Tori Olds, a therapist at Deep Eddy Psychotherapy in Austin, TX, explains what couples therapy using attachment theory can look like in practice.
Understanding How Your Partner’s Brain Works in Couples Therapy
Attachment Theory informs Couples Therapy because one of the keys to having a successful partnership is really understanding how your partner’s brain works. What makes them tick? Why do they do what they do? We actually don’t typically really know why we do what we do. So, when we try to explain our reactions when we get in these conversations, often we are sort of missing the mark.
This is How They Got Wired Based on Their Experiences
If we have some frameworks that we can fit into like Attachment Theory to really explore who we are and who our partner is, it can help. And not just with increasing compassion for the partner, but realizing, “Ok, they’re not doing this to bug or try to hurt me, this is how they got wired based on their experiences.” In couples therapy, really understanding where our partner’s behavior stems from can help. It can guide what we do depending on who our partner is.
Are You An Island or a Wave?
For attachment specifically, I’ve spoken about how you can be this island (to use Stan Tatkin’s term) who is more likely to be comfortable with loneliness, and want to be independent; or this wave who is more comfortable with connection. One classic way of determining whether you’re more of an island or a wave is this:
For islands the experience of having someone approach them is what creates the stress because they are good when they’re alone, they can do a lot of self-soothing, which they may have had to do as a child because of neglect. They’re used to taking care of themselves and they know how to do that, that’s their rhythm. Because of that, when someone comes in and tries to soothe them, it can feel jarring and not as comfortable.
However, for a wave having someone go away is very stressful and it activates them. Often, I see couples in which one’s an island and one’s a wave and that’s really interesting issue to work with. For instance, if you know your partner’s a wave, that closeness is what’s gonna settle them, it’s really an important thing to know. Sometimes for waves, if they’re angry because you’re not there, they can look like they’re trying to push you away because they’re angry at the disconnect. They may react, “Oh, go away!” Just yelling or shouting, even pulling away. But if you know them, then you know their system doesn’t do well with distance, so it’s gotten get out of wack. The only medicine for that, for a wave, is going to be closeness.
It can be counter-intuitive because a wave can look like they’re mad, but what I’ll teach my island partners to do—and it’s counter-intuitive to them because an island would want distance—is to step in, through the turbulent water, and go straight toward their partner and give him a hug, and say “I’m here for you and I’m not leaving,” B-lining to them and just holding them close. It’s actually incredibly counter-intuitive in these moments, but if you know who your partner is and their attachment history and why they are who they are, then it gives you some tools and empowerment for how to help them come back to their pleasant, relatable, nice self.
As someone is learning to interact with their partner in that way, what type of exercises or practices would you do in your therapy office that someone could then take out into the real world?
Psychobiological Approach to Couples Theory is Very Experiential
The couples therapy I do, which is called PACT (Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy), is very experiential. We do a lot of role play exercises, just experiences to bring this to life. So, take the example above. I might have the woman stand up and I’ll say, “Show me what it looks like when you‘re getting angry,” and have them act that out a little bit. I’m watching for how the other partner, male or female, responds to that really suddenly in their bodies. You can just watch and see, “Oh, look!” And we pause it right there and we’ll break it down, “What’s happening in that moment, are you wanting to pull away? What happens, what are you tracking in their face?”
Couples Therapy is Practicing Reading Your Partner Properly
In this practice, we’re breaking it down very concretely. We’ll say, “What look let you know she was about to pull away?” It’s practice to see if the couple is reading each other accurately. Sometimes, I’ll just say, “Okay,” and I’ll push them together, even get my hand on their back and say, “Come in for the hug,” and the couple will resist, “Uh…” because for them it’s just doing something different. Then, they’ll hold the person and you can see that the person relaxes, like, “Oh, I didn’t know they were gonna do that. My partner looks like they don’t want anything to do with me, but when I just give them a hug they immediately started giggling.”
Having a New Type of Interaction That’s Experiential
The point of these kinds of practices in couples therapy is to really have a new type of interaction that’s experiential. That’s why I really love working with couples in this way. Previously, couples work was very heady, conversational like. It was just communication training, “How do you make an I-statement?” And things like that. Which is fine work, but when we are really triggered, when we are in our fight-or-flight mode, it’s not a rational self. All that technique stuff goes out the window; our ability to sit and have a rational, “Let’s just talk about it,” conversation goes out the window.
Couples Therapy is About Engaging in a Healthy Conversation
That’s why sometimes we need things that are a little bit more immediate, like how to come close, how to get someone’s eyes, how to touch, how to do things that calm both people’s nervous systems. By teaching experientially, couples are able to get to a place in the heat of the moment, that allows them to engage in a healthy conversation.
Starting Couples Therapy in Austin, TX
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