and conditions of various affects. They are especially good at responding skillfully to help one another mitigate and metabolize difficult or painful states, as well as enhance and amplify positive states together.
Most couples come to therapy because they lack the skill to effectively work with affect, and rely instead on immature strategies that are self defeating or used at the expense of one partner. By not understanding how to respond in the moment when affect is on line, they end up harming the relationship. As therapists, our job is to help them move forward by developing a greater capacity to know and be known by their partners in sensitive mutuality.
Jack and Joni came to therapy after Jack had an affair. Neither had developed much capacity to recognize or respond to the other’s or his or her own affect, and that landed them in deep trouble. Jack had poor affect tolerance for any negative emotion, whether he or Joni was experiencing it. Jack and Joni’s oldest daughter had a difficult adolescence and became frighteningly involved with drugs. Jack distracted himself from the pain of feeling like a failure as a father, and avoided showing Joni his pain. Joni missed the signs that Jack was hiding how he really felt, and accepted his superficial interactions at face value. Jack’s strategy of distraction led him into a dalliance, which he then compartmentalized so as not to be overwhelmed by the guilt that could have course-corrected his behavior. Joni sensed that something was off, but grew to live with her uneasy feeling by ignoring it. It came as a shock to both of them when his affair was found out.
In the office, even though Jack doesn’t show his cards easily, a moment arises when his eyes look moist. I* ask Joni, “What do you see in his eyes?” She focuses on his face and says, “Sadness,” with surprising tenderness, since Joni has primarily expressed her righteous anger up until this point. I direct them to stay in each other’s eyes, countering their instinct to turn away from this quieter affect. He begins to weep, saying, “I am so sorry for what I did to you. I was so confused and I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t tell you. I’m so ashamed… I don’t want to lose you.” She rolls her chair close to his and they melt into each other, feeling the grief and loss together.
In couple therapy, Jack will need to continue repairing the damage done by demonstrating sincere regret for how his actions have harmed Joni and their marriage. Yet to move into secure functioning for the long term, they will need to be better at attending to each other’s affective states, such as by seeing when one is sad, being interested and present, and responding with a love that is palpable to the other. They could have shared the burden of difficulty with their daughter and shored each other up by dealing directly with each other’s genuine feelings.
Couples can be dangerously inattentive toward their own and/or their partner’s affect—so much so that they miss what is actually happening in the moment and over time. Doing so, partners squander the opportunity to learn more about the person they chose. Tolerating affect and responding appropriately empowers couples by deepening their understanding of one another, while amplifying the love and goodness that lives between them.
* Although the blog is co-authored, the case is presented in a singular therapist’s voice.
Hill, D. (2015). Affect regulation theory: A clinical model. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.
I love being a couple therapist, and after 18 years, I am pretty confident I know what I’m doing—mostly. What I love about the work is the sense of honor I feel when a couple engage me in their process and I can help them create a better relationship. Each and every time I embark on that journey, I commit to it fully and I give it my all. It is such a privilege.
As you can imagine, I’ve learned many skills and worked with a range of modalities. Some of these have stayed with me, but many have been left behind. Not only is it my professional responsibility to stay on top of what’s new in clinical practice and what the clinical evidence tells us about what works and what doesn’t, but for me it’s also important to keep learning, to stay fresh and connected as a way of keeping the work alive.
Keeping the work alive and trusting the evidence is a big part of what drew me to training in PACT. Having studied levels I and II, I’ve used the techniques time and time again—so much so that PACT has proven itself to me. I’ve now completed one module of level III, and I am so confident the approach is a good fit that I am committed to working toward certification.
What makes me so certain about PACT? It’s been really rewarding clinically, and the concept of pushing couples through the funnel of secure functioning has been the most containing way of working as a couple therapist I have experienced. PACT has settled me and provided the right frame for me to grow in confidence and effectiveness. For me, it comes down to holding the steady concept of secure functioning and using this to contain my work. Trusting this process has led to success with couples, no matter what their issues may be, in ways I could not have imagined.
I don’t like sounding evangelical, but I have to say the PACT process simply works! And it works across the gamut of issues with which couples grapple. Whether it’s dealing with the devastation of an affair, the pain of financial pressures, corrosive mistrust, or the trap of addiction cycles, PACT cuts through the noise and guides the couple in how to pay attention to each other so attunement becomes their primary objective.
The benefits that result from looking, watching, and observing each other and integrating these skills into daily life are the creation of a mindful environment, which in turn promotes growth for the couple. It’s very powerful to observe.
