Know Your Partner: How Do They Really Work?

Uncategorized Jun 18, 2024

Excerpted from the second edition of Wired for Love

By Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT
PACT Developer 

Who are we as relationship partners? How do we move toward and away from (literally and figuratively) those we depend on? It always amazes me that couples can be together for fifteen, twenty, even thirty years and the partners still feel they don’t know each other. In so many ways, they don’t know what makes each other tick. 

Becoming acquainted with our primitives and ambassadors helps us answer these questions to some extent. But not everyone responds the same way in a relationship. The balance of power within and between the primitive and ambassador camps differs from person to person. Not everyone’s ambassadors, for example, can rein in their primitives equally fast. In fact, due to the variance between your brains, you and your partner may experience different interactions between your primitives and ambassadors. 

So, we each come to the table oriented toward a certain style of relating. We may recognize our partner’s style, but often not consciously. Unhappy partners often claim ignorance (“If I knew you were like this, I’d never have married you”) and maintain claims of ignorance (“I just don’t know what planet you’re on”) throughout the relationship. In this chapter, we explore why this mystification can occur, and what you can do to overcome it. 

As a couples therapist, I have come to know that such claims of ignorance are essentially untrue, even though they may feel true to the people who say them. They are untrue because we all have a style of relating that remains quite stable over time. Growing up, our parents’ or caregivers’ styles of relating set the standard we learned to adapt to. And despite our intelligence and exposure to new ideas, this wiring remains virtually unchanged as we age. For instance, I commonly hear new parents ardently wish and say, “I will never do what my parents did to me,” in periods of distress, they do exactly that. I don’t say this with judgment; it’s just a matter of human nature and biology.

Most partners audition for relationships fully unaware of who they are and how they are wired to relate in a committed-couple universe. As in all auditions, they endeavor to put themselves forward in the best light. It wouldn’t make sense for someone on the first date to say, “I spent a lot of time alone as a kid and I still do. I don’t like my alone time to be intruded upon. I’ll come to you when I’m ready. And don’t bother coming to me because then I’ll think you’re demanding something of me, and I don’t like that.” An equally quick way to send a date running for the hills would be to say, “I tend to be clingy and get angry when I feel abandoned. I hate silence and being ignored. I never seem to get enough from people, yet I don’t take compliments well because I don’t believe people are being sincere, so I tend to reject anything nice.” During the initial phase of a relationship, partners may give clues about their basic predilections concerning physical proximity, emotional intimacy, and concerns regarding safety and security. But it is only when the relationship becomes permanent in either or both partners’ minds that these predilections really come to life. 

Much of what we do, we do automatically and without thinking. This is largely the work of our primitives. In relationships, one of the things partners typically are unaware of is how they physically move toward and away from each other. Our brain’s reaction to physical proximity and duration of proximity is wired from early childhood and influences such things as where we choose to stand or sit in relation to one another, how we adjust distance between us, how we embrace, how we make love, and just about everything we do that involves physical movement and static physical space. Because we operate largely on automatic pilot, we remain oblivious to this entire dimension of our interactions. Moreover, we handle physical proximity differently during courtship than in more committed phases of a relationship. For example, many couples touch constantly while dating, but touching drops off dramatically after they make a commitment. This can be very confusing and can lead partners to wonder, “Do I even know who you are anymore?”

New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Copyright © 2024 Stan Tatkin


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