In Each Other’s Care: A Guide to the Most Common Relationship Conflicts and How to Work Through Them by Stan Tatkin is a book I often recommend to others. These are my personal notes from the book. These are not all direct quotes, but also paraphrases and added commentary from me. A * designates a note-worthy point. As always, reading the book for yourself is suggested.
Shared Purpose, Shared Vision, Shared Principles of Governance (Guardrails)
The human primate is a selfish animal. Unless an individual has a mutual stake in a union with others, they will surely take advantage of opportunities to serve self-interests. That’s not evil . . . it’s human. Unless people orient toward being in each other’s care, they will naturally revert to ideas of self-care to the exclusion of others and act accordingly. Our interdependency—having the same things to gain and the same things to lose—is our greatest guarantee of fair play, justice, and sensitivity to one another.
The purpose of this book is to be a repair manual.
Couples tend to share a limited variety of problems.
Unskilled interactions repeated and unrepaired during stressful moments are a principal cause of mutual dysregulation, dissatisfaction, threat inflammation, resentment, and avoidance in all relationships.
Microaggressions expressed and perceived during stressful interpersonal interactions are a leading cause of coregulatory dysfunction in couples and eventual relationship dissolution. Poor interactions, therefore, are a central culprit.
Secure functioning is a social contract between two individuals of equal power and authority to remain fair, just, and sensitive at all times, while also remaining fully collaborative and cooperative.
Secure functioning individuals orient themselves toward a two-person psychology, autonomous and differentiated but interdependent with a shared purpose and vision. Their main purpose is to survive and thrive as a couple and as individuals.
Secure partners tend to put their relationship first above all other things because the relationship is an energy source for all other things.
Compared to insecure-functioning partners, secure-functioning partners get things done. They work out big life problems and little daily frustrations quickly and keep interpersonal stress to an absolute minimum. They are happier—more adaptive, flexible, creative, friendly, and healthy. They even look younger.
Agreements are to secure-functioning relationships what beams and supports are to a house structure. Without agreements—which are based on shared interests—a relationship, like a house, won’t hold up. The better the agreements, the stronger the structure.
* When making agreements, be certain the two of you first look to where you agree. Partners too often focus on where they disagree and how they are different from each other. Under what conditions should these actions take place? Remember, we are constructing a purpose-centered, action-oriented vision
Where do you both agree?
What are your and your partner’s personal and mutual reasons for wanting this?
Why do you want this for yourself?
How do you want to manifest it behaviorally?
Are there any downsides?
What guardrails will you put in place to enforce it so that the agreement holds?
The forgetful or mistepping partner must immediately apologize, yield, and cooperate without delay, defense, or explanation.
Shared purpose is your foundational “together” statement; the oath you create together and live by each day. Example: Together we lead each other and everyone in our care.
Shared vision comprises the highest actions you agree to take together. Without a shared vision pointing them in the same direction, people will go off in their own directions. Example: Our vision is to remain in love, grow as individuals, do good things, and leave the world a better place.
Shared principles of governance (SPGs) are the unbreakable “we” agreements that protect each of you and the essence of your relationship. (Guardrails). Example: We have each other’s backs at all times without exception.
- The problem of being human (We are all pains in the ass)
Memory-State of Mind-Perception Loop
We misunderstand each other much of the time.
Most of our communication is implicit, nonverbal.
When it comes to communication, you both must take responsibility for making sure that your speech is clear and understood by the other person.
Most people, particularly partners, will treat clarification as unnecessary and, in fact, frustrating. “You should know what I mean,” a partner might say. “My meaning is obvious.” Or, “Everyone knows what that means.”
Miller’s law states “that in order to understand what someone is telling you, it is necessary for you to assume the person is being truthful, then imagine what could be true about it.”
As a couple therapist, carelessness in communication is the most common error of all.
Partners will disregard the fact that they are mostly misunderstanding each other much of the time without realizing it.
This common and frankly annoying error is easily avoidable by returning to the formality likely present at the beginning of the relationship. Check in with simple, nonthreatening questions or requests:
“Are you saying . . . ?”
“I want your eyes because this is important . . .”
“Let me make sure I understand . . .”
“Say back what you heard . . .”
“Let me repeat that.”
“What do you think I meant by . . . ?”
“We may not be talking about the same thing. Are you saying . . . ?”
Checking and rechecking is vital to the proper running of a 2 person system.
