The people in these videos are psychotherapists colleagues of mine and professional actors. They know first hand–from personal to professional experiences–of the challenges that come with being a couple, and working with couples. At the end of the day, most of us can see ourselves in these couples. Their difficulties are universal and test most couples. PACT, (Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy) focusses on supporting couples create Secure Functioning Relationships, all the while honoring each person’s individuality and history. Below are some foundational blocks to help you create a strong bedrock for your couple.
What are the “Rules of Engagement” for you as a couple? Are you clear about the guiding principles you both choose to abide by, especially in hard times?
Most couples go about their relationships without the clarity of a mutually agreed set of “this is what we do for each other, and this is what we don’t do. EVER.” When there are no clear agreed-upon principles which work for both people, couples often find themselves facing challenging moments without the proper understanding and skill set. When we don’t know how our partner needs to be handled in difficult times, when we assume what our partners needs instead of checking with him/her first, we put the security of our relationship in jeopardy. Our good intentions and our “but I thought this is what you wanted…” often fall short. This can, over time, add up to compounded and unnecessary pain within the relationship. Not having our partner’s “Owner Manual” can be a recipe for countless misunderstandings, feeling let down, betrayed and hurt.
Here are the 10 Rules my mentor, Dr. Stan Tatkin, suggests couples implement. These guiding principles are grounded in biology and anchored in attachment studies. In brief, they are part of the PACT model of therapy; a specialized way of working with couples, and most importantly, of being a couple. They foster an experience of security within the “couple bubble”.
1. Protect the safety and security of your relationship above all else. Your relationship comes first, not your in-laws, not your ex, not your computer, or the game on TV. Even your difference of opinions and arguments do not come first. While they may be real and challenging, they do not come before, and in between the two of you. When you agree to be a couple, the two of you agree to be the king and queen, or kind-king or queen-queen, of the kingdom. As Stan’s says: “secure functioning couples are in the foxhole together, or at the top of the food chain.”
2. Base relationships on true mutuality: All actions and decisions must be in the best interest of both individuals in a partnership. Many people go about their relationship as if they were single, “you do your thing and I do my thing, we are both very independent people.” On the other extreme, others go about their relationship with a “now that we are together we do everything together, it is now your responsibility to make me happy and…” Neither of these two styles of relating reveals true mutuality. In fact, these two different ways of being a couple are, at their essence, a one-person system. They are not based on true mutuality. I’ll elaborate more on this topic in a future Post.
3. Do not threaten to leave or end a relationship. This causes unnecessary fear and anxiety for both partners in the long run. When arguing or “fighting” couples can never, ever, threaten the relationship. Conflicts must be handled in such a way that doesn’t put the relationship at stake. Yes, some conflicts can bring us all to the breaking point. However, for couples to feel secure, both partners must be able to handle the heat and regulate each other from reaching the boiling or freezing point. If you need to talk about what is not working for you, if you are seriously considering breaking up, then you do need to have this difficult conversation in a manner that respects its gravity, not as a tool to scare, threaten, or manipulate the other person.
4. Turn to partners first: a partner must reach out to his or her significant other in all matters of importance first, before reaching out to anyone else for support or guidance. As much as we value our best friends and confidants, both partners must agree on what stays within the relationship, on what is shared with others, and with whom. When couples disregard this premise, people are bound to feel disrespected and let down. Honor what your partner values as “private” and don’t betray his/her trust, even when you think “it’s no big deal, I’ll tell whoever I want, it won’t kill her/him…” Such a mindset comes at a high price; that of your significant other feeling betrayed. Trust is an intrinsic element of secure functioning relationships. Do not mess with it.
5. Smile: Greet one another with kind eyes and a smile at the beginning of each day, and with every subsequent meeting throughout the day. It’s no mystery that receiving a genuine and kind smile feels good and often puts a smile on our own face! Yet, there is more to it than just a good feeling. The parts of our brain which assess for safety and threat—our limbic system and brain stem—are very attuned to facial micro-expressions–– the minute movements our facial muscles make when we feel emotions such as joy, anger, sadness, surprise, fear, contempt, etc. These micro-expressions can, at times, only last a few milliseconds. While they happen faster than most of us can perceive them, our limbic system still registers them. They are often experienced as gut feelings or nagging thoughts that seem to come from nowhere. They are also often the reason we dislike someone from the get-go, get into arguments with others out of nowhere and, that couples pick a fight without knowing what hit them. Being mindful that thoughts and feelings move through us like clouds in the sky, and that they often have nothing to do with our reality at the moment, our partner is likely to catch some of these less than fun and loving micro-expressions on our face. Making it a point to smile at each other many times a day is a powerful way to reset our partner’s alarm system, as well as ours. This is a mindful way to remember that we are friends who deeply care and love each other; and that in the midst of all of our challenges, our relationship is secure.
