By Beth O’Brien, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist
PACT Level 3 Therapist, PACT Ambassador
In PACT training, Dr. Stan Tatkin shared this gem: “Be prepared to drop your darlings.” Darlings are those valuable insights a counselor acquires as s/he sees the concerns of the couple unfold. My initial response to his suggestion was “Oh, no!”
As a couple’s therapist of over 20 years, I’ve had many darlings to insert into the therapeutic work. Dr. Tatkin’s gem became an important guideline, as it advocated for the couple therapist to be open, flexible, aware of timing, and able to assess the benefit of an intervention.
Who hasn’t had the experience of sharing a clinical observation that falls flat? Which counselor hasn’t had a perceived valuable comment result in the couple squinting their eyes, their facial expression indicating discord, their inner thoughts confusion?
Before sharing a darling, I had to investigate well.
I learned to confirm that the observation I wanted to discuss was backed up with evidence from the couple’s history and how they operate.
I needed to judge the couple’s readiness to hear what I had to say (too early in therapy) and whether my comment distracted from the work at hand.
Staying with what is happening in the present moment versus sharing a clinical observation has proven more valuable in moving the couple toward secure functioning.
Lastly, I considered whether sharing my darling was self-serving or helping the couple understand the nature of their pairing. Wowing the couple became a motivator I learned to toss.
In my six years of PACT practice, I have embraced and actually learned when to withhold my darlings. If you saw a video of me working with a couple and withholding one of my darlings, it might look as if I swallowed a goldfish.
Being a PACT couples’ counselor has taught me additional lessons:
While working with another couple whose heated discussion was going nowhere, I asked the couple to stand up, switch chairs, and argue for their partner’s perspective instead of their own. This two-person system approach reminded them to hold their partner in mind. As a result, empathy increased, and the couple carved out a solution that worked for both of them.
One of my couples admitted they couldn’t talk about difficult things. So, I asked them to choose a challenging topic and begin discussing it. Quickly they became accusatory and hurtful. I suggested they pause. I taught them a yogic breathing exercise while staying in each other’s eyes. Soon they began giggling, and the tension between them melted. They were back in the Window of Tolerance.
When I do speak, I try to keep my comments brief. I make room for each partner (not just myself) to take the lead in moving the couple toward secure functioning. As PACT works and deepens its way through a session, I often observe one partner moving their relationship toward secure functioning with words or physical expressions that I hadn’t thought to suggest.
While you help move the couple toward safety and security, I recommend applying the accelerator/brake analogy. Sometimes you speed things up in the session, sometimes you slow things down. Accelerations can occur with verbal observations, hypotheses, and suggestions, or nonverbally by moving your chair in or looking directly at one partner. This can create optimal stress which is the most favorable neurobiological environment for integration (Cozzolino, 2017).
If your session is mostly about accelerating, your couples may leave the session frazzled and exhausted and unenthused about the clinical work. You slow things down when you laugh along with your couple, move your chair out, or notice something positive about one of the partners.
When you relax your body, there is an invitation for the couple to relax as well. These types of activities help the couple brake/rest which calms the nervous system.
Ending the session with both partners right side up involves couples sensing they are in the parasympathetic green zone. Toward the end of the session I deliberately slow things down.
For example, I may ask the couple to engage with soft eyes, using no words or express what they most appreciate about their partner. The couple then leaves the session in each other’s care.
Becoming a PACT therapist means demonstrating with your couples the value of trust and the rewards of being devoted to the safety and security of their relationship. It is exacting, collaborative, stimulating, and often fun work.
Being curious and creative, willing to try new approaches, knowing when to speak and when to watch, using acceleration and braking, and knowing when and how to drop your darlings are tools that can assist you on this rewarding therapeutic journey.