Since I and my partner were born with brains having a negativity bias, my partner will now fill in the blank with a negative possibility, perceiving my behavior as being rude, inattentive, uncaring, disinterested, or bored, which I’ll likely pay for later unless I close the communication gap.
Microcommunications (Quick explanations intended to fill in the blanks) are small but significant bridges in communication that make relationships safer, easier, and less likely to devolve into back-and-forths that waste valuable time and energy. I think it’s also respectful, elegant, thoughtful, and considerate. But mostly, I believe it’s smart! Leaving blank spaces for another to fill is simply self-harming.
Just about everything we do throughout each day is memory based. That is how we conserve energy. If we did not do this, we would never get out of a corner of the room, for we would have to rediscover everything from scratch.
My state of mind drives my memory, and my memory drives my state of mind. That is part of the loop. Additionally, my state of mind alters my perception like a funhouse mirror, distorting my seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and tactile experience. It’s wild but true. Check it out for yourself.
You’re probably pretty sure about what you’ve remembered, and if your partner disagrees with you, they’re wrong. If you both came into my office and started to argue about a memory, about what happened last week with whom, where, and in what sequence, I can pretty much guarantee you that you’d both be wrong. How do I know this? First, each person’s experience is recorded differently, depending on their current states of mind and body.
* Memory does not operate like a video recorder.
Memory fills in blanks and embellishes with emotion, context, and meaning.
We interpret voice, face, touch, words, smell and, yes, even taste through this distorted filter.
* Failure to understand these aspects of the human condition can be disastrous for our relationships.
The prompting method, whereby one partner prompts the other to remember to do or not to do something that has been automatic. Can only be used with agreement and permission.
Anticipatory threat will alter your behavior—your voice, movements, facial expressions, posture, and word choice—just enough to appear threatening to your partner.
* The past is done, but if nothing is learned from the wreckage of the past, what’s next will simply be a repetition of the past.
The loop again involves pesky memory and our attempts to sequence, contextualize, and factualize events that have already been relegated to personal narratives that have radically altered the original experience. Neither partner can actually claim their version is the correct one.
The best way to handle the past is to fix it in the present. Both partners admit their part in the debacle, apologize, and scramble to find ways to prevent that event from recurring.
* The past is always present—there is no getting away from it. We change the past by changing the present and the future. Only new experiences can quell old memories, and those new experiences must be devoid of elements reminiscent of previous misdeeds or events.
- Threat reduction
Take care of yourself and your partner at the same time
Keep your eyes where they belong
Blending vs congealing
Threat perception is the single most underrated cause of relationship distress.
Secure-functioning couples operate as a two-person psychological system; that is, they orient themselves as being in each other’s care and view each other as mutual shareholders in their ongoing felt sense of safety and security.
When partners are feeling unsafe or insecure, and nothing is done about that right away, no one shares or receives anything other than defensiveness.
Insecure functioning involves individuals who orient as one person only, which is expressed by conveying personal interests only in the language of me, my, I.
This will present as unfriendly and threatening to the other. For instance, I will talk and act like I care only about my concerns, fears, feelings, thoughts, wishes, and needs. As soon as I do, you get the message that you’d better do the same as I clearly do not have you in mind at all. Quickly we both square off, forced to defend ourselves, our honor, our reputation, our own needs and wants, and now we are adversaries. In essence, it’s game over. We both walk away with nothing except more threat, frustration, and memory with which to kindle the next episode.
A partner, upon recognizing the other’s state shift into unsafety or insecurity, must return their threatened partner to safety and security before doing anything else. We call that leading with relief, which is another way of saying, return your partner to a felt sense of safety and security or suffer the consequences of an altered mind that is prepared to fight or flee. The best protection partners have against this typical human phenomenon is to orient as a two-person psychological system of taking care of self and other at (relatively) the same time.
* Remember, in order to win, you have to think of your partner and your partner has to think of you—always—when communicating, when reacting, and when interacting, or you both will end up losing.
Maintenance of eye contact during stress or distress is vital to coregulation (a.k.a. interactive regulation) between two nervous systems.
Lower your eyes for too long and what are you looking at? Firstly, you’re solely in your own heads and using areas of the brain for memory, imaging, anticipation, planning your next move, and interpreting. If you’re angry, you’re remembering similar moments of feeling angry, helpless, or threatened. The picture of your partner is static, fixed, and congruent with your current state of mind. But that’s only on the inside. You and your partner are now cut off from the actual flow of data coming toward each other in the present moment.
