12/6/2018 2 Comments
"An Introduction to PACT Therapy" will cover the fundamental aspects of PACT therapy that make it so distinctly different (and arguably more effective!) than other forms of couple's work. If you have avoided working with couples for fear of the complexity this talk will help excite you to the possibilities and show you a clear and coherent model that is elegantly simple. If you already work with couples and find that there are particular couples, dynamics or situations that you struggle with this talk may help you see how to work in a new and different way that taps implicit learning and deep emotional patterns, creating fast and lasting change.
In an effort to spread the word about PACT I’m going to be giving a talk in Houston on Friday, January 11, 2019. All are welcome to attend. If you would like to purchase a ticket please click on the link below!
This is, by far, the most accurate account of marriage I have ever read. Alain de Botton's most recent novel is not for those who want to maintain a fairy-tale version of marriage. It is certainly not for anyone who wants to cling to the idea of a soul mate, someone born to understand your every wish without you even uttering it. It is for those of us who seek to understand why so many marriages fail. Who seek to understand what marriage is really, truly about. (I say here marriage but really I am talking about any kind of long-term coupling). It is not a sad story by any means. It is a realistic story of two flawed people who build a life together. That life includes romance, but also children, mess, affairs, work and heartache. But in the end they continue to "choose each other" as Bruce Feiler would say in his recent book.
The book follows two characters as they meet and fall in love and continues on through their lives for the first few decades of their union. During this time they struggle, sometimes together and sometimes privately, with just what to expect of marriage. In the end they come to understand that with all its flaws marriage offers us something unique and valuable-- the opportunity to truly put another's needs first, over and over, which can only be done by growing as a person.
Of course like the rest of us the characters in de Botton's book had no idea what marriage was at first. The soon to be husband reflects on his desire to propose and concludes that "He hopes through the act of marring to make an ecstatic sensation [falling in love] perpetual." (p. 40) Not to be cynical here, I have been happily married for nearly two decades, but to think that by marrying as an act itself you can seal in that feeling of falling in love would be quite misguided. One has to work at continuing to fall in love like one has to work at staying in shape. Sadly if not properly guided many of us will eat too much cake, go to the gym too infrequently and then not recognize that person in the pictures from our 20 year high school reunion. Marriage is much the same. Many of us come to the institution poorly trained and somehow expect that following our instincts will lead us to the habits that build and sustain this marvelous partnership. Years or decades later when the union is on its last breath we wonder what happened.
The main characters also find that being coupled sheds light into areas of our lives that previously we had happily been spared. As de Botton puts it "The single state has a habit of promoting a mistaken self-image of normalcy...[our] tendency to tidy obsessively when ...feel[ing] chaotic inside, [the] habit of using work to ward off...anxieties, the difficulty...in articulating what's on [our] mind when...worried, [the] flurry when [we] can't find a favorite T-shirt---these eccentricities are all neatly obscured so long as there is no one else around to see [them]." (p. 42) How beautifully this captures our own self-serving bias-- that how we are, what we think, what we feel, what we prefer, how we operate, is normal. Forgetting all the while that we are just as weird, conflicted, inconsistent, hypocritical, defensive or even downright crazy as the next person. This self-serving bias leads us to the problem that "Without witnesses, [we] can operate under the benign illusion that [we] may just, with the right person, prove no particular challenge to be around." (p. 42) Ah, the illusion that we are right and our partner SO wrong! That if only they would come to their senses and agree with us! Be like us!
