Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Dr. Stan Tatkin. Stan is a psychotherapist, researcher, and 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.
For this part two of my conversation with Stan Tatkin, Stan and I spoke about two nervous systems getting along in relationship and the role of nervous system regulation in love. We also talked about fighting well, how a couple can wave a flag of friendliness during a fight, and the core attitudes and skill required to get out of any argument in five minutes or less. Yes, you heard me right—how to get out of any argument in five minutes or less. We also talked about the importance of being tethered to another person so securely that you could count on that other person 24/7, no matter what. Here’s part two of my very illuminating conversation on Your Brain on Love with Dr. Stan Tatkin.
Stan, I want to pick up with a comment that you made towards the end of the first part of our conversation. You said something like this: that your work really comes out of the study of human arousal, more even that it does from your study of attachment theory. I wanted you to talk about that—what you’ve learned from the biology of human arousal that informs how you work with couples.
Stan Tatkin: It’s really fascinating—this whole business of arousal and readiness and energy. When we think of affects—you know, human emotions—we often separate them out from the arousal system. But actually, one way of looking at feeling and emotions is that they ride on the wave of arousal. Arousal really comes first. Affects, the way I think of it is—if I had a wind instrument, my blowing through the wind instrument would be akin to arousal and the notes that I play would be more like emotion. So there’s high emotion, high arousal states, high sympathetic states. By sympathetic states here we’re talking about vitality, affects, come hither, excitement—Freud’s life instinct. It is what makes us—originally, I think—get out of the womb. Otherwise we’d all probably stay there and order pizza and watch television.
So the sympathetic nervous system is our life force. It gets us out and moving. The low affects—or the lower parasympathetic emotion states—allow us to relax and to meditate and to refresh, to digest—all of these things.
So I find that this whole area of arousal—of excitement on one end—and then very high on the excitement area, a readiness for action. Action in the extreme would be to fight or to flee. Then on the bottom end of this area of relaxation, also in its extreme—is our need to close, shut down, drop away and in many cases a reaction to danger or life threat, which is to faint or to collapse.
I find this very important—very useful—in looking at human interactions and relationships in particular. Because in order for two people to spend a lot of time around each other and to depend on each other and to be able to regulate one another, this nervous system problem is something that has to be reckoned with in all relationships. There are some people who quite naturally get along very well on a nervous system level. They balance each other out very well, perhaps—or they complement each other very well. But these two nervous systems don’t trigger threat or danger. If they do, they do it in such a way that is easy to manage. While there are those pairings, there are other pairings that are not as fortunate and they seem to trigger each other very, very quickly. It’s almost as if these two nervous systems don’t get along very well. I view this as sub-psychological—having not to do with psychology so much as it being very sub-cortical, automatic brain, memory systems. Perhaps two nervous systems that see threat too quickly and react and respond in that way.
TS: Well, let’s talk a little bit about what this might mean. Two nervous systems that get along well with each other? I know there’s someone that I know here in Boulder who said to me recently, “Oh my God, when I’m around this woman, my nervous system just relaxes.” And I thought, “Well, this is a contemporary way for people who are familiar with somatic psychology and this whole field to talk about falling in love—you know, how this person makes my nervous system feel.” So what do you mean when you’re talking about two nervous systems that get along well together?
ST: I want to put a finger on what you just said because I want to come back to that, because that’s an important thing you just brought up. If we imagine two brains with spinal columns, central nervous systems—two brains just, you know, interacting—if we were to animate those two brains. In terms of sensory perception, would they be well-tuned together, kind of like tuning forks? Or would they be averse to one another? I think I’m imagining it in that way.
But you also brought up something about this, “Whenever I’m around him or her I just feel this relaxation.” So there is, I think, a way of looking at the lower emotional, parasympathetic states when there’s love involved as being “quiet love.” Alan Schore has talked about this recently. Quiet love is in the lower ranges of arousal, what Winicott called “the quiet alert state” or just going on being with another person and just feeling at ease, at home, and relaxed and not anxious, not nervous. That’s a very important quality for a couple to experience.
There is also exciting love and that’s described differently. That’s in the higher area, sympathetic area, and most often people describe exciting love as being infatuation. You know, just meeting somebody and being very excited and along with that comes anxiety—that excitement.
But exciting love is also very important as well. I think there are some people who can probably enjoy just one or the other and stay in quiet love and not feel like their missing the excitement, but many people want both. They want to experience both excitement with their partner—which is more of a dopaminergic system. Excitement—it kind of adds to that addictive quality to love—the wanting to come back to it again and again. But people also [want] the quiet love. The ability to just be with another person and not have to do anything, not have to perform, not have to be a different person than who they are. I think, probably, having those two in a relationship would be the ideal.
