Dr. Stan Tatkin: Relationships Are Hard, But Why?

Updated: Oct 8, 2020

Art by Leah Pearlman

“Most of us are doing the best we can, and most of us don’t go into relationships with the intention of messing things up. We try our best to love and be loved in return.” Yet despite our best intentions, things go wrong.

Often we think we know exactly what the problem is in the relationship and who is to blame.

However there is another factor in play. In fact, there are a few additional factors in play.

According to Dr. Stan Tatkin, “…many couples seek reasons for their problems. Yet the theories and reasons they come up with generally are false.”

In Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship, Dr. Tatkin explains where most of us go wrong and how we can begin to get it right.

BJB: Why are the reasons for problems in a relationship that couples come up with usually false?

ST: Our need to organize our experience is so incredibly powerful that we’ll do anything to find a purpose, or a reason to explain why we do what we do. But much of it is really made up.

We have a part of our brain that will always fill in the blanks and color things in that aren’t colored in. That is what we call confabulation, something that we make up. We’re able to defend what we make up because we’ve found a narrative that can defend it.

For example, you might think, ‘I’ve identified our problem as this thing do to this cause because a) that fits my thinking, or b) I heard it on Oprah.’ That doesn’t mean it’s true, but the need to organize the experience is much stronger than the need for it to be factual, so we’ll grab onto what makes the most sense.

As a therapist, I can see people making things up.

We’ll believe so strongly that our communication, perception and memory is correct, that we’ll shut off any possibility of outside influence. This will keep us from finding out what could actually be true. This happens when we’re in distress. We have to make decisions right away based on our safety and security, and we’re likely to do something that is pro-self.

BJB: In the book you write, “The things we do to keep from getting killed often are exactly the things that keep us from getting into a relationship or staying in one.” How does this relate to the primitive brain?

ST: Our lower brain operates automatically and by memory. They’re body memories intended to help us move through life without having to think the same thing over and over.

However, it causes a lot of mistakes in relationships because when we’re under stress we make decisions based on threat avoidance.

We’re all basically dealing with our animal nature. We’re constantly trying to assess if we’re safe. Some of this has to do with real danger, and the other has to do with memory of danger or memory of threat.

For example, your tone of voice can remind me of something that makes me feel endangered, threatened or even humiliated. That memory will line up and the primitive part of my brain will react automatically to protect myself.

BJB: Can you explain how the partner we unconsciously choose is similar to the caretakers who reared us?

ST: We pick by memory the people who are familiar to us. That could be a mother, father, grandparent, uncle, or the first love in elementary school. Our mind joins all people of emotional importance into composites. We recognize parts of ourselves, our fantasies, our family, etc.

We pick based upon familiarity. If someone is too far away from our family culture we tend to feel homesick.

BJB: How does the “if it’s good for me, you should be all right with it” mentality represent a fear of dependency?

ST: There’s a fallacy that we’re fully autonomous beings. We’re not. We’re wired for dependency.

As adults we become interdependent, not co-dependent. Co-dependency is one direction, when you bend yourself backwards to do all kinds of things to hold onto the relationship and get nothing for it.

Interdependency is based on agreement; that we depend on each other for safety, survival and protection. If we can’t trust each other and feel safe and secure, then we have to wonder what the purpose of the relationship is.

BJB: So if I’m leaning toward autonomy in a relationship, am I feeling afraid?

ST: It’s not real autonomy. You’re afraid of what will happen when you depend on someone.

People who are afraid of losing their independence lost it very early in childhood, and it’s a memory. It’s a mindset, or an adaptation to a family culture they were born into.

In this type of family culture the relationships were not the primary focus. The focus was appearance, performance, being smart or wherever value was placed. You then go forward in life and do the same thing in your relationship.

You expect independence, for people to keep to themselves and not depend on you because you believe you can’t depend on anybody. These individuals go into relationships wit