The PACT Institute Blog

Using Quality Moments to Soothe or Bypass Core Vulnerabilites

Inga Gentile, MFT
PACT faculty
Oslo, Norway

Many couples tell me they simply don’t have the time they need to set aside to address issues in their relationship daily. They are too tired at night, mornings are too hectic, and their days are a blur. However, there are things they can do and ways they can be toward one another to help create greater safety and security in their relationship.

One way to increase secure functioning in your relationship is to be aware of the core vulnerabilities that underlie chronic distress for you and your partner. Stan Tatkin (2012) talked about the three or four core vulnerabilities most people have, usually rooted in childhood experiences. Secure-functioning couples realize it is their job to be aware of such vulnerabilities and to tend to injuries when needed. They don’t spend a lot of time complaining that an injury shouldn’t be there or shouldn’t ache so much; rather, they make a point of creating quality moments during which they can say and do things that have a positive impact on each other’s self-esteem and sense of security.

This is important when you find yourselves in a distressed situation as well as when you are in either a non-distressed situation or a situation that is building toward a point of distress. In each case, you can make an effort to circumvent or diffuse reactions linked to your core vulnerabilities. Do this by knowing what makes each of you feel bad as well as what makes you feel good. Use this information often in large and small ways.

Paul and Anna are a couple in their thirties with no children. One of Paul’s core vulnerabilities is a fear of being blamed. Another vulnerability is feeling he can’t get it right with those he loves. When he senses that Anna might blame him, he freezes or withdraws. Fear of abandonment and fear of being a burden are two of Anna’s core vulnerabilities. She experiences Paul’s freezing and withdrawal as abandonment of her. Experiencing his withdrawal as abandonment confirms her belief that she is a burden to him, and she often responds by amping up her criticism of him.

After they worked in therapy to uncover their core vulnerabilities and reshape their narrative around who they are and why they behave as they do, Paul and Anna began to practice in real time saying and doing things to shift the other’s state, and then paying attention to what happens. In session, we worked on their physical impulses to move toward or away from one another in moments of distress. Here is one example of how that played out at home.

When Paul comes home from work, Anna is in the kitchen washing dishes. As soon as he walks in, she begins to complain to him about her day. He picks up a yogurt and starts to eat it. She says, “I can’t believe you can just stand there and eat when I told you I haven’t eaten all day.”

Instead of feeling blamed and withdrawing, Paul makes the decision to move toward Anna in a friendly (and unexpected) way. As she is speaking, he offers a spoonful of his yogurt, holding it up to her mouth for her to eat. She tastes the yogurt and begins to laugh.

In this quality moment, Paul shifts Anna’s state and assuages her core vulnerability of being a burden. He is able to listen closely to her words, feel her distress, and understand that she is hungry. Because he isn’t feeling attacked, his impulse is to nurture her. This is mutually rewarding because Anna expects to be abandoned, especially when she is fussy, and instead feels soothed. Additionally, she is touched by his ability to get it right with her in a way that perhaps no one else could.

This couple demonstrated an ability to soothe and to give each other what they most need in the present, thus bypassing their core vulnerabilities. When it comes to such quality moments, frequency and precision (and not necessarily duration) go a long way toward creating a greater sense of safety and security.


Tatkin, S. (2012). Wired for love: How understanding your partner’s brain can help you defuse conflicts and spark intimacy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Creating Community, Deepening Intention

by Carolyn Sharp, LICSW
PACT level 3 candidate
Seattle, WA

One of the richest aspects of the PACT approach is the experiential, embodied nature of the sessions. Over the course of a 2- to 3-hour session, couples develop a felt understanding of one another and of a new way of relating. As a PACT practitioner, I am continually awed by the power of this approach to help couples reach new levels of connection and healing. In the last year, I began offering couple therapy intensives and retreats as two ways to multiply and deepen that experience over many hours on back-to-back days, and provide opportunities for PACT interventions on steroids.

In a call to me, Bess described through tears her love for her husband of 15 years, Theo, and the ways she had hurt him despite this love. Emotional infidelities had created fissures in the trust and safety of their connection, and both were questioning whether they could get it back. Because of the critical nature of their struggle, they decided to commit to an intensive, where they would spend 3 days in therapy and go deeper into the source of a very hurtful pattern. They would spend 7 hours each day in sessions, with long blocks for lunch. At night, they would continue to work on their connection through assigned exercises.

Jacob and Michael, married almost 30 years, came to therapy also on the verge of separation. Deeply entrenched habits of disconnection and avoidance had landed them in a place of bitterness and hostility. Early PACT sessions helped them clarify their intentions to stay together and their ownership of their respective contributions to their problems. Having learned new habits and acquired a better understanding of their wired responses, they signed up for a retreat my colleague Sara Slater and I developed as an opportunity to deepen their connection through a guided practice over a long weekend.