TS: Now, let’s talk a little about this idea of “regulation” and how my partner could help me regulate. Is that really my partner’s responsibility or is it my responsibility to learn to regulate myself when my nervous system becomes all out of whack because X, Y, Z has happened?
ST: Well, I think both are true. Let’s go back to infancy. As an infant, you have no self-regulatory capacities. There are two forms of regulation that are occurring during infancy and that is external regulation—that is the caregiver is externally regulating the infant. But there’s also interactive regulation going on as well. In the best case scenarios, where there is a curiosity and interest in the infant—Erik Erikson described in his writings as, “You can’t really tell who’s leading and who’s following this dance between the caregiver and the infant.” When they start moving, there is this rhythm—this dance. You can see this also in Beatrice Beebe’s work with mother/infant pairs.
So there is interactive regulation, face-to-face, eye-to-eye, skin-to-skin. But there is no self-regulation until the beginning of the development of the frontal areas, the pre-frontal cortex—around 10, 11, 12 months. And that’s really in its very, very early stages. So as we get older, this self-regulatory function—which is basically the frontal areas, the frontal lobes—and also some might argue in the back of the brain development of what Stephen Porges calls the central vagal system—the social engagement system. These two [operate] to manage your own internal state—hold impulses, tolerate frustration, wait your turn, be able to relax yourself so that you can stay in conversation with a partner. That’s very important and we could say that a person who has no capacity or very little capacity to self-regulate would probably end up in [a] hospital or jail at some point, but not a relationship. Not an equal relationship. So, yes, there is a responsibility in the adult partnership for people to regulate themselves.
But there is a misunderstanding in our culture that that is solely the responsibility in a relationship is each partner for themselves. I regulate myself, you regulate yourself, and if you have a problem you deal with it. If I have a problem I deal with it.
This idea leads to a lot of other problems. The outsourcing of therapists to deal with our problems interpersonally. Doing things that are kind of like the idea—which I also take umbrage to—you’ve got to learn how to love yourself before you can love another person. If you understand infant development and developmental trajectory, we don’t do anything very well by ourselves, on our own. Everything we do, basically, we learn from another person or other people. We learn about ourselves. We learn to love ourselves. We learn about our value. And that’s continually happening in our interactions with other people.
But in love relationships—if you and I, Tami, were sitting across from each other in close distance—face-to-face and eye-to-eye—you could literally see what is going on inside of me before I know what’s going on in me. And I could see what’s going on in you before you know what’s going on in you. That’s because the eyes are more of a window to the autonomic nervous system than to the soul. And being that I can do that and you can do that, it’s much more efficient for me to regulate you and you to regulate me in this interactive process than for me to sit there as an island and to try to manage myself or expect you to manage yourself. I think that’s a false notion that leads to lots of problems. When you see people doing this very well, you see how it works. When it’s done well, it’s effortless. Again, it’s like a dance. People are making micro-attunements to one another—and making micro mis-attunements as well. But these are not picked up very much, because in this interactive regulatory process that’s being done well, with all of the errors that are being made there are so many quick error corrections and repairs that nobody is aware of these mistakes. And so you see it as a quite a natural dance.
It only becomes a problem when there’s a glitch in the system and you and I—facing each other—go through a period of sustained mis-attunement, where neither of us are able to correct a mistake or series of mistakes that happened in the interaction. Then we start to feel distress. Then we start to feel hot inside. Then our arousal begins to move up. If we still can’t manage this and course-correct and repair, then we’re more likely than not to experience this as a threat response. That may cause us to move away from each other. If that continues, then the next time—each time we get together and we talk about that particular subject or deal with that particular issue or in that particular environment—these anticipatory systems—preparatory systems that protect us from making the same mistakes again and again activate and now we have this biological reaction to one another. It’s sort of a kindling effect, where we’re now worried about making the same mistake and having that mistake sustain over time—again leading to a threat response in which we either fight or flee—or in some cases, terribly, we collapse. That’s where you have, really, the problem that keeps repeating over and over again that drives partners away from each other.
TS: OK, now I’m just going to circle back for a moment because you said something that I think people might find a little controversial or not fully understand—which is this idea that you have to love yourself first. You can only love another person to the depth that you can love yourself and you have to start with yourself. And you’re—I think—saying something different. Can you clarify that?
ST: Well, I think if people thought about it logically—how does one learn to love oneself in a vacuum? We learn to love and to be loved simultaneously. These are simultaneous actions. To suggest that somebody should back out of relationships or not be in a relationship because they’re not ready—they need to learn how to love themselves. Where then do they go to learn to do that? Is there a “love yourself school?” No, there isn’t. Now, there’s therapy and that is a relationship with another person—so there again, if there’s going to be a remedial work in that area—it may be done with a clergy member or a teacher or a therapist. But it’s going to be with somebody. It’s not going to be in a cave somewhere. It’s going to be at a monastery.
