“Starting a new year sucks,” Rod says at the beginning of their first couples therapy session of the new year. I feel I need to make ‘resolutions’ about being a better person. As if I were a bad person in the previous year. Or, well, like I’m not ‘enough’ somehow.”
“You are ‘enough’ in so many ways,” Rema says as she leans toward her partner. She takes his hand in reassurance, as she’d learned to do during their sessions. “We decided to continue in therapy to fine-tune.” Her eyes hold his in a steady gaze, as they sit face-to-face in PACT (Psychobiologic Approach to Couples Therapy) tradition. “Ya know, I start to worry,” Rema licks her lip, searching for the right words, “when you do that black-and-white, all-or-nothing thing. I see it as a boot at your back that shoves you into that black hole that you complain about…” Her eyes search his for recognition. She holds her breath. She waits.
I wait too. I note to myself that Rema is practicing an important PACT principle of mutual regulation—learning how to recognize and hold her partner’s feelings, especially his anxiety. And she is using her eyes to try to regulate Rod’s emerging depressive feelings. She’s seen him slide into depression—that black hole—so many times. Getting angry at him didn’t help him. Feeling helpless didn’t help her. He’d get depressed. She’d bid for his attention. He’d withdraw, and ignore her. She’d end up yelling. Then he’d get mad too, and yell louder. Both ended up like howling-in-pain dogs.
The cycle exhausted them both. But learning to recognize this cycle, and label it to one another, allowed them to put it out into the mutual space between them so they could work on it together. Together: the operative word. They were working as a team—a main PACT principle. It was still new for them. Still rusty. But I can see how hard Rema is trying to work this new process.
“Yeah, yeah…” Rod’s eyes veer sideways. “I can feel the slide into that black hole…I hear my critical voice…Oh, Mother Dear (his eyes roll up as if nodding to her in heaven) but…like last night…my New Year’s resolution was to stop yelling at Johnny—”
“—but he deserved it,” Rema interjects, both her words and her eyes pulling him back to her. “He was yanking the dog’s tail!—and that could’ve ended so badly.”
She pauses.” You certainly got Johnny’s attention!” They both laugh. Then they chat about the pleasures and the pains of simultaneously teaching their toddler and their puppy how to get along together.
“That was good,” I say. “What did you both do?” They look at me. Then at each other. And laugh again. They’re learning to bond together in a commonly shared space between them—a growing intimacy.
I’m about to say it’s important to recognize our parent’s voice, that critical and judgmental one (e.g. Rod’s mom.) We all carry some version of that voice as our Superego—that ‘bad person’ mantra Rod calls himself. That voice differs from our forward leanings into our best self, what Freud called our Ego-Ideal. But I stop myself. My professor self can get too much into content. I remind myself that PACT is about process, what’s happening right in front of us. So, we rewind and review how Rod could have easily slid away from Rema, away from being present in the moment, and into his personal purgatory, that familiar black hole of being a ‘bad person.’ They were practicing looking at one another without words. Really seeing one another, so they could both now feel heard. Now feel more intimate.
“Yeah. Rema is very supportive. She knows me. She accepts me—well, better and better. She’s learned to warn me about my slide into dark places.” Rod leans forward and kisses Rema on her cheek. “And I love her for it. “
“Yes, she did her part. You did yours. She bid. You listened. And responded.“ I underline their teamwork. “What helped you just now?”
Rod pauses. “M-m-m-m…She kept grabbing my eyes with hers.”
“Yeah, come to think of it,” Rema says, “we’ve been practicing the Mutual Gaze exercise—well, when it occurs to us—and it really helps me feel that Rod sees and hears me. I no longer feel ignored. And Rod is not so resistant to my looking at him anymore. And looking back.” Rema pauses. Licks her lips again. “It feels good. It’s like you found me! And then I wanna jump your bones!” They both giggle.
“Yeah,” Rod says. “I feel found too. I feel loved when you hear me with your eyes.”