De Botton also touches on the potentially tragic tendency of humans to move towards familiarity. We think we are searching for that perfect person who will complete us, who will overlook our bad habit of leaving the milk out or staying up until 3am on Facebook only to be obscenely grumpy the next day. But alas what we are actually searching for is a relationship "that it will be reassuringly familiar in its pattern of frustration." (p. 44) He muses that when we do, accidentally, run into a person who is healthy and not inclined to replicate our painful childhood wounds we find ourselves "rejecting [them] not because they are wrong but because they are a little too right-- in the sense of seeming somehow excessively balanced, mature, understanding and reliable-- given that, in our hearts, such rightness feels foreign and unearnt." (p. 44)
This is where in working with couples I think it is important to point out the opportunities of what might seem like an unfortunate union. For when we partner with this person who is inclined to hurt us in ways that are similar to our original caregivers we also open up the possibility that these new attachment figures (our partners) can HEAL those old wounds. This is the type of work promoted by Dr. Stan Tatkin in PACT. Dr. Tatkin explains why relationships are so "hard" in his brief Ted Talk and helps us to understand how the things we bring to our relationships-- our childhood wounds, our attachment styles, our nervous systems, can undermine our hopes for a perfect union. In working with couples using the PACT style I try to help partners heal each other's wounds from childhood, which has the nifty benefit of not only freeing up more resources in the now-healed-person but also creates immense gratitude, love and appreciation for the partner-who-healed. It's a beautiful gift that pays forward.
The characters of de Botton's book also experience the sad phenomenon pithily described as "if it's hysterical it's historical". Meaning, when you partner reacts hysterically (i.e. going WAY overboard) they are probably "triggered" into some childhood feeling being brought up by the present situation. This has the misfortune of causing a person to react like a lunatic given the current circumstances. When triggered by our spouse, de Botton says "we lose the ability to give people and things the benefit of the doubt; we swiftly and anxiously move towards the worst conclusions that the past once mandated." (p. 84) The spouse that is 20 minutes late is confused with the father who abandoned us; the wife who circles the room chatting with everyone while her husband is left at the punch bowl becomes the mother who never had time for him. And on and on. These are the circumstances that, if misunderstood, can tank a marriage. But often it takes a professional to help the two lost souls embroiled in these patterns to see what is really going on.
And much to my surprise in reading de Botton's book, his couple actually finds themselves in the office of an attachment-based couples therapist! I swear de Botton did not consult with me on this. Although if he had it's certainly what I would have recommended. And as has been my experience for the past decade of using PACT, de Botton's couple is able to heal what had previously been fodder for battles enumerable. They learn to see the wounded child inside of each other and minister to it. And their love grows immeasurably. It would sound like a fairy tale if I did not see this exact narrative play out so many times in my own practice. His couple learns that "Everyone is always impossible. We are a demented species." (p. 182) De Botton goes on to show us how "The Romantic vision of marriage stresses the importance of finding the 'right' person, which is taken to mean someone in sympathy with the raft of our interests and values. There is no such person over the long term. We are too varied and peculiar. There cannot be lasting congruence. The partner truly best suited to us is not the one who miraculously happens to share every taste but the one who can negotiate differences in taste with intelligence and good grace. Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate dissimilarity that is the true marker of the 'right' person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it shouldn't be its pre-condition. " (p. 216).
It's a beautiful book with a real and honest look at marriage, warts and all. Some people ask me how you know if you are ready for marriage. My usual response is that no one can be ready for marriage because it calls you to be someone you are not yet ready to be. Your fullest, highest, most evolved self. But perhaps from now on I will recommend as an alternate answer that you are ready for marriage if you can read this book and still believe in love. If you can see it not as a tragedy but as a testament to the power of two people's desire to overcome who they were and become better people within the bonds of a partnership that will push their every button. If you can see that as love, then maybe you are ready.
Wishing you health and happiness in all of your connections,
First a note on semantics. The "Island" under consideration is a romantic partner who has what would, in research, be called an "avoidant" attachment style. Attachment research goes back many years (to the 1940's) and involves classifying people into different categories based on how the relate to their primary caregiver in early childhood. For more information on attachment see my earlier blog on the subject.
As some of you know when I work with couples I use the PACT model of therapy (the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy). The PACT model has re-labelled the attachment styles as follows: Islands (avoidant), Waves (resistant) and Anchors (secures). It would be too complicated to explain the model here but see earlier posts of mine on the classification system and how our attachment styles impact our romantic relationships. Dr. Stan Tatkin's audio program, "Your Brain on Love", provides a wonderful explanation of the theory and how to apply it to your relationship.
OK, now on to those islands. For those of you who love someone who is often island-ish it can be confusing to understand them if you are not one yourself. Now of course to be fair, island-ish people don't understand wave-ish people either.
