Arousal Regulation and Mindfulness for Couples

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,

In PACT, we talk about various strategies for emotional and arousal regulation. Auto-regulation is a process of self-management that is internally focused, energy conserving (because it doesn’t involve interactions with people), and somewhat dissociative. It is a non-social strategy in the sense that it does not require another person. For instance, when I manage myself by self-stimulating and self-soothing; others are not required or even wanted. Some people find using mindfulness practices for auto-regulatory purposes to be a better strategy than constantly seeking to be left alone.

Self-regulation, on the other hand, is a pro-social strategy that focuses on self-management. In other words, I manage myself so I can better maintain social engagement with others.

Mindfulness practices can be used effectively for self-regulatory purposes. I suspect this is one of the reasons behind their recent popularity.

In fact, the term...

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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...

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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...

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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...

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Daily Rekindling of Love

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,

Romantic love is an addiction. Although we "feel" romantic love, the feeling is largely the result of a particular brain circuitry and neurochemical cocktail more closely related to the addiction or reward circuit.

Successful long term couples understand how to maintain their "addiction" to one another through daily techniques that result in mutual amplification of positive feeling. In other words, partners are able to rekindle their reward circuitry, the very same neural network that contributed to their initial romantic excitement with one another. There are three practicals ways to do this, two of which are well-known and the third not-so-well-known.

1. The Lovers' Gaze (aka primary intersubjectivity)
2. Joint attention to a third object, person, idea, activity, etc. (aka secondary intersubjectivity)
3. Conversion of Personal Positive Feeling for Mutual Amplification

The Lovers' Gaze

Arguably, it is with the eyes, or more specifically, the...

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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...

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Tortoises and Hares

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,

Quite different from Airplanes and Submarines are Tortoises and Hares. While the former points to arousal preference for either high sympathetic or low parasympathetic states, the latter refers to mental processing speed, or "RPMs" as I like to call it. There are Hare and Tortoise partners in my office quite often. The Hare will run circles around the Tortoise partner, especially during periods of distress. It's important to note that the Tortoise is never fast and the Hare is never slow, distress notwithstanding. However, when partners become aroused during conflict it becomes evident that the Hare has the advantage and must be cautioned against disorienting or steamrolling his/her partner.

A Hare must be careful not to induce mutual dysregulation within the couple system by losing and befuddling his or her slower partner. Moving too fast, both verbally and non-verbally, can appear threatening and even predatory. The tortoise must help his...

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Airplanes and Submarines

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,

Airplanes and submarines are quite different from one another. They both travel up and down, with sea level often as their starting point. However, their atmospheres are quite different as is the speed with which they travel. Different as well are their perspectives. One views and explores the vast world above, while the other views and explores the vast world below. To the airplane, the world of the submarine may be confusing and even threatening. Equally strange perhaps is the submarine's understanding of the airplane's world.

Airplanes are fast and nimble. They can climb the heights, spin atop the world, go upside down and right side up, and still land safely and gracefully on the ground. Free and unencumbered by the view and restrictions of ground-level life, airplanes can be above it all, in the heavens with the gods. Occasionally they can become too confident, too full of themselves, and be struck down by weather or other natural...

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