* The faster we talk, move, act, or respond, the more automatic and reflexive we become. Our error rates begin to soar. When interacting with each other under stressful conditions, going too fast can be disastrous.
Repairing, making amends, and making things right is love!
* Strive to make things right between us, not to make ourselves right. Of all the human relational mistakes, the refusal to put our relationships first above ourselves is one of our greatest failings. To win the battle of righteousness is to lose so much more.
Repair your mistakes, make amends for what you did (not why) and if necessary (as is often the case), offer a behavioral assurance (a guardrail) against future similar mishaps and proof of understanding (“ I’ll show you I get it”).
The person receiving an effective repair must show some sign of gratitude.
A third is any object, task, or preoccupation that threatens the primacy of the dyadic experience by either partner. A third can be a person, an obsession, an addiction, a video game, a job, a pet, or anything that is felt to steal resources or primacy from the relationship. Thirds exist. They are not the actual problem, but they become so when they are mismanaged by one of the partners.
Mismanagement of thirds is in the top tier of threatening behavior that plagues romantic partnerships. It seems innocent enough: a friend, an ex, a parent, a child, a boss, or a business partner.
If something in the couple system is promoting insecurity in one of the partners, the doubting partner would best be advised to take this very seriously and work quickly to reduce or eliminate the threat of the third. Blaming the threatened partner will not work.
If either of you experience a threat that remains unmanaged, your unrepaired goodwill is definitely going to suffer.
Without consistent demonstration of goodwill, trust will erode, and relationship management will become very difficult if not impossible.
Goodwill and good faith between you and your partner are essential to trust, safety, and security. Cultivate them daily.
Wanting something is no assurance that I will get what I want. For one thing, I may not be willing to expend the effort necessary to acquire or achieve my target wants. For another thing, I may not even know if I understand what I am wanting. And lastly, since many of my wants depend on factors outside of my control, I may be unable to get what I want if, say, my partner doesn’t want the same thing or doesn’t want to endure the challenges to achieve it.
The personal will to achieve anything is the pivotal factor in change of any kind. It will be tested by all who attempt secure functioning as an actionable reality and not simply an idea or ideal. Secure functioning, becoming a full-fledged adult, operating interdependently in a two-person psychological system of full mutuality is not easy. It requires discipline, character, will, and faith that doing the right thing when it’s the hardest to do, in our closest relationships, only makes us better people
* If at any time your partner is feeling unsafe or insecure in the relationship, you will not be able to influence, convince, or persuade them on any matter. Case closed. This is not your partner’s fault, it is yours. You both have a responsibility to maintain each other’s felt sense of safety and security at all times or you will be at war.
Root out threat wherever and whenever it arises in your partner. View threat perception as a virus that can take hold, a weed that can overgrow, or a fire that can consume the two of you.
- Reading your partner
Recs for dealing with each other when under stress
Understanding clues and cues
Lead with relief
Secure-functioning partners remain humble. They realize that they are likely doing the same things to their partner that they complain about. One important rule about being human is that while we usually know that we don’t like what is being done to us, we’re not very good at knowing that we’re doing the same damn thing to the other person.
How we interact during stressful moments is the culprit, and it repeats no matter the subject.
Our threat detection equipment is hooked up to our fight, flight, freeze, or collapse response—all of which are considerably faster than thought.
* For humans, apologizing, making amends, providing relief, and offering restitution are the actions that save the day—and the relationship. And unfortunately, a great many humans don’t do any of that repair work and, therefore, the love light will eventually go out.
Sherlocking refers to the skill of reading a person’s face and body as they go in and out of stress.
Get to know the unique look of your partner, and with practice you will be able to make note of certain changes in them, even when they are subtle.
If you read your partner and see that they are in distress or under stress, soften them. Say something kind. Say something loving, friendly. Direct a sincere smile close to their face.
As you read your partner, you are also staying present with yourself. Remind yourself to relax your muscles.
Leading with relief will disarm your partner’s primitives, so that your partner feels safe, feels understood, and trusts that their needs will be met too.
- Structural issues
Conditions out of our control keep us separated.
One of us wants a child, the other doens’t.
One of us is monogamous, the other isn’t.
We both cheated on our exes and now we don’t trust each other.
My partner made me sign a prenup.
Structural issues are situations that the two of you may not be able to fix.
The most difficult thing for partners and for clinicians working with couples who face deal breakers is getting both partners to be completely honest and declarative with one another.