TS: What about the mirror work that is sometimes recommended? Look into the mirror and love yourself that way.
ST: Well, the mirror is one thing, but here’s the problem: I think I said last time that there’s nothing more difficult on the planet than another person. Looking in the mirror is just one person—that’s you, interacting with the internal you. That does not prepare you to go live with another person—another brain who is going to surprise you instantly.
Herein lies the rub. The interactions that happen between two individuals happen so fast and so automatically that unless someone is well-tuned to that other person that is going to either heal past injuries—whether they’re attachment injuries or whatever—or aggravate them, amplify them in some negative way. And this is actually one of the problems in childhood, when children have a bad start. They’re more inclined to repeat patterns in relationships—not because they want that but because it’s all they know. It’s all they’ve experienced and the get the environment to react with them in ways that are familiar to them. The bad news there can be that a child who’s been abused can be abused again and again in the environment.
So, relationships hurt us. Only relationships can heal us. I guess my point is—the folly of people thinking that I have to back out of this whole business by working on myself somewhere. As if you’re working in some vacuum—some place with a book in one hand and maybe a mirror in the other hand. It’s just not realistic. We learn to do this in real time. We learn how to love ourselves by loving another person and learning how to do that well. Some of us learn it early and we know how to do it better, and some of us [take] a lifetime [to] learn how to do this well.
TS: OK, and so now I’m with you and I want to work with my partner. One or both of us are activated because of something or other. Something has set us off. And maybe something set my partner off and now I’m not feeling very centered either and we’re looking at each other. You’re talking about that there is some way that we can attune to each other—looking into each other’s eyes that will be sensing and looking for something. Can you help me understand what we’re actually going to do, looking at each other? Because we both don’t feel very good right now, but we’re staring at each other.
ST: Yes. Here’s what happens in a nutshell: When you and your partner are relaxed and alert, you have resources available to you to be able to error-correct. To be able to not just pick things up automatically—but there’s time and there are resources inside your brain and your body to make use of that data and to make corrections at a higher way, using higher parts of the brain. Higher parts of the brain that require considerable amounts of oxygen and glucose to drive.
So you need time and you need those resources. In order to have that, you have to be in a certain range of arousal where you’re not either too high or too low. If you’re too high—in other words too excited—parts of your brain turn off. The error correcting parts. What takes over are the automatic parts of your brain that know things based on experience only—that is shoot first and ask questions later. And really are dedicated to keeping you alive—even though your loved one is across from you, not a predator.
But that’s a problem—when people get either too excited or too down-regulated, they don’t have the benefit of their full brain on line and so they’re making more mistakes. You and your partner could be looking at each other and be making lots of misappraisals. That means you see her face and it looks to you a certain way. Under ordinary circumstances, it wouldn’t mean much but now that you’re more excited, and feeling more threatened, it’s much easier for you to misinterpret the meaning of a particular expression or a sound of a voice and to misunderstand the intentionality of that look. That’s where people get into trouble.
The reason I would have you look at each other face to face is that when people are in distress, they most often don’t look at each other’s eyes. They look down; they look away. What happens is that they begin to look at an internal representation of that person that’s more static and not positive—and basically go inside their own heads and end up making more and more errors of misappraisal. Whereas looking into each other’s eyes forces a kind of “having to be there” in real time. Because again, you’re looking into the autonomic nervous system. That creates an advantage, in being able to actually see what the other person is doing—than to being in your head and thinking.
Having said that, you could still make a lot of mistakes if you were very upset with each other looking face to face and eye to eye. That’s where a third person comes in during that time to help the two of you to slow things down. To really look to see what it is you’re noticing on the face. To be asked questions like, “What does that face mean to you? When her voice does that, what does that mean? When she looks that way at you, why is she looking that way? What is she thinking right now?”
All of this slows everything down to where the two of you can think better and also can start to observe each other better. That’s very important because—again—when we are excited and when we’re interacting it’s a very accelerated process. And if we start to feel threatened by each other—we’re starting to make too many mistakes of misattuned moments that are sustaining—then that process accelerates even faster. And then we’re off to the races. It’s very easy to go from love to war in relationships.
So that first part of looking at each other quietly—maybe even starting you off with not talking, but just looking at each other—begins lower arousal and begins to put your attention on each other’s faces and eyes. That does a lot. That’s not everything, but that does a lot to slow things down to where you can start to see things again.
TS: So, of course Stan, I’ve heard the phrase: “The eyes are windows to the soul.” But I’ve never before heard anybody say that the eyes are the window to the autonomic nervous system and I’m not quite sure I know what that means. Can you help me understand that?
