Our Automatic Brain: Everything New Will Soon Be Old

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,
stantatkin.com

Our brains are remarkable organs. They take in and use massive amounts of information from inside and outside our bodies and allow us to go through about 90% of our day automatically. We can get from point A to point B while checking our emails, talking to others in the subway, drinking coffee, or doing any number of tasks simultaneously. Our brains are on automation, running our lives, making decisions, and doing what needs to be done, with little thought required. Our automatic brains are cheap to run and extremely fast and efficient. That’s a very good thing when you consider how much that ability would cost if we had to use the very expensive novelty-oriented parts of our brain. If we couldn’t rely on automation, we’d never be able to accomplish much of anything.

The automatic brain is made up of old memories, some of which are explicit, but most of which are implicit, or outside our awareness. This is called procedural...

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Betrayal Causes Trauma

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT

In matters of betrayal—lying, cheating, stealing—the breach of the attachment system is acute and often long lasting and can be understood neurologically as a trauma-related problem.

Franklin and Zeynep, a couple in their early 40s with two young children, came to therapy because of a discovered set of sexual affairs. Franklin, an American-born academician, was found to have an affair with one of his students. Zeynep, a Turkish-born emergency room nurse, discovered the affair after accidentally viewing Franklin's phone text messages. The texts were explicitly sexual and contained incontrovertible evidence of Franklin's deceptions and betrayals. Although Franklin was contrite and desperately wanted to be let back into the relationship, he had great difficulty dealing with Zeynep’s unrelenting preoccupation with his affair. She wanted to know details. Fearful of making matters worse, he refused to give details. Zeynep would wake up in the...

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The Deal Breaker

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT


A deal breaker is an issue that looks like it cannot be solved. Many couples face issues related to religion or sexuality or money or children. They might feel—and you might think—such deal breakers must lead to the end of the relationship.

For instance, one partner says, “I must have children or my life won’t be worth living.”

The other says with equal strength, “I’m not the parent type. I don’t even like children and I will never have one.”

After a long pause, the first says, “Okay. We should buy a house together.”

Or perhaps one partner says, “I want my children raised as Muslims. That’s nonnegotiable.”

The other says, “I want my children raised Catholic. That’s how it’s going to be.”

One of them follows this deal breaker with, “Have you decided whether you want go to Hawaii this year for Christmas?”

Notice this tendency to kick the can...

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The Ten Commandments for a Secure-Functioning Relationship

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,
stantatkin.com

  1. Thou shalt protect the safety and security of thy relationship at all costs.
  2. Thou shalt base thy relationship on true mutuality, remembering that all decisions and actions must be good for thee AND for thine partner.
  3. Thou shalt not threaten the existence of the relationship, for so doing would benefit no one.
  4. Thou shalt appoint thy partner as go-to person for all matters, making certain thy partner is first to know—not second, third, or fourth—in all matters of importance.
  5. Thou shalt provide a tether to thy partner all the days and nights of thy life, and never fail to greet thy partner with good cheer.
  6. Thou shalt protect thy partner in public and in private from harmful elements, including thyself.
  7. Thou shall put thy partner to bed each night and awaken with thy partner each morning.
  8. Thou shalt correct all errors, including injustices and injuries, at once or as soon as possible, and not make dispute of who was the original...
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No Pain No Gain

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,
stantatkin.com

Therapy is only useful for changing people who are experiencing sufficient distress. This is not to say that education, consultation, or brief counseling will have no effect. People often benefit from couple counseling for premarital or other short-term work. However, as a matter of therapeutic stance, the PACT therapist assumes the presence of a sufficient level of distress that can only be relieved by pressuring couples to go down the tube of secure functioning. The PACT therapist thus takes a stand for secure-functioning principles. For insecure partners, this requires a big leap of faith.

That leap of faith can be viewed as a metaphor for neuronal action potential (AP) and long-term potentiation (LTP). AP is basically a charge that is sufficient to fire a neuron. LTP is a cellular mechanism related to learning and memory. LTP involves the building up of synaptic strength between neurons, whereby several weak synapses repeatedly fire...

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On Being Found

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,
stantatkin.com

A study by Nagasawa and his colleagues in Japan (2009) some years ago involving dogs and their owners found that if a dog looked into its owner’s eyes by finding the gaze first, the owner’s oxytocin levels went up. (I suspect dopamine might also be increased). However, if the owner’s gaze found the dog’s eyes first, no increase in oxytocin resulted. This finding has continued to “dog” me as I thought about infant attachment studies and adult romantic relationships. What is it about a dog, a baby, or a lover finding our eyes that leads to an increase in dopamine, oxytocin, vasopressin, or other neurochemicals related to the reward system?

During early infancy, when the newborn’s gaze is largely undirected, the catching of the mother’s gaze by the infant leads to a dopaminergic rush—a reward that is evident in the mother’s subsequent inviting vocal tone and facial expression. This...

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Arousal Regulation and Mindfulness for Couples

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,
stantatkin.com

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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Folie à deux

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,
stantatkin.com

As a species, we are more herdlike than we are hermetic. Both tendencies exist in our society, but we tend to be happier and healthier when we herd as a group together than when we isolate ourselves. In fact, it has been established that even individuals without a history of mental illness are more likely to develop symptoms if they experience too much isolation, loneliness, or withdrawal from social connections.

Not only do isolated individuals become sicker both in body and mind than do connected individuals, but the same applies to couples. Couples can become isolates who are cut off from social engagement outside their tiny, exclusive orbit. These couples, I have found in my practice, become crazier and crazier the longer they isolate themselves. Sometimes one partner is crazier than the other; however, when they become socially isolated as a couple, both descend into madness together. This is known as folie à deux,* or shared...

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Partnering Up: Falling From Space (or Grace)

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,
stantatkin.com

Stages of Courtship

I realize this is a rather lax stage theory of courtship, so forgive me in advance for using a rocket analogy to describe how relationships get off the ground. But understand, I’ve had rockets on my mind for several years while thinking about success and failure in courtship.

Helen Fisher, a brilliant biological anthropologist, expert in the neurobiology of courtship and romantic love, and all-around lovely person, has written extensively on courtship. Please read her articles and books for more on this subject. Others have written on this topic. Harville Hendrix (another wonderful person) comes to mind for his early writings on Imago and stages of coupling. And of course John Gottman, another friend and great guy, has talked about the deleterious effects of testosterone on new lovers’ judgment. So, without further delay, I give you my rocket analogy of courtship.

During the first stage (booster) of partnering,...

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Be Attractive, Not Scary

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,
stantatkin.com

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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