by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT
Many partners ask me how to take care simultaneously of themselves and of their partner. In practical terms, this can be difficult to carry off. Similarly, some couple therapists find it difficult to convey the principle of simultaneous care to couples they treat. This blog shows you how to incorporate this principle into your practice and your relationship.
First, we have a neurobiological reality to circumnavigate. Human beings are largely driven by self-interests, particularly when overtired, overstressed, or under-resourced, and even more so when threatened. When partners engage in conflict, it is vital to understand the tendency to mistake even a loved one as adversarial, or worse, predatory. The predisposition to error in this direction is a feature of the human impulse to survive. The brain centers responsible for mistaking a friend for a foe are famously expeditious, indiscriminate, and ruthless. This primitive facet of the mind and body is untamable; no amount of therapy will prevent most threat recognition from triggering a reflexive behavior. Though insecurely attached individuals (and those with unresolved trauma) are more likely to trigger easily and often, secure individuals are not immune to acting like the animals we all are. The smart thing for couple therapists to do is to work with this issue so couples can learn how to circumvent the tendency to shoot first and ask questions later.1
It can be helpful for partners to think in terms of fire prevention and fire extinguishing. The therapist can help them become trained firefighters. See a glowing ember and put it out fast! Engulfed in a blaze, dump a lot of cold water everywhere! Eventually, the couple are guided toward becoming good stewards of their safety and security, and that begins and ends with the principles of taking care of the self and other at the same time. However, the therapist may have to triage fire extinguishing and prevention, and determine which is most urgent.
Insecure-functioning partners are inclined to take care of themselves only. One person takes a stand for himself or herself, while fully disregarding the other partner’s sensitivities, sensibilities, concerns, fears, wants, and historical injuries. Partners prime each other with dog-whistle-like behavioral cues that telegraph threatening intensions. An astute therapist can quickly detect these implicit signals prior to them becoming explicit. Video replay (if immediate) is sometimes helpful, though a rapidly kindled couple can become fired up with this technique. For these couples, the principle of self/other simultaneous care must come last in the treatment plan. They set too many fires and may “gladly” let them burn.2
The human capacity to cooperate and collaborate dates back to the beginning of the H. sapiens species, It’s in our DNA to share, bargain, trade, and keep the peace. Our species would have otherwise died out with the Neanderthals. Fairness is not a modern invention. For two autonomous individuals to get what they want and need, they have to ensure both parties benefit or they will get nothing but trouble. That stratagem must always be in play to keep the peace and to prosper. Neanderthals did not have the brain capacity to bargain, trade, or imagine win-win scenarios. We are, by contrast, supposed to have that capacity, and yet we seem to be Neanderthal in our love relationships!
The couple is the smallest unit of a social group. As such, it must operate under social rules if it is to survive. Though the couple represents a hierarchy with regard to children, its own structure is preferably egalitarian. So, if a couple seek real happiness, harmony, and freedom from chronic distress, they must be willing to care for themselves and each other at the same time, or suffer the consequences. A couple therapist cannot make a couple do this, but the therapist can and should expect nothing less.
If partners are good at fire extinguishing and becoming better at fire prevention, but could improve their skillfulness, the following exercise can be done during session. Video playback can be additionally helpful in giving the couple immediate feedback.
Here are the rules:
Before a couple can understand the principle of simultaneous self and other care, their therapist must fully understand and practice it himself or herself. Therapists shouldn’t expect clients to do what they cannot or won’t do themselves.
Can anyone apply this principle flawlessly at all times? Of course not. But this is a principle worthy of practice. It’s one of the best ways to prevent fires in our closest relationships.