ST: Well, I’m going to give credit where credit—actually Alan Schore gave me that line and I’m not sure where he got it from, but let’s just say it’s Alan’s idea. “The eyes are the windows to the nervous system.” If you look at the way the brain is constructed, the eyes are part of the brain. The optic nerve goes to the back, primary visual cortex. Basically, when looking into the eyes and around the eyes, you’re looking at the pupils opening and closing. Those are autonomic nervous system functions. The pupils opening and closing. The same with the eye movements. The muscles around the eyes are striated muscles that are very much being managed by—not just the facial cranial nerves—but also the limbic system and the autonomic nervous system.
So you basically—as real time as you could possibly get—because real time is actually very different than what we think. We’re pretty much in real time—in present moment—when we’re looking into the eyes of another. We’re watching, we can see them thinking. We can see them hesitating. We can see them perhaps using resources to lie or to deceive. We can see them opening up to us, or closing down to us with the pupils.
So that’s what I mean by windows to the autonomic nervous system. You’re basically looking into each other’s brains. In a way, that is as close to real-time, present moment as we can possibly get.
TS: OK, so I want to try to make this really hit the ground in a very concrete way for people. So if somebody’s partner is upset about something—could be something reasonable or it could be something unreasonable—it doesn’t matter, they’re very upset. And I want to help “regulate” my partner. How do I do that? You know, you talked in part one about how we need to develop an owner’s manual for our partner and we have to look very carefully. So what do I do in this situation? How do I work with their eyes? What’s your recommendation?
ST: You know, I like to think of it this way: In all matters of relating—especially in love relationships—relief should come first. We should always lead with relief. So in helping a partner to calm down or to move up—because maybe they’re dropping down or getting depressed and feeling hopeless and helpless—is to do something, say something that is unequivocal in its friendliness to the other person. And this is really to disengage any threat process that is going on. You have to understand that people brace themselves for what they anticipate—what they believe is going to happen or is happening. In their mind, it’s something that is not safe or friendly.
So I think the first thing to do is some gesture, because the fastest thing is generally something that’s not a lot of talk. Talking too much can drive a person in the wrong direction. But something very pithy or friendly. “You know what, I’m really sorry.” Or, “I know exactly how you feel.” Maybe a look in the eyes that just mirrors sadness. Maybe a lowering of the head. Lowering yourself to someone who feels that you’re not lowering yourself.
There are all sorts of sounds, movements, facial expressions, gestures—the well placed touch—that can signal friendliness, which brings that person back into a range of arousal where they can again start to be able to think. Because that’s really the game here—to manage each other’s arousal so that neither of you are redlining above the line into high sympathetic fight or flight states, or below into crashing, collapsing, unconscious, dissociative states.
That you’re both managing that by doing and saying what is necessary to either move that person up a little bit or move them down a little bit in the arousal area, keeping them in the pocket. In other words—where both of you have enough oxygen and glucose to drive everything. So your full brain is there and you can act and react contingently rather than automatically. So I would say that basically the skill here and the understanding here is that we always lead with relief first. Because if I want to get something, if I want to influence you, if I want to make sure you hear me then it’s my duty to make sure that you are in a place where you’re feeling safe enough and you feel I’m friendly enough that you can do that. Otherwise, I’m making it impossible if I’m trying to defend myself or explain myself or attack you or to say, “I know I do that, but what about what you do?” All of these things are unfriendly and drive the system upward towards threat. Does that make sense?
TS: It does. You have this great phrase I like: “Wave the flag of friendliness.” Find a way to do that. I like that phrase.
ST: Yes, and it’s so easy to do. I mean there is drive-by friendliness. I mean, you can go by somebody that you’re angry with and give them a wink or kiss them and whisper in their ear, “I’m sorry, I’m an idiot,” and then go on and walk away. There’s any number of creative things that someone can do. And of course, the things that work are the things that you want to do.
This is a creative process; it’s not a paint-by-numbers process. The fastest wins here. The way to calm somebody down or to relax them and to return them to a state of where they’re not in danger—that can be done very quickly and should be done quickly so that people can resume talking or doing whatever they need to do.
TS: One of the things that I’ve watched in my own relationship and with friends of mine is: in an argument, people do so much talking and the talking isn’t really going anywhere. It sort of becomes circular talking. It sounds like you’re describing a way in an argument that couples could learn a different approach, where they’re not spinning around in conversation that’s not going anywhere.
ST: Most talk is blah, blah, blah. It really is. We’re chatterboxes, us humans. Most of what we say is not really relevant and when we’re in distress, that increases tenfold. One of the reasons that people are talking so much when they’re getting aroused is because they’re losing that ability to monitor themselves—to think about what it is they’re doing and saying. So now they’re much more automatic. When people are using the automatic brain fully—because they’re too aroused—they’re going to say the same things over and over and over again. It’s very easy for an observer to notice this, because it’s quite boring if you’re around people who are doing this. It’s the same old, same old.
