With Love from Big Sur: Building the Couple Bubble
Jason Brand, LCSW
PACT Level 2 Therapist, PACT Ambassador
On a rainy Sunday afternoon in May, we wrapped up the Wired for Love Couples Retreat at Esalen in Big Sur, California. I assisted Stan Tatkin and Tracey Boldemann-Tatkin with 30 couples who came to find out how PACT can strengthen their relationship. This scenario illustrates how couples learn to shift their focus from self-protecting to strengthening their couple bubble. The couple bubble is a mutually constructed and maintained eco-system that provides protection from an often challenging outside world.
Friday Evening: Shelter from the Storm
After taking the winding turns of Highway 1 that opened onto the expanse of the Pacific Ocean, Annie and Sam put down their bags and went to Esalen’s natural hot springs. This was their first couples retreat and, on the drive, both admitted to being more than a little nervous. The baths relaxed their bodies. Their minds still raced with the stresses at home and work.
Once Annie and Sam entered the retreat room, it didn’t take long for a familiar pattern to emerge over a little thing with a long history. Annie did not like the seats Sam had chosen. They were going to be too far away to take part in the eventual action at the front of the room. She could have said something, but she worried Sam would accuse her “of turning everything into a big deal.” She settled into her seat, feeling resentful. Again.
Sam was trying to take care of Annie. She had often told him she wished he could be more assertive, so he took the lead and chose their seats. He even set down extra cushions, but Sam felt his usual shyness, a sense of letting Annie down, a lack of understanding how to make any of it better.
This silent bickering had been an annoying buzz in the background of their lives. Now that the PACT team was asking couples to slow down and hold each other’s gaze, they noticed the buzz was undeniably louder than either cared to admit.
The close proximity of the eye-gazing exercises on Friday night helped Annie and Sam see that if they were to going to make the world inside their couple bubble a safer place, they had to create a shared vision of how they would engage with the world. Their bubble had to allow Annie the stimulation to feel engaged and Sam the space to feel safe.
Saturday: Some Pain, Big Gain
As the details of the PACT model unfolded, Sam felt a comforting structure take shape. Sam liked structure, especially one that brought relief to arguments that never moved forward. Annie could sense Sam’s analytical mind engage with the information and loved how this allowed him to be more present in the exercises. It gave her hope that they could end the cycle of Sam needing to withdraw and her feeling like she was stuck with all the feelings.
Annie felt emboldened. They had both enjoyed talking to other couples over breakfast and engaging in the morning session. By lunch, things hit a snag. When Sam steered them to a quiet corner table, Annie followed but did not let it slide. She led with a compromise she knew Sam would reject. “We can sit here, but then we have to volunteer to do an exercise in front of the group this afternoon.”
Sam disagreed with a polarizing statement. “You just don’t get it. Sitting at a table for lunch is nothing like opening up our lives to a group of strangers.”
The next thing they knew, their argument began touching on their different approaches to parenting, sex, and money. They retreated to separate corners. The hope they felt that morning was slipping from their grasp.
While this did not feel good, they both noticed changes. The distress on the other person’s face registered with a new clarity. The hurt felt less like it belonged to one person and more like it hurt them as a couple. They both wanted to let go of the power struggle so they could return to how they felt minutes earlier.
The workshop leaders had talked that morning about the importance of quick repair. This was on Annie’s mind as lunch wound down. She did something she never would have thought to do before the retreat. She suggested they take a quiet walk to settle their nervous systems.
In speaking Sam’s language, she saw his face relax, the sparkle return to his eyes. On their way outside, Sam countered with his own bid by pulling Annie’s hand toward a couple from breakfast, suggesting they have dinner together. Annie could not help smiling.
Over lunch, Annie and Sam took the leap of faith they needed. Finding the couple bubble in times of distress requires risk; both partners willing to let go of deeply-held individual ways of seeing the world in order to see their partner’s perspective. In offering to walk, Annie showed Sam her willingness to look for value in a quiet approach. In reaching out to the other couple, Sam showed Annie his willingness to experiment with the limits of his internal comfort zone. From this shared place of greater vulnerability, they could open new possibilities as individuals and a couple.
Sunday: Taking It Home
The highlight on Sunday for Annie and Sam was how they cried together during an exercise, imagining their future. Each had shed tears of joy and frustration over the years, but crying together was something they had not done since the birth of their children. As they saw the tears in the other’s eyes and imagined what they would be like in 5, 10, 15 years, they felt the sweetness of all they had been through and the strength to face all that lay ahead.
As the weekend came to a close, Annie and Sam exchanged email addresses with new friends and gave the workshop leaders big hugs. They also agreed before they got into the car to flag anything that felt difficult and pull over to talk. That didn’t take long.
Sam remembered they had invited friends over that night and was excited to tell them about the retreat. Annie had forgotten the plan and was looking forward to a quiet evening. After pulling over so they could be fully attentive to each other, they argued for a moment and then laughed at their shifts in perspective. They agreed to ask their friends to leave early. Sam and Annie came home and greeted their kids with a new swagger. They looked and felt great, proud of themselves and their hard-earned sense of closeness.
One of my favorite parts about assisting at PACT retreats is noticing the way couples move toward each other as the weekend progresses. I see it in the focus of their eyes. They arrive with an external and self focus and, by the end of the retreat, they move toward a focus on the couple.
Of course, one retreat is not a cure-all for the challenges in a deeply committed relationship. Couples like Annie and Sam continue to have their struggles. What they experience at the Wired for Love Retreat is the practice of shifting the focus toward the couple. My hope is that they continue to build a sense of excitement and comfort from within their couple bubble.