Why do couples end up fighting tooth and nail over the toilet seat being left up or the toothpaste not being squeezed from the bottom?
Why do so many burgeoning relationships get squashed and we end up frustrated in not realising what happened or why?
Stan Tatkin’s work is essentially to answer this question and help us navigate the essentials to make relationships work.
Stan focuses on Attachment Theory and Neurobiology. He talks about couples really being nervous systems interacting.
Why Relationships Create So Much Anxiety
Becoming a couple in a committed relationship means your future is tied in with someone else’s.
This is threatening because you lose some degree of autonomy. You now have to consider someone else in all your decisions.
It’s scary because you are putting your trust in that person. So if they abandon, betray or otherwise abuse your trust, your well-being is at risk.
why your childhood affects now
How threatening this feels to you depends on your past experiences, especially your first experiences of life.
Let’s start by considering the story of the six blind men who come across an elephant. Each feels a different part and so their understanding of what an elephant is, varies depending on whether they feel his leg, trunk, tail, ears or main body.
Likewise, how we see the world depends on our experiences, observations and the stories we have learned about life from our parents and the wider culture.
Attachment theory is concerned with our very first experience of life.
It was an observation of infants and how they responded to their Primary Caregiver, usually at that time their Mum. Let’s look at how those experiences vary.
We are born helpless and unable to look after ourselves or even ask for what we need. As a new-born, we cry and our Carer has to work out whether we need food, comfort or our nappy changed.
As in all things people vary in their ability to respond effectively.
A Mum with post-natal depression might struggle. Someone under a lot of pressure and stress may not be as responsive. And of course, some people are less maternal, less caring and less responsive.
So essentially, our first experience of life depends on how we are looked after.
Some babies are lucky to be looked after by someone who mostly responds to their cries by giving them what they need.
They learn to trust that their parents will supply their needs and care for them.
They will suffer separation anxiety when separated from their parent as their safety comes from the relationship. They then see relationships as an essentially safe and secure place and typically trust a partner to be there for them.
Equally others came from a home where they couldn’t trust that they’d get their needs met. They won’t be particularly bothered when their parents go because they aren’t reliant on them.
They have learned that you have to meet your own needs and that you can’t rely on others.
Becoming a couple is very threatening because their experience is that people let you down. And so they will often push people away because consciously – or not – they fear losing their independence and autonomy. Because who else is going to look after them.
Others have a Carer that didn’t respond to them consistently. They may have been valued or given attention when they did certain things and punished if not. They may have been born in an unhappy marriage and became used as a source of comfort.
So they have learned that they have to be ‘good enough’ within a relationship.
They will be needy and constantly looking to please their partner because they feel that is what they have to do to be loved.
The Myth of objectivity
One of the myths we believe is that we react consciously and dependent on objective facts.
Actually, we mostly react unconsciously based on our mood.
What we think on the surface of what is going on in our relationships depends on how we feel.
Imagine someone has been publicly humiliated in a high pressure meeting. They then go home and are going to react very differently than someone who has just been praised.
The objective facts are the same, but how we interpret them are down to our mood.
So our fights about the toilet seat and toothpaste are mostly about feeling stressed, tired and under pressure and feeling like our partner isn’t there for us.
We mostly haven’t thought that deeply about it. We just see the clothes on the floor and react.
Once we get into the fight we become defensive and amplify to stand our ground. Yet, the real trigger is that we don’t feel good and we are angry that our partner won’t meet our needs and soothe us.
Becoming A couple bubble
Becoming a couple means we form what Tatkin calls a Couple Bubble. This is best summed up by the Gottman’s motto ‘Baby, when you hurt, the world stops’.
Our job as a Partner in other words is to support and soothe our partner and vice versa.
He gives some examples of how people can over-react without being honest about what they are thinking and feeling and how this can lead to couples rowing without being able to heal and prevent future conflict.
He also shows how relationships could go very differently with more honesty, vulnerability and sensitivity.
Primitives and Ambassadors
Triune brain theory tells us that we have three brains that have different functions. Tatkin distinguishes between the Primitives that deal with fear and danger. And the Ambassadors that are more conscious to try and smooth things over.
Both can work together to wreck relationships.
Our Primitives exist to keep us safe. They look for signs of danger and create a more primitive reaction in us. They can make us over-react and act more emotionally. It’s these that get us into heated arguments.
Our Ambassadors are more concerned with our social image. They want us to be seen as ‘normal’ and worry what other people think about us. These will stop us from being truthful about what we really feel. They’ll gloss over why we were really arguing in favour of something that doesn’t make us look so emotional.
Our work in a relationship is to soothe ourselves and each other and create the safe place where we can be ourselves.
The reality is that we all underestimate how much our animal nature affects our relationships. We may have created a world that makes us feel and look civilised, but our evolution is still based in prehistoric times.
We can pretend to be ‘civilised’, but our stress and anxiety levels tell us something different.
Tatkin's Dating Advice
He starts by suggesting we should be conscious of what we are looking for and how we envisage that going.
He talks about three levels of getting to know someone.
First we screen them for our impressions.
If we think they have potential, he suggests meeting friends of family and getting their impressions of them.
Thirdly, he talks about Sherlocking. This is looking for clues about someone from what you can see and thinking through the implications for being in a relationship with them.
He suggests not committing to anyone within a year until you have a chance to know someone at a deeper level.
Moving Into a relationship
Once the relationship establishes itself, Tatkin suggests having a clearly defined agreement.
Because the person you see every day seems familiar we don’t see them as a threat. Therefore we run the relationship on autopilot.
This means that we only pay it attention when our Primitives (our reptilian brain) sees something as a threat.
This means we kind of drifting along taking the other person for granted until we sense a threat. Maybe, it’s a sign they don’t care about us. Maybe it’s jealousy. Or perhaps it’s their decision to commit to a big purchase that we disagree with.
To avoid this and ensure the relationship remains strong Tatkin advises continuing to date and re-connect with your partner.