Chronic suspiciousness can seriously degrade the couple’s safety and security experience—in both directions.
Once someone is caught lying, withholding important information, or cheating, all suspiciousness is now and forever justified because they have evidence to the fact of lying and cheating.
Evidence doesn’t go away.
Chronic mismanagement of thirds and chronic lying, cheating, and withholding of vital information become structural problems that will tank any relationship.
Failure to attend to a partner who is sick, unwell, injured, or scared is tantamount to neglect and abandonment in the attachment-aware world. Failure to go with a partner to a doctor or procedure that induces fear can be equally remembered as a breach in the attachment system.
* Failure to admit wrongdoing, to apologize, and to make amends are other violations of attachment values.
It’s wrong to withhold an admission of harm done to another person.
* Our failure to make swift amends whenever a breach occurs is perhaps the most threat-inducing message we can send to our important others—that we care more for being right than we do for our relationship.
- Fighting dos and donts
Making our relationship easy
When it’s time to take a stand
In my one-person moments, I am only thinking of myself, my needs, my concerns, my interests, my fears—you are nowhere in that configuration except maybe as the target of my complaint.
Our relationship becomes easier when we work together to solve problems and avoid attempts to solve the other person.
Think win-win— personally and relationally
We will all be inclined to revert to a one-person orientation when under stress or distress.
Agreement to put the couple relationship at the top of all other priorities will make your relationship easier.
Always think about the downstream effects of nontransparency.
Any and all thirds that threaten the safety and security of the couple system should be comanaged by partners in a timely fashion so as not to disturb the peace. Thirds can be alcohol, drugs, people, tasks, work, porn, parents, children, friends, exes, pets, or electronics.
The proper use of a third is to work with it—on it, for it, or against it—together and not separately.
* If you find yourselves focusing on each other—what the other did or did not do—stop and refocus on what you did or did not do that contributed to the problem.
When you both blame and point fingers, you both represent a system that is reacting to itself.
If you can both take care of yourselves and each other at the same time, all the time—regardless of stress or distress level—you will never need this or any other book on relationships!
* Never lead with an explanation, description, excuse, motive, or intention. Always lead with acknowledgement of your partner’s grievance in a manner that does not dismiss their complaint.
Apologize immediately with a recognition of the behavior that caused the breach, irrespective of your own perception or belief in the matter.
Consider the following scenario: I step hard on your toe in a room full of people. Now consider the things I could say to you immediately afterward:
1. “I didn’t see your foot.”
2. “It wasn’t my fault; someone pushed me.”
3. “Watch where you’re going.”
4. “Your foot is too big.”
5. “Oh no! I am so very sorry. Are you okay?”
Which one would you prefer to hear from someone who stepped on your toe?
* “I’m sorry” and “Thank you” are simple but smart relief responses that lower stress in the other person.
Relief can be offered through one’s facial expressions, vocal utterances, and gestures even while a partner complains.
Moving to another nearby location can make a big difference.
“Come over here and tell me more,” is usually a winner.
Negativism is a well-known defense against disappointment, often employed by folks who are allergic to hope and positive envisioning of success. Negativism is the opposite of collaboration. It suggests that either a partner will never come through, or the relationship will fail. It’s a self-protective, predictive vote of no confidence that puts the kibosh on forward motion, future planning, and constructive teamwork.
* Negativism must be called out and squelched whenever it arises as it is anticollaborative, antirelationship, and destructive to morale for both partners. Always remember the following statement: The relationship is exactly what you both say it is—nothing more, nothing less.
Be careful how you address your relationship with your partner, otherwise your negativism is part of the problem.
Focus on your purpose, Keep yourself on message, on topic, and don’t hog the stage.
Watch your partner for signs of increased stress or distress.
Decide together that the only way forward is to keep your attention on the present and the future and resist going into the past.
* Memories, even those from last night, are highly unreliable.
Learn to take care of messes as they happen, not afterward.
Where there is one partner chronically misbehaving, breaking agreements, or acting badly, there is an enabling other partner.
Anger, threats, and punishment do not represent boundaries or limits. They are received as signs of powerlessness and helplessness—
sometimes taking a stand is the only remedy and hopeful risk to get a partner on board.
- The complaints
The complaint in action
Why it keeps happening
Real couple interaction
Variations of the complaint
- Safety and security
My partner won’t protect our child.
My partner drives like a maniac/reacts with road rage.