Through their intensive of 20 therapy hours over 3 days, Bess and Theo continually deepened their understanding and commitment to the process, learning things about each other that they had never imagined. That focused time alone with a therapist created safety to discuss very vulnerable and deeply personal mistakes in the relationship. With no downtime between sessions to distract from the process, they remained focused on repairing and rebuilding, and spent their evenings in powerful connection. Over the course of the intensive, Theo fully completed repair with Bess, and was honestly and deeply forgiven. Simultaneously, Bess came to a felt understanding of the ways she had betrayed and abandoned Theo, and was able to repair and develop ways of maintaining her care of him. By the end of the third day, they not only had a return to early feelings of love and interest in one another but had built on it with plans and agreements for maintaining their connection. Sitting with this couple for 3 days, I watched them fall back in love with each other, and they left looking younger, lighter, and more deeply connected in ways that can take much longer in traditional PACT sessions.

At our retreat, Michael and Jacob, together with five other couples, were led through a shared experience of exploration of each other and of their relationship, interspersed with relaxation and recreation. Sitting in circle with the community of couples—each in different phases of their relationship, with varied challenges—Michael and Jacob found a commonality of struggle in maintaining connection and desire through the hiccups and setbacks of life. Over the 3 days together in a bucolic setting, the experiential exercises and activities led them through a progressively deepening process, challenging them to further understand and work through the habits that had led to disconnection. These couples built a community of understanding and accountability through shared struggle and laughter, as well as the care offered for their common vulnerabilities. This allowed each couple to relax while breaking down barriers and deepening their commitments. In sessions following the retreat, Jacob and Michael had left behind their defensiveness and were able to regularly reach toward each other in ways I had not seen them do. Now, months later, they have found a level of intimacy and safety with each other that they never had before.

The opportunity to do intensive, sustained work in a residential retreat or therapy intensive creates a unique means of deepening connection that is very different from couple therapy sessions. Investing an entire weekend in a setting where the only focus is on each other and the relationship magnifies the awareness and presence in the work together. When I began offering retreats and intensives, I naively thought that just having more time with a couple would lead to greater rewards. Instead, I found that being in a setting away from life, the intention to commit to a substantial block of time and resources, and the process that unfolds over multiple days together combine to contribute to the greatest growth.

Secure-Functioning Essentials: Taking Care of Yourself and Your Partner at the Same Time

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT

Many partners ask me how to take care simultaneously of themselves and of their partner. In practical terms, this can be difficult to carry off. Similarly, some couple therapists find it difficult to convey the principle of simultaneous care to couples they treat. This blog shows you how to incorporate this principle into your practice and your relationship.

First, we have a neurobiological reality to circumnavigate. Human beings are largely driven by self-interests, particularly when overtired, overstressed, or under-resourced, and even more so when threatened. When partners engage in conflict, it is vital to understand the tendency to mistake even a loved one as adversarial, or worse, predatory. The predisposition to error in this direction is a feature of the human impulse to survive. The brain centers responsible for mistaking a friend for a foe are famously expeditious, indiscriminate, and ruthless. This primitive facet of the mind and body is untamable; no amount of therapy will prevent most threat recognition from triggering a reflexive behavior. Though insecurely attached individuals (and those with unresolved trauma) are more likely to trigger easily and often, secure individuals are not immune to acting like the animals we all are. The smart thing for couple therapists to do is to work with this issue so couples can learn how to circumvent the tendency to shoot first and ask questions later.1

It can be helpful for partners to think in terms of fire prevention and fire extinguishing. The therapist can help them become trained firefighters. See a glowing ember and put it out fast! Engulfed in a blaze, dump a lot of cold water everywhere! Eventually, the couple are guided toward becoming good stewards of their safety and security, and that begins and ends with the principles of taking care of the self and other at the same time. However, the therapist may have to triage fire extinguishing and prevention, and determine which is most urgent.

Insecure-functioning partners are inclined to take care of themselves only. One person takes a stand for himself or herself, while fully disregarding the other partner’s sensitivities, sensibilities, concerns, fears, wants, and historical injuries. Partners prime each other with dog-whistle-like behavioral cues that telegraph threatening intensions. An astute therapist can quickly detect these implicit signals prior to them becoming explicit. Video replay (if immediate) is sometimes helpful, though a rapidly kindled couple can become fired up with this technique. For these couples, the principle of self/other simultaneous care must come last in the treatment plan. They set too many fires and may “gladly” let them burn.2

The human capacity to cooperate and collaborate dates back to the beginning of the H. sapiens species, It’s in our DNA to share, bargain, trade, and keep the peace. Our species would have otherwise died out with the Neanderthals. Fairness is not a modern invention. For two autonomous individuals to get what they want and need, they have to ensure both parties benefit or they will get nothing but trouble. That stratagem must always be in play to keep the peace and to prosper. Neanderthals did not have the brain capacity to bargain, trade, or imagine win-win scenarios. We are, by contrast, supposed to have that capacity, and yet we seem to be Neanderthal in our love relationships!

The couple is the smallest unit of a social group. As such, it must operate under social rules if it is to survive. Though the couple represents a hierarchy with regard to children, its own structure is preferably egalitarian. So, if a couple seek real happiness, harmony, and freedom from chronic distress, they must be willing to care for themselves and each other at the same time, or suffer the consequences. A couple therapist cannot make a couple do this, but the therapist can and should expect nothing less.

