We Do: A Book Review (part 2)

This is the second of a four part series of Stan Tatkin's new book, We Do: Saying Yes to a Relationship of Depth, True Connection, and Enduring Love. A special thanks goes to Peter Jones, EdD for writing this series.

Drilling down to reveal how the troublesome triad of memory, communication, and perception plays tricks on us, Stan Tatkin devotes several chapters of We Do to our mostly implicit, mostly automatic psychobiological systems, which are by default expert at detecting threat and waging war.

Tatkin lays out the architecture of systems with a variety of simplifications, many familiar by now to therapists but less so to other users. Crucial to managing the war are emotional and arousal (energy) regulation, a spectrum of attachment styles, the nervous system’s fight, fight, freeze and collapse responses, the window of tolerance, and not least, the negativity bias, an overarching tendency for the brain to lean negative and store negative memories, weighting psychobiological systems towards ever finer perceptions of threat.

Tatkin shows how reliance on automatic functioning, on board since early childhood, can lead to partners attributing intentions to each other that are the residue of unreflected, memory-based functioning in real time.

Real time is too fast, Tatkin says, limiting error-correction of inaccurate perceptions by the higher cortical areas of the brain. Vignettes illustrate the functioning of these system in interactions couples are all too likely to recognize. Corrective vignettes show how couples might handle those situations in light of each other’s implicit wiring.

Crucial to error correction is coregulation, the capacity of partners to both take their partners’s nervous systems into account and make adjustments. Fast remediation of old responses, potentially rewiring for secure functioning, is possible with a renewed, better informed effort to coregulate. Failing to respond appropriately to the other’s state through coregulation, partners can easily spin out and begin to seem threatening and predatory to each other.

Tatkin offers secure functioning as the couple’s necessary antidote to the inevitable specter of threat, which all relationships must learn to manage. A relationship is secure functioning when couples can keep threat limited enough to support cooperation and collaboration on realizing their shared vision of relationship.    

The practical value of the binocular approach pays off in extended treatment of areas of perennial difficulty for couples such as sex, fighting, and betrayal.

For fighting, Tatkin leads with the secure-functioning directive that partners must learn to “take care of their partner and themselves at the same time.” This simplification is countered by the psychobiological limitations that come into play in a close relationship: the negativity bias coupled with attachment insecurities, each leading to coregulation difficulties.

The physiology of vision complicates matters and is crucial to understand; the depth of Tatkin’s approach is perhaps best exemplified in his treatment of the importance of visual coregulation during fighting.

We only see clearly out of the center of the eye, the fovea, which is the size of a pinprick; we are effectively legally blind to the side. Since we don’t have a clear visual stream coming from the side, if our partner is to the side  the amygdala will fire more often, prepping for threat. The brain, angling towards negativity and in the absence of eye-to-eye visual coregulation, will fill in the blanks of the visual stream based on memory.

If partners get into a difficult topic and don’t have a rich enough visual stream, while driving, for instance, they are more likely to misinterpret partner’s responses, introducing errors. Without crosschecking what they are hearing with clear and steady visual cues, which would allow them to respond to partner distress fast enough, couples may find these errors compounding, leading them to square off, undermining collaboration.

Difficult topics must therefore be worked through face to face and eye to eye, not pointed toward the TV, the wall, the road, or even the therapist. While face-to-face, couples are urged to focus on one difficult topic at a time, and to not hold the floor too long; with rising stress, the nervous system is undersupplying oxygen and glucose to the higher cortical areas of the brain, making it hard to stay in the listening position long. None of this allows couples to correct errors in perception quickly enough.

Couples may thus find that the knowledge of psychobiology supports their capacity to structure and manage better difficult discussions to fuel their partnership.

Peter Jones, Ed.D, MAMFT trained as an educational linguist, studying interaction in and out of classrooms and teaching undergraduates and graduates with a focus on understanding interaction as a vehicle for learning. When he developed a fascination for relationships between interaction, learning, and healing, he trained as a couples therapy, receiving a MA in marriage and family therapy. He now works as a couples therapist at Clinical and Support Options in Athol, MA.

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