My partner bullies me.
We never make decisions together.
My partner always wants me to join in with what they want.
The problem is not about who is right or wrong. The problem is that they cannot agree on something of equal importance to them.
When an interdependent couple disagrees on the level of belief and values, we get into deal-breaker territory.
Secure-functioning partners are intent on being more collaborative, cooperative, gracious, friendly, patient, orderly. The way they communicate and negotiate allows for a differing of opinions, ideas, and attitudes.
Most people by far consider non-responses negative, hostile, and even aggressive.
This whole scene (driving to fast–> gaslighting) demands a serious sit-down around agreements, particularly regarding safety and security. These fights are quite common, but they have serious consequences. If partners do not honor the first rule of an alliance, which is to protect each other’s interests at all times, the relationship will fail sooner or later. Moments such as these remain in memory, particularly in the threatened partner’s mind. To disregard a child’s or partner’s fear, despair, pain, or lack of safety or security is tantamount to killing the relationship on an attachment level.
Gaslighting is an attempt to shift blame, shift focus, or make crazy the one who catches the other in the act of a mistake/misstep.
Secure-functioning partners are collaborative and cooperative with each other. They put their relationship first before other concerns, including being right, feeling justified, doing only what they want when they want, and refusing to share control.
Secure functioning means that as partners you always do your part in good faith to remain fair, just, and sensitive.
People act out their rage, particularly at strangers, because they believe they can do so without consequence.
Helpless people become aggressive and can bully others.
If partners have witnessed a parent or sibling being a bully, that experience is in them and is likely to rise up under times of stress.
Some bully by playing the victim. Some bullies use their trauma histories as a platform for tyranny.
A threat should not be thrown around as a strategy to manage a partner’s behavior, particularly while under stress or distress.
Collaboration and cooperation are two different behaviors and intentions. Both are necessary to secure functioning. Both are required to quickly put out fires. Both partners must scurry to mutual relief and get there as quickly as possible—then move forward.
Helpless people often default to aggressiveness as a primitive means to defend their interests. The driving force is commonly fear. However, fear, as with all feelings, can lead people to do very bad things. Fear is no excuse for noncollaborative or destructive behavior in partnership.
Negativism, the act of kicking one’s own sandcastle, is an act of bullying that destroys relationship spirit and morale.
Negativistic partners become so preoccupied with past injustices and unfairness that they perpetrate injustice and unfairness on others.
They commonly anticipate the worst without contributing to solutions.
Negativism is neither collaborative nor cooperative.
It is as self-centered and one-person oriented as extreme narcissism.
It exists as a protection of self but manifests as a destruction of union and alliance.
There is no place for negativism in teamwork.
Some negotiations and agreements can happen quickly. In fact, the more you practice, the faster you both will become. But first, you both must understand that without mutual agreements, enforcement is impossible, and problems will simply repeat.
Both partners are responsible for power imbalances.
No structure, no plan, no collaboration? It’s going to be pandemonium.
A healthy relationship is a union that requires continuous shaping and reshaping to suit both partners’ needs and wants.
Without agreements and policies, partners will fight needlessly.
If the answer is yes for one partner and no for the other, we then have a deal breaker to settle. That’s the elephant in the room no one is addressing.
Where will you agree, where will you disagree, and is there no way to find accord?
If the latter, then, deal breaker.
Yet even with deal breakers, if you take the time, you often discover misunderstanding and rigidity.
Once the two of you understand what’s happening, rigid silos collapse.
You can start repairing and making more things happen for both of you.
You must work to find ways to satisfy each other’s needs and wants and settle each other’s concerns, fears, and anxieties. No other path will work in a two-person system.
When two people fully agree to do or not do something, both share in that gambit’s wins and losses.
This practice (one-person thinking rather than two) almost always leads to relationship drift—a trajectory launched by distancing and avoidance that points toward eventual dissolution.
Drift is a pernicious course of action spurred by a continuous choice to avoid and distance.
Discuss it as soon as you see yourselves growing apart.
Correct drift by actively doing the opposite by spending more time together each day and not simply by planning a date night.
- Messiness and timeliness:
My partner is messy.
My partner is a hoarder.
My partner is always late/insists on being early.
My partner’s car is always a mess.
Instead of fighting unnecessarily over something that you can settle in advance, it’s possible for you both to establish a guiding principle that serves each of you, your hobbies and interests, and the time you’re willing to take to care for your things and each other’s complaints.