If partners are good at fire extinguishing and becoming better at fire prevention, but could improve their skillfulness, the following exercise can be done during session. Video playback can be additionally helpful in giving the couple immediate feedback.

Here are the rules:

  1. A time frame is established.
  2. The partners must remain orderly and stick to one topic/subject only; refrain from talking over each other (too much); and keep the back and forth going, without one person holding the stage too long.
  3. Each partner must present his or her wish, fear, or complaint, along with his or her full understanding of the other’s wishes, fears, or complaints. Usually, the latter is best done before presenting one’s own agenda.3
    • If the topic involves a wish or want, partners must flow into bargaining mode (e.g., back and forth of suggestions, options, bids, offers). Neither partner can say no without making a counter offer or suggestion.
  4. Both partners are expected to pay close attention to both narratives, and explicit and implicit facial and gestural cueing. They are tasked with cross-checking what they hear with what they see and sense.
    • Partners must not become bogged down, or they will go down the rabbit hole toward threat (“You’re not happy.” “No, I’m fine.” No, you’re not.”).
    • Partners must not become distracted or derailed by their sensitivity to the other’s facial or gestural cues (“Why did you give me that look?” “I didn’t give you a look.” “Why are you being so snippy?”).
  5. The partners must achieve something at the end of the time limit, and both must ensure the other’s well-being by the end. They must finish as lovers, not business partners.
  6. There must be no residue of unhappiness, unless one partner is appropriately feeling down after accepting his or her own misdeed.

Before a couple can understand the principle of simultaneous self and other care, their therapist must fully understand and practice it himself or herself. Therapists shouldn’t expect clients to do what they cannot or won’t do themselves.

Can anyone apply this principle flawlessly at all times? Of course not. But this is a principle worthy of practice. It’s one of the best ways to prevent fires in our closest relationships.


  1. Some endogenous and exogenous strategies can dampen threat perceptions and responses. Regarding the former, 10 to 15 minutes of a mindfulness exercise known to increase parasympathetic tone can raise the threshold for a fight/flight response and increase recovery time. Additionally, some empirical clinical reports show response-time delays and lowered threat perception in individuals who are mildly under the influence of cannabis, CBD, MDMA, benzodiazepines, Kratom, or beta blockers. Obviously, a couple therapist cannot ethically recommend medications or street drugs.
  2. Some couples may be captured by a runaway noradrenergic, hypothalamic process they can’t overcome with conventional interventions. Noradrenaline is responsible for focus and attention. Highly kindled fight/flight reactions include hypervigilance and hyperfocus on a partner’s threat cues.
  3. The therapist should help the partners lead with relief (known in PACT terminology as disarming the partner’s “primitives” before proceeding).
  4. When one partner accepts having hurt the other, it is important to experience the pain. Just don’t wallow in it or make the hurt partner pay by withdrawing.

Relationship Repair Rut: Why It Happens and How to Get Unstuck

By Eva Van Prooyen, M.F.T. 
PACT certified couple therapist  

Relationships are messy, and all couples experience conflict. Becoming skillful at repairing those conflicts quickly is the ultimate goal, but when we are in distress, under threat, or in the heat of an argument, it can be hard to stay connected to the (higher cortical) parts of our brain, which use intelligence to create and maintain peace and harmony. The (lower/subcortical) fast-acting, survival-oriented parts of our brain are poised to quickly identify danger and respond with a rapid reflex, directing us straight into battle.  

Winston and Abby, a couple in their mid-30s, came to couple therapy 5 years into their marriage because they had “stalled,” were having the “same type of fight,” and felt “resentment and fatigue” were setting in. They wanted to stay together but were stuck in a never-ending loop of finger pointing. Both stated that they wanted to feel understood, but neither would make a move to show an iota of understanding or give the other person what they were asking for. Without resolve or relief, this futile process was draining hope and energy from the relationship. 

PACT couple therapists look at how important stages of development were handled throughout life for each partner. We collect an in-depth assessment of early childhood experiences that reveal the quality of attachment each partner had with a primary caregiver. This information provides an understanding of the skill set partners bring to their adult relationship. Questions I asked Winston and Abby included “When you were young, what did your parents’ relationship/marriage look like to you?” “Did you ever see them fight?” “Did you ever see them apologize to one another?” 

Winston reported a childhood in which his father worked a lot, leaving him to caretake his depressed mother, who dodged taking responsibility for her impact on her son. His parents had bouts of shouting and blowups laced with criticisms of each other, and he couldn’t recall if he ever saw them apologize. After a long silence, Winston said he didn’t believe (even as an adolescent) he had received an apology. 

Abby reported her parents had a traditional marriage, with her father working and mother running the home. She recalled her parents bickered a lot and handled things passive aggressively. She never really knew if or how they made up or if things were okay between them. Her eyes widened when she heard Winston say he’d never been on the receiving end of an apology, and said the same was true for her. 