6. Protect one another from potentially harmful situations in public and in private, including hurtful words or threats that put the relationship in jeopardy. Countless couples have a tendency to throw their partner under the proverbial bus, even without knowing it. One person’s vulnerability can be no big deal for the other. A partner’s sense of humor can be offensive to the other. A husband’s need for personal space and alone time may trigger his partner to feel shun or abandoned. Countless numbers of these awkward situations throw couples into conflicts, which are easily avoided when each partner expresses his/her concerns and vulnerabilities, and the other honors them without judgment. Checking-in with each other—in real time—if both agree to talk about a specific topic, is a great way to remain on the same page. Actually, couples that take care of each other in public and in private are sexy and fun to be with.
7. Coordinate wake-up and bedtime schedules so that partners are going to sleep together most nights and waking up together most mornings. Even if we are all grown-up and live in a culture that celebrates independence, going to bed alone and waking up alone can be… a lonely experience. Scheduling bedtime together increases the potential for pillow talk and sensual/sexual rekindling. Many couples find great intimacy in sharing 5 things they are grateful for during the day, had fun doing, appreciated from their partner, etc. A word of caution: PLEASE, don’t use these times to get into arguments and start fires. If conflicts need to be addressed and resolved, do so before bedtime and NOT when you are both lying down. Protect your bed and bedtime rituals for intimacy and positive experiences.
8. Accept and forgive: correct any injustices or harmful exchanges as soon as possible without placing blame on who started it, or who is the greater perpetrator. “You did this…” followed by “But you did that first…” seldom (if ever) leads towards efficient and timely win-win resolutions of conflicts. In fact, this approach often takes a simple challenge between partners and escalates it to a whole new level it was never meant to reach. As we’ve seen above (point 5), when our partner is perceived as a threat or when we ourselves unintentionally come too strong and confrontational, we both reinforce our “fight and flight” response. Our biology takes the lead in these situations. Honoring our vulnerabilities and sharing them in a kind and respectful manner is a part of the foundation of couples that do not get stuck on conflicts for months and years on end. It also serves us very well to keep in mind that we are all a-pain-in-the-ass at times, even if we hate admitting it! We can all hurt each other without meaning to do so. We are not talking about forgiving abuse of any sort, but of being mindful of our reactions and differences.
9. Gaze lovingly at one another daily, make meaningful gestures of appreciation, use your words to share your admiration and gratitude. In order to maintain the vibrancy of our intimacy and our love, we need to nurture it. Learn your partner’s love language, the words that make him/her melt or open up, the parts of his body that make him/her relax and let go. The kindness and love we bestow on our partner allow him/her to feel secure and cared for. The time we spend gazing in each other’s eyes and rediscovering each other fosters a soulful connection. It increases our bond. And it is often what got us to want to be in the relationship initially!
10. Learn how to influence, persuade, and romance one another without using fear or threats. “Hey babe, come here, come sit by me…”, “I know you are stressed-out, relax your eyes and mouth, just take a deep exhale with me…”, “I know it is not your favorite thing to do, but please indulge me tonight and let’s… I’ll owe you one…”, “Let’s get naked together and re-discover each other, I know your busy but let’s put that aside for now and connect…”. There is an art in learning to ask for what we want and need; the mastery of it lies in asking clearly and in an invitational manner, not in confrontational, or threatening one. This art form makes couples stronger. It allows couples to truly be there for each other in vulnerable and stressful moments. It also allows to let go of control at times, and let the other person take the lead; all the while knowing that we are safe. Couples who know how to co-regulate each other, remain secure with each other!
Lastly, remember to keep your agreements current, to renegotiate them when need be and to honor them, especially in challenging and difficult times. When the waters are rough, we need to know that our boat is sturdy and will make it through.