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Power Couples…Activate!

by Eva Van Prooyen, M.F.T., PACT faculty, Los Angeles CA

Healthy, secure relationships are a source of vital energy. PACT therapists know people feel good when they understand how to be successful partners. We are energized by a secure connection to another person. Our need to be securely attached is so powerful that it can get us through the hardest of times and help us float through day-to-day routines with ease, skill, and grace.

Secure functioning is based on a high degree of respect for one another’s experience. Interactions and shared experiences are fair, just, and sensitive. If your partner feels even slightly unwanted, undervalued, disliked, unseen, or unimportant, he or she will—quite frankly—act weird and underperform in the relationship.

Insecurity and insecure attachment negatively affect brain performance. Development can be slowed down because the brain is using most of its resources to manage being in survival mode instead of being free to move toward evolution, growth, and complexity.

In general, couples can get tripped up in creating a secure and healthy relationship and end up not liking their partners, situations, or experiences because they don’t know what to do or how to manage them. This can leave them feeling badly about themselves as well as their partner.

In line with the main treatment goals of PACT, couples are encouraged (and ultimately expected) to both know themselves and know their partner.  That is, to know who they are and how they move through the world, and also to understand who their partner is, and how he or she operates. To be clear, that is not how they wish their partner operates, but how their partner actually operates, navigates, and maneuvers through the world. This knowledge, which requires a healthy dose of curiosity and attention, creates a strong foundation of understanding. It pushes forth the secure-functioning principles that “your partner is your responsibility and in your care,” and “you are responsible for knowing how to manage your partner.” Your partner then holds a sacred and honored position no one else in the world gets to occupy. That said, we often joke that actual wedding vows should probably include, “I take you to be my perfect pain in the butt.”

PACT teaches couples how to manage their partners so they can move and shift them into better states of mind and moods; lower their stress level; and decrease their sense of threat, anxiety, and depression.

The idea of being responsible for knowing and caring for your partner in this way and putting the relationship first tends to be the hard sell for some couples. When you truly understand the benefits of adopting this idea, the stance of “but it’s always about them, it never gets to be about me” loses its power as an argument.

My answer is, “You do this because it serves you and is good for you. You get your needs met by shoring up the vulnerabilities in your partner so he or she can in return do the same for you. You both get the benefits of that investment.”

Love and genuine connection create libidinal energy—life force energy that can be renewed in an instant through a simple act of friendliness, a glance, a look, a moment, and a knowing that “my person likes me.” Part of creating a secure relationship is making sure you are helping your partner perform at an optimal level. To do that, messages that communicate “I’m good at you,” “I’m good at being with you,” and “You are in my care” must be reflected every day.

If you want to put this into practice, one way I encourage that is to pay attention to everything your partner hears you say about him or her. What messages are you conveying? Another thing you can do is to introduce your partner to other people, when you are together in public, in a way that is elevating.

PACT principles help couples enjoy the experience of being loved for who they are, as well as appreciate all the day-to-day benefits their relationship brings.

Copyright Eva Van Prooyen

No Pain No Gain

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,

Therapy is only useful for changing people who are experiencing sufficient distress. This is not to say that education, consultation, or brief counseling will have no effect. People often benefit from couple counseling for premarital or other short-term work. However, as a matter of therapeutic stance, the PACT therapist assumes the presence of a sufficient level of distress that can only be relieved by pressuring couples to go down the tube of secure functioning. The PACT therapist thus takes a stand for secure-functioning principles. For insecure partners, this requires a big leap of faith.

That leap of faith can be viewed as a metaphor for neuronal action potential (AP) and long-term potentiation (LTP). AP is basically a charge that is sufficient to fire a neuron. LTP is a cellular mechanism related to learning and memory. LTP involves the building up of synaptic strength between neurons, whereby several weak synapses repeatedly fire simultaneously to create a new (or reinforce an old) neuropathway. In therapy, LTP can be associated with the aha experience of “getting it.”

Insecure partners do not have any experience in their historical record that can serve as proof that a secure-functioning model would be good for them. Insecures may be attracted to the menu of secure-functioning principles, but should not be expected to know what the food tastes like or if they would like it. Remember that insecure models are fundamentally unjust, unfair, and insensitive and that relationships do not come first. Therefore, insecure partners have no reason to believe in the therapist’s belief in secure functioning. In a manner of speaking, insecure individuals, like connecting neurons, must cross a synaptic cleft of unknowing in order to forge a new neuropathway that represents new knowledge. In systems theory, this is first-order change. In Piagetian terms, this is accommodation.