That comes from not understanding this nervous system thing. About how to become friendly and remind your partner that you’re lovers and not adversaries. How quickly disagreements and distress can be handled. One of the things we do in my work in PACT, is we videotape couples. One particular game I think is kind of fun to do with couples—and I think people can do this on their own—is to have a time limit of five minutes, which is I think is a good time limit. If you have five minutes to get in and out of a fight—it could be about anything, money, time, sex, mess, kids, anything. Only five minutes, because after five minutes you have a date of something you have to go to together and you both have to be truly OK at that next event with no residue. Could you manage a disagreement, argument, area of importance in five minutes and tie it up so that both of you end up right-side up and feeling fine?
Now, that doesn’t mean that you’re going to find the cure to cancer in five minutes, or you’re going to resolve everything in your relationship. Or maybe anything at all. But could you work collaboratively to ensure that you both get what you want in this moment and you’re both pleased enough that you can shift states and do something completely different?
Now, I think that’s an important skillset because there are people who cannot resolve a conflict or manage a conflict in five minutes or in 30 minutes—or for that matter 30 years. There’s a real tic-tock element to this whole business of conflict and managing a win-win situation between two people. I think [that] when people begin to realize how much time they waste in their life arguing things that can’t resolve or dealing with each other in a way that keeps both people in distress longer than they need to be—I think when people see that and begin to become aware of how inefficient they are, they begin to learn how to do this quickly. There is a way for me to get what I want and to ensure that you get what you want and to do it in a way—but see, you and I would have to be thinking collaboratively to do that.
TS: Yes, that’s what I was curious about. Because I’m imagining many people listening think there’s no way they could get in and out of an argument about the kids or money in five minutes or less.
ST: Oh, there is such a way.
TS: Yes—so what are the core skills attitudes my partner and me have to have in order to do that successfully?
ST: Well, I think the core skill is not just a skill, but it’s a principle. It’s a principle that you and I together have to operate as a truly mutual system. In other words, everything we do must be good for me and you—which makes it more complex. It’s much harder to do if I’m in in to get something at your cost.
This, again, is thinking in a particular way that the relationship is built on a principle of collaboration. Good for me, good for you. That means that I’m not going to do anything without making sure you’re OK with it, because if you’re not OK with my decision—or what I want to do—I will pay for that. Rather than build memories of unfairness and injustice, we take care of that in the moment—therefore we don’t have anything to remember. We don’t have anything to go back and look back on and say, “That was unfair.” So it takes a little more time—at least in theory—actually, it’s quicker. But that’s how we roll. That’s how we do things. So it’s a skill set.
But I don’t want to say that it’s just that—it’s also a principle because there are some people who do not believe in being collaborative. Or they say they do believe it, but they actually don’t do it. When it comes down to it, I want this and it’s good for me. And if push comes to shove, it’s not good for you—well, sorry. And that’s what people mostly do.
That’s one thing. The other is that they drive their threat up so quickly that they can’t think and they’re now in a position of absolutely standing strong in their own interests. And that will never work, ever, in a love relationship. It can’t work. It’s unsustainable. So you’ll see people who are trying to argue for what they want. They’re unable to argue for what the other person wants—which means they don’t put themselves in their shoes. They don’t care, basically. That’s one problem.
The other problem is the mismanagement of conflict, where partners don’t understand the need to be friendly and to watch what they say and do during times of distress—and to wave the flag of friendliness to each other, so that they can think. If they don’t do that they go to war and—again, like I said, these lower parts of the brain that are very, very fast and that have been around for a long time—they work on experience, shoot first and ask questions later and then you look at the dead bodies at the end and go, “Oops!” That’s the other problem.
So, I’d say those two things. You know, partners should ask themselves, “Do I believe in true mutuality? Do I believe that we should both win? Do I believe that, in order to get what I want, I must also make sure and understand what you want and speak to that as well?”
TS: OK, and what if one person in the couple finds themselves just too upset—too aroused. They’re not thinking straight. “Yes, I believe in mutuality but in this moment I’m not feeling it—something else has taken over me.” What can I do in that moment to bring myself back into the realm of a thinking person?
ST: Yourself? Or, what should the partner do?
TS: Both. Both.
