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Sit, Down, Stay!

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,

This addendum to my previous post, Train Your Partner, is intended to clarify another important concept in relationship management. So many of us struggle with how to “parent” or “train” our partner when we feel rejected, dismissed, ignored, or flat out resisted by him or her. We often get angry and attack or withdraw and give up. While both reactions are reasonable they will likely be received as threatening (yes, I know…you were threatened first). Also threatening are complaints, especially in the form of questions:

“Why do you always do this to me?”
“Why can’t you just do what I want for once?”
“What is wrong with you?”
“Why do you always take his/her side?”

…and so on. The problem with questions, particularly of these kind, is they require resources in your partner’s brain and it is likely that your partner’s brain is either mostly offline (the *autoregulatory state of the island/avoidant) or under-resourced (the *external regulatory state of the wave/angry resistant) and if that weren’t enough, he or she is wired to resist and dismiss and anticipates your intrusion. It can mobilize certain folks and contain others.

Hence, the only sensible workaround are commands such as “sit, down, stay.” *Anchors, islands, and waves respond very well to commands so long as the command is short, easy to process, and made with a friendly but firm tone. We want friendly to quickly disarm primitive alarm systems that are sweeping you for threat. We want firm to enable the fast brain (the primitives) to respond without consulting the “higher-ups.” In other words, proper use of commands should avoid threat while acting quickly to bypass defenses that arise out of increasing arousal. Commands work well when used skillfully because we hear them and we act before thinking and with less arousal expenditure. It should be fast, confident, and friendly.

“Come here.”
“Sit down.”
“Look at me.”
“Repeat what I said.” (for the attention-challenged)
“Let’s go.”
“We’re leaving.”
“We’re walking.”
“We’re staying.”
“Kiss me.”

WARNING: It is very important that you DO NOT yell commands from outside the same room as your partner. The auditory cortex is very close to the amygdala and can cause a startle response from your shrill or booming voice. Add your partner’s first name to your call to attention and… well start running.

I’ve written about the importance of attraction in love relationships and the danger of using fear, guilt, or threat as a relationship management tool (I will probably write more about this in my next post). The proper use of commands can be attractive. However, don’t expect your partner to smile and be pleased by your commands. The purpose is not to please your partner but to get your partner to do what you want/need without becoming threatening.

*For those of you who are unfamiliar with some of my terms mentioned above, you can find them fully explained in both Wired for Love and Love and War in Intimate Relationships.

© 2013 – A Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy® – all rights reserved


  1. Karen says:

    Wonderful post! Very helpful to make the theory more concrete and tolerated by islands. Only one question remains: what is the command for “Be interested in becoming an anchor and invested in the work of doing so.” ?

    In other words, Waves naturally want relationships, hence they are willing to work to make them healthier. But how do you convince an Island that it will be worth the time and trouble for the higher quality of intimacy resulting, when they don’t think they particularly want intimacy to begin with? And don’t see how their Island-ish nature may be negatively affecting their life?

    This one mystifies me. Do they have to want to change, or is it enough that the wave initiates changes and the island will naturally change in response? Is there hope for extreme Islands?

    Of course evidence shows that a couple of years with an anchor (secure attachment) helps people to develop secure attachment patterns themselves. Fine for anchors with islands, who are patient. But as for islands with waves, wouldn’t this necessitate near-perfect saintly behaviour by the wave for several years without much appearance of change in the Island?


    • Dear Karen,

      I don’t know the answer to your first (and very funny) question. No command will make anybody be interested in anything. Don’t be fooled by this wave versus island thing. Waves may appear to want relationships but they are often unwilling to work to make them healthier. Waves and islands have one fundamental thing in common: both are one-person psychological systems that put self-interest over relationship. Islands need relationships just as much as waves. Islands are more in denial of their dependency needs in relationships but not in their want of relationships. The problem for islands and waves is not so much about wanting to be in a love relationship but rather how to manage the attachment injuries that arise once a relationship presents itself as real and possibly permanent. Both islands and waves come from insecure models of relationship and therefore both can be frustrating in a two-person system where true mutuality should be the rule and not simply the wish. You are assuming that waves have an easier time in love relationships and then do islands. They do not. The goal should not be expect partners to change who they are but rather the mutual agreements they make to ensure the relationship is secure functioning (fair, just, and sensitive) — good for me, good for you.

      Hope that helps a bit.




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