A Psychobiological Approach to Couples Counselling (PACT)
October 30, 2018
We are born with a brain that is wired to attach, to seek comfort, and safety.
As an animal the best way we can survive is in numbers. If there is a strong attachment to another (e.g. parent/caregiver) and they are able to understand and respond to our needs appropriately, then we are likely to thrive. When we receive this kind of care, our brain usually becomes wired in a way that promotes psychological health. The knowledge that someone has our back, helps achieve this.
Most of us want to feel loved, cherished and important to our significant other. Unfortunately most couples that find themselves in Couples counselling have lost this vision of each other somewhere along the way. Instead of being ‘partner in crime’, their relationship has or is in the process of becoming a crime scene! We all have a story, and we can get stuck on whose version of the story is “the Truth”, and this is where conflict can arise within the relationship. The individuals’ story replays and solidifies the hurt that has grown within the relationship, and the couple can find themselves at a stalemate. At this point, “being right” has become more important than the fact that our partner is also in pain.
The PACT way of therapy promotes connection, safety and security, guiding a couple to manage each other’s highs and lows and how to handle conflict i.e. to “fight well”. It prioritises the couple partnership and aims to minimise stress and optimise each other’s health and love for one another.
What is PACT
PACT literally means a Psychological Approach to Couples Therapy. It was developed by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT. It implies that there is a psychological, as well as a biological component to obtaining stability within a couple dynamic. A lot of couples counselling attends to the psychological part of this equation, but skip over how much the biological component can influence our choices and behaviour within a couple dynamic. The two go hand in hand. Our psychological experience influences our biological wiring and our biological wiring influences our psychological expression. By understanding, from a psychobiological perspective, it can help the couple to stop ‘take things personally’. Instead of becoming reactive/defensive we learn how to care for our self as well as the other, promoting a secure functioning relationship. It’s all in the wiring!
PACT explores three significant psychobiological areas:
Neuroscience is an exciting new ever- evolving area of study. We have parts of our brain that tell us how to respond to threat, danger and to seek security. Other parts deal with how we establish loving mutually beneficial contact. We know that past experiences effect how the brain is wired. However, in some situations, it is possible to rewire the brain through new experiences.
Attachment Theory suggests our early experience of attachment to our caregiver lays out a blueprint of how we may express our need for closeness, or distance, within our later intimate relationships. Again, understanding these sensitivities can show a couple why they interact the way they do and can help the couple to avoid misunderstandings.
Arousal systemrefers to the moment-to-moment ability to regulate our emotions, alertness and readiness to engage. E.g. if a person grew up in a highly stressful conflictual environment, they may have learnt the best way to survive was to switch off and shut down emotionally. When they behave this way in their current relationship, it has little to do with the actual partner involved, very much to do with a learnt survival mechanism. By understanding this, partners can learn to help each other recognise and ultimately process stress differently. Instead of becoming enemies at these highly charged times, the couple learns to read the signs of their partners stress, becoming their greatest asset in helping to calm the situation and come to a place of repair.
The Couples Session
Sessions are typically 2 hours long. During the couple’s session the emphasis is more on the moment-to-moment shifts in each other’s mood and behaviour, rather than the content i.e. what the couple is saying. As the couple begins to notice these shifts in each other, they gain greater insight, and the skills to deal with these triggers, moving away from misinterpretation and misunderstanding into better communication and intimacy.
Within a session the couple may be coached to re-in-act a moment-by-moment situation that is causing the couple stress.
Clients often find a PACT session can be playful at the same time as confronting their perceptions in a way that they have never done before.
Working in a PACT way reignites and promotes communication, attention and care towards each other.
PACT is for all couples, premarital couples through to those in crisis. Fewer sessions may be needed when working in a PACT way.
Who doesn’t want to feel loved?
Samantha Bladon trained as a Couples Counsellor at Relationships Australia. She is a PACT Level 1 Practitioner.