What’s the best way to overcome conflict in your relationship? How does it change based on your attachment style? And can you use what we know about our biology, and our memory, to keep a relationship from getting past the point of no return? In today’s episode, we’re blessed with a return visit from Stan Tatkin. Along with training couples therapists and conducting workshops for couples all over the world, Stan is the author of Wired for Love, Wired for Dating, and the recent audio program from SoundsTrue – RelationshipRx: Insights and Practices to Overcome Chronic Fighting and Return to Love. Stan’s work blends Attachment Theory with Interpersonal Neurobiology, helping couples leverage science to succeed in long term relationships. It’s always a treat to have him here on the show, and our conversation today will give you fresh insights into how to fight, how to repair, and how to transform conflict into something that helps you and your partner grow closer together.
As always, I’m looking forward to your thoughts on this episode and what revelations and questions it creates for you. Please join us in the Relationship Alive Community on Facebook to chat about it! Also, see below for links to our other episodes with Stan Tatkin.
Along with our amazing listener supporters (you know who you are – thank you!), this week’s episode has two amazing sponsors. Each has put together a special offer for you as a Relationship Alive listener. Please visit them to take advantage of their offer and show appreciation for their support of the Relationship Alive podcast!
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Check out Stan Tatkin’s website
Listen to Stan Tatkin’s new release, RelationshipRx, offered through SoundsTrue.
Read Stan Tatkin’s books
FREE Relationship Communication Secrets Guide – perfect help for handling conflict…
Guide to Understanding Your Needs (and Your Partner’s Needs) in Relationship (ALSO FREE)
Here are links to our other episodes with Stan Tatkin (prior to this one):
Amazing intro/outro music graciously provided courtesy of: The Railsplitters – Check them Out
Neil Sattin: Hello and welcome to another episode of Relationship Alive. This is your host, Neil Sattin, and we are coming to you in full Technicolor today, which is a first for Relationship Alive, not a first for our illustrious and lovely guest, Stan Tatkin, who’s back on the show. He was here in episode 19 way back when we started, talking about a recipe for a secure and healthy relationship. He was also here talking about his book Wired For Dating and Love and talking about psychobiology, which we’ll address a little bit in today’s episode, back in episode 50. And you can listen to either of those episodes by visiting neilsattin.com/wired or neilsattin.com/wired2. We’ll make this one neilsattin.com/wired3, so you can download. We’ll have a transcript for this episode and any related links that we talk about over the course of our conversation.
Neil Sattin: So we’re here to talk about a couple of things like when we dive in to the work as a couple and that work involves how you maintain your connection, how you maintain your safety, while at the same time keeping things exciting, but not too exciting because you’re collapsing into fights and distress. It’s a balancing act and it requires a level of skill that we are just now really coming to grips with, like what skills are required when it comes to relational excellence in long term relationships. And Stan is one of today’s leading experts in how to navigate that well. And one thing that I loved, Stan, in listening to your recent recording that you did for Sounds True called Relationship Rx, which is all about overcoming chronic fights in a relationship, I love that you were right upfront by saying, “Hey, if you’re in a real relationship, you’re gonna be dealing with this. I deal with this.” I deal with this with my wife, with my children. And so there’s not this halo that somehow because we’re relationship experts that we’re not affected by things like getting triggered and getting knocked off balance and having to come back and repair. I’m excited to have you here to get real about this art of how we stay safe and secure and there are also a few specific questions that I have for you along the way that have come in from listeners to the Relationship Alive podcast.
Stan Tatkin: Sure.
Neil Sattin: It’s a pleasure to have you back, so thanks for joining me today.
Stan Tatkin: Thank you, Neil. It’s good to be back.
Neil Sattin: Awesome. Awesome. I would like to just… Let’s just have a nutshell summary of psychobiology. What do you mean by that since your approach is a psychobiological approach to couple’s therapy, which is the PACT that we see behind you here for those of you who are watching.
Stan Tatkin: Well, think of it as study of the brain and the body. We could say it’s psycho-neurobiology or neurobiology, but psychobiology is basically taking a developmental approach to the human primate lifespan and in particular pair bonding with and between humans. This is basically a capacity model, meaning we’re looking at social-emotional development from even in utero. But postnatally, we’re looking at the networking of these structures and the function of these structures that allow us to be effective human beings with each other, particularly when it comes to attraction and when it comes to distress. Those are the two areas that encompasses the burden placed on people who are and are not socially-emotionally intelligent.
Neil Sattin: Right, so this question of how we as organisms, like what generates attraction in us on a physiological level as well as a psychological level and then also how do we manage the problem states that come up.
Stan Tatkin: Yes.
Neil Sattin: On a physiological and psychological level.
Stan Tatkin: Yes. And a lot of what we see between human beings is psychological to be sure, but not in the traditional sense. A lot of what happens between people is involving automatic systems that are recognition based and not thought based. They’re recognition based because we’re fundamentally memory. That’s how we operate. Everything we do is based on memory. There is, on balance, very little that we do that requires the kind of cognition, predicting, rotating objects in three dimensions in our head, planning. All of these things contingent kinds of processing. We don’t do that at any given time during the day, very much compared to how much we are automated and how much we are using these very lightning-fast recognition systems. And so we’re talking here about the human condition, not about individuals, per se.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, I loved in Relationship Rx where you talked about how when we first meet someone, we experience them, it’s this amazing novel, new thing, a new person in our lives. But that very quickly, you use the phrase, “we automate them”, we push them back into the rote memory that allows us to just function automatically with that person.