Neither had any experience with constructive cycles of conflict to resolution. They had arrived at this place in their relationship without any practice or proof that doing specific things to create repair was possible. They didn’t have skills that would allow them to help each other feel better, or create a win-win.  

For Winston and Abby, it was time to put a stop to accumulating memories of unfairness and unresolved hurt. In session, we enacted a typical fight, with the intention that they try something new to resolve harm they had caused each other. Here is a brief exchange from the beginning of that session: 

Therapist: Look at him and say, “I’m sorry I embarrassed you at dinner.” 

Abby: I can’t. It feels too hard. I want to… but I feel stuck. 

Therapist: Of course it is hard. I’m asking you to do something for your partner that was never done for you, something that doesn’t live in your body—yet. It is good for Winston to hear this from you, but it is also good for you. You both need to know how to do this and deserve to feel better together. 

Abby: I want to, but I almost physically can’t. 

Therapist: Winston, look at her and say, “I want you to feel important and I’m so sorry you have spent a single moment on this earth feeling undervalued by me.” 

Winston: Oh boy. I believe those things, but it’s so hard to say.   

Winston and Abby recognized their inability to deliver a sincere apology to one another, and saw how this inability impeded them even at a physical level. It was clear that this inability came from their lack of prior experience with receiving apologies. Both then made the effort to move through their discomfort with the unknown and toward a new type of secure functioning. After a few slow and clunky apologies, they started to relax and could see how they were affecting one another. They agreed to make calming one another in times of upset a priority, and worked on softening their tone of voice, reaching out with a reassuring touch, and showing one another a friendly face. What’s more, they promised to do all of that in the heat of an argument. 

Repairing hurt and injury with your partner requires putting the relationship first and learning to engage the more evolved, solution-oriented parts of the brain. Since this process of change entails making moves that can feel counterintuitive, it is often misinterpreted as wrong; however, this is precisely the right kind of hard work for long-lasting, loving relationships. Henry Ford is credited with saying, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” Doing something new (especially under distress) may be hard to do, but as Winston and Abby illustrate for us, it can be done. 

When Partners Become Parents: Using Pact to Create a Birth Bubble

Patricia Williams, LCSW
Westchester, NY & Vermont
PACT Level 2

As a couple therapist, it has long been a passion of mine to help couples prepare for the birth of a child, not only prenatally but post birth, as well. There is substantial evidence that marital satisfaction declines when couples have children, and early interventions to counteract that are lacking (Cowan & Hetherington, 1991). In my experience, few couples are prepared for how pregnancy and the addition of a third (or subsequent children) will challenge their relationship and what they can do to make it an optimal experience as a foundation for themselves and their family. 

I love the term birth bubble. Jen Pifer, who works as a doula and is also well versed in the principles of PACT, used those words to describe what she strives for when assisting in childbirth. When asked if she would add her voice to this article, she said, “My goal is to help couples become scaffolding for each other and to identify that structure as something they can nurture and maintain.” 

Most pregnancy/birth-related professionals are not trained to help pregnant couples build on their relational strengths, assess and manage their natural apprehensions, and create safety and a secure bubble. A birth bubble can strengthen the relationship and thus increase security and safety neurobiologically and emotionally in utero and beyond for the infant. Jen, for example, told an expectant father, “She knows birth, but you are the expert on her. Together, we will look for signs that her pain has become suffering.” 

A growing body of multidisciplinary research supports the idea that optimal human development occurs within relationship from the beginning (even preconception). Birth and bonding are a critical developmental process for the parents and baby and form core patterns with life-long implications (Weinstein, 2016).  

Lila and Sam are a high-functioning couple in their early 40s, married for 8 years. They are pregnant with their first child. They were referred to me by their midwife, who was concerned about Lila’s anxiety and her reports of tensions between herself and Sam. I can see their strengths as a couple: they maintain eye contact, express their deep love and appreciation for one another, and seem to operate as a two-person system fairly well. They collaborate when telling a story and understand the importance of having each other’s back. As they describe the tensions between them, they seem to have some difficulty soothing each other, as well as finding the baby in each other.  

Given the shortness of time before their due date, I want to help them reveal their fears. I decide to use the PACT intervention Lover’s Pose. Following my instructions, Sam lies in Lila’s lap, where he gazes into her eyes and begins to share his worries of not being enough when she will need him. At first Lila is awkward and not sure what to do. With a little prompting, she strokes his head and quietly reassures him that she trusts him more than anyone in the world. She says how much she appreciates and needs him, and that it is okay for him to be afraid.  

Then they switch positions. Lila with some difficulty shares her fear of how Sam will react to seeing her at her most vulnerable, both emotionally and physically. She reaches for him and weeps in his arms. He reassures her that she will be safe with him. He affirms that her vulnerability makes him feel closer to her and says how much he loves her body as it is and that he wants more than anything to be her rock in this process. He tells her that he is her king and will make sure that both she and their child will have the most support possible. They agree to make sure that when the delivery time comes, all the supporting professionals in the room understand they need to be able to lock eyes and have contact with each other.  