PACT has increased my confidence as a therapist and taken my foundation of strong skills and lifted me to the next level. In my work, this translates into the faith that I am able to take on a couple for therapy even if they present as complex (e.g., couples in which one or both have personality disorders). I no longer feel concerned that a personality disorder may emerge in therapy or that it will become too hard to manage the therapy. The frame of secure functioning can be used on any couple who want a more rewarding relationship, filled with trust and security. I am very grateful for the PACT approach, and while I believe it’s an approach that works best for certain types of therapists, for me, the glove fits perfectly.
by Eda Arduman, Ma., clinical psychologist couple therapist
Level 2 PACT therapist
Istanbul Bilgi University clinical supervisor instructor
Clinical Psychology MFT Master Program
It has been said that intimate relationships are not for the faint hearted, yet research shows us time and time again that the pleasure and reliability of relationships provide us with the resiliency to overcome the challenges life often presents. Some of the hurdles life throws are external (e.g., an economic crisis or severe illness of a loved one or divorce of parents) and others are internal (e.g., states of ambivalence, self-sabotage, and depression). Sometimes an external event spurs an internal reaction that interrupts movement; the braking mechanism acts as a counterforce to expansion and results in contraction.
The PACT therapist works with couples in severe conflict who are responding at a pace at which their minds cannot keep up with their words. The couple are trying to say things to each other, but their brains are simply registering each other’s microexpressions, tone of voice, and gestures. The more they try to talk, the more things spiral out of control. Though humorous in a Woody Allen movie, remaining in a state of high arousal for a prolonged period of time with no resolution can take a heavy toll on both partners.
Ferhat and Şirin came to therapy when their son was a year and a half old. They were stuck in a cycle of discontentment. Until the birth of their son, they shared hobbies and had a satisfying relationship. Now, however, they frequently argued about parenting responsibilities and time spent together or apart. Both have the insecure attachment style PACT refers to as island, and thus they were in the habit of solving problems through individualistic solutions. “Let’s just be happy alone” was their motto.
During our initial session, it came out that Şirin had survived a life-threatening bike accident just before her pregnancy. A car hit and nearly killed her. During the debriefing process, she claimed that what bothered her most was not the accident itself but seeing the bike totaled. She had lost all desire to buy or even ride another bike. She had no idea her loss of interest might be the result of trauma.
Having trained in Eye Movement Desensıtızatıon Reprocessing (EMDR), I decided to apply EMDR in conjunction with my PACT skills. EMDR protocol requires the patient to establish a safe haven in his or her mind. The corresponding PACT protocol entails using the partner as the safe retreat and moving the couple toward secure functioning. I had Sirin sit on Ferhat’s lap because face-to-face interaction was too dysregulating for both of them while in high-arousal states. He was able to hug her back with his body and stroke her arms with open palms in a firm manner.
The exploration went fairly smoothly until we came to the memory of another bike. Sirin’s face became still, and she started trembling and had difficulty following the movement of my hand—all signs of the disorganized-type dysregulatıon. She froze and started to talk about the bike her parents bought her when she was 13, at the same time they told her they were getting divorced. Her face lost affect and her hand began to shake. Even though her body was trembling, her voice and words were dissociated from the rest of her body. She continued to talk about the bike her parents had given her and how she used to ride off to freedom on it.
Noticing the dissociation, her husband moved forward and started to stroke her face. This annoyed her, and she brushed him off. With my support, he began rubbing her arms and knees as she continued to talk about the bike. I urged him to stroke her with wide palms because small finger brushes were ticklish for her. She started to shake and sob. She moved onto her husband’s lap, where he held her firmly as she continued to share how her life changed following her parents’ divorce.
As they jointly calmed down, Sirin and Ferhat were able to move into the fear they had regarding their own relationship. The ruined bike symbolized the loss of an internal as well as external vehicle that took Sirin to freedom. The ruin of the bike, followed by multiple surgeries and months of immobility, and then her pregnancy and all the infant-related responsibilities had resulted in her internally and externally relinquishing her freedom. This resulted in her coming to the unconscious, erroneous conclusion that her husband was the guardian to the jail her traumas had constructed.
Working with PACT allowed Sirin to experience that freedom was possible with her husband. Having built a scaffold of secure functioning, the couple were able to complete the cycle of rupture and repair at a real level, without falling into old habits. They expressed a new felt intimacy and trust, which had been missing in their relationship since the accident.
by Allison Howe, LMHC
PACT Level II practitioner
Saratoga Springs, NY
Do you and your partner have any mentor couples in your lives? A number of couples in my practice report that they don’t have a mentor couple in their social or support network. Yet mentor couples are important because they model the principles of secure functioning. They protect each other in our presence, and we can see and learn from the fair and sensitive ways in which they interact.