Stan Tatkin: Yes, nature has built in energy conserving functions in our brain and in our body. If we didn’t have these, we wouldn’t survive, we wouldn’t be here. So we can only perceive so much, hear so much, feel, taste, smell so much. We only have so many neurons for those things. And because there’s so much sensory motor information that we have to process at every moment, the brain has to gate or limit that information. And especially limit the amount of information that floats up to consciousness or awareness. So most of the time we are doing things on a level where we’re not being told, we don’t get permission or give permission to some of the things that we do by these primitive areas that are recognition memory based that allow us to go through the day and do the many, many things that we do and still conserve energy. So, this is not a bug, it’s a feature. But in relationships it can also be a bug.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, right, exactly. Because then you could be stuck in painful memories of what’s happened either in your relationship or the things that happened long ago that your relationship evokes, right?
Stan Tatkin: Well, yes. In the love relationship in particular, a relationship I think of as the hardest one on the planet. The reason it’s so difficult is that it is a dependency relationship that replicates the earliest ones we had before the age of 12. And it has a very long memory. Whereas at work, with friends, it’s there but it’s not animated in the same way as it is when we start to depend on somebody and they become permanent in our head, or at least we think they are. And that’s when we start to remember what it’s like to depend on somebody. The good things and the not so good things. So, this again, is how we roll. This is the nature of the beast, which is us. And it’s normal. But the more history that’s there that makes us anxious and fearful of what will happen, the more our behavior is altered in a way that causes relationship troubles.
Neil Sattin: So, what you mean is the more history you have the more pain you’ve experienced.
Stan Tatkin: The more history that’s not resolved or corrected by other intimate relationships. So, we’re hurt by people, we’re healed by people. The kinds of things that we remember in relationship has to do with interaction. It has do with memory of how we felt and our perception at the time. Not to mention our ability to think at the time, developmentally. We’re not… For instance, there’s a misnomer that we marry our mothers or our fathers. That’s not true. We marry those people who we recognize as familiar, both in ourselves and in the people that we’ve been around. But what triggers us is the experience of being on the other end of those interactions. So, I feel as I did when I was with my father and he yelled at me. I feel as I did when I was with my mother and she was late to pick me up at school, again and again.
Stan Tatkin: So, these injuries are what we anticipate the next time we depend on somebody. This is simply a memory issue. It can go away, also, but that’s another discussion. It goes away in the relationship through reparative actions. Both partners have to really understand this. Again, nature doesn’t build this into our DNA as something we are aware of and we do well because nature does not have a plan for long term relationships. Nature has a plan for mixing up the gene pool. That’s it. The rest of it is on our shoulders. So, we have to now understand how the brain works, how the human being works, what not just causes problems in love relationships, but many of those problems are gonna be with all relationships if we don’t really understand what we’re dealing with.
Neil Sattin: Let’s tackle that for a moment. And I don’t want this to take over our entire conversation as it easily could. But, here we are in modern culture. There’s a vibrant dialogue happening about whether or not we are designed to be monogamous. And we had Helen Fisher on the show talking about how in a lot of societies…In a lot of societies that more like serial monogamy is kind of built into the structure of their societies and that, in a way, that’s more natural. And yet here we are talking about successful long-term relationships and acknowledging that in some respects, we’re battling nature, we’re battling biology in order to do that. And of course, doing that, when I think about clients I’ve worked with, and I’m sure you have this all the time, that there’s this element of, “Well, why not? Okay, you’re having a really hard time, go your separate ways, find new people, do it all over again. Why not do that?” So where do you come down, ’cause I think you, like I do, do come down on the side of, “No, there’s a lot to be gained in figuring this out and supporting each other as you grow and blossom in your life and doing that with one long-term partner.” And I’m curious to know, do you believe that? Or is it in flux for you? Or what are your thoughts around that?
Stan Tatkin: Well, there are very… Very few animals on the planet are actually monogamous. The ones that are is what we study like the prairie vole. Prairie voles. The dik-dik. The smallest antelopes in Africa. One dies, the other dies. They work together. They are devoted to each other because their lives depend on it. And there are certain voles, by the way, that are absolutely not monogamous, and a lot of it has to do with the brain structure and a lot of it has to do with neurochemicals and so on. There are some humans that are more monogamous than others. You spoke with Helen. Helen believes that there are some babies that are born into an environment where there’s a lot of testosterone, and those babies grow up into adults who have great sex lives, very, very long sex lives, but they also stray from their partners. They also have anger management issues. They also have other issues. So we have to have another reason, if we’re going to be monogamous, to be monogamous, and that is entirely a top-down process. Top-down meaning it’s one like we would do with moral reasoning. Why should we not kill? There’s moral reasoning around that. Why should we be monogamous? Well, you don’t have to be. If you say that you are polyamorous, that’s fine, but why are you polyamorous?
Stan Tatkin: So here, now, we’re talking about the human capacity to override urges, impulses, mood, personality, all sorts of things, in order to get along. Here we’re talking about social contract theory. How do societies, people get along? How do civilizations get along? Well, if you let people do what they do, they don’t get along. They kill each other. They rob each other. They pillage. They do all sorts of things. History has proven that to us. So how do people then get along? Well, religion was one way, get people to fear a god and that God is watching you all the time, that will keep you in line. We come up with tablets from on high, the Ten Commandments, thou shalt not kill. That doesn’t mean thou shalt not kill if I’m in the mood. Even a two-year… Or three-year-old knows what it means. You don’t do it, right? So these are ideas that form societies, form civilizations so that people can get along together. That is not because they are the same people. They are different people with different backgrounds and different wants and needs, different brains.
Stan Tatkin: Now, when we talk about a couple, we’re talking about the smallest unit of a society. That’s a two person system, and it operates by rules of social justice as well, unless there are no principles, in which case it’s the wild west. So why are you gonna be monogamous? That’s the important thing. Why is it a good idea for you? And why is it a good idea for your partner? And if you can’t sell the idea to your partner, it’s not gonna work.
