Mutual Injury: The Challenge of Symmetry

Patricia Hart, Ph.D.

Clinical Psychologist

PACT Level 3 Therapist, PACT Ambassador

We have all encountered that moment of impasse with our couples (and probably with our own relationships) when each partner feels like the injured party. The other is perceived as dangerous, and neither partner wants to or feels able to make a reparative move. Witnessing the struggle that ensues feels like watching a race to the bottom.

These moments remind me of my pothole theory of marriage:

The sun is shining, a soft breeze is in the air, and life is good. You and your partner walk down a winding road. Suddenly, a pothole appears. Before you can stop, you and your partner descend into a large dirty hole. How did it happen? Does it matter? The only important task is to help each other out as fast as possible so you can resume your enjoyment of the gorgeous day together.

If only life – and relationship – were so easy.

Couples locked in the grip of mutual recrimination are dysregulated. They feel an urgent need to be vindicated and understood in their painful experience. What does the PACT model offer therapists in these difficult moments?

Asymmetrical Attachment

PACT both expects and supports partners to accept that the sine qua non of a solid, mutually satisfying relationship is making the well-being and happiness of the partner an overarching goal and a moment-to-moment practice. The evocative power of the term “in each other’s care” speaks to an elemental wish that resides in most of us. In each other’s care is the goal and central tenet of the PACT model: secure functioning.  Achievement of this capacity involves accepting that you have to give in order to get.

Two tenets of the PACT model, attachment theory and arousal regulation, speak both to the underlying assumptions and challenges of the model in marriage. The biologically-based motivational attachment system between dependent child and caregiver is asymmetrical. In the presence of external threat or internal discomfort, the dependent child seeks the attachment figure in whom the reciprocal biologically-based motivational system is activated: the caregiver.

This reciprocal system is organized to provide protection, comfort, and soothing to the child in need of care. The security of attachment and the relational aspect of arousal regulation are based on the reliability and sensitivity of the caregiver’s responsiveness to the dependent child.

Our early attachment strategies as well as characteristic ways of managing arousal are activated in romantic relationships more powerfully than in any other adult relationship. Different from the child-parent paradigmatic asymmetrical attachment relationship, partners in committed relationships are often both seeking and feeling in need of care from the other at the same time.   

When Secure Functioning Meets Injury

Partners enter into marriage or committed relationship with the hope that the other will meet their needs. In secure-functioning relationships, each partner develops the capacity to care for the other, becomes an expert on the partner, knowing vulnerabilities and strengths, guarding stories and secrets, being present for triumphs and failures. 

Each improves at managing the partner’s state, reading  moods, knowing how to engage, comfort, play, seduce, and share. The comfort and safety that result from being empathically seen, sensitively responded to, engaged, joined, and supported moves couples toward secure functioning.

However, in instances of mutual injury, attachment needs are activated. Each partner yearns for the other to comfort, soothe, repair.  Couples want to – and do – buy into the idea that their partner is in their care, but maintaining that stance is especially daunting when interactions are mutually injurious.

You are looking to me for repair, but you are dangerous to me. You have hurt me, and I need protection and soothing.

When in conflict, each partner feels the other should respond to their wishes; at times of mutual injury, each feels the other should lead in repair.

Even for those with personalities organized around caring, when the injuries are profound, their attachment needs activate. They look to the other for care.

Arguing PACT-Style

Sometimes, as each partner works to develop a caregiving response, tender spots, old vulnerabilities, and experiences of insensitive, intrusion, and disappointment can reactivate attachment needs. In these complex situations, partners find themselves at an impasse, each expecting care that they feel unable or unwilling to provide.

Several aspects of PACT work are of particular value in these impasses.

1. PACT’s bottom-up approach. Different from other couples therapy approaches, we value seeing the couple engaged in their conflict. Witnessing the arguments in our office gives us an opportunity to intervene in their experience of mutual injury.

The fight can provide an opportunity for therapeutic enactment, helping the couple move beyond the regressive pull of the injury. We direct the couple to act in ways that consolidate, organize, and move away from hardening positions:

I know this is hard for you to do now, but can you tell her that, if she can soften her voice, you can let her know you regret hurting her?

Tell him what you want right now. No more than 10 words.

As we direct the postures and behaviors of connection and care, we create a connection to the caregiving system. Movement becomes an antidote to the whirlpool of who is more deserving of apology and repair.

2. The narrative of the two-person psychology. Mutuality and mutual care provide both underpinnings for couples to shift the other’s state and backdrop for confronting down the middle:

You are both falling down on the job, choosing to wait rather than take care of your partner. Either one of you can change this right now if you choose.  

You are both abdicating your responsibility to care for your partner in distress. I know each of you is hurting, but so is your partner.

What can you do now to relieve the pain of this moment?

You need the same thing at the same time. If you move first, you won’t get cared for first. If you wait, you leave your partner in distress. How will you get out of this dilemma?

You are choosing to wait passively [or, to escalate] rather than ask for what you want [or, rather than put your partner first]. I don’t think this is in either of your interests.

3. Cross-interventions. PACT cross-commenting, cross-interpreting, cross-questioning interventions facilitate movement. They build empathy. Injury becomes less personal:

You know her history with her father. What might she be experiencing right now? How might she be seeing you?

I know you felt hurt that she did not respond to your approach, but you remember how easily she feels intruded on.

Remember what he said about how injury was treated in his family? No one ever apologized. He has to develop a template for repair.

4. Attunement If partners are competent parents, capable of attuned responsiveness, ask what they might do if 7-year-old Jonah were acutely disappointed or 10-year-old Sara felt badly hurt and withdrew.

Responses can create a connection to caregiving as well as responsibility for the relationship, which may facilitate movement in one or both partners.

5. Corralling questions.

  • Does your relationship come first?
  • Do you see yourself as responsible for your partner’s well-being?
  • Do you have an obligation to relieve your partner’s distress?

Corralling questions can lead to developing agreements on how to handle difficult moments – triage, taking turns, whoever brings it up first goes first.

The cumulative practice of repair, even in the face of own’s own pain and untended injury, builds muscle. Couples report that the in-session experience of stepping up eases their resistance at home. The PACT approach allows couples to build a repertoire of behaviors that can serve them in these most challenging of moments.


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