So what builds LTP in the insecure partner or couple?

1. Pain
2. Focused, coherent therapeutic stance
3. Pressure

Without pain, the therapist’s tools are useless. No pain, no gain. Pain is a huge motivator because it opens the mind to influence. If partners are not in distress, the therapist is without leverage to convert their pain into increased complexity and neuronal growth. This alchemical process of using distress to convert lower social-emotional complexity into higher social-emotional complexity is an essential aspect of LTP, and of the neuroplasticity needed for change to occur.

The PACT therapist must locate each partner’s pain and amplify it. If one partner is without distress, both the therapist and the other partner are rendered helpless. Therefore, the therapist must locate the pain of the non-distressed partner, amplify it, and then leverage it for change. Finding and leveraging the pain creates interest, which creates AP in the brain.

Focused, coherent therapeutic stance
The PACT therapist maintains a clear, focused, and coherent narrative (therapeutic stance) that is secure functioning. The therapist maintains a clear image and set of goals that point toward secure functioning and away from insecure models of relating. This clarity is expressed through repetition of the therapeutic narrative, which creates interest and in turn creates AP in the brain. Repetition greatly contributes to LTP. Therapy, in essence, involves repetition, both in the patient’s psychobiological response to inter- and intra-relational stress and in the therapist’s focused, coherent therapeutic stance, which points the way forward on a path toward relief.

The PACT therapist applies continuous pressure on partners to perform in a secure-functioning manner. This pressure is like pushing partners down a tube that both focuses and limits behavior and attitude. The combination of pressure, focus, and limitation also forces feelings and emotions to arise. For instance, when the therapist expects partners to demonstrate developmental complexity, they will expose their limitations, along with the pain (e.g., fears of abandonment and engulfment) that underlies their developmental delays. Pressure, support, and expectation promote interest, which creates AP in the brain and contributes to LTP.

The PACT therapist creates neuroplasticity through LTP and AP in the insecure couple (or partner) by locating, amplifying, and leveraging pain and distress toward a secure-functioning model of relating, and maintains persistent pressure on the couple (or partner) to move in this direction. In this way, the therapist pushes insecure partners through the synaptic cleft of unknowing to create a previously unexperienced knowing of secure function. The influence the PACT therapist can exert on partners may result in both neuroplastic and epigenetic first-order changes.

© 2003-2013 – Stan Tatkin – all rights reserved

Be Attractive, Not Scary

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,

Having a “couple bubble” helps maintain a safe and secure ecosystem that keeps intruding, destructive elements away. The world inside the couple bubble should be more safe, more secure, more encouraging, and less stressful than the world outside the bubble. That means not only protection from the outside but also from inside. Many couples fail to understand that the primary attachment system, aka the adult romantic relationship, operates on attraction and not on fear, threat, or guilt. We usually come by our partners by way of attraction and it is by attraction that we keep our partners (and ourselves) happy.

If each partner is unable to find multiple ways to cajole, persuade, seduce, influence, or otherwise get each other to come home, come to bed, go someplace, or do something, he or she will most certainly resort to the use of fear, threat, or guilt — a penny-wise, pound-foolish stratagem.

Practice now and find your inner negotiator. Be fetching, beguiling, inviting, seductive, charming, alluring. Be collaborative, resourceful, flexible and by all means, don’t be scary!

© 2003-2013 – Stan Tatkin, PsyD – all rights reserved

Security Questions Require Security Answers

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,

Many of you who know my work or take my training have heard me talk about the difference between security questions/security answers and reality questions/reality answers. However, I do not think I have written about this specifically so here we go….

Many people become confused when considering how to respond to matters of relationship insecurity, especially during periods emotionally dominated by fear, ambivalence, or doubt. Bids for affirmation or reassurance can therefore be met with either a secure (reassuring) response or a reality (dice roll) response. For some, the “reality” principle seems a more “secure” option. That may in fact hold some subjective truth, particularly for those who themselves feel fearful, ambivalent, or doubtful (“I can’t reassure you because I, too, feel insecure about us”). And I suppose there are good arguments against providing a secure response when a reality response would be the safer choice (“Our relationship is in danger and so let’s go to therapy”). However, for those who are generally on the fence about this, I’d like you to consider the cost of making a big mistake when that is not your intention.