Stan Tatkin: If you can’t say with complexity why it serves a personal good and a mutual good, you won’t do it. So here we’re talking about the human capacity to override what would be our more primitive natures, because human beings are fundamentally selfish, impulsive, moody, changeable, we’re moving through time also. There are all these factors that can really get in the way of a long-term relationship. So there has to be some unifying ideas that pull people together, that both people are on-board with, otherwise they won’t do it. So that’s what I think. But we’re talking about two people having a vision on the big ticket items agreeing on where they’re going and that they agree on certain principles that ensure that they’re protected from each other and everyone else, like does the relationship come first, above all things. It doesn’t have to, but if one person says yes and the other person says, no, there will be trouble.
Stan Tatkin: So that’s how I’m thinking, not so much whether people are monogamous or should be monogamous, or they should be serial monogamists or whatever they do. Usually I don’t see people that are unhappy, so they’re doing all this stuff and they’re fine. But when they’re not fine, they come in to see me and you, right?
Neil Sattin: Right, exactly. And I wanna dive into that ’cause I think it would be really helpful to talk about how to fight well, and I know that’s the bulk of your Relationship Rx program that came out with Sounds True. And I also hear in what you’re talking about, ’cause you have a new book coming out as well, right? We Do.
Stan Tatkin: We Do, which is a pre-commitment, a pre marital book.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, so it must be tackling some of these questions about, why are we even doing this to begin with?
Stan Tatkin: Why are we even doing this? What’s the point? Why do we get paid the big bucks? What do we serve? Who do we serve? What’s the point of this whole thing? And it’s remarkable how many people cannot answer that question.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. Chloe and I are actually doing a series on the podcast for our wedding vows where we’re doing one vow at a time and just talking about why they were important for us and what the principles were and the values underlying the various vows that we made to each other.
Stan Tatkin: Right. And it becomes sort of your ethical and moral compass, which then when you have children, that is something that they see not hear about. If you wanna see how to fight, kids, watch Mom and I. We fight, we say things, we apologize, we come back together again, watch what we do. How many couples can say that. And so that’s wonderful that you’re doing that. Are you gonna make them plaque worthy? Do you have a plaque?
Neil Sattin: [chuckle] I think posters are coming out for sure. They’re definitely Instagram worthy anyway. [chuckle] And at the same time, it’s great I think, because it’s a dynamic thing. So even though we made vows and those in some ways are static, ’cause those are the promises we made to each other. But even in just sitting down to talk about each one, they become a living thing. I feel like I’m talking about the Constitution being a living document. But it’s kind of along those lines where by being in conversation about our agreements, it gives us the opportunity to live into them more and to decide like, “Wait a minute. Is that what I really meant?” Or, “Is that what you really meant?” And yeah, it creates conversation.
Stan Tatkin: The purpose of that, what you’re talking about, is to make life easier, is to make the relationship easy because the world is not, life is not, but the relationship should be. Resource should not be resource expending to a degree where you’re tied up with each other. So the whole idea of having these agreements, these principles that you believe in, whether you’re together or you’re not together, whether one person does it or not. This is what you stand for. The reason to do that is it makes everything easier. And when one of you falls off the wagon in some way, the other person just invokes, “Remember, this is what we do.” And if you are true to your word, the answer should be, “You’re right. I’m so sorry.” That makes life easier.
Stan Tatkin: When you both are on the same page with big items, that reins in both of your behavior. It’s so funny, I just saw a couple this morning like this. They never talk about this stuff. They don’t have any big ideas that bring them in or inform what they’re going to do, if then. And so they just basically do what they want, which is what most people do, and then they wonder why they end up with a more threatening experience in the relationship and accrue all this unfairness and injustice. So these are very important things to have the big ideas that we can cling to, that we can see, that override these day to day shifts and changes in us. Otherwise, we’re not safe. And so that’s why the rigor of not just coming up with these principles, but also defending them when challenged by somebody. Can you say to somebody in a complex way why you’ve decided to be monogamous, why you decided to tell each other everything and be fully transparent. ‘Cause if you can’t then what’s to hold you in when you don’t feel like doing these things? So they’re really important.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. And that reminds me of something else you were talking about in Relationship RX that made an impression on me, which is the importance of creating safety in relationship not just to avoid creating problems and not just to foster positive energy in your relationship, but because when you are safe it actually allows you to live a more complex life. And I’m not talking about complex like, “I’m overwhelmed because my life is so complicated.” I’m talking about the kind of complexity that helps you feel like you’re alive and thriving and not just doing the same thing over again. You’re not in a procedural, rote life. You’re actually engaged and curious, but that safety is really required for you to engage in life that way.
Stan Tatkin: This is something that people don’t understand until they break the relationship, usually by some act of betrayal. Is that the safety and security system is really all the couple has. It is the foundation, it’s the ground they stand on. And if either partner messes with that, it is like being… It’s like having an earthquake or a volcanic eruption. It takes a long time to recover from that. And unfortunately, people will learn this by making that mistake. But that is really the foundation of these inter-dependent relationships, where lives depend on fealty and radical loyalty because that’s not how the world operates. And so the couple is agreeing to do something that nobody else will do because people are basically a burden. They’re doing things for each other as full burdens that nobody wants to do unless they get paid a lot of money. And that’s what makes them special. But they have to both see that this is mutually assured survival and thriving, and also mutually assured destruction. That’s the power they have over each other. And adult couples who are wisened to this, get it. And they know that there are lines they do not cross, and they do not mess with the safety or the security system of the relationship.
