I think most of us can agree that relationships are difficult. But it is the “why” behind this statement that causes the most confusion.

Why are romantic commitments so hard to maintain? Is it the stress of work? Money? Kids? Who washes the dishes? Or, is it simply because you don’t have enough in common?

If you ask relationship expert Dr. Stan Tatkin, creator of the Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy (PACT) and founder of the PACT Institute, there is “nothing more difficult on the planet than another person.”

We often come to the table expecting relationships to be easy; yet, we can also bring to one another a host of painful memories, or past experiences, which mold our neurological pathways and affect the way we interact with our partners for the rest of our lives.


Romantic Reflexes: Ambassadors vs. Primitives

anxious attachmentWhen you think about how you respond to your partner and interpret their words and actions, Tatkin wants us to understand there are two main functions of the brain that are responsible for those reactions: the “ambassadors” and the “primitives.”

Your ambassadors, using mainly the higher cortical areas of the brain, are intelligent, deliberate and keep you calm in the heat of the moment. If that conflict about the dishes or who’s taking your child to daycare arises and you settle it calmly, the ambassadors are online. They are the parts of the brain that help you weigh options carefully and make sense of difficult situations.

If, on the other hand, that conflict about dishes or childcare spins out of control, it is the primitives that are responsible. Primitives care about survival. They can change perception into something like a funhouse mirror, distorting reality. According to Tatkin, “adults carry a bigger burden through life because their dependency relationships carry memories of what could or will happen.”

It is important to note that the primitives are not all trouble. The brain’s functions are complex, and we would not want to leave everything to the ambassadors. Primitives are fast, while ambassadors are slower and require lots of fuel to function, as well as plenty of glucose and oxygen. If we let the ambassadors lead too often, we will become stiff and slow. So, we want to rely on our fast primitives as much as possible.

Ideally, when we get to know someone new, we want both on board. Our primitives will allow us to relax and go with the flow, while our ambassadors will help us evaluate or size up a potential partner. Once we we have determined that a person is safe, our primitives will assume the lead, while our ambassadors will remain available for troubleshooting.

“This is supposed to happen,” says Tatkin. “It is what the brain does to make the relationship feel easier.”

However, when you grow comfortable, you stop paying attention. Since your primitives are controlling the relationship now, they will rely on memories to interpret any intentions of your partner. When a tense situation arises, our primitives will act based on the past, which can cause us to become detached from reality.

It is then that we need to rely on our ambassadors, the rational function of our brain, to regain control and get through the difficult time. This happens sometimes, but is it always that simple? If we get really worked up about something, our primitives can hijack our ambassadors, creating a survival-based state of panic.

Islands, Anchors, and Waves…Oh My

anxious attachmentYou can see that our primitives and ambassadors do their work based on our past. Our relationship history — starting at birth — impacts us in such a profound way that it affects the way we attach to and interact with our romantic partners.

According to Tatkin, the types of attachments we form with one another can, for the most part, be separated into one of three categories: islands, anchors, and waves. (Note: Tatkin warns against self-diagnosis and notes that these attachment styles are not akin to personality types. They simply describe the way we adapt, based on our histories, to new situations.

Islands are characterized by isolation. They find ways to be self-sufficient and tend to enjoy long periods of separation from the interactive world around them. They may feel uncomfortable with others, including their romantic partners, because they find the interpersonal stress difficult to handle.

Under stress, islands self-soothe, rather than seeking others to help them regulate their emotions. Typically, islands come from backgrounds in which they were left alone often and had to adapt by learning to take care of themselves too young.

Waves, on the other hand, seek help from others with their emotions. Most waves come from backgrounds in which they experienced inconsistent parenting, with one or both parents unable to consistently support them emotionally. Or, perhaps someone tried to provide support but was unsuccessful or was too self-preoccupied to do a good job with them. Thus, waves operate with an expectation of being let down by others, while still remaining dependent on them for emotional regulation. This can lead to anger within waves, and when this anger arises, they can be difficult to soothe.

Meanwhile, anchors respond with ease to being alone or with others. Their early experiences taught them they could expect help with their emotions when needed. They experienced an attachment-focused relationship with their parents, who could put aside their needs to focus on their children. Anchors are likely better than waves and islands at reading situations and adjusting to them. Also, because they experienced more fairness and sensitivity in their early attachment history, they tend to respond with more fairness and sensitivity to others.

