3 Things Couple Therapy Can’t Do and What It Can

 By Annie Chen, LMFT (https://www.changeinsight.net)

PACT Level 2 Therapist

The Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy (PACT) centers around a set of principles that are grounded in relationship fairness, mutuality, and safety, what we call secure functioning. Everything I do as a PACT couple therapist is guided by these principles. Time and time again I’ve seen that it’s an effective model for sustaining two people’s needs in a relationship. Secure-functioning principles are also versatile; they can be applied to nearly every type of issue and problem that couples encounter.

I’m often awe-struck at the work that couples do in my office. It makes the difference between joy and misery; between wanting to stay together and wanting to end the relationship.

But like all good models, couple therapy has limits to what it can accomplish. I’d like to identify some caveats and limitations to using this method so that therapy seekers can align expectations and understand better how to use couple therapy.

The Limits of Couple Therapy

1. Couple therapy can’t work to strengthen your relationship AND preserve the use of insecure strategies for meeting needs (coercion, control of resources, deception, threats).

Some behaviors and patterns work against security and mutuality, which are principles that all PACT-trained therapists promote. From the PACT perspective, adversarial strategies cannot be justified within a relationship that functions securely.

For example, Teresa has a history of lying and defends that she can’t tell Lou what she is up to in her secretive social media accounts because she “values privacy.” This leaves Lou worried and guessing about whether Teresa is being faithful to him. In turn, Lou makes a lot more money than Teresa and supports her financially with rent and bills. Lou knows the power differential this arrangement sets up. He maintains their relationship is better this way so that he can “cut her off if she doesn’t behave.”

From the perspective of each of these partners, their respective behaviors protect them. But from a PACT perspective, these behaviors will never protect their partners and therefore never lead to a secure-functioning relationship. Once partners understand this, they ultimately have to choose the relationship or their insecure-functioning behaviors. 

2. PACT therapists don’t have an agenda about what changes partners should make. Instead, they investigate whether certain changes benefit the relationship as a unit to make the relationship more fair, safe, and mutual.

Some partners come to couple therapy wondering, “Can therapy get my partner to change?” One partner wants the other to eat less fast food or to communicate with them more. PACT therapists are indifferent to conventional wisdom about what people should or should not do. We care about the impact of these potential changes on the two people in the relationship.

PACT therapy investigates what is needed for each partner to feel safe and secure with each other, which often includes attachment needs. Attachment needs have to do with how people experience their partner’s timing and response to closeness, support, and separation.

Are partners effective in understanding and managing these needs with one another? If not, what needs to change? When these responses are far from a partner’s ideal, they can trigger states of nervous system panic or frozenness that can strain a relationship and cause difficulty for both partners. It’s imperative, then, that partners learn to get this right for one another.

Another reason PACT therapists might advocate for one or both partners to make a change is if it promotes fairness and mutuality. This doesn’t mean that partners mirror one another. But it’s important to establish the standards and norms for how you treat one another. Do we tell each other everything? Do we take care of repair quickly and without hesitation? Do we make space for one another’s hobbies and friends? Do we have access to each other 24/7? The standards and norms for relating should typically apply for both partners.

3. If you are undecided about whether to stay in a relationship, couple therapy can’t remove every single doubt about whether a decision is the right one.

It can take a lot of courage to decide whether to stay in or leave a committed relationship in the face of imperfect information, uncertainty about what the future holds, or any number of relationship challenges.

Couple therapy can clarify feelings and elucidate information to help you make your decision, but it can’t completely remove doubts about whether a decision is the right one. It’s ultimately up to you to use therapy in a way that will help you arrive at the best decision for you.

This doesn’t mean you can’t ever change your mind, but doing your best to make timely decisions is essential to living well. Grieving the loss of possibilities that you did not choose is another hard but important part of moving through life. PACT therapists aim to guide you as much as possible toward a decision, because too often getting bound up in indecision takes precious mental and emotional resources that could be better spent in areas of your life where you need it most.

Where Does Couple Therapy Shine?

More than anything, I believe PACT couple therapy can help you and your partner learn more about one another and discover the rules and agreements that are necessary to sustain your relationship.

I use the word discover because the rules and agreements I'm referring to are going to be informed by both of you — your hopes, needs, and limitations. Understanding what each partner brings and how those attributes interact is the journey of discovery in the relationship. A secure relationship will have rules that work for both partners. The journey of a relationship includes discovering what these rules need to be in order for it to work for both partners.

As therapists, we can’t tell you what those rules and agreements are. We are here to help discover them with you, guide you away from methods that are unlikely to yield useful discovery, and encourage you toward methods that are more likely to illuminate useful discovery.

Here’s an example. I worked with a couple who had the greatest sense of compatibility with each other, but they had one critical point of conflict. Davina believed strongly she only wanted to be in a sexually monogamous relationship. Liz made an equally strong case that non-monogamy was what she needed to be sexually satisfied and happy.

Most often, a difference of this magnitude is a dealbreaker. Discovering the rules for a relationship that will enable both partners to feel satisfied is difficult. However, during the course of therapy, they became even more determined not to let this issue break up their relationship.

They took turns investigating and understanding one another’s needs and limits clearly with regards to monogamy and deeply questioned their own values and priorities. Each partner determined that staying together was the best choice for themselves and their kids. In order to continue to choose the relationship, they had to negotiate with each other and themselves on what they could give up and to arrive at something acceptable.

The rules and agreements they ended up putting into place regarding acceptable sexual behavior with others and communication were a stretch for both of them, but they laid their path and went forward on it together. If circumstances were just a little different, this couple’s journey of discovery about their needs and limits may have led them to the conclusion that their differences were a dealbreaker. This would have been equally valid, and I would consider clarity in this direction also as a success.

Hopefully I’ve given you a clear enough sense of the limitations of couple therapy, how you can use it to your benefit, and the hard work that is needed to create and sustain change. Within the bounds of what is possible, therapy for couples can be a creative, focused space to level up your relationship skills, find solutions to problems, and find yourself.


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