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.


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