By Eda Arduman, Ma.
PACT Level 2 Therapist, PACT Ambassador
The PACT therapist uses cross-tracking — a technique of inquiry as well as an intervention — along with other techniques to understand couple functioning. The therapist is aiming to get information about one partner by directing the question to their partner instead.
This method allows the therapist to understand how collaborative the couple is as well as how much insight they have regarding each other. The therapist casts the question (regarding Partner B) to Partner A and follows by observing B’s somatic response. The somatic response gives an idea of what the person’s true response is in real time. Then by following up, the therapist can ask B if that is true or not. One can learn a lot about the couple.
Acquiring Accurate Information
Cross-tracking allows us to acquire accurate information in an indirect way. Asking a person a direct question can be less useful because the person feels put on the spot and may not state the truth. By noticing shifts in arousal level of the individual being questioned, we collect more information about the individual as well as the couple dynamic.
As PACT therapists, we ask one partner a question about the other partner and shift our eyes to the other partner. We gaze back and forth while the couple engages with the question or comment. While cross-tracking, we observe and discern how responsive they are to each other, how well they know each other, and how well they share their honest feelings.
When partners talk to each other, their arousal levels and micro expressions shift. These changes are a port of entry into what is honestly going on between them. This form of questioning allows the therapist to wait, watch, and wonder how the couple interacts at many different levels, whether or not they agree with the content, how they manage their responses, and how they respond to the voice, gestures, and movements of their partners.
Gauging Interest in Secure Functioning
As a result of cross- questioning and cross-interpreting, the therapist is able to understand and gauge how interested they are in the inner world of their partner. Part of our work is to set a foundation for understanding two minds interacting with respect and curiosity toward each other. Secure-functioning couples are interested in the well-being of each other and have some knowledge regarding their partner’s past and future concerns and dreams.
When we cross-track, we question, interpret, and make declarative statements about the couple. This technique helps us cover a lot of ground. The method allows the therapist to elicit information from the couple, appraise accuracy, and provide the couple with more information about each other. In addition, the therapist can more easily engage and use their own countertransference response to leverage the couple toward secure functioning.
When cross-questioning a couple, the feeling that emerges in the therapist can often be an expression of something denied or repressed in the couple system. A therapist can detect and voice unacknowledged sadness or anger in the couple system by tracking shifts in the couple as well as tracking their own responses.
Cross-questioning allows the therapist who might be feeling annoyed to ask one partner, “Do you think he [she] gets annoyed when you say that?” By following up and tracking their response, space opens for them to reflect on the annoyance or cause of it.
Why Couples Misappraise Each Other
Shifting Arousal Responses. Two human nervous systems are implicitly constantly signaling and responding to each other. They will respond to each other psychobiologically when they are engaging and disengaging from each other. Their states of arousal will shift in response to each other.
In many instances the individuals will not be aware because the shifts are managed by parts of the central nervous system which manage involuntary movements. One partner may get impatient or angry or sad for no apparent reason. On the surface, that response looks disconnected, yet clinical data verifies that rhythm of interactions between parent and infant results in an internal working model of human interaction that is neurobiologically wired and stored in the procedural memory. What is coined as an unconscious response to proximity and distance may actually a result of early era experiences.
Troubling Memory and Emotion. Memories, feelings, and somatic sensations all impact each other. An individual may recall memories that were coded in the particular state that resembles the current dominant one. Memory is state-dependent. The mind is usually occupied with memories or stories that reflect our emotional state. When an individual experiences being lonely or overwhelmed, the dominant narrative in their mind will support those emotional states. As a result, they might come up with a reason to be troubled. The culprit is usually their partner.
Blinding Narratives. Individuals in couple therapy are often locked in their one-person psychology narrative. During a PACT session the therapist does not take what the couple says about each other or themselves at face value. PACT therapists hear what clients declare yet intervene with what actually takes place in the session.