Years ago, my husband and I met such a couple, Rhonda and Pat, and they advised us to not become “married singles.” We didn’t fully know what they meant, although now we do. Married singles are partners who are married but spend little time together. They operate mainly as a one-person system. PACT therapists believe couples can design their marriage in any way they see fit. If the design works for both individuals, the marriage can flourish. My husband and I saw that spending time together kept Rhonda and Pat grounded and helped them thrive. For example, they wrote, “2005 held some adventures for us but we never wander far from the most important part of our lives—our family.”
PACT therapists work to help partners clarify who they are as a couple and what they are doing together in life. More specifically, they clarify what they truly value in their life together. Rhonda and Pat both deeply value their professional careers. When they were in their fifties, they began to notice they were spending too much time at work. They told us, “We realize that we need to stop and smell the roses.” This is a common issue in couple therapy; PACT refers to it as management of thirds. The couple have a limited amount of resources with which to care for one another and their relationship. When resources are spent in areas outside the relationship, the relationship can be compromised. Rhonda and Pat addressed this by choosing to make changes that allowed them to spend more time outside work doing things they enjoyed together. This included gardening, traveling, and spending time with family and friends.
Woodworking has been a lifelong hobby for Pat, and he recently completed a conference table for his office. Hobbies bring such satisfaction and meaning to life, yet they can compete for relationship resources in some partnerships. It was clear that Rhonda and Pat were not going to let that happen, as Rhonda shared, “I’m now beginning to turn wood. Took a private lesson and made my first bowl.”
One of the treasures Rhonda and Pat found in marriage is how to create novel experiences together. One year, they shared, “We spent hours on vacation viewing art. It was awe inspiring.” They cruised the Greek isles and said, “We felt like a king and queen.” PACT therapists are trained in the fundamentals of neurobiology and know that after courtship ends, the brain will categorize a partner as familiar and familial. One of the challenges for couples is to keep the flame of vitality burning. Our mentor couple showed us that having shared experiences that are pleasurable is a great way to fuel our partnership.
Recently, they celebrated 39 years of marriage. Rhonda wrote in their most recent greeting card, “We hope to go at least another 39. We are as happy today as we were on day one. In fact, it seems like just yesterday that he was wooing me. Nice thing is that he stills woos me whether it is with flowers or a balloon or having the house work done when arrive home from a business trip. I wooed him with my cooking while we were dating and I’m still cooking his favorite dishes today. Maybe this on-going wooing will result in getting us through the next 39 years.” Wooing is a courtship behavior but can fall off the grid in many marriages. PACT recommends that couples attract one another with friendliness, compassion, interest, and understanding to move relationships, instead of using fear, shame, or guilt.
Our mentor couple are thriving, and they truly epitomize how a secure-functioning relationship can withstand the test of time. Mentor couples can guide and inspire other couples by the unspoken sense of safety and security that exists in their union. A couple striving to form a secure-functioning relationship can be greatly supported by being in the company of a mentor couple.
by Elaine G. Tuccio, LCSW, PACT faculty, Austin, TX
Challenging couples are difficult to work with if all the therapist knows to do is referee the flow of conversation and inappropriate behaviors. PACT-trained therapists, on the other hand, have numerous therapeutic tools that can be used to move these couples toward secure functioning.
For example, the PACT therapist sees acting out in session as an opportunity for staging an intervention toward secure functioning. Our training teaches us that it is usually best to sit back and observe, as if tracking the plot in a suspenseful detective novel. Underneath the precarious nature of challenging partners’ harmful defensive behaviors a relationship is waiting to be saved. Despite appearances, couples bring lots of resources, such as healthy drives and capacities that may be hidden under years of erroneous narratives about themselves, their significant other, and the world at large. The PACT therapist speaks to these resources, not to the defenses.
How might a couple find each other and go toward a coherence that at first may feel threatening? It takes a deft touch to lead the couple in this way; even a seasoned therapist is likely to feel his or her theoretical knowledge and intervention skills are being tested. It is essential for the therapist to stay present and relational when working with challenging couples. The therapist should not have to work harder than the couple. This means making proficient use of self-regulation to engender an impenetrable therapeutic stance. Dr. Stan Tatkin writes, “In all therapeutic approaches, the therapist takes a stance that suggests his or her beliefs about where the therapy should go. This stance must be clear, coherent, and consistent if good therapy is to occur…. The PACT therapist moves partners down the tube of secure functioning.”