According to Tatkin, when islands and waves pair (including: islands with islands, and waves with waves) trouble is not far off.

Your initial attraction to one another may put you on your best behavior. However, over time, your differing childhood histories will manifest themselves. If you and your partner are both islands, you may end up with a distance that is comfortable but not interactive. Or, you may avoid conflict to such a degree that resentment builds between you. Alternatively, if you are both waves, you may end up failing to obtain adequate regulation from one another. Wave-island pairings can seem like cat-and-dog or cross-cultural relationships, with each pushing the other to increased opposite behaviors that each of you equally misunderstands.

The solution? Bring the ambassadors online.

This will help you gain a more logical understanding of your distinct attachment styles and what damage your out-of-control primitives might be causing. Then, move towards true “mutuality and cooperation,” which Tatkin says is the foundation of a healthy, secure relationship. This means finding ways to take care of each other simultaneously. There are a number of principles to keep in mind to build such a relationship, but the bottom line is that you must act so that your partner is in your care, and they are in yours.

When Conflicts Arise, “Keep it Simple”

Relationships can survive fights; they cannot survive threats to security. Yet many fights, spinning out of control, do exactly that. They allow the distress to get too intense and last too long. Instead, we must put our ambassadors to work and soothe our partner’s primitives.

One powerful way to make this neurological switch is to start difficult conversations face-to-face. Stop doing whatever else you are doing and focus on one another. Don’t fight in a car or by email or text. Instead, use your eyes to regulate your nervous systems. Tatkin calls this process “changing position.” The face shows everything. So, getting face-to-face with your partner allows you to track what is going on with your lightning-fast primitives. By tracking one another, you can act quickly to soothe your partner’s primitives if they get distressed. In doing so, you will also soothe your own.

First, respond to your partner’s distress. Postpone difficult topics in the car, or pull over so you can look at each other. Respond to the distress quickly–it’s a race to relief. Only when both sets of primitives are calmed can you make progress on the topic.

Second, when you fight, remain orderly. Stick to one topic at a time. No couple can handle multiple topics when under stress. According to Tatkin, “If we want to get anything out of this effort, we have to be disciplined, orderly, and stick to one thing.”

Third, repair the conflict quickly to avoid a fight forming a long-term memory. When you leave issues unresolved, your defenses will build and you will come to expect conflict from your partner. But when you wrap up a fight quickly, leaving each other intact, you can come to the next conflict more relaxed.

Always Protect Your Partner

Another key is to try to recognize when your primitives are taking over. This is when the partnership works at its best. Your partner is crucial in this process, as they will often notice this before you can.

“You protect the other; they protect you,” says Tatkin. Relationships are about both of you. You are not in your own care but rather, each other’s care. If you are consistently in defensive mode, it will not work. Relying on primitives in situations of threat will always keep you on edge, preventing you from moving toward a more meaningful relationship.

When you move away from a self-focused mentality and focus on your partner, you begin to move towards secure functioning. Even if you did not have the advantage of a childhood that provided you with an anchor attachment style, you can change your style over time by participating in effective interdependence. This is very different from codependence because you do this for each other. Doing it for each other is having each other’s back; protecting your partner protects you.

At NCCT, our therapists are intimately acquainted with the various attachment styles and the ways in which they can manifest themselves in a relationship. We understand how important it is to know and adapt to one another and can guide you through that process and towards a state of secure functioning in your partnership.

Interested in learning more about Tatkin’s work?

We are thrilled to announce that on November 1st-2nd, 2019, NCCT will be hosting a training on trauma and the PACT Model, which will be led by Dr. Stan Tatkin himself. The training is open to all health practitioners and anyone interested in learning more about neuroscience, attachment theory and how we can help ourselves and others more effectively cope with our past experiences.

From the Gottman Method to Emotionally Focused Therapy to the PACT model, we apply science-based methodologies to every couples therapy session. For those with more limited schedules, or who desire a more intensive therapy model, we also offer couples retreats and couples therapy weekends.

Interested in working on your relationship? Request an appointment or call our office at (413) 586-2300.

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