We Do: A Book Review (part 4)

This is the fourth 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.

Some users may object that Tatkin’s vision calls for relationship relentlessly up close. They may prefer a vision of relationship with more distance and independence.

Tatkin is clear though that he does not take issue with what couples find works for them; the emphasis is on knowing whether it is their psychobiological difficulties, such as aversions coming from their early attachment experiences, that determine how close and how far apart they live their relationships. Independence, Tatkin points out, can often not be true autonomy, but rather adaptation to neglect in insecurely functioning prior relationships.

Working through We Do would be a way for couples to explore where their psychobiological wiring points them and assess whether that is what is actually good for them and what they want.

Secure functioning is argued as the most sustainable conception of a primary relationships of all kinds, regardless of social categories and social histories. Polyamorous relationships are mentioned only in passing, with the proviso that each partner has to be on board, capable of collaboration, and have good understanding of theirs and their partners’ psychobiological wiring, how they are difficult, and must produce a fair, just and sensitive set of principles for shared governance.

Tatkin makes little use of gender as a lens. Instead, attachment types, predictable adaptations deriving from unique personal histories, carry the weight of contrasting styles. Some will find this approach a welcome break from the usual over-reliance on gender in discussions of couples. Others may wonder whether heterosexual couples in particular are able to sort out social justice issues such as fairness and sensitivity without help. Throughout the book, Tatkin trusts partners to make arrangements that are fair, sensitive, just, mutual and collaborative.

Tatkin lodges many of his insights in composites of clients, and recounts some of his own experiences in relationship, but the primary voice is of a couples researcher and therapist with a mastery of the relevant attachment and neuroscience literatures intent on synthesizing them into a user-friendly model of successful relationship. Most of the time, the supporting voices are implicit.

But nearly every sentence is informed by the rich web of couple and family therapy research and method shaped by thinkers such as Minuchin, Nagy, and Gottman; and the rich web of research on psychobiology, such as Porges, Siegel, and Schore. Tatkin focuses on the practical value of understanding psychobiology, providing only the most representative footnotes.

Tatkin’s approach will be both enlightening and useful to different audiences. Couples or partners seeking help with their relationship may find that the emphasis on psychobiology allows for a different kind of buy-in, reducing blame by shifting attention to automatic, implicit wiring that at some earlier point in partners’ lives had survival value.

Singles will find guidance on what to look for in a mate: someone with the interest in a secure functioning relationship and capacity to collaborate on maintaining one.

Couples therapists wanting to get to know Tatkin’s work for the first time are fortunate to have in We Do what amounts to a tour not only of the underpinnings of psychobiological couples therapy but also many of its key interventions, albeit without the precision that a book for clinicians or training would provide. Couples therapists who appreciate the psychobiological challenges to secure functioning will be able to use the book as an adjunct to therapy for their clients, who will be able to use the book independently.

Tatkin’s bottom line is stark: if couples don’t function securely, they will accrue threat through the unmonitored, unmitigated operation of their automatic psychobiological systems. States of threat leech out the benefits that should accrue to partners and leaving them subject to relationship distress, compromising survival for each partner.

Secure functioning is offered as the antidote to the fallible wiring of our brain, body and mind, and to at least some of the external dangers facing all of us. Tatkin is arguing that we should shift the unit of survival from the individual to the couple, and thus from a one-person psychology (“I take care of me”) to a two-person psychology (“we are in each others’ care).

Ultimately, of course, partners may grasp in working through this book that to take care of the other is to take care of oneself. Required for this task are collaboration, shared vision, knowledge of self & other, knowledge of how threat accrues, and the know-how to reduce threat. “I tell partners to save their money on therapy and do their jobs as secure-functioning partners. Be each others’ confessors, healers, and best friends."

To fill these roles and to monitor for trouble, Tatkin argues, is not codependence, but interdependence. Attending to and nurturing effective interdependence, or secure functioning, is argued to be how one takes care of oneself and their partner in a chaotic, dangerous world. We Do offers crucial resources for this work.

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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