A common clinical error therapists make when working with primitive defenses from a partner or couple is becoming drawn into their story and into their use of these defenses in emotional attacks against each other. Forgotten or overlooked are the intentional aspects of these learned defenses for survival, and how they may show up as either running away from or running toward the other. It is important to study the moment-by-moment enactments of these defenses because that can increase understanding about how, why, and when they developed. Doing this requires steady use of PACT intervention skills so the couple can flex their tacit resources and self-correct destructive patterns in real time.
Reactive patterns of negative thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, as well a sensitivity to threat, become structured into family and couple systems and often point to transgenerational trauma. Throughout their lives, these partners have tried without much support to manage the painful symptoms of early traumatized defense systems. Couples do not expect patterns that have existed for decades to be remedied in a few sessions. Yet, in my experience with PACT, a great deal is often accomplished quite quickly.
Highly insecure partners and couples need certain attachment experiences to be able to develop essential relationship capacities for play, calm, trust, security, and touch. PACT gives them a process for moving from insecure functioning to a secure means of connection through increasing their awareness of destructive, dead-end defenses. One challenge these couples face is that they do not have a sense of their own boundaries or those of their partners. They were raised in environments where the map to a relational model of secure functioning was never laid down. They fall off the edges all the time. In these instances, the therapist needs to be ready to use acting out as an opportunity for increasing the partners’ awareness of unhealthy defense systems and for setting up secure-functioning experiences. To do this safely, it is critical that the therapist maintain a strong therapeutic stance that allows him or her to soften, shift, probe, and provide relief from these defenses.
Therapeutically, the means to success in working with challenging couples is to first understand the characteristics of secure-functioning relationships. Next is to develop and maintain a therapeutic stance that takes threats off the table and leads these partners down the path to secure functioning. My own approach includes four psychobiological expectations for the couple: safety, coherence, holding their agreements, and functioning securely. During the session, I see my job as naming, normalizing, and providing practice in each of these. For transformation and integration to occur, these must be repeated in every session, as long as the couple remains in therapy.
In sum, when we challenge couples to be makers of a secure-functioning relational map, they are pressed to navigate each other’s needs and their own primitive defense systems. Their new map charts not only the boundaries of a healthy relationship, but its topography, as well. Partners who function more securely naturally reach for one another. No one gets stranded in his or her own narrative. They feel safe in each other’s care. What the therapist may see as challenging at the start of therapy is actually the vitality partners can use to forge stronger love and commitment in previously uncharted relational territory. They leave therapy with an earned security that provides them a landing they can trust going forward.
Loving in a way that supports, energizes, and grows a long-term relationship means loving your partner the way he or she needs to be loved. Many well-intended people unconsciously get caught instead in the destructive loop of offering their partner the kind of support, care, attention, and love they themselves thrive on, only to be left feeling unseen, unsuccessful, misunderstood, and lonely, which often leads to defensiveness and fighting.
Aligned with a related PACT therapeutic goal—knowing who your partner is and how he or she operates—comes this question: Are you using that information to help your partner do a good job for you?
Successful couples arm themselves with detailed owner’s manuals that explain how each partner maneuvers through and makes sense of his or her world. Partners then put that unique and distinctive information to use on a regular basis by tailoring their love specifically to their partner. This in turn fuels and boosts the partner’s self-esteem.
During a recent couple session, a high-energy and very social wife declared she was “tired of cheerleading” her “lazy” husband, who would not respond to all the “pumping him up” she found herself “continually” doing with respect to his job. The husband, a quiet and productive man, slumped in his chair, his eyes downcast. Although not in the exact job of his dreams, he works full time in an industry he loves, and is able to support his wife and eight-year-old daughter. When the wife said she wished he networked in the same fashion she did in order to move up to the next level of “personal achievement,” he explained that he felt criticized. He admitted to avoiding his wife’s “constant barrage of rah-rah” by “checking out,” which left his wife feeling dismissed, hopeless, and ineffective at motivating the man she loves.
The husband, on the other hand, complained his wife ignored or trivialized his efforts to have his family enjoy one another and the home they have created, and show “grace” for what they already have. “We live really well, but I feel like it’s not enough for her. She usually wants us to go out instead of staying in for family movie night, going on a hike with just the three of us, or using our custom outdoor kitchen,” he said.
