Yearnings and Interpersonal Flexibility: How ACT Can Help in Couples Therapy

By Lou Lasprugato, MFT

Have you ever been hungry for a hearty, healthy source of protein, but instead, reached for a quick and easy bag of chips? Maybe your hunger is satisfied for a few minutes — before it comes back even stronger.

This abandonment of sustenance for short-term satisfaction shows up often in the context of intimate relationships and can drive many of the issues that bring couples into therapy. Though, instead of hunger, it’s deep-seated yearnings that drive us to behave in certain ways.

Steven C. Hayes, originator of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), formally introduced yearnings as part of the model in his 2019 book, A Liberated Mind. A yearning can be viewed as a deep and enduring longing, or psychological need, that functions as a motivating operation. In other words, it motivates someone to do something. 

And, just like when we’re hungry and need food, there are healthy, deeply satisfying ways to nourish these yearnings as well as “quick fixes” that can create problems in the long run. This is true for a single person who, for example, might try to fill their yearning for understanding with rigid stories about the world. It can also be true for people in intimate relationships.

We come into relationships with both individual and interpersonal yearnings that can compete for attention. 

Individual yearnings can include:

  • Competency (mastery or effectiveness)
  • Autonomy (or self-directed meaning) 
  • Coherence (sense-making)

These yearnings can sometimes clash with interpersonal yearnings, such as partnership, shared meaning, and mutual understanding.

Take for example a relationship where Partner A is yearning for a partnership of teamwork and shared responsibilities. So, when Partner B doesn’t contribute in a way that Partner A wants or expects them to, Partner A criticizes them. 

Partner B, on the other hand, yearns for competency and seeks to satisfy that yearning in the relationship. When they feel their contributions are criticized, they may devote more time and attention to their work where they might achieve a sense of mastery. This results in less energy going toward shared responsibilities, as well as a more discontented Partner A.

As another example, if one partner comes from a sociocultural background where self-directed meaning is especially valued whereas another comes from a background where shared meaning is valued, the former partner may have difficulty with, or even express opposition to, letting go of impassioned personal pursuits in favor of co-creating a meaningful life together. 

And in the absence of psychological flexibility skills to unhook from unhelpful stories while staying open to uncomfortable feelings that naturally arise in such circumstances, partners can remain stuck and at a loss as to how to overcome such difficulties.

There are also attachment-driven yearnings of security, connection, and validation, which provide much of the energy that fuels relationship-seeking-and-attending behaviors. 

We human primates deeply want to know, through experience and not just words, that our vulnerable bids for connection and support will be met with emotional sensitivity and responsiveness. 

A secure bond where both partners feel seen and loved for who they are is arguably at the heart of any healthy, fulfilling relationship. This bond can usually withstand the everyday challenges and occasional conflicts that show up in nearly all intimate relationships.

Yet, when that secure base is threatened by emotional distancing, stonewalling, contempt, abuse, betrayal, or abandonment, our threat response system activates and our behaviors primitively default to attack, defend, or withdraw

This narrowing of responses tends to evoke more of the same in our partners who understandably also feel compelled to attack, defend, or withdraw in an attempt to stave off threats to self or the relationship. 

Thus, a vicious cycle of escalating tension and/or disconnection ensues in the form of self-amplifying loops. 

Without psychological flexibility, partners may not be able to notice their own part in this dynamic. For example, they may try to hide their feelings of vulnerability, or be fused with harsh judgments or blame of their partner. This can make repair very difficult.

As the actualization of yearnings within the relationship becomes more effortful, draining, or hopeless, partners may turn to shortcuts or immediate fixes from sources outside the relationship, just like reaching for that bag of chips.

As therapists, our first step is usually to disrupt this self-amplifying loop by (re-)establishing a sense of safety within the couple’s relationship. 

Reconnection is unlikely to occur if both partners are constantly in threat detection mode and not feeling safe enough to be vulnerable with each other. We can start by significantly slowing down the here-and-now interactions occurring during therapy so that couples can observe patterns and their respective roles. Collaboratively, we can begin naming and normalizing the threat response cycle while examining what’s maintaining it and how it’s working with respect to their yearnings and relationship goals.

We can then functionally identify what’s being threatened for each of them in the cycle by asking, “What part of you or the relationship are you trying to protect when you do XYZ (attack, defend, or withdraw)?” Such questions can evoke curiosity and compassion, which may soften the dynamic between them.

Once a “safe-enough” context is established, we can turn toward helping couples contact the yearnings underneath the topography of relationship complaints and conflict. As we bring these yearnings out into the open, we can begin the process of channeling their energy into more workable patterns of interaction. 

One way of facilitating this pivot is to evoke valuing — that is, to help partners connect with the qualities of how they deeply want to treat each other. 

Values can provide direction for the otherwise unwieldy energy of yearnings by grounding one’s efforts in consciously chosen ways of behaving. In the example previously provided on partnership versus competency, a clinician working with such a couple could focus on cultivating and engaging the qualities of how partners want to treat each other — for example, respectfully, kindly, thoughtfully, etc. — as they work toward satisfying their respective interpersonal and individual yearnings.

Extending ACT’s psychological flexibility model into the interpersonal realm, there are other critical processes that we can aim to model, evoke, and reinforce in couples therapy. 

Cultivation and implementation of certain process-based skills can serve to build a bridge between partners that allows for a secure connection with more flexible responding to stressors — including when either or both partners feel their yearnings aren’t being met. 

Such skills include:

  • Bidirectional emotional openness, especially with respect to more vulnerable feelings that tend to pull for empathy
  • Defusion from unhelpful judgments, criticisms, and being “right”
  • Presence and attentive listening
  • Being aware of and sensitive to “us-as-context” as opposed to “me-versus-you”
  • Committing to values through small actionable steps that rework patterns of interaction

These interpersonal psychological flexibility skills can function to bring more nourishment and sustenance to intimate relationships through the mutual satisfaction of yearnings. 

Learning how to willingly make room for each other’s feelings and perspectives while attuning to yearnings and engaging in values-based actions, partners can begin to heal wounds and create the kind of relationship they deeply desire. 

This may begin with simply pausing to inquire about the effects that their behaviors have on each other and on the relationship as a whole (that is, us-as-context). When avoiding discomfort or fused with one’s own views, such context sensitivity is often lost. 

Though change may be slow, especially with ingrained patterns, we can better navigate challenges along the way by embodying these same psychological flexibility skills ourselves as therapists.

Want to use acceptance and commitment therapy in your work with couples? Join Lou Lasprugato for a 12 CE hour online course starting September 5, 2024! Over 6 live sessions, you’ll learn how to incorporate psychological and attachment-based yearnings into your practice so you can create safety and help clients approach their relationships with more flexibility.

Learn more and join InterACT with Couples

Please read full CE and conflict-of-interest disclosure information on the course enrollment page before registering.