Power Couples TherapyAn Overview for Mental Health Professionals
What is Power Couples Therapy?
Gabrielle Usatynski, MA LPC developed Power Couples Therapy (PCT) after more than a dozen years treating couples, children and families in private practice. Moved by the pain and suffering she witnessed, she formulated a comprehensive approach to treatment based on the latest research and what she observed making the biggest difference in a clinical setting.
Gabrielle recognized the need to spread this knowledge around the globe. She founded Power Couples Education to provide education to the general public about how to build healthy relationships, as well as rigorous clinical training in Power Couples Therapy to psychotherapists around the world.
- First is its sophisticated assessment and understanding of the nature of the couple’s relationship problems.
- Second is its application of targeted tools and techniques that bring about rapid relationship change.
The couple often experiences positive transformation in their relationship right from the very first session. Because PCT is grounded in the science of what makes relationships thrive over time, the therapy also gives couples hope for the future of their relationship.
Power Couples Therapists understand that a healthy world begins with healthy relationships.
The Three Building Blocks of Power Couples Therapy
Power Couples Therapy represents a combination of three building blocks of knowledge:
- Affective Neuroscience
- Attachment Theory
- Emotional Regulation
Building Block #1: Affective Neuroscience
PCT is based on the groundbreaking research of neuroscientist, Dr. Jaak Panksepp and the field he developed called Affective Neuroscience. In a nutshell, Dr. Panksepp revealed that there are seven ancient circuits or action systems deep in the center of the human brain (Panksepp, 1998).
These are the brain’s command centers that drive couples’ behavior in relationship. These action systems evolved over millions of years and are the basis of the deep biological intelligence of the human brain. When these command centers are out of balance, they create conflict and couples feel disconnected. Bringing these action systems into balance is the key to harmony and growth.
The seven action systems correspond to seven core emotions.
The Seven Core Action Systems of The Human Brain
- SEEKING: Our species evolved in a natural environment SEEKING out resources to keep us alive. SEEKING each other out is a hallmark of satisfying, enduring relationships. The famous marriage researcher, Dr. John Gottman has termed this behavior in intimate relationships, “turning toward versus turning away” (Driver & Gottman, 2004). Yet today’s couples are bombarded by digital stimulation which hijacks their SEEKING systems. Couples spend far more time on their phones than in each other’s eyes, leading to distance and marital dissatisfaction. Imbalances in SEEKING can lead to addiction and depressive disorders.
- RAGE: Connected to the fight pathway of the fight-and-flight system, this action system gets triggered by physiological states related to social isolation and anger. Disconnected couples who are critical, contemptuous, and defensive with each other activate each other’s RAGE systems. Prolonged RAGE system activation damages all of the major organ systems of the body and destroys relationships.
- FEAR: In the wild, FEAR is designed to protect us from danger and ensure our survival. But when FEAR predominates in intimate relationships, it triggers the sustained arousal of the sympathetic nervous system, in turn suppressing the immune system. Scary and dangerous behaviors in relationships create FEAR in partners. Negative memories of these interactions linger in the mind, producing just as much damage as the original experiences.
- LUST: Sexual arousal is part of what initially brings couples together. It’s what ensures that mammals reproduce and the species continues. Just like the other action systems, the LUST system can get out of balance, causing a myriad of problems for couples. Imbalances in the PANIC/GRIEF and CARE systems can either hyper-activate or deactivate LUST, leading to sexual dissatisfaction, boredom and looking outside of the relationship for sex.
- CARE: Loving CARE is essential to the well-being of all mammals. For couples, CARE is the central action system that makes relationships work. A lack of loving CARE contributes to the hyper-activation of the FEAR, RAGE and PANIC/GRIEF systems. Failure to nurture the strength and warmth of the bond between partners is a central cause of relationship distress, health problems, and breakups.
- PANIC/GRIEF: Mammals are exquisitely sensitive to disturbances in their primary social bonds. We experience intense separation anxiety when these bonds are threatened. When partners do not feel connected to and protected by one another, it leads to an experience of PANIC. If the need for connection is not responded to, it leads to long-term, treatment-resistant depression, or GRIEF. Clinicians can often overlook the central role of the PANIC/GRIEF system in a variety of mental health problems in general and marital problems in particular. PCT provides a unique window into understanding the foundational role of the PANIC/GRIEF system to relational
- PLAY: The most remarkable discovery of Panksepp is that all mammals possess an entire brain circuit devoted exclusively to PLAY. Hardly frivolous, PLAY is central to our ability to regulate our emotions, learn new things and strengthen our relationships with those we love. Couples who don’t PLAY together experience less pleasure, connection and knowledge of one another.
Power Couples Therapy maintains that when couples work together to harmonize their action systems, it leads to satisfying, enduring relationships. The majority of the action systems (PANIC/GRIEF, CARE, PLAY and LUST) are completely embedded in our social interactions with others.
What makes Power Couples Therapy unique is its understanding of how imbalances in the action systems produce destructive relationship behaviors and how these behaviors can be modified to create positive change for both the couple and the individual partners.
Building Block #2: Attachment Theory
Bringing the action systems into balance can’t be done without a sophisticated understanding of each partner’s early childhood relationship history. The action systems are conditioned by our early life experiences in relationship to our primary caregivers.
This is where PCT draws on the extensive research and insights of attachment theory.
Action systems are capable of learning. In their family of origin, children learn which action systems to activate and which to deactivate in order to secure the greatest sense of connection to their parents. Children learn what is okay – and not okay – to SEEK, FEAR and RAGE about. PCT deeply examines this attachment learning to understand each partner’s unique action system pattern and how it is creating problems in their relationship now.
For instance, when a child is overpowered or physically abused, they learn to suppress their own natural RAGE system and submit.
In other situations, a child may have had to CARE for a depressed parent, thus hyper-activating the child’s CARE system in a way that was developmentally inappropriate.
Attachment theory provides a lens to understand the couple’s respective attachments styles: These are the predictable patterns of behavior that partners developed in childhood in an attempt to maximize the availability and responsivity of their primary caregivers.
The real breakthrough of PCT is discerning how specific attachment styles impact the level of activation of each of the action systems. This precise understanding leads to a unique treatment plan custom-tailored to each individual couple.
Building Block #3: Emotional Regulation
The two building blocks of affective neuroscience and attachment theory provide a powerful foundation for the therapist training in PCT. But this training would not be complete without a deep understanding of emotional regulation.
We all have ways of managing our energy throughout the day and according to the needs of the moment. Our nervous systems go through ups and downs: We feel extremely activated when we’re working out at the gym and very relaxed while watching a movie.
Contrary to conventional understanding, the root of couples’ problems is not about which school to send their kids to, or who does more chores, but differences in how they manage their energy and their ability to keep the energy in their relationship within a bandwidth that allows both of them to function comfortably with each other.
PCT uses the knowledge of the nervous system regulation to teach couples how to sync up their energy, especially during conflict. Couples learn how to work together to prevent dysregulation: Getting too high or too low.
Interventions are designed to help couples recognize the signs that each partner’s action systems are out of balance and how to keep the energy of their system in balance. PCT uses this unique knowledge of the nervous system to help the therapist structure everything from session duration to interventions strategies to longterm treatment plans.
The application of an action systems lens to couples therapy represents a quantum leap forward in the field.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, couples therapy has been heavily influenced by attachment theory. Power Couples Therapy rounds out this focus on the attachment or PANIC/GRIEF system by including all of the other action systems, thereby shining a light on many relationship issues that have been sorely under-addressed in the field.
These including LUST and issues pertaining to sexuality in long-term committed intimate relationships, as well as PLAY, which has unfortunately gone completely unrecognized as a fundamental human emotion.
The question of whether emotional safety in relationships is somehow at odds with adventure,
danger, novelty and all of the things that make relationships exciting has been hotly debated for a
some time. The inclusion of the SEEKING system allows for an understanding of how to use this
vital brain circuit to invigorate long-term committed relationships and keep them interesting.
An action systems lens also takes the shame out of couples therapy, normalizing the problems
couples have by viewing them as expressions of over- or under-activation of basic human
systems that are fundamentally oriented toward leading a fully-realized life.
The 5 Goals of PCT
- To develop a strong CARE system for the couple’s relationship
- To completely diffuse FEAR, RAGE and PANIC/GRIEF between partners
- To become each other’s PLAYmates
- To SEEK and discover one another
- To keep LUST alive