Neil Sattin: And that brings us into the conversation about attachment and attachment styles and how that impacts safety. And we spoke about this the other times that you were on the show. So I don’t wanna spend too much time there. But one thing that has been interesting since you’ve been on the show is that a lot of people come to the dialogue by saying, “Oh, I’m a wave and my partner is an island”, or “I’m an island, and my partner is a wave”. And I guess for the most part, it’s the waves who are coming. The islands don’t tend to come to the conversation, so at least in my experience, the waves are like, “What the fuck do I do with my island partner? How do I bring them to the table?” And this makes me think of two things. One is some reassurance from you about… Well, one like how to not bludgeon your partner with the labeling and how confining that can be.
Stan Tatkin: Right.
Neil Sattin: And then the second part is also… Actually there are three parts. [chuckle] So one is how to not bludgeon. The second is recognizing that there’s some malleability in who we are. And I recognize that there have been times in my life where I’ve been totally secure. I’ve been that anchor that you talk about. And then even like Chloe and I were talking about this just before you and I started talking. Like at the beginning of our relationship, I was more of a wave and she was more of an island. And somewhere along the way, we actually switched sides and I became more island-ish and she became more wave-ish. And in truth, we end up more and more anchored with each other, which is, I think where you wanna be. So there’s not bludgeoning, there’s malleability and what’s behind that. And then the last piece is, how do… This is for you waves out there and maybe for you islands too who are listening. It’s how do you bring a partner to the table? Especially a partner who seems shut down. If you’re a wave in those circumstances, you might be thinking, “Oh, I either have to learn to live with this, or I have to ditch this relationship because this person is not willing to show up with me. It’s too threatening for them.” That’s a lot.
Stan Tatkin: Okay. I’ve got it. Let me take them in turn.
Neil Sattin: Alright.
Stan Tatkin: One of the things that I was horrified when I wrote the second book with islands, anchors, and waves, was people starting to read it coming in and self identifying, and I thought, “Oh boy, here we go”. And here’s the problem with it. One, the human mind needs above all to feel, or to be organized, to be able to take experience and to be able to organize it. And one of the ways it organizes is by categorizing and comparing and contrasting, that’s part of the human mind. And so as much as we don’t like categories, we always seek them anyway. The problem with it is that the categories organize some kind of experience in order to understand something, but it also can be used improperly. Just like religious texts can be used improperly. Everything could be used improperly, the DSM IV, or V rather can be used improperly. So it’s not going away. We will always categorize, but problem also, about misusing this need of ours is also not going away. So here’s the skinny on it. These are not personalities. These have to do with adaptations to environment.
Stan Tatkin: When we talk about someone who’s anxious-avoidant, or anxious-ambivalent, or I call that group sometimes angry-resistant because of studying babies, how they look. We’re talking about a reaction to a system or a relationship, the most probably important relationship, the primary one where there’s uncertainty, anxiety in the interactions, right? The baby… The child learns to adapt to the needs and the behaviors and the expectations as perceived by the caregivers, right? And then makes the adaptations.
Stan Tatkin: However, the problem is, is that these adaptations are born out of feeling afraid or anxious. “If I do this, this will happen. If I don’t do this, this will happen.” And so, as John Bowlby found, that insecurely attached babies, children, adults carry a bigger burden through life because their dependency relationships carry with it a memory of what could or will happen actually, that changes their behavior that actually, as I said before, will cause problems in the relationship. So I’m afraid of being used. I’m afraid of being interfered with, having my independence taken from me, having my stuff taken from me, being co-opted, used as a doll or as a performer. Dance for grandma, all of that. Gee, that was really nice, but also nobody saw me. Nobody really explained things to me. I didn’t get that kind of interaction. This family was all about performance and all about appearances, and that is a burden. And I’m angry because I resent that. Or if I’m in a family where I had to take care of one of my parents and emotionally regulate them, I was discouraged from growing up, separating, individuating, and I was rewarded for being little dependent. I’m angry about that because I can never grab what I want. I have to wait for it to come to me and then I will be rejected and punished. How do I know this? I remember it.
Stan Tatkin: So, we’re talking about fear. When we talk about attachment, we’re only talking about fear of what I know has happened and I anticipate it happening again. That’s all it is. It’s around safety and security. These descriptions are not real people. There is no theory that actually defines a real person. It defines aggregates of people. A general idea that might be useful for a physician or a clinician to be able to reconstruct, based on very little knowledge, what this person’s trajectory might be, what they’re likely to do in the near future. That is useful for helping people. But unfortunately, it’s used to bang each other over the head and to wrongly self identify because of this condition that is part of the human bug of trying to label thyself, and it’s false. So we have to understand that these are ideas. They’re not people. Real people are more complex. Secondly, to your second point, this is… Attachment was studied with babies and adult attachment came later, it’s still in its formative years. And it is, again, based on aggregates of people, not individuals, per se. And it doesn’t take into account a two person system, which is ultimately much more complex, unpredictable, and phenomenological. So now you have two people interacting at lightning speeds, becoming a system where you cannot tell who’s leading or following.
Stan Tatkin: And is that an island or a wave? I don’t know. This person is acting more distancing that causes the other person to cling more. More often than not, people who pair bond are more alike than they’re not. More alike. They just look like a duck, but they’re a dog. And we can test this out in clinic by shoving them together, especially the person who says, “Oh, I want so much more. I want to be loved. I wanna be held. I wanna be kissed. I want more sex and everything”. And then you move toward them really quickly and you go, “Would you like somebody who’d cling to you?” And they go, “No, no, no, no.” Okay. So, this is an illusion that’s created by the homeostatic process of a two-person system, like a Mickey Mouse balloon. You squeeze one ear and the other one gets bigger. You squeeze the other ear and the other one gets bigger. That’s couples. Where there’s one, there’s the other. I guess, all of this to say that it doesn’t matter, because two people, no matter where they’re coming from, can get along as long as they have a unifying idea of why they’re together and why they’re interdependent. That overrides everything.
