An Interview with Dr. Stan Tatkin on His Approach to Helping Couples

Dr. Stan Tatkin is a clinician, researcher, teacher, and developer of the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy® (PACT). He has a private practice in Calabassas, California where he specializes in working with couples and individuals who wish to be in relationships. He trains therapists in his methods and has developed the PACT Institute for this purpose. He is also the author of several popular self-help books. 

What is the psychobiological approach to helping couples?

The approach itself is poly-theoretical and it is grounded in theory and science in three difference areas.  These areas are infant and adult attachment, arousal regulation, and developmental neuroscience. These things overlap and are inseparable. We are looking at the full development of each partner.  It is also a capacity model, which means we are not interested so much in topics like money, time or kids. We are interested in how these people operate on a nervous system level and what they are good and not good at or what they can and can’t do very well.

Our therapeutic stance involves what we believe regarding secure functioning in couples.  

Where does brain science fit in to the way you work with couples?

In this model, we don’t work with partners in terms of them taking care of themselves or focusing on themselves.  We work with them in a cross fashion.  It is more efficient for me to be an expert on you and to know how to regulate you than to do that with myself. And of course, you have to do the same thing with me.  For these relationships to work, in the long run, we have to know more about each other and how to manage each other more than any other person around.  That it is because it matters, first of all. And, because without focusing attention, we can’t possibly be in real time and actually know somebody. The reason for that is because of our automatic brains.  We have cortical functions so that everything that’s new and novel has to be moved into procedural memory. This is like cheap, imperfect automatic memory.  The novelty parts of our brain are too expensive to run.  It is using too many resources.  Then our body learns it and it gets relegated to automation.  This allows us to do a lot of other things.  The same happens when we meet someone new.  We are enthralled with each other. It’s like being on drugs at the beginning of a relationship.  We’re totally present. But soon, we are both automated. That’s normal and nature’s way of conserving energy in the brain.  It allows us to take on new tasks. The problem with us automating each other is that we draw on memory only as a way of understanding what you are going to do next. That’s when we start to make more errors. I am no longer fully present. I think I already know you and you think you know me. That knowledge is partly real, but it is mostly based on memory, automation, and the implicit brain. Most or our day is run on this memory only.  Can you imagine how many mistakes we make with our partners based on what we think is true? This is a big problem with couples.  

You talk about a few very helpful concepts in your book, Wired for Love.  For example, what is the “couple bubble”?

This is like being in the foxhole together.  We are trying to convey an idea here of secure functioning where you and I are partners and one of the reasons we are partners is not simply because we are in love or because we have things in common or want children but because we pair bond to protect us from the dangerous environment and from predators. That is what all mammals do when they pair bond.  So, it sets the frame and idea that you and I get together to have each other’s backs to protect our resources that we use to function in the world.  We protect each other in public and private and tell each other everything and are transparent. Not because we have to but because it doesn’t make sense to do otherwise. I pick you because I trust you to know everything I can possibly know about myself because why not? Why would I not want that?  We appoint each other and agree to do these things.  We appoint each other and are each other’s go-to people for when we are feeling hurt or depressed or sad or excited or celebratory.  We are each other’s first to know, were the top of the food chain, the roof of the house. We represent true home.  It’s a mindset based on social justice theory that says for us to thrive and survive we must think in terms of true mutuality. We have to think in terms of what is good for me is good for you. We are dedicated to principles that serve both of our needs.  We need a system that looks at the long run and gives us a perspective that is not simply based on feeling. This is what secure functioning is.  The couple bubble has us careful about anything or anyone that might endanger us or divide us or take our resources without our permission.  A lot of the attachment and developmental research shows that we can’t function properly unless we can take certain fears off the table. Those fears are around whether or not we are going to exist as a couple tomorrow. We make assurances so that is off the table. We are not going to be threatening to each other. This gives us freedom and resources to use for personal development, work, for everything. We tether together because that is how humans are wired.  We do that because we know that not doing that has definite consequences. 

What do you mean when you say “our brains are built for war”?

Our brains have a negativity bias. It’s built more for war in that we have to be more aware of pain, stress or fear in the environment and with others so we know how to survive.  If given the choice between encoding negative memory and positive memory, the brain is biased to encode the negative.  This is important because it explains why neglected children can be more violent, disturbed and anxious than those children who were abused. The reason is that the brain is not consistently interacting with a consistent other person is subject to its own negativity bias. That’s why solitary confinement is considered inhumane. We are not built to not interact with others.  The other important piece is that if I hurt you or not deal with your stress promptly, there is a buildup of negativity in you and about the relationship because there is a ticking clock. The longer it takes for relief, the more threatening the relationship becomes and the more likely that the memory will go into long term memory. If I don’t respond to your stress in a timely manner by some sign or action, you will take it as negative. Even neutral is taken as negative.

Can you discuss what you mean by “landing and launching”?

We know that kids are most vulnerable when they wake up in the morning and when they go to sleep at night.  We tend to dismiss this idea as adults. Yet, we need to put each other to bed at night and also have some sort of sending off ritual in the morning.  We will all do better during the day.  If you have no other time, make sure you focus on these separations and reunions. 

What about partners with a personality disorder?

This approach was designed to work with the most difficult people, including personality disorders and other major disorders.  The only goal is for them to be in a secure functioning relationship. Two people can create their own rules. We don’t go after the character issue. We pressure couples to do this and we have expectations for them to have secure functioning. Secure functioning is based on justice, fairness and sensitivity the couple has with each other. This may not mean changing their character. These people can be horrible to everyone else, but they can’t be horrible to each other. But, we find that when people are securely functioning, they are actually nicer.

What are your best tips for couples who are not being secure bases for each other? 

Being in the foxhole together has worked quite well. This idea that two people are protecting each other and are not at war with each other. Otherwise why even pair off? It is necessary to have each other’s backs. The only antidote to automation is presence and attention. Since we are visual animals, it is almost always the eyes. So eye gazing, checking with each other and looking into each other’s eyes. If couples are having any kind of emotional conversations, they should be looking directly at each other. Being quiet and alert with each other is also important. Being skilled at creating the addictive kind of love that Helen Fischer talks about, called exciting love.  This is done through the eyes and touch but also seeking novelty as a couple.  It is all in the attitude of using a third object, such as a new experience, for this excitement and romantic love. This triggers the dopamine reward system in the brain.  We keep wanting to come back to this again and again. This is what people complain about with passion in a relationship.  Because we operate automatically, we should cut each other more slack.  If you are my partner and I have upset you, I should take notice and the first thing out of my mouth should be relieving to you.  If it isn’t, then I am in trouble. Lead with relief and explain later. Care the most about the relationship, not right or wrong. Don’t explain your intention or explain yourself as this will be perceived as threatening.   


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Love Magazine: An Interview with Dr. Stan Tatkin on His Approach to Helping Couples
An Interview with Dr. Stan Tatkin on His Approach to Helping Couples
Love Magazine
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