However, human behavior is often predictable if you know what to look for. So if you know that your partner is "island-ish" then you can predict what is going to bug them and what will really make them purr. I am summarizing here points made by Dr. Stan Tatkin in his wonderful audio program Your Brain on Love. If you haven't listened to it I strongly suggest you give it a try! While I have provided a link via Amazon you can also buy it on iTunes, Audible and soundstrue.com.
Now before proceeding I need to make something REALLY clear. What I am about to say may make you think "sheesh, why would I want to commit to an island if it will turn out this way?". So PLEASE understand something-- everyone, regardless of their style (Island or Wave) will get harder to handle after commitment. Dr. Tatkin refers to this as the "marriage monster". It's the unstoppable dynamic that gets activated when we pledge ourself to someone for all eternity. This just naturally turns up the heat and starts to show the cracks in our structure. So if you are wave-ish please realize that commitment also makes you more wave-ish and therefore harder to handle. It's not that island-ish people are worse than you. There is enough bad behavior to go around ;-)
OK so as long as you proceed without judgement, here are a few things that are predictable about people who are island-ish (or avoidantly attached):
Once committed, island-ish folks tend to distance more. Remember that in courtship our brains are on all kinds of love chemicals that make us act like the most perfect version of ourselves. Those things that later will drive us crazy, like how our partner snorts when they laugh, which seemed so cute when we are dating but is now repulsive. Island-ish folks can tolerate a lot more closeness during courtship thanks to the cocktail of neurotransmitters and hormones we are on (for more on this see the Ted Talk by Helen Fisher). However once those hormones and neurotransmitters settle down as a real relationship develops, Islands start to have more trouble with the stress of being close. Islands find close relationships more stressful than waves or anchors so they are more prone to this problem.
Once committed island-ish folks tend to be more secretive. They may feel the need to 'protect' themselves as we become more important to them. Closeness can provoke a sense of danger to an island so they will "beef-up" on their boundaries as the relationship progresses. Remember that this is NOT specific to you (they would do it with any partner) and also they are NOT conscious of it or doing it "on purpose". Reassure them that you accept all of them and that they don't need to keep secrets from you for fear that you will judge them. This should help them feel more comfortable with the closeness and intimacy.
Once committed they are likely to be more protective of their alone-time. Try to let them know that you respect their need to be alone some of the time and that you are committed to letting them have some of that. Don't let them be alone all of the time (which they may think would be good for them). In fact, if left alone too long they tend to neglect themselves! So they truly do "need" us, but they also need to feel separate and autonomous.
Once committed their preference for "auto-regulation" can become more pronounced. Everyone needs some autoregulation skills but don't let your island-ish person over-rely on that strategy. Help them use you for safety and security when they are under stress. They may protest against this at first, saying that they want to "be alone". But remember if under stress an island would to better to seek solace in their partner, they just don't do that instinctively.
Once committed they may start reacting poorly to being approached. This is especially likely if you come unannounced or they do not know you are approaching until you are there. They tend to feel that their independence is being threatened when their partner walks up to them. They tend to expect that you need something from them and this makes them uneasy. Reassure them that you don't "need" anything from them but you just want to be around them because you love them. Let them know you are not using them for anything but rather that you chose them because you love and appreciate them. And try not to call them, especially by name, from another room, that tends to set off their alarm systems and they will likely react with anger or irritation. Instead go to them if you need them.
Once committed island-ish people's fear of engulfment from childhood tends to return. This makes them behave in all of the ways mentioned above. Reassure them that you want them to have their independence and that you also know that even though they want their alone time you also know that they love you. Island-ish folks tend to be afraid that if they ask for what they need for in terms of alone time their partner is going to feel hurt. Let them know this is not the case.
Once committed island-ish folks can be peckish about feeling they are being used, as noted above, so make sure to tell your island-ish partner that you love them just for who they are.
Once committed island-ish partners can experience a lessening of their libido/sex drive. A once pretty sexually active partner can seem to lose interest sexually. Be careful not to take this personally. They would be this way with anyone and it has to do with them coming from families where there was not a lot of physical closeness. Now that you have become "deep family" to them they start to unconsciously revert back to the patterns of their childhood attachments, which probably did not include a lot of close physical contact. Of course you can continue to ask for physical contact but be patient with them and try to find ways of approaching that don't provoke a defensive response in your island-ish partner. Also be careful not to trigger a shame response when discussing this with your island-ish partner as they tend to feel ashamed and embarrassed about letting their partner down in this way.