At the end, Sam and Lila talk to their baby and tell him they can’t wait to meet him and are so grateful to be his parents. Although these two have more work ahead, it feels as if they are on their way to providing real safety for each other, and through that, for their new family.  

Jen says the best birthers are couples who rely on how strong and capable they are together. Inevitably, she says, birth asks couples to embrace the unknown. It asks them to be flexible and exposed, to accept “not getting it right” and being totally vulnerable together. “Wouldn’t it be great,” she says, “if we could reach couples during this time in their lives, as they prepare for the birth of their child, when they feel most vulnerable and ripe for guidance, information, tools.” We believe the PACT principles can help not only couples but also birth professionals make this possible  



Cowan, P., & Hetherington, M. (1991). Family transitions. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. 

Weinstein, A. D. (2016). Prenatal development and parents’ lived experiences. New York, NY: W.W. Norton. 



The Gift of Win-Wins for Couples Who are Parents

Kara Hoppe, MA, LMFT 
PACT Level 2 
Los Angeles, CA 

I recently became a parent to a beautiful baby boy, and I can speak from my own experience when I say that the struggle of mothering and coupling is real. I now have a new appreciation for the complexity and depth of parenting and partnering. By bringing that experience to my work with couples who are parents, I have found that honing in and practicing win-wins are two of the many PACT skills key to supporting a couple as parents. 

Negotiating win-wins (i.e., where both partners win) can be a game changer for couples, especially couples with kids. It takes courage to ask for what we need as individuals and parents, and asking for what we need/want is fundamental to achieving a win-win. This process can lead to a secure-functioning relationship for the couple and to individuation for each partner. The couples I work with love win-wins because the goals are not to compromise but to be open and honest about what each partner wants, to be flexible and creative with each other to arrive at a win-win, and then to claim that win-win. Additionally, there are no victims/martyrs in win-wins. 

Rose and Will have a 3-year-old girl, Joy, and are struggling with their couple connection. They present wanting communication tools, but as I cross-question, cross-track, and cross-comment, I realize that part of the reason both partners feel so lonely is that they have no win-wins. Each solution or decision they arrive at has a winner and a loser. This pattern goes back before they were parents and before they were partners, but it has been amplified due to parenthood.  

I introduce the concept of win-wins to Rose and Will, and they get excited at the idea of both getting some version of what they want. Also, they marvel that they have never considered that a possibility. Will is naturally very funny and exclaims, “I thought I would always get what I wanted, and Rose would always be pissed at me.” They both laugh, so I joke about how fun that sounds. Then I press further: “So that’s the jam? Rose yields to your needs and harbors resentment, and you let this continue?” Will stops laughing. “Yeah. Sometimes. Actually, often.” I continue to press: “How do you know she’s not happy about the decisions you guys make?” Will has an ready answer: “Because she becomes cold and snappy with me.” I turn to Rose: “Is this true?” She cops to it. I suggest we use our time to try something different and I encourage them to pick an easy way to practice finding a win-win. They decide on their morning routine.  

Rose begins by whining: “You get to sleep in and I don’t, and on top of having to get up early with Joy, I’m always late to work. No win-win here!” I help Rose find clarity on what she wants: “Do you want Will to wake up with Joy?” “No. I love our quiet morning cuddles.” Then she straightens up in her rolling chair and says, “What I need help with is giving Joy breakfast.” I see fear in her eyes as she waits for Will to response. Before he can say anything, I point this out to Will. He softens and looks down. I do a gentle down the middle: “It’s hard for both of you guys to be vulnerable and ask directly for what you need.” They both nod. Then Will responses in a calm voice, “I can give Joy breakfast, but I need you to let me do it my way.”  

And with that, Rose and Will are engaged in their first win-win in therapy. I’m there to help them find clarity, empathy, and further awareness for themselves and each other, but they are doing the work to arrive at their win-win. The process takes the rest of the session, with a few fits and starts, and has a victorious ending for both Rose and Will. They are proud of themselves and happy with their new morning routine. 

Personally, I can relate to why this is so hard for many couples with children. Without support and psycho-education about win-wins, it would have been easy to get into a lose-lose rut in my relationship post baby. That pressure I—and many moms—feel to do it all can be a relationship killer. Also, it’s hard to stay present to relationship sabotages when there is another being to care for; one or both parents are physically, psychologically, or otherwise depleted; and the relationship itself has changed so dramatically. Parents undergo huge personal transformations during parenthood, and those internal changes shift the entire landscape, so even if a couple were securely functioning before baby, they mostly likely will need some support post baby. It’s important to normalize this for the couples during therapy. I like to share that the skills and principles of PACT have been incredibly helpful in my marriage and that it is a daily practice for my and my partner to be securely functioning. That way, they know they are not alone in the struggle to navigate a thriving coupledom as parents and can relax a bit into the process. Making it a daily practice gives both partners ample opportunities for win-wins.   