What people say about themselves and each other is many times untrue. They often are blind to their errors in processing this dynamic. Therefore, the PACT therapist aims to understand the neuro-biological as well as psychical aspect of the issue at hand.
Examining a Real-Life Scenario
Leyla and Aylin, who had been together for a year, decided to move in with each other.
Leyla had been married to a man and was now proud to be in a same-sex relationship. Aylin was awed by Leyla’s charm and sophistication, and Leyla expected Aylin to be close with her friends regardless of how they treated Aylin.
When Aylin expressed anger at being left out of several plans that Leyla made with friends, Leyla responded in offensive anger. The topic of Leyla’s friends became so explosive, they could not discuss it.
In her marriage, Leyla’s husband had inhibited her social interactions. She had suffered from social isolation and depression. This time around with her female partner, she set out to make sure she did not repeat the same mistake. She was hyper-invested in preventing a situation that had nothing to do with her current partner or their relationship.
Emotional state is often a key definer of how we construct events and how we respond to them. While Aylin did not feel safe with her status in the relationship, Leyla was responding with a threat response to a former memory, struggling to prevent a former traumatic experience from repeating itself.
Both were perceiving threat from each other whenever Aylin felt excluded and dismissed and whenever Leyla felt her social freedom being limited.
All partners are vulnerable when the security system of the couple is compromised.
Clinical Vignette Follow-Up
“Do you know that Leyla is afraid of getting depressed if she stops struggling for her freedom?”
As I ask the question, my eyes move back to Leyla to see her response to what I said. Her jaw drops in disbelief. I gaze at her softly and inquiringly and move my eyes to Aylin.
Aylin: “I think she is afraid losing her sense of power.”
My eyes go back to Leyla, whose eyes shoot down.
Leyla, softly: “I hate feeling weak with people. I am afraid if I submit myself to ‘us,’ I will lose myself.”
As she speaks, my eyes turn to Aylin, whose brows shoot up when she hears Leyla say she is afraid that committing is like submitting to the relationship.
Aylin, face stiffening: “What? You haven’t committed to our relationship? But you always say you have. Have you been lying?”
At this point, my eyes go back to Leyla.
Leyla says she wants her relationship to be supportive, not imposing like her marriage had been: “I said I love you, but my friends come before everyone. I lost them once, and I will not risk losing them again.”
Aylin drops her head and suddenly silently folds in the face of Leyla’s threat. This results in an unsustainable truce.
This couple is not operating within what we call a PACT couple bubble. Neither is thinking about the relationship or how to maintain it. One is thinking only of herself, and the other how to placate. I already know they are both dishonest with each other. One claims to be committed while the other does not express her true feelings about her partner. They have a limited capacity as a two-person system; rather than argue with each other, they fight about others.
Simple tracking of shifts in arousal during the cross-tracking process gives me information about their relationship dynamic. As we move on, I am able to cross interpret to the partners about each other.
“Leyla, do you know that Aylin does not really want to impose herself on your friendships? She simply wants to be in your loop and know what is going on.” As I say that, I turn to Aylin.
Aylin: “I don’t even like your friends, but I want to know what you are interested in and doing. Maybe in time I will also like them because they are your friends. I care about you.”
Leyla responds in surprise. Each time Aylin asks a question about her friends, she feels as if she is being interrogated. People who are insecure due to attachment or relational trauma often confuse healthy curiosity with paranoid suspicion. Leyla responds by saying she wants her relationship to be supportive, not draining like her marriage had been.
In this clinical vignette, I am able to interpret the true emotions behind the declarations because I am reading their expressions and shifts in their arousal. Sometime people say one thing, and the body gives a very different expression. Aylin was pretending to be okay with something she was actually disturbed by.
The arousal responses she gave were my gateway into her true inner world.
Working with couples is an exhilarating experience, and it is easy to get caught up in the content they bring to the session. Cross-tracking and cross-commenting provide data that helps us as therapists leverage the couple toward secure functioning.