Once committed your island-ish partner may start to doubt that you will really be there for them if they need you (even if you have already proven that you will be there!). This comes from their history of having to take care of themselves emotionally a lot of the time. So now that they have taken you in to their inner level they will expect you to neglect them somehow. Make sure to let them know that you intend to continue to take care of them and don't let them push you away in this area because they "know" you won't measure up.
Remember that all of the above is NOT personal, NOT conscious and NOT immediately under their control. Like any human being island-ish partners can learn about themselves and can learn new behaviors. But this often takes time and some professional coaching.
And one final tip on not triggering your island-ish partner--
Try not to ask them why they did something. Most people probably don't know exactly why they do what they do in a given day because most of our brain processes are automatic. If we had to consciously think of everything we do we couldn't walk and breath at the same time, let alone explain ourselves from moment to moment. And since island-ish folks are not prone to thinking about themselves they feel caught off-guard and put on the spot if you ask them to analyze their own behavior. It's more useful to give them feedback on how their behavior is impacting you (what you like and what you don't like about their behavior) rather than try to have them explain themselves.
I hope these tips have been helpful. Look for my upcoming blog on "The Care and Feeding of Your Wave". Remember, about half of us have "insecure" attachment styles (meaning we are not "anchors" or "secures"). So if you find yourself relating to the Island or Wave types don't feel bad. There are plenty of folks in your company. And if your partner is willing to learn your style they can take great care of you (and vice-versa!).
A thought occurred to me the other day in the midst of counseling a couple. One of them had recently adopted a dog from the animal shelter. She was talking about the history of the dog and why it had certain habits and fears. To all of us in the room it went without saying that since the dog had been mistreated by it's previous owners it came with "issues". I think many of us have had those experiences, like raising your hand to pet a dog and watching it flinch or cower. Our first thought in that situation is "oh dear, I bet this dog has been abused!". We generally don't get mad at the dog for misunderstanding us. Nor do we expect the dog to know that we are not the same person who previously hurt them. We are generally concerned and patient and understand it will take the dog time to trust us. We also would not be surprised if a dog trainer told us that there were some things we could do on our part to not create fear in the dog.
So while all of this is usually pretty obvious to humans in regards to dogs, the corollary to understanding our relationship partners is sadly not all that intuitive. We are often upset to find that our partners, who had previous "owners" (parents/caregivers) have baggage and a host of unconscious expectations that cause them to misunderstand us and sometimes act in ways that don't make sense. By the way, they are seeing the same behaviors in us! It's as if one dog from the pound (with their own history of having been neglected or hurt in the past) adopts another dog from the pound (with their own history also). You can imagine the problems that ensue.
If you have read my blog posts or website you may know that I practice a particular style of couples therapy-- PACT. In that style of therapy we find it useful to look for certain patterns of behavior that arise from particular histories of interactions with our early caregivers. These patterns are called "attachment styles". There are two basic styles that represent the majority of us who end up having relationship problems-- "Avoidant" (which Dr. Stan Tatkin calls "Islands") and "Resistant" (which Dr. Tatkin calls "Waves"). These two predominant patterns can be described in terms of types of dogs you may encounter at your local pound.
The "Avoidant" or "Island" type of partner is like the dog at the pound who, when you approach the cage smiling and holding out a treat, backs up and hopes you will go away. You may feel hurt or rejected, even annoyed. You may think to yourself "hey, I'm the good guy here!", "c'mon buddy, give me a chance!" If you are patient and give the dog a little space in time he or she will likely relax and may even show some interest. If you open the cage and again give the dog space it will, in it's own time, come out. But don't expect this type of dog to jump into your arms in the first few minutes! He or she will need to move past you and walk around a bit, making sure that you do not represent any danger or infringement on their free will. Once the dog has established that you are OK letting it walk about freely it will likely approach you, in it's own time, and perhaps make a gesture of interest. If you move too quickly or with too much enthusiasm this type of dog will back away and then you are back to square one for a bit.
