Back to School with the 3Rs
As PACT-trained therapists, it is perplexing when we find ourselves working with a couple who are not moving into secure functioning. There are a number of factors to consider: Is there a deal breaker that hasn’t been addressed? Are both partners truly committed? Are resources outside the therapy office allocated to restructuring the relationship?
As we work to move couples from a one-person psychological system into a two-person system, we are facilitating the development of skills. Learning to have relaxed and mutually satisfying conversations requires skill. However, when partners demonstrate curiosity and interest in their partner, they are taking an essential step forward. Their time and attention are a precious resource and are too often in short supply.
The changes we are endorsing require clear messaging, repetition, and lots of support. The job of a PACT therapist is to help couples gain clarity and understand that creating new neural pathways in the brain requires practice. This is the reality. The reflexive systems are deeply rooted, and it is unrealistic to believe we can create a new system without time, attention, and practice.
In the same way a coach gives his or her athlete a training plan, I encourage couples to practice outside the therapy session. Recently, I worked with a couple who are making forward strides. However, I observed a missed opportunity at our last meeting. More specifically, there wasn’t a clear structure in place for them to reflect and review the changes that were indeed taking place. The following dialogue took place:
Carmen: “Did you notice how I handled things differently this week? “
Liam: “I’m not sure what you are referring to. Are you talking about the conversation on our porch with my friend Tim? “
Carmen: “Yes. That is what I’m talking about. “
Liam: “Well, I know I handled things differently!”
This couple was consciously considering the way they do business with each other, but I observed that as time elapsed, their memory of the event became a bit unclear in terms of detail and sequence. While positive steps in a secure direction were being taken, not sharing these experiences was a lost opportunity. So I had them do the following exercise, which is designed to gather evidence of progress.
Exercise: REVEAL, RECOGNIZE, REINFORCE
Instructions for therapist: Have couple sit face to face. Encourage both partners to keep their messages friendly and succinct.
Step 1: REVEAL:
Partner A: Take a moment to reflect on your recent interactions or experiences with your partner. Identify a behavior aligned with your secure-functioning goals. Examples include but are not limited to distress relief, quick repair, contact maintenance, or management of thirds. Reveal the behavior to your partner.
Step 2: RECOGNIZE:
Partner B responds to Partner A by acknowledging this positive step.
Step 3: REINFORCE:
Discuss together how this change is positive for the relationship. This is a moment to feel good together. Switch and repeat the steps with Partner B moving to Step #1.
When Carmen and Liam used this exercise in our session, the following dialogue occurred.
Carmen: “Remember when Tim was visiting? Well, I did what I usually do. I became sarcastic and made a joke at your expense. Tim noticed. I’m sure you did. But that’s not the change!”
Liam: “What did you do differently?”
Carmen: [REVEAL] “I came up to you before bed, looked into your eyes, and said I was sorry for it. It’s not okay for me to do that anymore.”
Liam: [RECOGNIZE] “I do remember you coming up to me and apologizing. I appreciated it. Thank you, and it matters to me that you are paying attention.”
Carmen: [REINFORCE] “I want to repair things quickly the way I did that night. That’s so much better for us. I also want to quit being snarky with you. I know these changes are good for us.”
Liam: “I agree. This feels so much better than the old ways. Now can I tell you my change? [REVEAL] I was bothered by your joke, especially in front of Tim. I made a conscious decision in that moment that I wanted to change how I handled it. You know, I withdraw from you when this kind of thing happens. I decided that has to stop. I decided I was going to let this go and not punish you with my silence. If I was feeling upset the next morning, I promised myself to talk to you about it.”
Carmen: [RECOGNIZE] [smiles] “Thank you. I have suffered a lot when you pull away from me. I know that is a big change for you.”
Liam: [REINFORCE] “A big change. And a good one.”
Carmen: [REINFORCE] “This feels like a big deal. We are on a better path.”
What does this exercise accomplish? Having the couple face one another while mutually amplifying the positive enables coregulation. Learning to uphold Grice’s maxims for the quality, quantity, relevance, and manner of the message fosters secure functioning. Additionally, focusing couples on true behavioral changes makes the implicit fully explicit. This exercise encourages increased interdependence, with a focus on both self and other. Finally, with the focus on positive change, the exercise can bring much needed vitality to a couple as they make sustainable change.