Stan Tatkin: And what you’re describing about getting somebody to come to the table, whether it’s an island, or a wave, or a jackal, it really has to do with survival. Is it in your best interest to be difficult and to cause your partner pain, which is gonna come right back at you, that’s self-harming. Is it in your best interest to avoid conflict when that actually creates conflict, do it and have a good time. When you are in a couple, it is a three-legged race. One of you goes down, the other goes down. The two of you are affecting each other immediately. There’s nothing I can do to you Neil that you won’t do right back. And this is [chuckle] the clown show, sometimes. That is us. We don’t realize this because we’ve been acculturated to this idea that we’re autonomous, we should be autonomous, independent individuals, but we are not. That’s partly true. We are dependent creatures. We are herd animals that pair bond in herds, and there’s no getting away from that. So, that’s the big picture answer.
Stan Tatkin: As for the island, islands have to understand that conflict avoidance is by itself threatening. There’s no way you can be conflict avoidant and not threaten your partner, it’s not possible. So, that has to be looked at. And the other partner, the wave, who’s constantly bullying and battering and pursuing and can’t let go, that’s not gonna work either. So, both of them have to reel themselves in, in order to create a secure functioning relationship that protects them both from each other. That’s how it’s, ultimately it’s gonna work, there is no other way. I hope that answers all three.
Neil Sattin: Yeah that was great actually. And it makes me wonder… Okay, let’s bridge in to the conversation of… Let’s just say, “Okay, this isn’t quite working. And I wanna weigh whether I’m an island or a wave, to bring that up that creates safety and brings both of us to the table.” So how would you approach that in coaching a couple through that kind of dialogue?
Stan Tatkin: Also consider this, if the two of you, any two of you were on an island together alone, you’d either kill each other or you’d find a way to get along and work collaboratively and cooperatively. Collaboratively and cooperatively, that’s the key. We have mutual interests, you and I. And sometimes people have to get beaten over the head until they figure it out. If you had two kids and they’re not getting along, put them in a room, you don’t get out until you guys agree on something that’s good for both of you, they’ll do it. And a lot of this has to do with expectation.
Neil Sattin: I’m glad we’re not veering into parenting strategies or… [laughter]
Stan Tatkin: Not yet. I’m not gonna talk about… Just leave a little bowl of water for them. But I say this because there are places and conditions in the world where people get this naturally because they don’t have time for this. They’re dodging bullets, they’re dealing with real world dangers, they have to work together. And again, the environment enforces this, but to get two people to do this really requires them to work together as a team to see that they depend on each other for anything that’s gonna be good, and they have to work together or it will not work in any part of the universe. That’s just not how it’s gonna work. Unfortunately, we bring to the table our childhood experiences and what we saw with our parents, and many of us, maybe most of us did not see that. And so we only do know what we know, and what we know is what we experienced, and that’s it. I experienced that there’s too much unfairness in my family, too much injustice, too much insensitivity, so now I behave that way, and I accuse you of being that way. I know when you’re doing it, I don’t know or care when I’m doing it. So there has to be a “come to Jesus here” of reckoning of how are we going to do this, you and I. So we work together, given our differences, meaning that at the bottom of this we accept each other as is, and we go from there. And sometimes you work with what is not working.
Stan Tatkin: How do we put that into a principle that both of us can buy into, that will reign us in, that will solve that problem, not by being different but by doing business different together. And again, that has to do with a certain level of maturity of understanding this is a two person psychological system, not a one person psychological system. And most people out there operating as a one person system, which will never work because it’s too unfair, it’s too insensitive. And so, people will eventually complain. So the answer to that is, what do we stand for? Why are we doing this? What’s the point of this? What we’re gonna do for each other we couldn’t pay someone to do? Beyond attraction, beyond interest, beyond being in love, what’s the point of us? And looking down the road in the long run, not just today or tomorrow. And it has to be cooperative and collaborative, otherwise it cannot work. That’s what I’m heavy on with couples in my office, and when I see them not getting that, I’m very strong about this, I expect them to do this. There is no other way for them to get through therapy with me except if they do this, otherwise they’ll fire me. But again, expectation is the big thing.
Neil Sattin: And maybe what I’m also hearing there…Is the importance of both people realizing it’s not that I have to not be me, it’s almost like just a little bit less of me, a little bit, but less of me in the dysfunctional way. Like, if we’re willing to both look at a situation and say, “You know what? When I just… ” Rather than, let’s just say like for me when I’m feeling more islandy, it’s because I haven’t trusted that my partner could really hear what I had to say. And it would be… Or that I could deliver in a way that wasn’t gonna blow up into something crazy. So for me, it’s easier to just go and be in my own world or deal with it on my own, than it would be to lean into the relationship and vice versa. When I’ve been more of a wave, I can recall times where I’ve been more like, “Oh, if I’m not willing… If I let this go, then it’s never gonna get resolved. It’s up to me to pull my partner into this conversation, into this dialog no matter what”. And of course, in the process driving them crazy. So I’m talking about one person being able to have a little bit more space, but in the context of recognizing, if all I do is take my space, then the things that actually matter to me may never actually get resolved.
Neil Sattin: And my partner may never actually get to know me because they just know the still waters part of me, but they don’t get the run deep part of me. Or on the other side, my partner may never really know me because I’ve turned the volume up so loud on who I am that their system is just blocking them from me as much as possible. But in that context, both people can come to the table and be honored in who they are.