ST: OK: The person who is in distress is not in the best position to think, therefore the other partner has a responsibility to do something to reduce the distress of that other partner. And so if you were the person—let’s say you and I. You were the person who started to feel more and more threatened and not happy with what I was saying. And we only had five minutes[;] we had to wrap this up so we could go. I probably would say something like, “You know, I know this is not working for you and there’s something I’m doing or saying that’s not helping. I know that. I am really sorry. I promise you that we’ll make this right. In fact, right after tonight, we’ll talk more and I’ll come up with something to make this OK for you, but we’re going to have to go. Are you OK with this? I love you so much and I’m so sorry I’ve made it hard, but we’ll work this out.”
I mean there are ways to be able to tie something up in the moment and to be able to move along, but the other partner has to be sensitive and aware of the other person’s perspective and their state of mind.
Now, that may not work. For everything I’m saying, there’s a situation that is, you know, “What about this?” Then we’d have to take that one by one.
TS: Now I know in your work you also emphasize when you’re talking about “fighting well,” the idea of “repair.” I wonder if you can speak some to that. How do we repair after we’ve blown it with our partner?
ST: Well, again, the fastest wins. There’s a big tick-tock element to this here. The longer it takes—if I hurt you and either don’t acknowledge it or I don’t fix it or repair it or make it right in some way. And you feel intensely about what I just did—that will go into long-term memory for you and that will be basically a fault of mine. I allowed that to happen.
So there is a problem with memory management here—that the longer you and I take to repair something, the more likely we will remember this for another day and it will just pile on to a litany of similar examples. This just builds and builds. The going away from each other and giving a long break—say of a day—some people do that, the don’t talk for a day or they don’t get back to each other for several hours—is penny wise, pound foolish.
Because in the time between the breach in the relationship—I hurt you and there’s a breach in the relationship, in the safety and security system. In the time between that occurrence and making things right or putting things back together again, you and I are going to suffer in some manner. We’re going to not attend as well to our work. We’re not going to think as clearly. We’re not going to perform very well anywhere. Our world is not going to be right. We’re expending expensive chemicals that are probably creating more wear and tear on our bodies. Nothing good is happening, actually.
After the first thirty minutes of being very, very excited, it takes about 25 to 30 minutes to calm down completely. After that, there’s a choice to not come back to the table and repair things. The longer it takes to repair, the more likely that it’s going to go into long-term memory—the more dangerous the relationship becomes, because again we’re in our own heads practicing what had happened. There’s no way correction or modification in real time, so I’m left to my own thoughts. Those thoughts aren’t pleasant and it’s going to build on feeling threatened in the relationship. And then the relationship will have much more to repair in the future.
So, nothing good can come of waiting a long time. The fastest wins and—we know this in my family with my daughter and my wife. When things happen—and they do happen—we’re all very quick to try to put things back together again, because life sucks in between. It’s just not pleasant when relationships feel broken, and our partner or somebody [that we care about] is not happy with us. We can compartmentalize it maybe, but we’re still being affected by it. I like to encourage people—as fast they can—to fix things.
Here’s the other thing: If I do something to hurt you and if I fix it—and that means do it right with you—very quickly, you’re likely not going to remember it. Again, that’s how memory works. Taking care of something very quickly, it doesn’t go into memory and people don’t use it again the next time something happens. Does that make sense?
TS: Any advice to someone on how to initiate repair? Like, OK, I know I need to repair with this person but I don’t really want to because I’m mad—but I heard Stan say that I’m supposed to.
ST: It’s very hard. Everybody can relate to the idea of, “I’m mad and now I know I could go back to him or her and say I’m sorry or kiss and make up or smile or do something friendly—but dammit I don’t want to!” I’m stomping my feet and I’m mad and all sorts of things I want to do other than that.
I think what brings us back to the table is, again, an agreed-upon principle that this is what we do. We agree that that it’s in our best interests, both personally and mutually, to fix things as fast as possible because—and then we would have to elaborate on that because we don’t gain anything from it. We get sicker. Our relationship becomes more dangerous. We suffer. Our work doesn’t do very well. Nothing goes really well. We come up with all of these reasons why it’s a good idea to build that in as a law—as a principle. This is what we do, this is what we don’t do.
And I think only by having some real ideas and have it thought through—why it’s a bad idea to continue this for a long time and what are the consequences for doing that. I think that can sometimes overrule the desire to punish you or to punish myself or to sulk.
So, for instance, I’m mad at my wife and we get into a fight and I’m really mad and I’m at work. I’ve calmed down enough to where I can now think, and I can think about repairing it. I can think about calling her up or doing something to reconnect and put our relationship back together again. I’m fighting with myself. I don’t really want to do this. But now I have thoughts of, “Well, OK, if I don’t do this I’m going to be in for a long day of pain.” I remind myself about all of the things that I’m not getting for this effort to maintain my angry stance. And I come to the conclusion that I’m just going to call and do something. Then my partner believes the same thing and so she’s very helpful and makes it easy for me and then together we’re able to put the relationship back together in quick order. You have to have two people who are interested in this and have reasons for why it’s a good idea to do this.