If you try to imagine what kind of history this dog has it's not hard to conjure: This dog was neglected. It had the kind of owner who put out food and water but did not show the dog much affection. The dog is not used to being engaged or approached much. When this owner did approach the dog it was likely for the dog to do something for the owner rather than the owner doing something for the dog. Perhaps it was an older dog who was too tired to run much, but the only time the owner came to it was to drag it out for a run because that's what the owner wanted to do. The owner missed the cues from the poor dog that this was only fun for the human! The owner simply threw a leash on the dog and dragged it around the block, perhaps even chastising the dog for going to slow. Then upon returning home the dog is put back into it's corner and ignored again. This dog will come to see his owner as a task-master who is only really interested in him or herself. The dog will be mistrustful of approach because it only means that the dog is now expected to do something that the dog may have no interest in. The dog has learned that the owner is not sensitive to it's needs or wants and most of the time leaves it alone. So the dog learns to entertain itself and gets pretty good at this. It can stare out the window and watch birds or run around alone in the back yard chasing squirrels. But the dog does not expect the owner to partake of these activities or show any interest in what the dog is doing. In fact, the dog comes to prefer not being noticed by the owner because the owner is only interested in their own needs and the dog finds that unpleasant and unfair.
Notice that this dog is not necessarily abused. It's just emotionally neglected. Therefore when you show a lot of enthusiasm and rush forward to give it a big hug at the pound this dog is not comfortable with that. It will try to avoid that kind of effusive contact and get more space from you. In time, if you are patient, it may become more comfortable with you and the dog may even come to enjoy a certain amount of attention. But it may also never be the kind of dog that you can scoop up and hug and smooch all over. The dog has baggage.
Now compare that to a different kind of pound pooch. This dog has been intermittently abused and praised by its owner. Confusing, right? This owner was a bit moody and wrapped up in their own dramas. On a good day they would lavish the dog with treats and hugs and then on bad days might yell at the dog or even give it a kick. The dog was not able to know from day to day what was coming. So the dog also learns to be guarded. Only when you approach this dog at the pound they don't necessarily want you to go away. Part of them is thinking "well, this could be good...you may have a treat for me". But the other part of the poor dog is thinking "yeah, but this could be bad!". So the dog may approach but with ears back and a slightly open jaw, ready to bite if things turn ugly. When you see the dog approaching you in this way you might think "geez! Here I am trying to be nice and it looks as if you may bite me!" This type of dog may even approach you and growl, only to then lick your outstretched hand. Their behavior is likely to be a confusing mix of pleasure at your attention and fear and even anger at what they perceive is potential backlash. Even more confusing is that this dog, right after growling at you, will likely follow you into the next room. The dog does not seem to want to be alone, even though half the time when you try to engage it the dog may snarl or bark at you! And even more frustrating this dog may tear up your furniture in protest if you leave it alone for too long. This dog is certainly a confusing fellow! But, if treated with love and patience, this dog will eventually growl less and lick more. However it may always be quick to curl it's lip and look like it's about to bite. It's up to you to know how to help the dog feel safe and loved and to not take it too personally when the dog seems scared or testy. This dog would, if it were human, correspond to the attachment type of "Resistant" or in Tatkin's terms, a "Wave." This dog too has baggage.
When we meet our life partners they are not newly birthed puppies. They are middle-aged dogs with histories of having been, much of the time, mistreated in some way or another by someone in their formative years. It may not have been out and out abuse (although that is certainly possible), it may have been mild emotional neglect or moderate mis-attunement or confusion behaviors from distressed or overwhelmed parents. Whatever the case, they have baggage (as do we!). We need to come to expect this and not take it personally. We need to try to learn about our partner's histories and figure out how we can offer corrective experiences that will, over time and with patience, reduce their problematic behaviors. And we need to be reasonable about our expectations, knowing that while you can teach old dogs new tricks, you may have to use some pretty persuasive treats and even engage your friendly (PACT certified!) "dog trainer".