Stan Tatkin: Right. This is a very good point. No, people have to be who they are. You don’t do these relationships to be a different person, you do these relationships to be… To relax and to be exactly who you are. But having said that, you’re in a two person system, therefore, when dealing with you, I have to take care of you and me at the same time. I can’t just take care of me. If I want to get anywhere or get anything or to be heard, then I have to keep you in mind every moment, watch you, watch your face, you are my audience. If I blow you out of the water, game over for me. If I’m insensitive and I don’t notice I just stepped on your toes or hurt you and I don’t stop the presses and go, ” I’m sorry, are you okay, did I do that thing again?” If I don’t do that, I lose. And so this is this way. It’s not this way, this way, and you’re in each other’s care. Therefore it’s not just about you, it’s about you paying attention to the other person, your audience. How do they hear things, how do they see things? I know you knew, I know what makes you tick. I know what scares you. I know what uplifts you. I know what I do that makes you crazy. And if I don’t acknowledge that or take care of you at the same moment, I lose you as an audience and now we’re going to be at war.
Stan Tatkin: So people should be who they are. But they have to remember that what they do, what they say, how they sound has an impact on this other person who has their own prism that they’re looking through, and that prism is changing constantly according to their state of mind. This is where the consideration and the realization that I’m talking to a different animal, the animal that is you, I have to be a Neil whisperer, or I get nothing. You have to be a Stan whisperer or you get nothing. And so many of us talk and act as if we’re the only ones here. And it doesn’t bother me if you did that, I don’t know why you’re upset. It’s all about me. And I don’t realize if with this animal, that’s Neil. If I approach on the left, I get bit, I keep approaching on the left ’cause I’m angry, I should be able to approach on the left. I’ll get bit every time. That’s stupid. It really is about not being a different person, but about fucking getting it in your head that you are with someone who’s different and you have to know that at all times or you suffer the consequences. Full stop.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. Yeah.
Stan Tatkin: And when we lose, we lose. We learn, we dust ourselves off. Oops! Sorry. And then we get another chance ’cause the universe keeps pitching us. There’s always a chance to get it right and to work it out. But the key is also coming back to the table and fixing it. Always, because of the memory problem. If we don’t fix things quickly it goes into long term memory, and now we’ve got a whole bunch of backwash that we have to litigate.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. Wow! There’s a lot right there in that last bit to unpack. So there’s the question of, if we don’t repair quickly, then we’re creating more challenges for ourself in terms of how we recover as a whole, as a couple.
Stan Tatkin: Yes and that’s the Biology part of it. Memory becomes Biology, it becomes in our body, and it becomes part of that fast recognition system. So that as soon as you begin to tilt your head a certain way, your voice starts a certain way. “I know what you’re gonna do. I’m gonna shoot first and ask questions later because I’ve been down this road.”
Neil Sattin: Right. And then there’s the other piece which is so important, and it’s come up over and over again on the show, which is that you’re doing two simultaneous things. You’re probably doing more than two, but let’s just say you’re doing two simultaneous things when you’re in conversation or let’s say an argument with your partner, which is, there’s the content of what you’re trying to resolve, but then there’s also managing awareness of, “Oh, I’m triggered. Oh, my partner’s triggered.” And once that’s happening, all bets are off and we have to come back to being in, you call them the ambassador part of the brain, but being in the fore brain so that we can actually be social and creative with each other. Let’s talk a little bit more about like, “Alright, we’ve got some challenging shit that we gotta deal with as a couple.” How do we do that in a way that honors an awareness that probably what’s gonna happen is one or the other of us is gonna get hijacked, and how do we… How do we do it responsibly without avoiding it? Because we’re worried that if that happens one too many times, we’ve just blasted ourselves in our long-term memory.
Stan Tatkin: The rule of thumb is avoid nothing but keep it short. We’re entering into an area of importance, where there’s stress, where there’s distress, where there’s memory, where there’s proceed with caution. Therefore it’s incumbent for us to remain orderly. By “orderly”, we stick to one topic and one topic only. There’s no two people that can handle two or more topics when they’re under stress, it will never happen. If we wanna get anything out of this effort, if we wanna get something done we have to be disciplined, orderly, and stick to one thing. That’s on both people to do, stay on task. The first person who brings up an issue wins or at least goes first. And my job, if you have a grudge or something that you’re upset about, my first thing I do if I want to get anything from this is I have to lead with relief. I have to do something that disarms you, let you know I’m a friendly, otherwise I lose you as an audience member, and now we’re going down that road. “You’re right. I know I do that. I know I have a… ” And I don’t say, “I’m sorry you feel that way. I’m sorry you thought of it that way. I know I do that and I’m sorry I did it. I honestly… It doesn’t matter whether I meant to do it or not, but I’m sorry that I did that. Here’s though my gripe in return.”
Stan Tatkin: But we’re regulating each other because if at any time, because we have this negativity bias and our brains are built more for war than love, at any time, we can set a fire that’s going to encompass or just kill both of us. A lot of this is being skillful, both people putting fires out quickly so we can proceed. If you don’t feel that I can fix, repair, make right, make amends, admit a wrong, then you are going to increase your blood pressure, your heart rate, you’re getting closer to what we call a hypothalamic system, which basically means fight, flight or freeze. And now we’re going to start to go to war. Good times, right? So remaining orderly, sticking to one topic, first things first, one at a time, and keeping it short. People don’t understand that when we’re under stress our ability to take in words or to formulate words and thought becomes impaired the more our blood pressure increases. This is simply again, has to do with readying ourselves for what feels like we have to take action on. We have to watch that with each other, otherwise, we blow each other out of the water.