TS: OK, a couple more things that I want to draw out from your work, Stan, that I think are really practical—and honestly, I haven’t heard other people talk about them. So here’s one: you recommend that we have a 24/7 hotline to our partner. And you mean that literally. That I could contact my partner 24 hours a day, seven days a week and say, “Honey, there’s something I’d like to talk to you about or there’s something I need . . .” OK, I don’t think this would go over very well in my current situation and I’m wondering if other people might feel the same way?
ST: It’s a principle and like all principles there is an abstraction. It’s an abstraction. So, 24/7. Would you be willing to do that? Well a lot of people say, “No, you know what I don’t want to be woken up in the middle of the night while you tell me what you’re thinking about stuff that’s bothering you.”
TS: That’s a good example.
ST: Or, I’m at work. I’m not going to get on the phone if I’m in surgery. Of course I’m not going to do that.
Alright, so in practice there’s the reasonable part of this. And that is, of course, reasonable people can agree that there are time that would not be appropriate. But the reason that the idea of the 24/7 there is going back to an attachment principle having to do with [whether] you have somebody that you’re tethered with? Are you tethered to your partner? Do the two of you act in such a way that you’re the go-to people for each other—that you can contact each other, you have a red hotline to each other that nobody else has and would that be of benefit to you? If you had that, would that be a benefit? Could you see that you would have an advantage over those people who do not have that in life? And does having it—just knowing that it’s there, in that you both are giving permission for that to be there—does that give you some solace? Does that relax you and make you feel secure in life?
I think that’s the real spirit behind the 24/7 thing here. There’s a spirit of this that both people agree that it’s a good idea for at least one person—I appoint one person to have this ability and there’s quid pro quo in this. I can do that with them too.
The remarkable thing is when people feel absolutely that they have this ability to do this—that they agree—it is rarely abused, in my experience. I have not seen it abused. The people who look like they would abuse this are usually with somebody who somehow is holding back a little bit and is signaling, “You know what? I’m not that available.” That makes the other persons concerns amplified. But I don’t see people really taking advantage of this once they both agree that it’s a good idea. In reality—in practice—they don’t bug each other.
It’s kind of like in medicine—the bane of general practice or family medicine is the highly anxious somatic patient who is always wanting to call and has a lot to complain about. The strategy of working with those patients—for the doctor—is to make more appointments more frequently—which seems counterintuitive. But actually, it calms people down. When people know that you’re available and that you can be seen more often, they don’t get as anxious. They don’t call as often. They’re not as worried.
I think the same is true in love relationships. A lot of people are worried about being abandoned—being dismissed—because they’ve had that experience in their life and they have a partner who in some way is signaling that, which is amplifying that effect. The 24/7 idea is to calm that system down and to give two people a sense of primacy—that they are connected to each other, tethered together—which I think I’ve said to you is the best anti-anxiety medication—anti-depression medicine—there is. That idea of being tethered to someone—to a so-called secure base. So we’re really talking about a spirit of something—and people can take this quite literally and panic about it and say, “Well that’s not right. I’m not going to do that.” But they would be misunderstanding the spirit of this.
TS: Something else I wanted to ask you about is that you recommend that couples work together to develop morning and evening rituals in order to stay connected. I wonder if you can talk some about that? I mean—what about one person likes to stay up late and one person likes to go to bed early? I mean do we really have to go to bed at the same time?
ST: No, they don’t—although there have been a lot of studies on co-sleeping (and this is co-sleeping with an adult)—and that during the sleep cycle, people’s sympathetic nervous systems are regulating very nicely when they sleep together at night. So there’s some evidence to show that co-sleeping people get a better rest. We’re kind of meant to co-sleep as humans.
Having said that, that’s not the reason I wrote about that. Nighttime and morning—for children and for adults—seem to be the most vulnerable times of the day. If you think about it those are the biggest separations and reunions we experience. and both are separations and reunions in some ways. We reunite at night, but then we’re going to separate at night too by going unconscious and going to sleep. In the morning, we come out of unconsciousness and into wakefulness—which can be as shocking and disturbing for people as going to sleep and waiting for sleep to come about. If you have only two times in your busy schedule as an adult to connect with your partner, I’m recommending that those be the times concentrated on. Nighttime—putting each other to bed in some fashion; and waking up together and launching each other’s day.
I think we don’t pay much attention to this—many times we don’t think much of it. If you have your listeners—or you yourself—feel what it’s like when your partner goes to sleep before you, you might notice a slight pang—a feeling of being alone or that you’ve been left by that person. Or if you’ve woken up in the morning and the bed that was once filled is empty. You might have a slight feeling of disorientation and being left. So, I’m just talking about that.
