Having a secure functioning relationship can be one of the most satisfying aspects of our lives. When we’re in a secure functioning relationship we feel understood, loved, and protected. We feel sheltered from the storm and know that there is at least one other person in the world who knows us better than anyone else, perhaps better than we know ourselves. Even couples struggling with their marriage can attain this, including those situations where there has been infidelity. Sounds impossible? It’s not. The Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy (PACT), developed by Stan Tatkin, Psy D, is designed to work with even the most challenged couples and to move them toward secure functioning. Stan is a brilliant couple therapist with whom I’ve been training for three years. I strongly recommend his audible download, Your Brain on Love. Information provided in this blog post is based on Stan’s work.
Many people feel that couple therapy is only for those couples who are in crisis, or who are considering divorce. Others often feel that once they are in crisis or considering divorce couple therapy is too late. Luckily, neither of these are necessarily true.
The purpose of couple therapy, and specifically the PACT model, is to move couples toward a secure, functioning relationship. Qualities of a secure, functioning relationship include:
* We tell each other everything. This doesn’t mean that we have to review every detail of our day with our partners. It does mean that we share the important information, information our partners need to know, with our partners (I’m not happy, I had a great day, my boss said s/he has a crush on me, I got a raise, I accidentally over-drafted our account, I got a good/bad report at work, my sister is mad at me and I think she’s being silly, I’m having an affair, I think I might be depressed, I’m holding resentment towards you because I don’t like the way you stack the dishwasher). It also means that our partners hear this news before anyone else in our lives.
* We have each other’s owners manual, meaning that we know how to rev our partners up and calm them down. We know what shames them (and avoid that) know what matters to them, and know how to build them up (and do this often).
* We fight fair. This means we don’t throw each other under the bus (“it’s your fault”), know how to make the repair after an argument (“I love you and I’m sorry I said you’re just like your mother,” “I still love you even when I get angry and say hurtful things”), and don’t say things that endanger the relationship unless we REALLY mean it’s over and are ready to file for divorce (“I want a divorce,” “I can’t believe I married you in the first place”).
* We operate in a two person system. As my partner in life what’s good for you is good for me and what’s good for me is good for you, even when we think it’s silly. This is opposed to “what’s good for me is good for me and I don’t give a rat’s left leg if it’s good for you or not.” Examples of this include giving your partner time to unwind after work (if she needs it) before you make requests of her, even if you think your partner should be ready to deal with home issues the minute she walks in the door. Giving your partner this time will help ensure that she is better able do her part around the house, and this is good for you. Or, going out with your very social partner to hang out with friends sometimes even when you don’t like to because you know he needs that contact. This makes him less resentful about staying home with you when you are really feeling like a homebody. In my own marriage this means supporting my husband in getting things done that I think are “his job,” like the taxes or dealing with the insurance company, especially when he’s really busy. Instead of being resentful that “his” tasks have not been done yet (like I used to), I say, “what can I do to help make this happen?”
* We have each other’s back and are on the same team. For example, when one partner is very social and the other is more introverted the introverted partner may need the extrovert to touch base frequently when out at social events. This can include making more frequent eye contact, making an effort to include him in conversation, and checking in to see how he’s doing, not just leaving him alone by the punch bowl and then complaining later that he didn’t try to have a good time. It also means presenting united front to others, including children and extended family members. When we’re on the same team we don’t complain to others about our partners or point out their short comings to others, and we DEFINITELY don’t do that in public.
Some couples don’t want couple therapy because they feel they ought to be able to work it out for themselves, or they will have to air their dirty laundry in front of a third party, or that secrets they have kept will be exposed. Working it out for yourself seems like a really great idea, as long as you know what a healthy relationship is supposed to look like. Many of us don’t. For those raised in divorced families; or families where parents never argued and made up in front of the children; or where parents were not equals in the relationship; or where there was abuse, neglect, or other types of dysfunction, we may not know a healthy relationship if it bit us on the tush. We may find ourselves repeatedly in the same relationship with a different partner, or floundering because we don’t have a model for what is healthy, much less a road map to get there. In these cases couple therapy is a great answer. Will it mean airing dirty laundry? Certainly. Will it mean exposing secrets? Yes, because secrets don’t belong in a healthy relationship.
Oddly enough, not all couples want a secure functioning relationship. Sometimes one or both partners feel threatened by the idea of sharing secrets with each other, being equal, or having each other’s back. Couples sometimes have unstated agreements that are not sustainable in a secure functioning relationship, such as “I should be able to do what I want even if you don’t like it” or “I’m allowed to have other things that are a higher priority than my partner (job, friends, hobbies, etc.). Often this can be worked through in couple therapy, but not always. Periodically we find that there are sticking points that one or the other member of the couple is not able to let go. When this is the case the couple may decide to maintain the status quo, or may decide to separate. So, although the goal of couple therapy is to move the couple towards a secure functioning relationship this is not always possible if one or both parties have deal breakers that they are unwilling to give up.
If reading this has sparked an interest in improving your relationship I hope you’ll call or email to make an appointment. I see both same sex and single sex couples and offer a free, thirty minute consultation to see if we are a good fit for each other.
This was originally posted on my WordPress blog on September 26, 2014