Repairing Misattunement

Inga Gentile, MFT  
PACT faculty 
Bardu, Norway 

In the PACT model, a priority is placed on experience over interpretation. This is in part because we target the more primitive, less plastic parts of the brain (which are experience driven) when staging interventions that lead to psychological development and behavioral change. Sometimes we stage those interventions, and at other times they occur spontaneously in something the couple themselves do. Either way, PACT therapists pay careful attention to moments that may uncover something previously unknown or to affect change.  

A young couple I saw, Dan and Laura, clearly loved each other very much and were both remarkably high achieving and accomplished in many ways. They also presented as depleted, exhausted, frustrated, and lonely. In other words, what we commonly see in the wake of small daily moments of unrepaired misattunement and subsequent misappraisal, which are the hallmarks of ongoing mutual threat and dysregulation. They rarely laughed together anymore and were deeply isolated from one another.  

Over the weeks of our work together, with an overarching focus on shifting from an insecure model of couple functioning to a secure model of functioning, they began to demonstrate slightly greater flexibility in their interactions with one another. They began to experience slightly more joy and play. In one session, during a tense and frustrating interaction, Dan spontaneously showed the other a short video clip of what it felt like to be them at times in the relationship. It was of a band playing. The band included a drummer. The drummer was giving it his all but could not for the life of him hit the drum kit in time or rhythm with the rest of the band. Moreover, he didn’t even get any better at it, but he also didn’t give up. Dan and Laura both burst out laughing. It was a powerful moment.  

It also marked a shift—the kind of shift we learn to track, tag, and explore that subsequently helps the couple amplify or attenuate. I could see the contemporaneous underpinnings of PACT (attachment theory, developmental neuroscience and arousal regulation) computing in my own brain. In an instant, faster than words, the couple and I were able to harness and amplify this gesture. This drummer seemed to exemplify not only Dan’s difficulty in attuning to Laura but also both his desire and willingness to do so. In fact, it exemplified the difficulty they both had in attuning to one another. We were able to amplify this spontaneous moment and the accompanying affect and shared moment of meeting and use it as a bridge and a springboard.  

This moment demonstrated several aspects of PACT in action: 

  • It bypassed left hemisphere confabulation and went directly to the symbolic and meaning-filled world of the fast-acting right hemisphere.  
  • Because it was a novel and spontaneous experience, reinforced by shared laughter and eye contact, it stood a great chance of subsequently going into long-term memory for the couple.  
  • It was a possible indication that neither partner had significant deficits related to theory of mind and that any momentary lapses of empathy were state driven. 
  • It served a regulatory function and resulted in a state shift for both partners.  
  • It leveled the playing field in that the image was something both partners could relate to. It became in some ways a version of their foxhole. 
  • It helped to shift the preexisting narrative the couple had about who they were and what got them in trouble. It represented tenacity in the face of frustration, and became something they could come back to.  

This moment didn’t magically result in the couple never experiencing moments of misattunement again, but it did contribute to an ongoing shift toward belief in and the real time of experience of secure-functioning principles. It helped to strengthen a sense of mutual responsibility as stewards of the relationship, as well as widen their bandwidth so that fast-acting misappraisals were often slightly slower. This recipe can be enough to mean the difference between ongoing distress without relief and actually getting better together.  

How Secure Functioning Can Help Polyamorous  Couples

Clinton Power, Grad.Dip.Psych.Couns., Gestalt therapist
Sydney, Australia
When a new couple present to your practice and reveal they are in a polyamorous relationship, you may find the concept of loving multiple people strange, risky, or even fundamentally fraught with problems. The good news is that PACT principles that apply to monogamous couples can be successfully applied to non-monogamous or polyamorous couples.

Non-monogamous couples have sex with other people but are not interested in pursuing dates, romance, or a relationship with their sexual partners. This is often described as an open relationship. In contrast, polyamorous couples hold the premise that one partner cannot meet all their needs and they want to explore having sex or a relationship with someone else. These couples don’t limit themselves to just one person when it comes to affection, romance, flirting, sex, connection, and love. Different configurations can be used for polyamorous relationships, but the most common has a primary relationship, with other relationships that are secondary, or not as important.

When Jill and Stephen showed up in my consulting room, they had been married for 10 years and opened their marriage at the 5-year mark, after reading about the polyamorous lifestyle. They wanted to introduce more novelty and excitement into their relationship. All went smoothly until a year ago, when Stephen started developing very intense feelings for Sonia, a new secondary partner. Jill noticed the love he felt for Sonia was deeper and more intense than what she had seen him show with his other secondary partners. She started to worry that Stephen was going to leave her for Sonia.

As we explored the configuration of their relationship, I realized Stephen and Jill were breaking many of the PACT principles of secure-functioning relationships including:

Put your primary relationship first before all other relationshipsStephen and Jill reported many examples where both partners had put their secondary relationships before their primary relationship. This had caused hurt, bitterness, and resentment that hadn’t been fully discussed or resolved. In our work together, Stephen and Jill started to prioritize each other, which had an immediate soothing effect on their nervous systems and an improvement in their overall relationship.