Now, there are people who snore at night, have restless leg syndrome. And there are night owls and early birds. It doesn’t make sense for people—especially through the lifespan—to always be able to go to bed together at the same time, or in the same room even. But it could make sense to put the earlier person to bed and that there be some small ritual that closes the day together—that you’re the last two people that you see at night.
There are so many ways to do this. I recommend doing something that’s not parallel play—where you’re both watching a television show and not talking. But something where you read to each other, maybe say a prayer to each other, or maybe wish people who are alive and dead well, as you drift off to sleep together. Anything that’s perhaps face to face. It can be brief, very brief. The person who needs to stay up can lie down for a little bit. Although many times people who lie down to put their partners to bed find themselves more tired than they think and they just fall asleep. Other times they will get up and they will do their work.
I’m always concerned about people who are up alone at night—depending on who they are and whether they’re actually well-regulated when they’re alone or whether they’re acting out. That’s always a concern of mine. But there are people who cannot go to sleep at eight o’clock and there are other people who cannot stay awake past eight. So that’s just a reality.
In the morning, I think there are ways of—like my wife. My wife will now—because she gets up earlier than I do—she will stand over me and she will kiss me. She won’t ask me to open my eyes, but I have to smile in recognition of her saying goodbye so that I will remember that she said goodbye to me and this is in consideration of me, so that when I wake up I just don’t find an empty bed.
So there are ways of doing launchings when one person leaves earlier than the other. Ideally—I think it is. If people want to try it and even just try it for a couple of days and see if their day goes better. I think, ideally, it does work better when you go to bed together, go to sleep together, and you wake up together and launch each other in the morning.
TS: OK Stan, I have one final question for you. You’ve worked with so many different couples. Couples come to you—I’m sure many couples come to you in distress of all kinds and also just couples who want to deepen their relationship. And I’d love to know if there’s a telltale sign [of], “Oh, this couple, they’re going to make it.” Or, “Oh this couple is really not meant to be together, I can just see it. I can see the writing on the wall.”
ST: You know, being a therapist is a lot like being an audience member while watching a play or a movie, because the therapist is really soaking in the couple and taking them in and watching them and feeling them. Of course, the therapist has his or her own opinions and some of those opinions are from the therapist’s own life. But most often, I find for myself—when I start to feel that a couple is not going to make it, it’s transient and it is usually not me that’s originating that feeling. It’s coming from one or both partners. That they may be feeling helpless or hopeless.
And that feeling—I’ve come to know now—passes. The thing about pair bonding is that nature does a brilliant job of putting people together. And of course there are all different configurations of couples—some are by choice and some are not by choice. But the ones that are by choice—I generally think that nature does a brilliant job of matching people according to what’s familiar and what’s even familial.
So I don’t see it as my job to decide whether people should or shouldn’t be together. Relationships are incredibly sticky. Like the song, you know, breaking up is really hard to do. So I respect that and I think that ultimately it doesn’t matter what I think—a couple is going to surprise me almost always, anyway. They’ll stay together or they won’t stay together and they’ll do that quite naturally, regardless of therapy. My goal is not to ensure that they stay together. My goal is to ensure that their relationship is secure and functioning. That they’re operating on the principles of true mutuality: fairness, justice, and sensitivity. That they’re taking good care of each other properly. That’s my interest, not so much whether they stay together.
But yes, there are some times when I go, “Wow, this is really a great couple and I expect good things from them.” And there are other people I’ll sit in front of and I’ll go, “How did the possibly even get together? How did they even find each other?”
I’m amazed by some of the things that I see—some of the arrangements I see that people make. My interest is that they’re happy. It’s not that they’re relationship should be the one I would choose—or that I think that they should be doing what I think they should be doing. But I always look to see whether they are making each other happy. One of the interesting things about working with people from all over the world is that unhappiness looks the same no matter what country you’re in, no matter where you’re from. Faces tend to register distress and unhappiness cross-culturally.
This is really about two people forging a relationship that is sustainable and livable and that supports life and vitality. However they do that is fine by me.
But I can’t really ever predict, honestly, who’s going to make it and who isn’t going to make it. I can see things that look bad and I can tell a couple, “From everything you’re doing, this relationship doesn’t seem to have very long to live.” I can say that based on the markers that I see, but I can never really know for sure what’s going to happen.
TS: I’ve been talking with Stan Tatkin. Stan has developed an incredibly helpful body of work and I’m so pleased that Sounds True is able to put forward a six-session audio training course called, Your Brain on Love: The Neurobiology of Healthy Relationships. Stan, thank you! Thanks for all of the great work you’re doing.
ST: Thank you, Tami!
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voice, one journey. Thanks for listening.