By Debra Campbell, MS, LMFT
PACT Ambassador, Level 3
When a couple comes to our office, they bring a dynamic in the relationship that pains them. Neither partner sees the issue in the same way, and they don’t know how to solve it. Often, they’ve argued about it repeatedly. Talking about it just starts the argument again.
The rate at which the disagreement escalates is an indicator of how many times they’ve argued the same issue. We know they’re not dealing with anything new because the brain deals with novelty much more slowly than something we have habituated. How, as therapists, can we help the couple slow down and experience something new?
In PACT Couples Therapy, we use proximity, micro-expression, and body language to achieve more constructive outcomes that have a lasting effect outside of session. Here’s a familiar scenario:
Last fall, Rebecca and Bob were running late to their therapy session. They had struck a patch of bad weather, both literally and figuratively. These well-educated professionals have been married for about a year. By the time they arrive, Rebecca is in tears. Bob is red in the face.
I can cut the tension between them with a knife as we walk down the hall to my office. They each sit in a rolling chair. Bob crosses his arms and pushes away. Rebecca looks at me, grits her jaw, and fights tears. She declares, “This Kavanaugh trial is going to destroy our marriage!”
The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing had stirred up some old hurts as well as a historical style of arguing for them. My job is to slow them down so they can experience the argument differently. By doing this, they build new beliefs and gain skills that they can immediately implement outside the office to create safety in the relationship.
Prior to learning PACT, this situation would have been stressful as the therapist. Couples often come to session wanting the therapist to play referee or give solutions. With PACT, the direction is clear – they’re in each other’s care.
I instruct them to face each other, adjust their rolling chairs to eye level, and scoot into each other. They reluctantly agree and slowly move toward each other. Knee to knee, they’re two to three feet away from each other’s face. At this distance, the visual system has the highest acuity for every minute detail and movement on each other’s face.
Suddenly, the couple attunes to the present. Now we are dealing in real time with what is actually happening between them, not historical data or a pre-rehearsed argument. They are able to incorporate new information. When the micro-expression of their partner matches what is being said, a new reality sets in. The couple falls in love in each other’s eyes.
Couples misread each other. Instead, they tend to see what they have experienced in past relationships, generally with their family of origin. This contributes to overall misunderstandings and myths in the relationship. Rebecca and Bob are face to face, eye to eye, as I ask the following questions and check that they accurately read each other’s facial expressions:
Me: What do you seen on her face?
Bob: She is sad, but it is a manipulation. She always gets upset if I disagree with her. [He sighs.]
Me: Is he right?
Rebecca: I’m sad, but it isn’t because he disagrees with me, it’s because I was date raped in college and the trial has been very difficult to watch. Obviously, Kavanaugh is guilty, but he will likely get approved anyway because it is so hard to prove what happened, just like what happened to me in college. [more tears]
Me: What do you see on his face?
Rebecca: He looked angry, but less so now…something else, I can’t place it.
Me: Is she right?
Bob: Yes and no… I was angry before, but now I’m more hurt. I know that happened to her and I feel terrible about it. I would kill that guy if I ran into him. At the same time, I feel scared for all men if the judicial system can find someone guilty without proof. I want to protect her and myself at the same time but it seems impossible…
Me: Do you believe him?
Rebecca: [slowly] Usually not, but right now, yes.
Me: Where do you see it?
Rebecca: In his eyes. I can see he is scared but also that he cares about me. His shoulders are more relaxed, too. His arms aren’t crossed.
Couples often make the mistake of communicating without looking at each other – especially when things start to go sideways. The lack of facial cuing contributes to their misunderstandings.
Me: Do you guys usually have these conversations face to face?
Bob and Rebecca: [Both shake heads, indicating no.]
Rebecca: This argument just went down in the car.
Bob: We talk about this kind of stuff side by side while watching the news . . .
Rebecca: . . . or cleaning the house or cooking in the kitchen. . .
I suspect that they are misreading each other based upon their experiences from their families of origin. I want to expose that by testing their expertise on each other’s history.
Me: Did Bob have manipulative parents?
Rebecca: His father and mother are so manipulative to this day. I can completely understand why that would bother him, if he thought I were manipulating.
Me: Is she right?
Bob: Yes, my parents are manipulative. My relationship with them is strained.
Me: Does Rebecca manipulate you?
Bob: No . . . she really doesn’t. [His face relaxes.] She protects me.
Me: Did her parents protect her growing up?
Bob: Financially, they took care of her. She always had what she needed . . . went to a private school, etc.
Me: What about emotionally?
Bob: Well . . . no, I guess not. Her family doesn’t talk about personal stuff at all. I can understand how she might want that from me. I told you, honey, I would kill the guy who raped you if I could.
Rebecca leaves her chair to sit on Bob’s lap, curls into him, and cries as he holds her and rubs her back. When the crying calms, she resumes her seat. A spark renews in their eyes and a tangible feeling of connection.
Physical touch generally calms the nervous system faster and better than any other method of soothing. When couples can rely on each other for soothing, they become each other’s safe place. Couples that function securely can calm each other down using eye contact, proximity, tone of voice, body language, and physical touch. They act as an emotional resource to each other, a soft landing. Instead of relying on themselves to calm down or someone outside the partnership to soothe them, they rely upon each other. This interactive regulation is generally very healing when they have not received such emotional support in their families of origin.
PACT therapists assess a couple’s ability to accurately read each other’s facial expressions and body language. We do this by going granular. We ask questions about what their partner is feeling, where they see it, and checking with the partner to make sure they got it right. This is often where we expose new data:
Instinctually, as therapists, we are trained to reflect whatever we see back to our clients. However, reflecting back that they have clearly had this argument before and that this is not new material does little in and of itself to change the dynamic. By putting them face to face, eye to eye, going slowly, and checking, we force them to address the reality in front of them. This present focus attunes them to live, novel data that creates an immediate shift in their affect and understanding. The truth lies in their facial expression, body language, tone of voice, and timing.