* Stop pointing fingers and start figuring out a solution.
Things repeat when partners fail to create policies.
It’s a question (Why do I always have to pick up after you?) masked as a complaint. To certain partners, this question can be interpreted as an attack.
The time to talk policy is when both partners are fully calm and relaxed. In this case, make your point and exit. Otherwise the interaction itself will become the problem. (Create and vocalize your Boundaries/ If then statement.)
* Partners must be willing to train each other and be trained.
Deflection is a common deceptive strategy. Use it at your own peril. Deflection makes others angry because it distracts from the topic, and it demonstrates a refusal to cooperate. It also deprives both partners of timely relief, which means heart rates and blood pressures will continue to rise, making war more likely.
Perpetual fights take a toll. Not only does the repetition add to inflammation of threat anticipation and response, it also becomes a health problem if distress periods become more sustained.
Blaming each other, though enticing, is simply contributing to the problem.
* Better to focus on what you did or didn’t do that contributed to the quarrel. If you both do that, you will be well on your way to secure functioning. But focus on the other, and you’ll fall into a loop that forces both of you to protect your own interests, and fighting will repeat.
The relationship comes before having to be right.
* Partners must remain committed to working on the problem and not on each other. It’s a puzzle to be solved, not a finger to be pointed.
When couples complain that these small issues aren’t important because there are bigger issues underneath it all, they usually have it backward. The small back-and-forths they get into while under stress that fail to get repaired are actually the causes of what appear to be larger issues! The couple’s failure to deal with distress quickly with an eye toward relief and repair is amplifying deeper, more troubling memories of trauma, unfairness, and insensitivity. Our narratives are always formed through our memory system and our confirmation bias through sensory perception and appraisal. Our narratives, under stress, are always self-serving.
You must continually show demonstrations of goodwill and a willingness to find mutual ground.
Like other repeating conflicts, there’s a solution. However, a solution only exists if both partners are willing to be cooperative, collaborative, and fair.
The real problem often exists in the experience of unfairness and insensitivity.
* The last thing any recipient of wrongdoing wants to hear is an excuse, a defense, or anything other than a full-throated apology and something that will prevent future injury.
The issue centers around consideration, concern for the other partner’s well-being, fairness, sensitivity, and . . . wait for it . . . threat reduction. Any other argument is a waste of time and energy.
What if your partner doesn’t care for this new way of managing the problem? Then we move up a level and have a sit-down when calm and come up with a better policy that works for them both.
* Trust is everything.
Without trust, partners cannot influence one another, they cannot bargain or negotiate, they cannot be gracious or generous or allowing.
Trust is the holy grail of all relationships. Don’t mess with it.
I want us to grow and my partner doesn’t.
I need to socialize and my partner doesn’t.
My partner won’t socialize on their own when we go out.
I don’t like our home.
I’m bored with my partner; we don’t have anything in common.
I hate my partner’s politics.
My partner has become religious.
Relationship drift is predictable with distancing-prone partners, who are commonly avoidant, one-person oriented, siloed, and quite happy to remain independent and separate.
When partners lose trust, safety, and security, they will actively resist the other’s wishes, wants, and interests. (withholding)
Strongly divergent interests later in relationships usually reflect a larger problem.
Midlife questions arise during this developmental upgrade.
Often we reach backward for our lost talents, religious upbringing, forgotten friends and lovers, or our hometown.
Start talking to address the gap in their interests and interactions.
Take time to think about a sphere of broader topics that interest you. Endeavor to connect. Bring a topic or two of your own lovingly back to your partner as an olive branch of sorts to see if you both can find common ground for future conversation.
Amplification effect between human beings. The amplification effect cuts both ways—positive or negative mutual experience. Statements can amplify connection or amplify fear. Ask yourself how your partner may take it. Consider your purpose. Everything you say has a consequence.
People age differently.
Anything can happen to a partner’s health that prevents them from engaging in activities. This becomes a structural issue.
An emerging need (new) by one partner can exceed the social-emotional capacities of the other to satisfy that need.
When we get into things people can’t change, everything becomes more difficult.
– Physical capacity. This is an area that is unlikely to change.
– Mental capacity. Depression, mood disorders, anxiety, panic disorder, and phobias can greatly limit one’s mobility, positivity, motivation, and zest for life. Mental disorders are real and can be disabling
– Developmental capacity. Some developmental issues are hardwired problems. Affect blindness, