Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at The Edge. Today my guest is Dr. Stan Tatkin. Stan is a psychotherapist, a researcher, and an author who integrates neuroscience and attachment theory into his research into couples therapy. He has a clinical practice in Calabasas, California, and is the developer of a psycho-biological approach to couples therapy, also known as PACT. With Sounds True, Stan has published the audio learning series, Your Brain on Love: The Neurobiology of Healthy Relationships.
In this episode of Insights at The Edge, Stan and I spoke about the role of the subconscious mind in how we relate to our partner especially during times of distress. We also talked about how to develop what Stan calls, “an owners manual for our partner.” Finally, we talked about what it means to truly put our relationship first. Here’s my conversation with Dr. Stan Tatkin.
There have been so many new discoveries in the area of brain science that are now informing so many different parts of our lives, and Stan, you’re looking at what we can learn from brain science in terms of love—in terms of healthy relationships. I’m wondering, to begin our conversation, if you can share with us what some of the key gleanings are from the world of brain science that apply to our life in relationship.
Stan Tatkin: Well, what’s interesting is that none of our brains—I think none of us have brains that do everything well. We have skills, talents, and deficits, and in the area of love, the brain areas that specialize in social, emotional interaction, or what Goldman called “emotional I.Q.” These are the parts of the brain, the area of the brain, that matter most in the area of love. This not only has to do with the ability to create excitement between two human brains, but also as important, if not more important, the ability to attenuate or foreshorten experiences that are negative—that are distressful. These areas of interaction are so important to love relationships that people who are really, really good in these areas tend to do better and people who are not so good tend to have problems.
TS: Now, Stan, there’s so much that I want to talk with you about actually, I feel like I’m bursting here. Let’s just start with clarifying one thing, because I am curious about this. Before we move on, what I really just want to know is, have we discovered things since we’ve been working with functional MRI’s and the ability to see what lights up in different parts of the brain? Have we really learned new things about how to treat our partner or is this is just a new way to talk about old adages we’ve always known?
ST: Both. I think both are true. I think understanding the brain gives us more to work with, more to understand. A lot of behaviors that have been described over the millennia of human behaviors have come under the areas of philosophy and psychology, including personality and such. But the idea that there’s something going on in our brain that is not so much about personality, but maybe about things that we are good at and things that we’re not so good at. Things that we can do and things that we can’t do very well. Those things we probably never could do very well. That is something that is considered as deficits.
When we think of personality or behavior or how people interact or how couples get along and how they treat one another, there are several ways to think of that behavior or that interaction. One, like I said, is philosophical. The other has to do with psychology. I would say that psychology has mostly engaged in what we would think of—higher cortical areas of cognition, reasoning, and planning. Higher cortical areas where talk therapy tends to engage thinking; thinking tends to engage memory. In that process of talk therapy interaction, there’s a getting to some kind of unconscious process that we didn’t have a handle on before. That’s one way of looking at things.
But as we understand the brain, the unconscious—as it’s been called in psychology—or non-conscious, really runs 95 percent of our day. When we think about how the brain operates—at least how we think about it today, because five or ten years from now, we may think differently—that there is a fast brain and a slow brain or an automatic brain and a brain that actually takes time and resources to reason, to think, to plan, and to error correct. We are mostly that automatic brain.
I would suggest that that automatic brain is more sub-psychological. It’s operating on a nervous system level of memory and that we operate mostly by memory. Our intuition is memory. Our gut feeling is memory. Almost everything we do, and especially in relationships, is automatic and is driven by memory. We are doing things most of the time never knowing why we’re doing them. That is because this automatic part of the brain doesn’t really inform us, we just do things based on what we have experienced in our lives.
So I think neuroscience has brought that much more to light in terms of how information is processed and how social and emotional acuity, or interaction, is extraordinarily fast—faster than thought. I think what’s nice about it is it kind of takes away the idea that people actually have control over some of these things or that people are doing things purposely. In my work with couples and understanding the brain, what it’s brought to me is that mostly people don’t know what they’re doing or why. Because of that, they’re making things up all of the time, doing the best they can, operating according to their experience, which is memory. What mostly goes wrong in these relationships is happening faster than people can actually identify.
Now, the FMRI’s, PET Scans, and SPEC scans, and all of that stuff—I think this is still it at its infancy and we’re looking only at snapshots of the brain, we’re not looking at moving pictures yet. We all should know that by looking at snapshots of anything, we get only a partial idea (if even that) of what is going on when we look at a snapshot of a person or an event. We don’t really know what just happened before and we don’t know what’s going to happen right after. I think until we’re able to do that with the brain and be able to find reliable methods of watching the brain in motion, in action, I think there’s going to be a lot of mistakes and miscalculations and misinterpretations about what the brain is doing. So I take this all with a grain of salt. I think it’s interesting and it’s useful to my understanding, to my students’ understanding, and also to my couples’ understanding, but I also know that what we know now is going to be very different in the next several years.
TS: Part of what I hear you saying in terms of the important take away is that the unconscious brain or the non-conscious brain, that’s really what’s running a lot of my reactivity, responsiveness, confusion in relationship. If I can understand and appreciate that, it will help me in some way. That’s the part I’d like some clarity on. How is that going to help me?
ST: I think in first part, to take away blame—that you’re at fault or that your partner is at fault—because here’s the thing. When we are in distress, we tend to come up with theories about why we’re in distress and those theories are rarely pro-relationship, they’re generally pro-self. I’m in pain with you. There’s something I’m unhappy about in our interaction. My brain is going to come up with reasons for why that is and most of those reasons are going to be about you—something you are doing. It could be something I’m doing and I feel ashamed or guilty about it.
I think on one level, it’s understanding that we are animals and that we’re operating properly—that our brain is doing what it’s supposed to do in that it’s getting us through life in the most energy efficient, resource efficient manner. And when we get together with a partner—especially after we get to know them, after we start to feel committed—that partner, that process, starts to go into procedural memory where all of this implicit material lies. Implicit memories from our childhood and our security or insecurity in childhood. Our bodies remember and our nervous system responds to what we see, and we expect that what we see is real and we respond to it in kind.
If we understand how our brains work in that we’re doing the best we can—we are memory machines, we’re acting quickly—then we might be able to do certain things. For instance, I may behave in a reflexive manner towards you and it’s a mistake, but I see that I’ve hurt you. I can fix that, repair that, and make it right. I can apologize. I can do all sorts of things to modify that experience so that our experience doesn’t go into long-term memory in the same way. In other words, as soon as I do something that causes distress, I do something that relieves it or as best I can for you and me. So that’s, I think, one important thing.
We may do things reflexively based on our experience, based on our personality, but then what do we do after we do those things? Do we make it right? Do we care about the other person? Do we repair that experience in a proper way? There are lots of things we can do knowing how we respond, because despite the fact that this automatic, non-conscious brain that we have is very rapid, it’s also very slow to change, which means it’s highly predictable. We tend to do the same thing, say the same things, over and over again, especially when we’re under stress, which makes us very predictable.
It’s not like I’m going to surprise myself by some kind of behavior. I’m going to do the same thing again and again. What saves me from that is having enough relaxation and time to calm myself down, or at least allow myself to be at a certain point where I can think. I have enough resources, enough glucose, enough oxygen to run these very fancy higher areas of the brain that can error correct, that can think in contingent ways, that can think in relative ways, that can create something new.
These higher areas are very resource hungry and they’re very slow and they actually use up a lot of energy, but that is what allows us to do something different. It allows me to—if I see your face turn in a certain way or your voice sound certain way and I remember that as being dangerous to me and I react in a very hostile fashion. If I’m able or you’re able, we’re both able to do things to make each other feel friendlier. That would allow both of us to have more resources, time to consider what’s happening, and make changes. Because these higher cortical areas are quick to change and lower areas are slow to change. And so I think understanding that as well—that we have a responsibility as partners to manage each others’ emotional arousal states so that we don’t start to view one another as predators, which is very easy to do, by the way.
We have brains that are built to keep us alive, and so our tendency to remember and to pick up threatening cues or dangerous cues is much greater because of our need to stay alive and not get killed. I think people understanding this and respecting that they have to really pay attention and not be dangerous and not be threatening to their partner also goes a long way in understanding how human beings work and how brains work and so on.
Another thing we try to do with our couples is we try to get them to understand how their faces and moments and sounds and things that they say can very easily be picked up by their partner as threatening. We teach them to watch the face and reactions of the face, so that they can actually work with each other in real time to settle each other down. That’s really not the right word—settle each other down—but to regulate each other is really what I want to say. We call that “interactive regulation,” by the way. Interactive regulation is an eye-to-eye, face-to-face process of two people being in real time in each other’s eyes and dealing with both excitement and distress.
TS: So let’s make it really practical, Stan. A couple is in a situation where one person is feeling a level of distress about who knows what—I’m in a hurry or I’m upset about this—what are the types of strategies, sample strategies, that the other partner could do that might be helpful, instead of maybe their patterned response which is to walk out of the room or something like that?
ST: It depends on the person. There are some people who require—when they’re upset or they’re getting excited—they require their partner to move forward, or come closer. Some of these people do better with touch. They do better when their partner moves forward and looks into their eyes in a friendly fashion and says something friendly or loving, or maybe says something that is containing and regulating like, “Hold on, we’ll do this right away. Look in my eyes.” You know, to do something that contains or holds that other person. These types of people who enjoy that kind of holding, they need their partner to move toward them or to make physical contact with them. For those people it can be very, very helpful, especially if the face is friendly, the eyes are friendly, and the person is moving in a way that is loving.
For other people it’s the opposite. Some people are built in such a way that forward movement on them makes them feel more threatened, and for those people at a distance, it may something else. It may be, “Why don’t you take five minutes or ten minutes. Do what you need to do and I’ll meet you outside.” Something that counters the other person’s anticipation of being trapped or aggressed upon or whatever. It’s hard to give you practical ideas without knowing the person. This isn’t a one size fits all, we want partners to begin to learn one another as they would if they had their owner’s manual and to know exactly what to do and when.
This would be kind of like—you have a fire extinguisher and there are three different kinds of fire extinguishers, an A, B, and a C, for different kinds of fires. Understanding or having the complexity to know that your partner may need one thing to help them at one moment and may need something different at another moment, but you’re not going to have 100 things that you’re going to have to run through. There’s only going to be about three or four things that will actually work with that partner to help them think again, calm down, restore their sense of safety, or restore their sense of feeling loved. That’s something that people have to take the time to watch and learn and try different things. Try different things especially when things are not so heated—kind of like going to the gym and practicing with small weights before doing big weights. This is basically knowing your person and knowing how they work.
TS: This idea of having an owner’s manual for your partner, I think this is a very, very interesting idea. In my own experience and talking with other people, often I hear people will say things like, “God, I just don’t know what XYZ person needs.” So, for most of us, I think, or for many of us, the idea of being an expert, to use your language, on our partner—this is hard stuff. How do we do this? How do we develop an owner’s manual for our partner?
ST: I think if we put it into the context of child rearing, and particularly infancy, we expect a mother or a father with a newborn infant to be preoccupied with that infant. Winicott called it “Primary Maternal Preoccupation.” This was a falling in love with—kind of an obsession with the infant—who is really not quite ready to be out in the world. It is still tied by a psychological umbilical cord. The caregiver is tasked with the responsibility of finding the baby, locating the baby, and this is an effort on the part of the caregiver—being that hopefully they wanted a baby in the first place—that there’s a learning of that baby, of finding it, a process of attuning and misattuning. Finding and losing the baby, finding and losing the baby.
The aspect of security that we consider to be good comes out of the interest in re-finding someone for whom we have lost and we keep looking for them. This curiosity, this interest in knowing and finding this soul is part of what we understand to be this infant/caregiver relationship. Yet in adult relationships, that may be there in the very, very beginning in some manner during courtship. I would suggest that a lot of that actually is driven by nature and biology to get us to procreate. That interest of finding the baby, or finding the partner, being curious in watching, is something that should go on, I think, throughout adult relationships and yet it doesn’t. Most people do that maybe a little bit in the beginning and then they drop the effort. They basically don’t look anymore, they’re not curious.
I’m always interested in people who have been together for 30 years and they still don’t know what are the three of four things that will hurt the other person from childhood to grave, or the three or four things that they could say that would make that person feel loved. They don’t know what that is, and some people don’t even know what the other person wants for their birthday, because they don’t pay attention. I think that basically speaks to a lack of interest or taking for granted that people are easy. People are far from easy. People are—perhaps the most difficult thing on the planet is another person and a lot of people are frankly quite disinterested or lazy in looking.
Now here’s the problem: we don’t like anything we can’t handle well. We don’t like our cars that we can’t operate or dogs that don’t seem to be licking us or doing the things we want them to do. We don’t like babies who we can’t understand and seem clingy or angry or colicky. We don’t like anything that we can’t manage, and so that’s how things turn badly in many ways. People find each other quite appropriately, usually because our brains select our partners based on familiarity and recognition.
That part works OK, but once we have that person, if they’re not easy to us—which again nobody is—and we take them for granted, we don’t really look, we don’t watch, wait, and wonder about them, then we’re going to start to not like them and feel frustrated. I don’t know what to do to make you happy. I don’t know what to do to calm you down. I don’t know what to do to get you to come home. I don’t know what to do to get you to come to bed, and I don’t like you because of this, because I don’t know how you work. I think a lot of that has to do with the person complaining. They’re just not either interested or they’re not looking carefully. They don’t spend time trying to find the baby, or in this case find the partner, and then they suffer the consequences. So I think this, in many ways, is our attitude about relationships—that we think that relationships and people should be easy. People are far from it. We should be looking at our partners in the same way as we’re trying to understand our infant. Does that make sense?
TS: Well, I have a couple of questions about it. Here’s my first question. I could watch and look and be curious, or could I just ask my partner?
ST: Yes, you could, and this is so interesting, because remember I said that we mostly don’t know what we’re doing or why? And what we don’t know we make up. You could ask me, but you’re in dangerous territory there, because I may tell you something to the best of my knowledge, but I may not even know. So you could then do something—do what I told you to do or do what I said I want you to do—and it could really explode back. You could be very disappointed and say, “Well gee, you know, I can’t do anything right. I mean, you told me this is what you like.”
It’s quite possible that I don’t know. It would be like saying to your baby, “What would you like right now?” Or to your child, for that matter. People don’t necessarily know. It’s up to me. Yes, I could ask you and I could try that out and see if it works, although it may not work in every instance. It may work in the mood you’re in as you think about what would work for you. But what if you were in a different mood, in a different place, and that thing that you said I should do doesn’t work? Now, do I blame you for that, because you told me and it’s your fault? I think that would be the wrong way of looking at it. I think that understanding our partners is part of our job and that we can ask, but I don’t know that how we respond to what we want and don’t want is always that reliable. I really don’t.
TS: OK. Then my second question—and this is something that I’ve heard is a criticism of attachment-based therapy in general or any kind of therapeutic approach that’s working with an attachment-based strategy—which is, it’s one thing to be a parent dealing with a baby, but we’re two adults dealing with each other. Can you really take some of these learnings that come from how parents are most successful with children, how parents regulate their babies? Is that really the right way to be looking at two adults dealing with each other—taking those lessons and applying them to an adult relationship?
ST: Well, attachment theory is limited. It’s a biological theory that really focuses on safety and security. It really has nothing to do with love or eroticism or sex or even, for that matter, child discipline. So, understanding its limitations, I think is important, but the rules of safety and security—in other words, what makes two individuals feel safe and secure and create a ecosystem or environment that allows them to move through life in such a way that they have more resources available to slay the dragons or to deal with a difficult situation in the board room or to deal with the in-law or the parent. This is really the question.
If we look at infant attachment and try to do a one-to-one analysis, of course it breaks down. For one thing, there’s an asymmetry in childhood that there isn’t in adulthood—that’s a symmetrical relationship. We have to think of it differently in that regard, but the rules of safety and security—what makes two people in a dyadic system feel that they’re tethered to one another, that they’re connected? Kind of like being out in space with the space station—being tethered to that space station makes a big difference than if you’re just free floating out there. Do we feel that with at least one other person that we created for ourselves? Again, we don’t choose our parents and we don’t choose how that relationship is going to go in childhood. That’s chosen for us. But in adulthood we’re expected to create a social contract, a set of agreements and principles that are mutually beneficial—good for me, good for you.
When we’re thinking in terms of long-term relationship—and I would suggest that nature has no plan for long-term relationship, it only has a plan for procreation—maybe a four-year plan and then switching partners and mixing up the gene pool again. But this idea of long-term relationship is basically a human invention and in order to do that, we have to sort of reimagine what goes into long-term, dyadic relationships.
There are certain principles that are consistent with attachment. One is that we trust each other, that we look out for each other and we have each other’s backs. Also that—and maybe this is going further than you would agree—we tell each other everything. We’re the first to know things, not the second or third. That our relationship is protected and comes first, and that we take each other’s distress seriously and we deal with it post-haste—right away. There are certain things that we do for each other—that comes out as a kind of a quid pro quo—to create this environment where we feel that we have a secure base to go to, a home we like being in—basically the home being the virtual relationship or the relationship being the virtual home, a place where we can relax and be ourselves.
This is based on an agreement between two people to do things because they can, not because their personalities are such that they have to do it this way or that way. I think that is where attachment is still relevant to the adult pair bonding experience. That it has to be, at least in some way, based on true mutuality and that it’s based on attraction and not fear or threat. That people are not making one another feel insecure or the relationship feel insecure. Because I’ve seen the difference between partners who feel insecure and partners who feel secure and there’s a vast difference between those two, and we see the same thing in childhood.
TS: You’ve said a lot of really interesting things, Stan, so I’m going to pull a couple of these things out. One: putting our relationship first. I’m curious to know what that means to you, when a couple does that, what that looks like.
ST: Well, consider first, just so I can make my point even better, taking romance and sexuality out of this. There are plenty of primary attachment relationships that are same sex, opposite sex, and non-romantic. For instance, let’s take the policeman or policewoman who is out there in the field and has a partner. The system really engenders a sense of camaraderie, but also loyalty. Partners are the go-to people. They watch each other’s back. They tell each other everything, sometimes to such an extent that their marriages, if they have any, suffer because their relationship seems to be coming first and it’s necessary, in a sense, because their lives depend on it. This is also exists in military organizations or fire departments. You see this all over.
So this is not just limited to romantic relationships. People can have these secure relationships that are non-romantic. However, in a romantic couple, putting the relationship first means that they’re both generals and one of them is not relegated to that of soldier or they’re king and queen and one of them is not relegated to pawn. They are important characters and they treat each other as such. Third things and third people that want to come in and encroach on that system can only do so with their permission. They don’t just willy-nilly allow others to come in and relegate the other partner to third wheel. We find—at least I find, but I think this intuitively will feel correct to most people—that people who routinely mismanage these third things or third people to disrupt the primacy of the attachment relationship—that romantic attachment relationship—do so at their own peril and eventually that relationship does waste away.
There’s something about the human pair bonding experience. We’re still primarily dyadic creatures and when we form these dyadic bonds, one person or the other person is generally going to not like it if the relationship gets turned into not primary but secondary or tertiary. It just doesn’t seem to work very well. So this idea of putting the relationship first means understanding sort of the biological nature of dyadic human pair bonding. It doesn’t really suffer anything other than that. This, by the way, is important with polyamory, with polygamy marriages, but also, I think, more strikingly and not so obviously, with blended families.
Couples make the same mistake over and over again. Because there’s the complexity of numbers now with more people, more kids, more in-laws, more extended family, people will use the excuse that there’s too many people to manage and that’s why the relationship again is failing. But most often I see that they’re making the same mistake that they made at the beginning, and that is they don’t protect the primary dyad. They don’t put that relationship first, and so one or the other partner begins to feel left out, begins to feel dismissed and this builds resentment, unfairness, injustice and the relationship will eventually fail.
TS: So when you talk about thirds, a third could be children, putting your kids before your partner?
ST: It could be putting your kids before your partner. And this is really touchy because the things I’m talking about require a certain complexity. It can be easily misunderstood as let’s put ourselves first. Let’s keep the kids in the closet and go away for seven days on a vacation. People actually have done this. It’s been in the news. No, I’m not talking about that. I’m not talking about the selfishness of two people who are ignoring those around them or people who they’re responsible for.
I am talking about something more subtle. That is, in situations in systems where there are two people and there are interests between those two people, there are always going to be third elements that are going to encroach on that system. It could be a child, it could be an in-law, and it could be a best friend. Then the question is, in matters of resources, in matters of who’s going to lose in a particular gambit for resources. Will it be one partner or the other partner, or will it be the third thing or person? I would suggest that it should not be either partner very much. That is, if there’s a choice between the interests of the partnership and some third interest, the third interest should probably lose most of the time.
TS: You say most of the time, what would be the exceptions?
ST: I think there are times when we make mistakes and we choose one person’s interests or one thing over our partner. We do this with work. We do this with, perhaps, substances. We do this with a child. We do this with an in-law or a best friend. We do that and then we have to repair it.
TS: OK Stan, but let’s just take an example. Let’s say somebody’s mother is really needing time and attention and maybe she’s ill or something like that, and the partner says, “Look, I need you now, blah, blah, blah.” Now this individual feels totally torn between two loves, two commitments. How do they navigate that?
ST: Again, this goes back to the principles that the couple has. They have a duty to serve one another and to make sure that they’re providing support and distress relief to their partner. That would be, I think, a case where one partner is making a demand that is not truly mutual—that’s not truly good for me, good for you. It’s just good for me. So that would have to be taken up in the partnership as a problem of fidelity in the system. When I think of fidelity, I don’t think of cheating, I don’t think of sex. I think of what binds us together. Why are we together? What do we do for each other that we couldn’t hire somebody else to do?
These are things that I think are far more impressive to think about and to hash out than what people commonly think of in terms of their vows or what they think is expected in love relationships. A truly mutual couple—a couple that has each others’ interests in mind, that has principles that support each—I would not expect a partner to say choose me or your sick mother. There would be a problem there in that system in terms of understanding what a truly mutual system is.
TS: Now let’s say somebody is listening to this and says, “OK, put the relationship first, but in my life what I’ve put first is my own spiritual development, my own path with God. That really comes first. I would never put anything before that.” How would you respond to that person?
ST: First I should say I don’t really care about what arrangements people make. It’s not up to me. I don’t have any ideology really about this. This is not a religion for me, so if somebody said that to me, that’s fine. Since I’m a couple therapist, I’d be looking to the partner to see if they’re OK with it, then that would be something for the two of them to hash out. I have people saying coming in saying, “I don’t think we should just love one person,” let alone having a spiritual practice or a spiritual belief that comes first. I have a group that comes first. I don’t have any family. This group that I’ve been dedicated to has been my family and either you respect that and join this family or just tolerate that they come first.
So it could work out that way. Or it could work out that, you know what, I like to love a lot of people and I have a lot of lovers and I like that and I think that’s the way it should be. You will either agree to that or you’ll say that it’s a deal breaker.
I just want to say that there’s no perfect world here—that I think everybody should be putting the relationship first and doing it this way. But people who do want a long term relationship and are finding it hard—when there’s one person who says this comes first to me—whether it’s my child comes first and you come second or my God comes first and you come second—all of that can become quite dangerous to the other partner. If they both agree on this idea, I don’t have a problem with that. But often they disagree, because one person feels it as insecure, unfair, unjust, insensitive, and that’s where the problem will lie. I think two people agreeing to disagree and saying this is where we part, is fine.
TS: It sounds like what you are saying, though, is that to create a relationship that has a high level of safety and security—which as you’ve pointed out has certain benefits that come with it—that in order for that to happen both partners need to agree to put the relationship first. Is that accurate?
ST: Yes, but I would go further than that. I would expect people—Lawrence Kohlberg, a brilliant professor at Harvard, came up with the stages of moral development and his colleague, Carol Gilligan, later improved on it noticing a gender bias. The point is that Kohlberg and Gilligan expected people, when saying what they believed, to be able to defend it. To be able to say, why do you believe that? Why is that important? Why should somebody do that? I think when it comes to relationships that people want to have long term—I think between two adult minds there should be thoughtfulness and reason. Why is this a good idea? Why put the relationship first? Why is it a good idea for me, and why is it a good idea for you and us? It has to serve a personal good and a mutual good. I wouldn’t want it to be so lazy as to say yes, you should do this.
I think people have to really be able to reason around it and explain and argue why it’s a good thing for them, personally, and why it’s a good thing for the other person, personally, and why it’s a good thing for them, together, to do this. Otherwise, it won’t work. I think it’s equally important for people to do this in the issue of monogamy. Why be monogamous? I can often tell from peoples’ answers whether they’ll actually be monogamous or not by the lack of complexity or complexity of their response.
I have to be able to—if I’m going to engage in something with you that is going to be good for both of us, I have to be able to sell it to you. I have to be able to believe in it myself, otherwise I won’t do it. That’s really the key here. We’re talking about conscious principles or rules of engagement that serve both of us that we believe in deeply. We do these things depending on how deeply we believe in them, because it’s for the times when we don’t feel like adhering to these principles or ideas. That’s when we need them. It’s not at any other time, because we mostly do what we want to do. Does this make sense?
TS: You are making sense. I want to tease out one item you said when you were talking about the qualities that help build a safe and secure relationship, in your opinion. You said, “You may not agree with me on this one.” You were talking about telling your partner everything—having them be fully informed. I know in your work one of things that you’ve mentioned is that you think it’s even valuable to tell your partner about your fantasies or crushes and that part of putting them first is that they know all of these things. I did have a moment where I thought, really? Is that really going to be helpful in my relationship?
ST: Here again, this gets very difficult because like all things—religion, politics, psychology— depending on the mind we’re addressing here, it’s very easy to take things the wrong way and to over-simplify these ideas. So, tell each other everything. Does that mean that I’m rude and I’m narcissistic and it’s all about me and I tell you things even though they hurt you or scare you? No, that’s not what I mean. It’s the spirit I’m talking about. I’ve picked somebody—I’ve picked you—and if I’ve picked you to be that point person or that person in my life, why wouldn’t I want to be myself fully and let you know my mind as well as I know it, which may not be very well, but as well as I know it—and you do that with me.
Again, we’re talking about home here—home being a place that we create, that’s attractive, where we want to be, and where we are ourselves. It’s the spirit I’m talking about here, not the actual details like, I want to have an affair with somebody I just saw. That would be, I think, unskillful and probably somebody who doesn’t understand this. It’s the spirit of telling each other everything. The idea here is, why not? Why would I want to hold myself as unknown and secret from the one person I chose to do this? Why not do that? Why not utilize you in that way and you utilize me in that way? Rather than pay for a therapist or go to a priest or go to my friends and sprinkle myself all around, why not you? That’s really the spirit of this. It’s not about telling each other everything at the cost of the safety and security of the relationship.
ST: In this conversation we’ve placed a very high value on creating a relationship that’s safe and secure. I’d love to know from you why you think this is such an important way to be, for you. Why is this so valuable to you?
ST: Well, I have experienced, being now 58, the opposite of this in my life. I saw my parents. My parents did have a safe and secure relationship that they demonstrated in front of me and in front of my siblings, but I wasn’t always that way. I made my own errors in relationships and I had a marriage prior to the one with Tracy, today, that failed, and I failed, and I know the alternative. I know what it’s like to be in a relationship where both parties love each other. We both, my ex-wife and I, loved each other, but we made lot and lots of mistakes about such things as what comes first, and repair, and knowing how to work each other and manage each other, and how to calm each other down, or know how to stay friendly to each other.
We made so many different mistakes that I can say that the experience was not only, for me, some of the best of times, but the worst of times. When that relationship ended, I was crushed enough and felt enough regret to really think about it very deeply. At the time, I was already teaching and working as a therapist, but I was interested in working with mother-infant pairs and preventing personality disorders, because that was my field. I think because I was going through such a terrible, terrible time trying to reconcile what I had lost and how I had lost it, that my own perseveration on the subject—along with my learning, at the time, very deeply about the brain and about the autonomic nervous system—started to shift my work. I started to think in terms of how did I go wrong? How did this go wrong? Now at the same time, John Gottman came out with his research, which was groundbreaking and that was also encouraging to me.
TS: Can you summarize from that what were the points of John Gottman’s research that was important to you?
ST: Gottman was the first, I think, to come out and say to couple therapists, “You know, I know you guys like your pet things that you do, but I don’t think you pay much attention what actually works. Maybe it’s because you don’t care or because you don’t know. So here’s this body of research and this is what actually works or doesn’t work. This is what we know about relationships—adult romantic relationships—and these are the markers that we see that will lead to divorce and will not lead to divorce, or lead to a stronger relationship.”
It kind of shook up the clinical community in a good way to re-evaluate what worked and what didn’t work. It wasn’t that long ago that marital therapy, couple therapy, was really the joke in the therapeutic community. The statistics were horrible. People were going to couple therapy—mostly I think it failed because there were too many people dabbling in it. It’s a specialty and I think people dabbling in it aren’t going to do very well. But also, there wasn’t science behind it. There wasn’t any real discipline behind it, and so couple therapy really was a wash. People would go into it and there wasn’t anything to suggest that going to couple therapy would do anything for you at all.
Then Gottman came along and things started to change—Harville Hendricks’s work with Imago therapy, Sue Johnson came along with her emotionally focused therapy—again more improvement. People started coming up with more thoughtful approaches and paying more attention to the sciences—paying more attention to areas that clinicians previously ignored. So that’s why I say he played a very important role.
For me, he played an important role in accentuating what I had already started learning about the autonomic nervous system and the role of arousal regulation as being very key. I’d say more than attachment, that is an area that is most important to me. I think that is the biggest area of improvement in my work—the focus on the autonomic nervous system and threat between two people.
In my own marriage now with Tracy, who was somebody I had a crush on in junior high school—we met in our fifties both having gone through a previous marriage. I started to enjoy what I’ve come to see now as a secure, functioning relationship. That doesn’t mean that the parties are secure. In the research sense, they wouldn’t maybe test out as secure, but the relationship operation as it is, is functioning in a secure fashion based on some of the principles that I gave you. It’s really been through that marriage, also along with my own work, where I’ve been able to live this stuff and see and feel the benefits of it. I guess it’s the worst thing for people in our field, scientists or clinicians, to be true believers, but I’m kind of a true believer.
TS: A true believer in—?
ST: In what I’ve been teaching and what I’ve been talking about. Not that I’m excellent at it or that I don’t do a lot of the things that everyone does in screwing things up, but I do believe that there is something very important to the idea of secure functioning between two people. I’ll go even further than that. I really believe that there is a growing problem of people feeling more alienated and alone in their lives, whether they’re with a partner or not, and that that is contributing to a lot of problems—health problems, mental problems, and so on.
I think, above all, the importance of close connections, of physical contact—hugging, holding, having very close connections in our lives and social networks, whether we’re partnered or not—is so important. There has been a group of people who have been getting together—a nonprofit organization that I shouldn’t say anything about yet because it hasn’t been announced—that is going to be dedicated to shifting the culture back towards connection and dependency rather than where we’ve been going, which is a little bit more towards autonomy and independence at the cost of dependency and much more alienation.
TS: Stan, this will be the end of part one of our conversation. I very much want to have a part two with you, because I think your work is so important and so helpful to people really struggling to find the depth of connection that’s possible in relationship. So, we’ll talk again in part two.
ST: Thank you!
TS: I’ve been speaking with Stan Tatkin and he’s created a new audio learning series with Sounds True called, Your Brain on Love: The Neurobiology of Healthy Relationships. Soundstrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.