Stan Tatkin: I’m gonna keep it short. I’m gonna say, “It really bugged me, what you did. It really hurt my feelings when you did that in front of everybody.” Full stop. The more I talk, the more I’m holding you in a position where it’s not neutral. You’re going to increase in your arousal and I’m gonna pay for that. Also, the more I talk, the more likely I will throw in a dangerous word or phrase. And now, that’s all we’ll be talking about, is that piece that you’re brain is sweeping for that says, “Okay, I thought you were pulling out a gun. I’m doing that now.” Fast, short, friendly. Both people are agreeing that they’re trying to get into mutual relief as quickly as possible. How quickly can we take this off the table and then have lunch? And people don’t often know how to do this, they don’t know how it works. We don’t really resolve too much, but we relieve each other so we can push the ball forward. And now, I’m okay for now until the next time. “I’m sorry, I hurt you.” “You do that all the time.” “I know. I know, I’m sorry I did that. I was really nervous and that’s why I did it. I wasn’t thinking of you. That’s not cool. You know what would help me, is the next time I do that, ’cause I know I’ll do it again, is just when you start seeing me do that, just cue me, or just before we walk in the room, remind me.”
Stan Tatkin: Now, this is smart because we’re creatures of automation and reflex. If I tell you, “Neil, don’t do that again.” You will do it again. Because like I said, we don’t think we just act and react reflexively. So chances I’m gonna do that thing again is 100%. If you remind me just before, predict me, I won’t do it. If you let me know right away and then I can fix it. And then I start to remember not to do it. People again, have to understand how memory works. But people let things slide, they wait until two weeks later, it’s like being angry with your dog for peeing this morning. Dog is upset, but doesn’t know what you’re talking about. We’re that way as human beings, we’re not that smart. [chuckle]
Neil Sattin: I’m curious too. There is one thing that jumped out at me as part of your conversation about resolving fights, and I love this emphasis on, Keep it simple and short, and come back, come back to each other. You also talked about the way that we sometimes start up a conversation that it creates more harm than good versus being willing to just kinda lay it on the table right upfront as opposed to the, “There’s something that’s been bothering me for a while and I really wanna talk.” just blah, saying it. So what’s behind that?
Stan Tatkin: That is anxiety, and it’s also a particular style of way of processing information whereby people many times think out loud. And thinking out loud is fine but you have to understand that as you’re thinking out loud, you’re boring your partner, or you’re making them wonder what the punchline is. And so because we have this negativity bias, in the absence of knowing something, we’re going to fill it in with something not so good. As I’m leading up to this and I’m telling you, “Neil, I don’t wanna say this because it’s gonna hurt your feelings. Your blood pressure is going up, your heart rate is going up. And don’t get mad, please. Last time you got really mad at me, and then I had to go to my mother’s for the rest of the weekend. Blood pressure going up there, and… And I’ll try not to hurt you.” By this time, the next thing that’s gonna happen after I stop is you’re gonna punch me because I alerted you to something and you’re physiologically doing what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to prepare for the tiger who’s gonna eat you.
Stan Tatkin: That’s not good. Where as we wanna lead with relief and go. The first thing is, you’re right or I’m sorry I did that. Or can you explain what it is ’cause I don’t even know what I did, but something that relieves that person quickly. Also, you wanna hit it and then repair, then take it down. “So you know what? I’m not going tonight and now you’re upset with me. Let me explain why.” Okay. So the reason for this is all physiological. I hit it when you have the most head room, because with news, anything, there’s a spike and then I soothe it, then I fill in. But if I fill in before, that’s called burying the lede, I’m taking too long to get to my point and arousing you unnecessarily. And so it’s the other way around. All of this is based on, again, biology, physiology. It’s not personal, it’s just how we are. So you hit it and then you explain and soften from there, but you also relieve somebody immediately when they’re upset with you. Does that make sense?
Neil Sattin: Yeah, and I can see the value in that. Yeah, for sure. Because of that very reason that whether it’s your own anxiety, I don’t want to deal with this problem or the way that you’re stirring up the other person’s anxiety. At that point, you’re in this reciprocal anxiety circuit. Your mirror neurons are probably going crazy.
Stan Tatkin: Imagine you’re a child and you’re getting a shot. And the doctor says, “Okay, sweetheart I’m gonna stick this big fucking needle into your little tiny arm. And it’s gonna hurt like crazy for a second. And are you up for that? I’m gonna give you a lollipop, so maybe you can choke on it.” Right? No it’s like, “Oh, look over there boom, done. [laughter] I’m sorry, I’m sorry, sweetie for hurting you. But it’s all over now.” Okay. So maybe people will get it with that image.
Neil Sattin: Right. Right, I swear there’s a viral video somewhere of that happening, and then the little kid, “Boom!” right in the nose. [laughter] I know I’ve seen that.
Stan Tatkin: It’s unwise.
Neil Sattin: Right. Well, but overall, the message is intact, which is, if you’re always setting the stage that you are there with your partner, you’re not out to get your partner, and even when you have bad news to deliver, “I’m not going tonight and I’m still here with you. I wanna work through this. No one… We both don’t get out of this unless we’re both succeeding here.” So if you can hold your own… Your partner’s disappointment while you’re holding your truth around why you can’t go, just using that example, then you’re gonna avoid getting punched on the nose by offering the bad news because you’re there in a context of mutual support.
Stan Tatkin: Right. The…
Neil Sattin: Yeah, it’s like, “How do we always preserve that context?”
