By Beth Newton, LCSW, LCAS
PACT Level 2 Therapist, PACT Ambassador
“Winter Is Coming”
“We Do Not Sow”
“Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”
“Family, Duty, Honor”
If you are a Game of Thrones fan, you know that each ruling house has a sigil (magical symbol) and motto. The story takes place during a time of chaos with warring houses, harsh living conditions, and the threat of human extinction. The families inscribe their sigils and mottos on shields, flags, and stamps. From Season 1 through Season 7, the main characters repeat their mottos during times of stress, celebration, and danger.
Throughout history, the nations of the world have developed structures to transcend natural and man-made dangers. I am half Scottish from the Douglas clan. When my brothers were in high school and looking for a place of safety and belonging, they learned how to play the bagpipes and drums. Their membership in a bagpipe band helped them find purpose, mentorship, camaraderie, and safety while they navigated the frightening world of hormones and high school.
PACT uses developmental biology and human history from writers, such as Yuval Harari, to help the therapist guide couples toward governance of their unwieldy drives, defenses, and deficits. Many tacit rules in a couple system are unjust, outdated, or downright dangerous.
Because we PACT therapists focus on neurobiology, we use both bottom-up and top-down interventions to reduce threat and enhance secure behaviors. One top-down way to move clients toward secure functioning is insisting that couples create their raison d’être — a powerful and organizing experience for couples.
Couples need to know why they are partners instead of single or with someone else. They need a shared identity to get them through the hard times. Couples are chaos without inspiration and structure.
The last time I completed PACT Level 2 with Dr. Stan Tatkin, I came away with a passion to help couples create a belief system — a new religion for themselves that requires faith and commitment. As I began to spend one or two sessions helping couples develop their mottos and sigils, I noticed a change in them and in myself.
New couples continue to state that they feel hopeful and soothed while working hard to create their shared purpose. Older couples like it because it helps them transcend their threat system for something greater than themselves. I like it because I can reference it to regulate couples quickly as they work toward reducing threats and increasing safety.
I am flexible with how I approach this process. Some couples are contentious and need to start by identifying their own deep desires for their lives and then identify commonalities. Other couples can move more quickly.
I often use examples of great houses throughout history such as the House of Wessex in ancient England or the Saadi Dynasty in Morocco to help them understand the purpose of the exercise and how it will help them. I don’t let couples just talk about it. I create structure and to-dos, such as:
Every couple has found this exercise useful. The couples who stay together report that it binds them together on a new level. Couples who break up state that it helped them clarify their need to end the relationship.
The exercise, like all PACT interventions, helps the therapist assess the quality of collaborative behavior between partners while squeezing the couple into a secure-functioning position. I also watch for bottom-up results such as a relaxation in striated muscles, smiles, eye contact, and spontaneous emotions from a deeper realization about themselves or their history.
This week I explained the sigil and motto exercise during the first hour-long session with a new couple. The couple reported they had been living in separate parts of the house after marrying eight months ago. He stated that he had PTSD and depression stemming from his family of origin. She craved a partnership. I purposely described the exercise and how it would help them. I watched them have some eye contact, sit taller, and become more collaborative. The couples said it made them feel hopeful about their future.
During this time of great fear and injustice, the world is looking for a new vision of shared purpose. We are looking for something to believe in that is inclusive, fair, and stable. So are the couples we work with day in and day out.
As a therapist, I need inspiration to do this difficult work. During this time of social isolation, I find this intervention to be uplifting. I see couples in a new light. I can get behind their reason for being a “we” and can use their mission or motto as a short cut to collaborative behavior.
Truth be told, I give t-shirts to the couples I see. The shirt has my logo on the front and “We are . . . in each other’s care” on the back. It’s my own PACT/private practice sigil and motto that I imperfectly strive to achieve. I recommend trying a shared purpose exercise with the couples in your practice. It might just change their life — and yours.