Doing Couples Work With the ACT Matrix

By Benjamin Schoendorff, MA, MSc & Kathryn Palmer, M.Ed., RP, C.C.C.

Couples work can be hard, however it can also be exceptionally rewarding.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) helps people relate to their internal experiences and behaviours in a way that fosters valued action. For couples, ACT can help people understand what it means to be the loving partner they want to be.

Over the years, we have found that the ACT matrix can be a valuable tool for working with couples. The matrix can offer a new perspective on “stuck” situations and provides a simple framework for clinicians to redirect their clients back to their values.

See also: Moving Toward What's Important: An Intro to the ACT Matrix

We have developed an approach to ACT with couples that integrates aspects of Emotion-Focused Couples Therapy (EFCT) around the ACT matrix model. EFCT focuses on helping couples recognize their respective attachment styles and learn to reconnect and foster a more secure attachment for both partners.

When couples are in distress, it is often because they are unable to connect and feel securely attached to one another in the moments when they most need it– when the world feels uncertain or unsafe. In such highly evocative situations, how we relate to our thoughts and emotions can help or hinder our ability to reconnect with our partner and create a secure base from which to face life’s inevitable ups and downs.  

Here, we will discuss how we have integrated these two approaches, leading to a unique set of couples interventions where clients can learn to understand and relate to their suffering differently, all in service of the relationship and life they most want.

At the outset we present couples with a rationale based on attachment and connection needs and how our thoughts and feelings can hook us into behaving differently than the partners we want to be.

A peculiarity of couples work is that, when couples are in distress, what is at stake is rarely what couples will mention as the source of their problems. Though they might say that their problems stem from communication difficulties, disagreements over sex, children or stepchildren, or work-life balance, we believe

most couples’ difficulties stem from difficulties in connecting, especially in the presence of strong emotions or unhelpful thought patterns.

What is clear is that both partners can suffer greatly and neither feel like they are able to behave like the partner they would want to be if they had the relationship they most crave. Helping clients to understand and reflect on their attachment and connection needs can provide perspective on barriers to valued actions in the context of relationships.

Next, we introduce couples to the matrix by way of a couple's matrix. This helps both partners gain perspective on their experiences and stuckness as well as that of their partner, generating empathy for self and the other.

We guide couples in uncovering their “stuck loops for two.” These loops represent the cycles of conflict within a relationship and highlight how both partners get “hooked” in reaction to each other’s behaviors. Those stuck loops are presented as normal and a main target of treatment.

A common stuck loop for two is the pursue-withdraw dynamic in which one partner aggressively seeks connection and the other fearfully retreats. These patterns correspond to anxious and avoidant attachment styles.

Through a specially adapted hooks exercise, we help couples uncover the deeper vulnerabilities that lie behind the surface emotions they express when in conflict. Once uncovered, we guide couples in learning to reconnect around their vulnerabilities. For the partner stuck in a “pursuer” role, the deeper vulnerabilities often revolve around a fear of not being loved or being abandoned, and for the “withdrawer ” around the fear of being unlovable.

Once couples uncover these deeper vulnerabilities, we invite them to practice “verbal aikido for two,” an exercise that allows couples to sort their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in real time. The use of the matrix diagram and pointed questions can help partners gain perspective and allows for discussing the “hottest” issues in a safe and empathic way.

Throughout this couples work, we are mindful of partners’ in session behavior, in particular when it may be an instance of problematic behavior in their relationship. When such behavior shows up, as it inevitably will, we invite couples to practice reconnection skills in the moment.

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