Let me start by giving examples:

REALITY QUESTION: “What time is dinner?”
REALITY ANSWER: “Around 6pm, give or take 10 minutes.”

SECURITY QUESTION: “Daddy, am I going to die?”
SECURITY ANSWER: “No honey, not for a very, very long time.”

    REALITY ANSWER: “Well sweetheart, I can’t lie to you. There’s a nasty virus going around and it’s killing lots of little children your age. But let’s not think about that right now.”

SECURITY QUESTION: “Will you love me forever and ever?”
SECURITY ANSWER: “Yes. Forever and ever.”

    REALITY ANSWER: “Hmm, that’s a very long time. I don’t know if I can answer that truthfully. I can love you for right now. Let’s take that up again in a year.”

There is a time and place for reality answers and I’m not going to say that it is always appropriate to answer security questions with security answers. However, I will say that in primary attachment relationships, security concerns must be addressed swiftly, simply, and unequivocally if the relationship is to remain safe and secure. Replies that are complicated, contradictory, qualified, evasive, or lacking confidence or seriousness will be read as threatening by the receiving partner. A vote of non-confidence is also read immediately with non-verbal displays such as delayed responsiveness (milliseconds), deflected gaze, vocal changes, and facial controls.

So then, how to avoid shaking your partner’s (and your own) fragile sense of security? The answer is to be prepared! Consider ahead of time the cost/benefit of providing secure responses to insecure bids for reassurance. You will then be prepared to respond with more congruence. If you are among those who believe the best response is the one that is most truthful (realistic), then accept the cost that comes with that stance for there will be a cost in the currency of safety and security. If that is not your concern then go for it. If however you wish to create and maintain a secure relational ecosystem for yourself and your partner, you may want to go with the secure response.

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

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

Train Your Partner

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,

In case you haven’t heard me say this before, we come to relationships basically feral, untrained, and barely parented. Therefore, as romantic partners we must train one another to be in secure-functioning relationship. This IS NOT accomplished by whining, complaining, threatening, withdrawing, or avoiding. Rather we train each other head-on with statements made directly into the eyes. Make sure YOUR eyes are friendly and try some of the following or make up your own:

“Put that [insert distraction here] down and be with me.”
“Try that again and this time say it like you love me.”
“Look at me and tell me that you think I’m terrific.”
“Tell your handsome guy/beautiful gal [that would be you] that you’ll always be mine.”
“Protect me and I’ll protect you.”
“Come here and sit by me.”
“Do this with me.”
“Tell me how wonderful I am.”
“Tell me how much you appreciate me.”

If your guy or gal resists, refuses, makes jokes, or does ANYTHING other than give an equally direct and sincere response gently repeat with the prefix, “Try that again.” Do this only once again with friendly eyes and up close. If your partner responds properly thank him/her and make it worth his/her effort. If your partner still resists, just say something like, “We’ll do this again later until we get it right…for both of us.” And drop it.

Always helps to have a bunch of treats in your pocket!

Good luck,

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

Scratching the Right Itch

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,

Do you ever have an itch on your back you can’t scratch yourself? Do you ever ask your partner to scratch that itch only to be frustrated when he or she continually misses the “right spot?” Missing the spot once or twice is forgivable. But what about missing it all the time? Now that’s cause for suspicion, isn’t it? I mean, how big is a person’s back? How could someone possibly miss that spot?!

Well, lots of partners complain of missing the right spot. He buys roses when she loves tulips. She buys low-fat milk when he explicitly tells her he only drinks non-fat. He always tells her that she is sexy when she’d prefer hearing she’s smart. She compliments him on what a good father he is when he wants to hear that he’s a great husband.

There are countless ways partners can scratch the wrong itch and send a message that either they don’t care or they don’t know the target. “See! There’s nothing I can do to satisfy you!” Paul screams at Cheryl whose disappointed face threw him into a tizzy. For her 40th birthday, Cheryl had wanted a red Mini Cooper. It was to be her dream car. Paul bought her a brown Mercedes sedan believing it was a better gift. Cheryl had made her desire known for a red Mini Cooper. She even showed Paul the brochure complete with pictures of the car and her chosen interior. Nothing was as she asked. Paul was enraged, offended that his gift was received with such disappointment. He spent a great deal of time and money finding the sedan that would demonstrate his love for her. In his mind, Cheryl was ungrateful and difficult.