Have clear relationship boundaries that support the health of the primary relationship. Jill and Stephen never created a joint rules of engagement for their primary and secondary relationships. This meant they weren’t clear about what was okay and what was not okay when it came to seeing other people, causing regular conflict and hurt. In our work together, they created a joint polyamory agreement that laid out what they were each willing to tolerate and not tolerate in their polyamorous relationship.

Go to your primary partner first with important news or life events. Problems were created because Stephen was sharing important news and life events with Sonia first, and sometimes forgetting to tell Jill altogether. This made Jill think she was no longer the most important person in Stephen’s life and fueled her worry that Sonia was more important than her. Once Stephen stopped doing this, Jill started to feel more valued in their relationship.

Manage thirds to protect the primacy of the main relationship. It emerged that Sonia had been undermining the relationship between Jill and Stephen. Even though Stephen knew this, he hadn’t set a firm boundary with Sonia to protect his relationship with Jill, because he was scared of losing Sonia. Stephen started to set firmer boundaries with Sonia to stop this happening. Sonia stopped the undermining behavior and was able to adapt to the new boundaries set by Stephen.

Never threaten the security of the relationship. Over time, Jill felt more threatened by the relationship between Stephen and Sonia. Her response to feeling insecure was to threaten to end their marriage, which led to Stephen feeling distressed and fearful he would lose Jill. Threatening the end of the relationship was the wrong solution and made both feel more insecure. They both committed to not to threaten the end of the relationship, which helped each feel more secure and stable in their primary relationship.

Resolve conflict by finding solutions that work for both partners. This couple could not find solutions to their issues that worked for both of them. Regarding attachment styles, Stephen was an island and Jill was a wave. As soon as Jill was wave-like, Stephen started to retreat and avoid, leaving Jill feeling more isolated. Over time, Stephen developed his tolerance to her wave-like behavior and learned the value of moving in and soothing her, even when he felt like running away. Jill understood that Stephen’s island-like behaviors weren’t personal, and she learned more effective approaches to resolving issues with him that didn’t overwhelm him.

In conclusion, in my experience, polyamorous relationships can work. However, they may be tricky to navigate, and couples need to ensure they’re applying the PACT principles of secure functioning to their primary relationship. As a therapist, it’s essential you put any biases or judgments you have about polyamorous relationships aside when working with these couples. Initial questions you can ask couples include:

  • Are you okay with your partner developing romantic relationships with others or do you only want sexual interactions with others?
  • Can you have regular sexual partners or do you prefer one-off encounters/hook-ups that are not to be repeated?
  • What’s your policy on sharing your sexual experiences: complete transparency, “don’t ask, don’t tell,” or do tell if you’re asked?
  • What sexual activities are okay and not okay (e.g., oral sex, kissing, and mutual masturbation are okay, but vaginal or anal intercourse is not).
  • What’s your plan for managing safer sex with each other and your other partners?

I encourage you to maintain a stance of curiosity at all times so you can understand the kind of relationship the polyamorous couple want to create. If you apply the secure-functioning principles of PACT, working with these couples can be extremely rewarding as you help them restore healthy functioning and find love in the way they want.

Working With a Couple Who Have a Trauma History

Amanda Woolveridge, M.App.sci.
Sydney, Australia

John yanked open the curtains at 10:30 am. Light flooded the bedroom as he placed their one-year-old baby on Susanne, who looked bleary eyed and confused as she struggled to wake up. “He’s been asking for you,” John said, before he disappeared downstairs. In his role as house husband, he had decided that Susanne, who had reluctantly returned to full time work after 9 months at home, had slept in long enough for a weekend.

The day was not off to a good start for Susanne. She felt shocked into wakefulness, jarred by the sudden noise and light, confused by the instant demands of her little son, and completely abandoned by John. Because of her complex developmental childhood trauma history, all the alarm bells in her amygdala jangled simultaneously. The stage was set for her to have what John calls “one of her episodes.” She came thundering down the stairs to let him have it, which led to him walking away from her white hot anger in an attempt to diffuse the situation. Which, in turn, led to Susanne feeling even more misunderstood and abandoned. While John could return to homeostasis quite quickly, it took Susanne days to recover her equilibrium. She needed resolution; he, on the other hand, needed to shut down to protect himself. As a result, this couple unwittingly triggered a trauma response that set them off course and kept them from secure functioning.

In therapy, I wanted to level the playing field. However, although I tried to go after John’s triggers with the PACT skills of cross checking, cross questioning, and even going down the middle, initially his defenses remained ironclad. Literally: he participates in Iron Man competitions and has the sturdy barrel chest of those who train extensively. He has a crew cut and a chiseled face, with a frequent don’t-mess-with-me expression. He often leans back in his chair, sometimes with hands behind his head, one leg crossed over the other. A man in charge. Susanne, on the other hand, has an oval face, with a soulful, sometimes bewildered expression about the eyes.