Stan Tatkin: The reason for these errors… ‘Cause they are errors. The reason for these errors is, the reason I am doing that with you, is because I’m thinking of me. I’m not thinking of you. I’ll say I’m thinking of you, but I’m not. I’m thinking of me. I’m afraid of how you’ll react. I’m afraid of the consequences of my sins. And that signals something to you quite different. You don’t know that. All you know is what I’m serving you with. And this is where people are misunderstanding each other all the time. I think I’m communicating this, but I’m not. That’s because I’m thinking only of me, I’m not thinking of my person. So, again, we’re back to this idea of a two person system, of taking care of myself and the other person at the same time. And this is the selfishness or the self-centeredness of insecurely attached people, is that they consider themselves first, and even they’re sparing… Their partner is also saving themselves. And it’s not really considerate. It’s not really sensitive. A lot of this gets taken care of once we get the idea. I have to consider you, not consider the consequences for me. And if we’re doing that for each other, we’re serving each other, and that’s how we remain respectful and safe.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, great. It’s such an important skill because disagreements will occur in relationship. They need to. They need to because you’re two different people so… And that makes me think about one other thing, but do we have time for one more question? It’s actually…
Stan Tatkin: Sure.
Neil Sattin: We’re at quarter past the hour. What often comes up in this conversation toward the end, we established, “Okay, we wanna create safety for each other. We wanna… And I get it. Even when we’re fighting, we’re gonna focus on the safety.” But then there’s the flip side, which is, “Wait a minute. If we’re feeling so safe and cozy with each other, where’s that hot… Where’s that passion? Where’s the sex? Where’s the excitement that comes from the tension of… ” I don’t know. That hasn’t been my experience in relationship, but it’s a question that comes up, which is like, “Wait a minute. Isn’t the safety gonna kill something? Are we gonna be too safe in our relationship?” I’d love to hear a quick answer on that. Yeah.
Stan Tatkin: Well, a lot of people keep the thrill alive by scaring each other and that’s not good either. That’ll kill you soon. Being safe with each other is not about eroticism. Being safe with each other is knowing that you can depend on each other with your life. But if you’re always wondering whether the relationship will exist tomorrow or whether your partner’s gonna betray you, that may make you feel more excited about your partner, but that sucks. There are other ways to be excited about your partner [chuckle] without scaring the shit out of each other.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. [chuckle]
Stan Tatkin: And that has to do with knowing how to co-create exciting love, which is the dopaminergic addictive love that Helen also talks about, Helen Fisher. But it’s well-known, and that is through direct eye contact, it’s through shared novelty attending to a third thing that’s completely new, doing things together that neither of you have ever done, levels the playing field, but also quiet love, which is basically shutting up and just relaxing together without doing anything. So there’s all sorts of ways to co-generate these states, but people have to understand that it’s done that way. And it will never ever, ever be the way it was when you first met because it’s impossible. You know too much about each other, that doesn’t mean you know everything about each other, and it doesn’t mean that you really know each other as well as you think because of that memory problem, that automation issue.
Stan Tatkin: When we automate each other, we only think we know each other. And that’s where we’re all making all these errors. When I look into your eyes and we stay there in a gaze you suddenly become a stranger enough to me to where you are different and I can’t predict you in this moment. That’s exciting. And if I’m not looking at you, you’re the same as I always thought in my head, I don’t see anything different ’cause I’m not looking. So the antidote to automation, the only antidote other than senility is presence and attention. That’s it, [chuckle] presence and attention. There could be a time when we become senile and we go, “Oh God, you look like a pretty young woman. Who are you?” [chuckle] Then it’s all new and fresh again, but I don’t think you wanna wait for that to happen.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, I think that’s also why it’s so important to foster the skill of being curious, because as much as you wake up your curiosity, then you’re probably pulling people out of that automatic place into a place of like, “Wait a minute. I actually don’t really know you. And what can I discover about you?”
Stan Tatkin: Automation is a trance. It helps us get through life and do things that we ordinarily couldn’t do. We wouldn’t get out of a corner of a room if we didn’t have that feature. But it also makes us bored. It also makes us think that we know what we know. And by the way, people wonder why time flies faster as we get older. That’s because we’ve automated more things and we’re not exposed enough to new things. We don’t throw ourselves into novelty anymore and so why wouldn’t time fly by? Everything’s automatic. So this is another reason to do this now with your child, with your partner, with your parents while they’re alive. Is to be present, pay attention, look. Look at every detail of the face, of the eyes. People are interesting. They’re not interesting in our own heads, just not.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, so true. I love that. Well, Stan it’s always great to have you on the show. You have such deep wisdom to offer and I’m glad to… Like now we’ve got the trifecta. Not that… I mean I hope to have you on again of course, but this is a perfect next dose in the series of Stan Tatkin on Relationship Alive. Your work is obviously having a huge impact on our culture. I know because people are talking about it all the time and I love your Relationship Rx recording that just came out, it’s eight hours long. So there’s a lot to offer a couple that’s learning how to handle problematic situations with more ease, more resilience. Looking forward to your We Do book coming out. And as I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, if you wanna download a transcript, you can visit neilsattin.com/wired3, wired referring to Stan’s earlier books “Wired for Love” and “Wired for Dating”, or you can always text the word passion to the number 33444, follow the instructions and you can download the transcript that way. Stan, if people want to find out more about your work, what’s the best place for them to visit? Now I know you’re training therapists, as well as working with lay people.
Stan Tatkin: Right, so if you want to attend any of our couples retreats, which we do all over the world, and there are several coming up now in East Coast and West Coast, go to thepactinstitute.com; our schedules are up for this year and also if you are a therapist and you want to be trained in this, that’s how this started, was teaching therapists, and if you’re interested it’s really a fun approach. Same place, go there and our schedule is up there for the entire year inside United States and outside.
Neil Sattin: Great, great, and I’ve heard from at least one person in your trainings how amazing they are and how much they’re getting about how to work with couples. Hopefully you train people how to tell it like it is. [chuckle] You either come out alive or you die together, you gotta figure… [chuckle] So hopefully they get that from you as well.
Stan Tatkin: Thank you Neil, and congratulations for your upcoming book.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, thanks so much.