Kevin likes to socialize, Jeremy does not. Kevin thought it would be a good idea to invite friends to celebrate, over dinner, Jeremy’s graduation from college. After the ceremony, Kevin took Jeremy to a fabulous new restaurant where several of their friends awaited. Jeremy had wanted a quiet evening at home alone with Kevin and felt overwhelmed by the energetic group seated at dinner. He was unusually quiet that evening. On the way home, Kevin asked him what was wrong. Jeremy said nothing. Kevin, more impatient this time asked him again.

“You figure it out” said Jeremy.

“You were upset that I was talking to Chris, weren’t you?” Kevin guessed, and did so wrongly.

Jeremy sighed and said, “Never mind.” Not only did Kevin fail to pay attention to Jeremy’s wish for a quiet and private evening, he asked him what was wrong — suggesting that he was clueless — and further confirmed he was clueless by guessing wrongly.

Scratching the right itch is similar to hitting the bullseye or rolling the ball into the center hole in Skeeball. It counts big. In terms of relationship currency, it’s gold… even platinum. Partners who scratch the right itch raise their value sky high, much more so than those who use a shotgun approach and or appear to be shooting in the dark. Primary romantic partners want to be known… specifically. They want to be seen and understood… accurately. Scratching the right itch is not simply relieving or rewarding, it is an essential part of the couple bubble — the safety and security system.

Copyright 2012 — Stan Tatkin, Psy.D. — all rights reserved

When it comes to repair, the fastest wins.

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,

Our brain is biased toward making war than love. Our brainstem and lower limbic structures are always on the lookout for threat and danger. And painful memories are more easily made than pleasurable ones. This bias serves the human imperative “thou shalt not be killed.” Memories are formed, at least in large part, by glutamate (neurotransmitter) and adrenaline (hormone). Strong or intense emotional experience, aided by glutamate and adrenaline, will help long term memory formation, particularly if the emotional intensity is protracted.

When one person hurts another, intentionally or not, the injured party seeks relief. If relief is not provided in a timely manner, that hurt will likely go into long term memory. When partners ignore or dismiss injuries or make unskillful attempts at repair, the offending partner is CREATING a bad memory in the injured partner — something that will certainly come back to haunt.

Remedy: Fix, repair, make right, or do whatever is necessary to relieve an injured partner (can be a child or any other adult) FAST or as quickly as possible to keep that experience from going into long term memory. From the point of injury to the point of repair (relief) — the clock is ticking and it is ticking against both parties. An acute reaction to injury changes neurochemistry and that as mentioned can be remedied by swift repair. However, chronic reaction to injury can have deleterious effects on both brain and body. Chronic hurt (bad feelings) due to improper or non-existent repair leads to negative psychobiological consequences for both the injured and offending partner. The relationship becomes more dangerous, negative thoughts and emotions amplify and spill over to other events, and both partners immune systems take a hit.

Repair, fix, relieve your partner even if it isn’t/wasn’t your fault. The fastest wins and those who delay will lose.

Don’t just take my word for it. See for yourself and let me know.

Copyright 2012 — Stan Tatkin, Psy.D. — all rights reserved

Kid and pets are easy, partners are hard

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,

This is based on the principle that adult romantic primary attachment relationships are more difficult because of their psychobiological weight — memories, expectations, fears, threats to security, etc. Primary partners tend to become “deep family.” Like it not, partner become proxies for everyone who has come before (historically) the relationship: mother, father, brother, sister, first love, teachers, etc. Kids are smaller systems and can certainly trigger early memories and bodily experiences and the complexity of raising children is certainly no cakewalk. However, they just do not carry the same emotional, psychobiological weight as a primary partner. Pets are easy because they are cute but their brains neither amplify mutually generated positive experiences nor trigger historical attachment injuries (at least not usually).

Alas, it is our adult partners who remain our mightiest challenge to happiness as all our early attachment injuries and hopes for repair likely reside in their ability to make our lives easier rather than more difficult (unfortunately the latter is more common).

What do you think? More later….

Copyright 2012 — Stan Tatkin, Psy.D. — all rights reserved