We Do: A Book Review (part 3)

This is the third 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. This portion involves how Tatkin addresses sexuality, substance use, and infidelity. A special thanks goes to Peter Jones, EdD for writing this series.

In We Do, sex, with its intensity of contact and proximity, is presented as a potential psychobiological minefield, fueling the troublesome triad of communication, perception and memory. Because “in the psychobiological world partners repeat the same mistakes everywhere, regardless of the situation,” what goes wrong in sex is predictable from trouble in other areas.  

Couples bring to sex their adaptations to unsatisfactory prior experiences that were too unfair, insensitive and uncollaborative. Partners may have developed aversions from these experiences that interfere with close contact and proximity. As in other areas of difficulty, lack of understanding of the wiring we bring, coupled with lack of exploratory, transparent collaborative talk, will lead to partners filling in the blanks, often leaning negative without sufficient and effective partner coregulation and collaboration.

Other sources of trouble include the cultural emphasis on sex: ideas about how often or what kind of sex we should be having may amplify our expectations and disappointments, and increase self-consciousness, interfering with the playfulness and creativity that can make sex an experience of flow. Tatkin suggests couples de-emphasize received ideas about how much or what kind of sex they are having; normal is what works for the couple.

Secure functioning requires that couples collaborate on their preferences while attending to the injuries each brings. Secure functioning is offered as a way for sex to serve as an arena for couples to work through their injuries and blocks, and suggests that working on their difficulties through sex will have an impact on functioning in other areas. The directionality is reversible: working towards secure functioning in other areas should accrue to sex.

For Tatkin, all issues are the same: secure functioning as a matter of agreements, vision, and values, including attachment values that foreground relationship, in light of psychobiological resources and limitations, without which couples will likely accrue threat. Runaway threat leads to avoidance and ultimately relationship dissolution.

Throughout We Do, Tatkin emphasizes the interactional effect of the partners’ behaviors, rather than a priori valuations.

For example, whether substance use blocks secure functioning depends on whether a partner balks or not. Addictions are presented as the issue of a partner’s unhappiness with the “change in behavior, attitude, engagement, and alertness in the partner using…a stoned, drunk or tripping partner is a drag if the other partner is sober, not interested, or unhappy with their altered lover. Repeat that experience and you have abandonment and neglect problems.”

Value relativity, however, is not absolute: a partner facing abuse, alcohol-fueled or not, is advised to end the relationship, while a partner facing a pattern of abandonment and neglect should also consider this a potential dealbreaker. A partner who will not collaborate is not a partner, and should be fired, because survival value is compromised when partners are not looking out for each other.

The area of fidelity/betrayal is presented as a matter of attending to the integrity of the two-person system that partners rely on for protection. This makes infidelity a matter of a knowing violation or flouting of a value, principle, or agreement. Prototypical situations include affairs, misuse of money, or disclosure of information that partners agreed to keep private.

Interactionally, partners may be able to manage some betrayals with immediate remorse and repair. Often, a betrayal “only becomes a big problem when the offending partner becomes defensive, dismissive, or remains insensitive to their partner’s feelings.” Speed of repair has clear psychobiological implications: partners who let offenses go unrepaired for too long allow the experience to go into long term memory, altering their long term experience of the relationship towards the negative. Repeated failures of quick repair risk altering nervous system settings, wiring the partners for anticipation of future trouble.

Some betrayals, however, such as affairs, can be traumatizing, requiring both partners to tend to an injured partner over the long term, often only with professional help. While a relationship can recover from an affair, Tatkin doubts that repeated betrayals, repeated dismissals of the injury, or deception by means of making one’s partner question their reality (gaslighting) can be repaired.

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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