Wishing you the best in your loving connections (both human canine),
One of the most common reasons couples come to me is affairs. They may be purely emotional, purely physical, or some of each. They could be a brief interlude or a decades-long relationship. One partner may have strayed or both. And despite what I think most people's intuition is, in my experience if the couple is willing to work on it almost all of these couples have stayed together. While the devastation of this kind of betrayal is certainly enormous it is capable of being healed. And not only that but it can also lead to a kind of exploration of the basic tenants of the relationship that allow for tremendous growth and change. Most of my affair couples tell me that after doing the hard work of healing that their current relationship is actually much better than it was for years preceding the affair.
If you have read my blog before you know that I practice PACT -- the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy. This approach was developed by Stan Tatkin, PsyD and incorporates brain science and attachment theory into couples work. I find it to be a brilliant, dynamic and exciting type of work that produces faster and deeper results than most couples therapies available.
In regards to the specific problem of affairs, Dr. Tatkin did an interview with Dr. Diane Poole Heller in which they discussed how affairs in our adult relationships are often related to problems with our attachment to our caregivers as children. The interview is presented in two parts:
If you are wanting to heal from an affair or learn more about couples dynamics in general I highly recommend watching these interview segments. More information can also be found in Dr. Tatkin's audio program Your Brain On Love", which is available on iTunes, Amazon or at www.soundstrue.com
This is a great one-hour interview with Dr. Stan Tatkin about how humans are wired. While Dr. Tatkin states that our brains are more naturally wired for war than love (due to the survival drive) we CAN learn how to activate the natural aspects of our brains and nervous systems that allow us to connect deeply to others.
I hope you enjoy this. If you like the theory presented here please look for a PACT therapist to work with you and your partner. I am trained in PACT as are numerous other therapists here in Austin, Texas.
And whether or not we are "wired" for love, consider the following wisdom
While loving someone deeply gives you courage
Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength
A lot of people talk about co-dependency. We all know that it's not something good but what does it really mean? And is there a good type of dependency? Or is all dependency bad?
The term originally came out of 12-step programs like AA. In that system there is the addict and then there is their partner who is the "co-dependent". This person is wrapped up in the addiction just as much as the addict. The addiction rules their life with equal fervor. On the surface people's sympathies often go with the co-dependent rather than the addict. We may find ourselves thinking "oh, that poor person, attached to that addict who is making their life so miserable".
But the reality is that both people are dysfunctional. The co-dependent person is getting some kind of perk out of being in this situation. Mabye it's the sympathy of others. Or the excuse as to why they can't get ahead in life-- because they are too busy taking care of the addict. The addict looks like the "hot mess" in the relationship and in contrast the co-dependent looks well put together.
In this type of relationship both people actually have an agenda. The addict wants to maintain their addiction and the co-dependent wants to have an excuse for why their life isn't the way they want it to be. In fact in these relationships both partners are using the relationship for meeting mostly their own needs. They do not expect the relationship to be fair. In fact, they expect and act as if relationships will NOT be fair! Their needs may be to have a partner hold down the home front while they engage in affairs or addictions. Or the need may be to play the martyr and support an addict while complaining to everyone else about how mistreated they are. This is not interdependency.
Interdependency involves the idea that in a relationship, we are greater than the sum of our parts. That two together can accomplish more than either one alone. Or as the african saying goes, "if you are going to take a short journey, go alone and you will go faster. But if you must go far, take another". Life is a long journey and taking a partner along with us to be our help-mate can be incredibly fulfilling and successful if we can learn the basic rules of truly mutual relationships. Psychologists and researchers call these truly mutual relationships "secure", meaning that each partner knows that the other person is going to be there for them no matter what. And that each partner also knows that whatever happens to their partner happens to them too. So in a secure relationship, one would never do anything that would intentionally hurt the other person, or be unfair to them, or take advantage of them, because in the end it would hurt BOTH of them. It is a state of knowing that you are bound together on all levels and acting accordingly.
The method of couples therapy that I practice, called the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy, or PACT, talks a lot about how to develop a secure relationship. Dr. Diane Poole Heller interviewed PACT's originator, Dr. Stan Tatkin, about the phenomenon of interdependency. You may enjoy watching the interview to learn more about this:
I hope you find this video helpful as well as the information provided above. Remember, all relationships can change given proper support and guidance.
Dr. Krista Jordan
Krista Jordan, Ph.D., ABPP
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