During one session, Susanne talked about John’s parental tone, his over-managing of her life, and his confusing use of humor. She often feels criticized, which he deflects by saying he is “only joking,” causing her considerable confusion. At that point, I looked more closely at John, and I was able to see the little boy behind the man-in-charge. This brought to mind the PACT motto “Go after the baby.” John also has a trauma history, with a violent stepfather and a teenage mother who was trying to grow up while raising little John. So I told him I could see how painful it was to think about his boyhood experiences. Which he denied. Nevertheless, that was the first session in which John’s ironclad defenses wobbled. He said he’d had enough and needed to leave. Susanne said she could not go in the car with him in this ominous mood.

She nodded after I invited her to look at John and realize that this was about him staying safe, not about threatening her.

I turned to him and said, “It’s important for you to be safe, John, I can see that. It makes sense that hearing Susanne thundering down the stairs that morning after you left the baby with her caused you to shut down, given what you experienced when your stepfather stomped down the corridor to your room to punch you so violently you wet yourself. I can really see the pain that young boy John was in; it’s here right now in the room. But right now, it’s important to remember that you are well-equipped to look after that boy, be kind to him. This is now and that was then, and this is different.”

I turned to Susanne and invited her to recognize the boy who was threatening to walk out. He was no menace to her, and was not her father at all.

I reminded them both of the PACT principle that they were in each other’s care, and that to walk out wouldn’t help them feel safe. It was important to take a breath and come back to their senses, to this moment, to look at each other’s eyes. Something shifted after this session, and they reported having a really good conversation a few days later about how to take better care of each other. During the next session, they were able to do the PACT exercise called Lovers’ Pose to help them move beyond their defences and their triggers, and build trust between them.

First Things First: The Primacy of Partnership in Blended Families

Jason Polk, LCSW, LAC
Denver, CO

There is no magic bullet to maintaining and raising children within a blended family (a family with children from multiple relationships), and I am not an expert in the finer points of day-to-day interactions in a blended family. But while working with couples who have blended families, I have observed that they do better when they follow one basic principle: they hold each other as primary in the relationship—or we could say, as the king and queen of the household.

This may sound straightforward enough, but it is not always easy to put into practice, especially because overt and covert allegiances and alliances are often formed among each partner’s own children within the blended family. In therapy, parents often justify these allegiances and alliances by recounting the numerous difficulties they have been through with their respective children. For example, one partner may feel guilty about how his or her children had to experience several years of a difficult marriage (and ultimately divorce) with the children’s other parent (now the ex). Parents may be overly protective and give preferential treatment and resources to their own children, while neglecting their partner and stepchildren. I have heard one partner say in front of the other, “My child is the most important person to me.”

Fundamentally, there is nothing wrong with this sentiment. Your children should be very, very, very important to you. However, you become a better parent—and thus better able to serve your own children and stepchildren—by making the relationship with your adult partner primary.

The primary partner (the person you married, or are cohabitating with) is the one who is best able to regulate your emotions and best able to take care of you. Children should not be put into a position to take care of their parents, and they are not very good at the job. Partners put themselves in the best position to receive care by demonstrating and expressing to each other that their relationship is primary. If one partner feels demoted, or that he or she is losing to the children, that partner will be less likely to provide support to the other, and consequently, problems are more likely to ensue.

Tom and Jenn came to therapy with the goal of learning communication techniques to deal with their teenage daughter. Tom had a 16-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, and Tom and Jenn have a 4-year-old son together. Tom felt guilt about what his daughter had to endure during his first marriage and what she faces now: a rotating weekend schedule, as well as Jenn’s frustration because she thinks his daughter is wildly disrespectful and entitled.

On the surface this may seem complicated, but it soon became clear that what they needed wasn’t specific communication skills per se, but rather just to hold each other as primary. They had stopped taking care of and supporting each other in favor of becoming entrenched in what they perceived as the best course for parenting within these circumstances. They had grown apart and shut out their most powerful ally for their predicament: each other.

In PACT, there is an exercise called the king and queen pose that is effective with affairs, but I also found it effective for Tom and Jenn. During a therapy session, I had Tom move to his knees, hold Jenn’s hands, and look up into her eyes and say, “You are my queen…” It was as if Jenn had been waiting a very long time to hear something like that. Her demeanor softened, and her eyes became teary. When it was Jenn’s turn, I had her say to Tom, “You are my king…” Hearing this, Tom softened, as well. It was as if he had been waiting a long time to put down his heavy shield.

Thus, the cornerstone of their therapy was to remind each other of their royalty (i.e., to each other as king and queen). Their reactions to the pose signaled what was missing and what they yearned for. Tom and Jenn needed to learn how to take the armor off and allow themselves to be positively influenced by each other—to allow space for their royalty to come through. This involved learning ways to take care of and soothe each other, being the first to know about important matters, as well as understanding that all important family decisions are decided together—including the best way to handle their daughter.

Because they had more appreciation and intimacy in their relationship, they had more resources to work with their daughter. They reported feeling better with their daughter and started to observe improvements in her behavior. Tom and Jenn discovered they were more powerful and effective operating together and making their relationship primary. That was the best thing they could do for their kids.