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

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.”

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 with the fear of losing themselves, their stuff, their freedom and that they’ll be used.

BJB: What about couples with longstanding unresolved issues, how can they begin to fall back in love? Resentment is hard.

ST: What is hard is the memory issue.

If they come from insecure family backgrounds and they’re not aware of it, then they’ll continue to do what they do and they’ll blame their partner for everything. Those people are not going to make it.

A lot of this is about having a “come to Jesus” moment in understanding yourself and what you do in relationships, and then getting to a point where you accept your partner as is. You decide to look at what’s important, which is survival, and that we stay loyal to being good stewards of our safety system.

One other thing that is difficult is when people repeat things over and over. It turns into a threat process and it becomes biological.

For example, every time I want to talk about this one thing, I see you as being scary, threatening and attacking. So I start to avoid that issue with you, then I start to avoid other things with you. That process of avoidance can eventually tank the relationship because we’re avoiding everything we’re not dealing with.

The biological component builds up, and as soon as I see you my heart rate goes up. Now my body is ready for war, and reacts as if you are a predator, even if I want peace. These people have accrued so much threat and memory that it’s now in their bodies.

BJB: So how are we Wired for Love?

ST: We wired for bonding and attachment. We cannot exist well if we’re alone because our brain is intended for interaction.

Photo Credit, William Stitt

BJB: What is a Couple Bubble?

ST: It’s a life supporting system that contains two people.

If we think about you and me, you and I create a relationship, that’s a third thing that we create. The relationship that we create contains the two of us and parts of us that may never come about again in another match. This thing we create is what we protect based on our agreements. We put the relationship first.

What does that mean?

It means we’re supporting each other and protecting each other from the dangerous environment, the future that nobody knows, and we’re devoted to this protection and service to each other.

It creates energy.

It allows us to go out into the day and be less fearful because we’re tethered. We maintain this atmosphere as a way of being able to better serve the people around us, because now we have energy. We “take off the table” things that burden most people, like existential fears and we allow each other to be burdens to one another.

This atmosphere provides a great deal of energy to develop ourselves, be creative and do things we ordinarily wouldn’t be able to do. We’re better parents, better citizens and better neighbors and demonstrate secure functioning relationships.

BJB: It sounds like a conscious partnership.

ST: It’s totally conscious.

BJB: I think I know one couple like this.

ST: Who do you hang out with?

BJB: Which type of people create a Couple Bubble without undergoing therapy?

ST: Those who saw their parents as fully interdependent. They grew up with this arrangement and are people who are not afraid of abandonment. They’re not afraid of having themselves stolen. They put relationship first and operate as being very good managers of each other within the relationship.

If you see that in childhood you’re going to do it.

Then there are people who learn it because they’ve had so many failures. They’ve learned from regret and from their experience and decide they need somebody else.

Others go into therapy, or are with someone who is much more secure. That person pulls them into security within five years of the start of the relationship. This happened to me.

BJB: Is there one thing you can do right now to rebuild the relationship from where it is?

ST: There’s nothing like paying really close attention to your partner, relaxing the body and watching the face deeply. Looking into the face and into the eyes suddenly does something. It deepens the relationship. Attention and presence to detail are key and in fact the only anecdote to the automatic brain.

I find that for me, I fall in love.

Khalil Gibran said, “All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of life’s heart.”

Love prunes you. And the truth of the matter is “you cannot have what you are not willing to become.”

The presence of love carries the vibration of transformation. It encourages us to love ourselves and each other into maturity. And if we let it, love will tease out our highest and best qualities.

Anchored in unconditional love, co-creative relationships are not only the gateway to more peaceful hearts but ultimately a more peaceful world.

Dr. Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, is a couples therapist known for his pioneering work in helping partners form happy, secure, and long-lasting relationships.

His method — called PACT (Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy®) — draws on principles of neuroscience and teaches partners to become what he terms “secure-functioning.” Together with his wife, Tracey Boldemann-Tatkin, PhD, Dr. Tatkin founded the PACT Institute to train psychotherapists and other professionals how to incorporate his method into their practices with couples.

For more information log onto,, blog: or Twitter: @drstantatkin.


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