“I love our life, but I’m freaked out you don’t care about trying new things and meeting new people. You seem like you’re asleep at the wheel when you check out like that,” she said.
In an attempt to get him motivated, the wife was unintentionally devaluing him, and missed showing appreciation for the resources and contributions he brought to their family. Conversely, his attempts to get his wife to slow down and appreciate their life left her feeling disconnected, bored, and frantic.
Addressing the couple I asked, “So, who between you actually responds to cheerleading and being pumped up?”
After a long silence, the husband looked up and said, “My wife does.”
“And who between you thrives on simple words of appreciation?”
“He does,” she said.
“And you’re both offering those things to the other one, right?” I said, with a knowing smile.
They both chuckled. The husband had no use for cheerleading, and his wife had no use for simple, day-to-day appreciations…or so they thought. In fact, he would have use for the rah-rah if he could give it to his wife. If he did, it would boomerang back to him in the form of a happy, calm partner who feels safe, secure, and able to be more present in the relationship. And vice versa for the wife, if she could give simple words of appreciation to her husband. What you send out to your partner will come right back to you.
When partners don’t understand one another, they amplify what seems negative. Sometimes the behavior or request you find most annoying from your partner is the very thing he or she needs most, but that you resist giving. With the boomerang effect, you can give out what your partner thrives on, and then watch the reward come back to you. This way, you both thrive.
Ultimately, your partner is only as good as you believe him or her to be. So use the information you have gained to help your partner do a good job for you, and trust your partner will do the same, so you can both walk through the world feeling, safe, secure, sexy, and loved.
by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT
Las Vegas used to have slot machines known as one-armed bandits. You only needed to move one arm to let them take all your money. Most slot machines now have buttons or a digital interface, but I remember seeing people in casinos hypnotically putting money in the slot, pulling the lever, listening and watching the cylinders spin, and every now and then getting a (usually small) reward. It’s addictive. Why? Because even though it is a repetitive action, the possibility of being rewarded causes the brain to experience novelty. And our brains love novelty. The fact that the reward is intermittent makes you feel you have to pull that lever one more time. If you do, you might just hit the jackpot.
It occurs to me that some of the new apps for dating or hooking up are similarly addictive. For example, consider Tinder, which is available on all platforms. You can scroll through a plethora of faces and find ones in your local area. Then you swipe to the right if you’re interested or to the left if you are disinterested. It’s all anonymous. And like the one-armed bandit, it’s addictive because it provides your brain with an endless stream of novelty. Am I attracted to her? Is he hot? Will the next one be even hotter? Is she nearby? Maybe we can hook up right now!
That’s another similarity between slot machines and hook-up apps: both answer the need we feel for immediacy. Just as gambling promises instant riches, our date must be instantly available.
I’m not saying that I oppose any form of gambling. If you have some extra cash, enjoy playing a game, and know when to stop, then have at it. Similarly, if you enjoy the process of hooking up, that is your prerogative. But if you are using an app such as Tinder in an attempt to find a serious partnership, that’s another story. I would venture to say your odds of finding what you want are not high.
There are other issues here, as well. The brain may love novelty, but it hates having too many choices. We live in a culture in which we can pick and choose from many different items when we go shopping, and we can usually take things back for a 30-day return. We don’t have to make a commitment. We don’t have to choose one or two things, and stick to those. But Barry Schwartz found that people are not happy with too many choices. We do better with a limited number of choices that allow us to pick one thing and fully commit to it. Whether it’s a car, a pair of shoes, a new dress, a house, a career, or lover—we are more likely to find a happy result if we’re not choosing between multiple items. You may think that if you can keep dating different people, swapping out old partners for new ones, you will eventually be able to hit perfection. But it doesn’t work that way. The search for perfection will always leads to disappointment.
As a couple therapist who stands for secure-functioning relationships, one of my main concerns about the current dating technology is that it is focused first and primarily on people’s characteristics and only secondarily (if at all) on principles of relating. Apps encourage you to look for someone who’s handsome or beautiful, or sexy, or tall or short, or has blonde hair and blue eyes. Instead, I believe you should first consider the kind of relationship you want—or even better, must have—in order to be happy. For example, should the relationship be mutual? Should it be fair? How should my partner and I treat each other? Dating apps that don’t have this kind of focus are doing you a disservice. They are bandits in the sense that they rob you of the likelihood of finding a viable, long-lasting relationship.
Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. New York, NY: Ecco Press.
For more about dating, I’d like to invite you to purchase my new book, Wired for Dating, at Amazon.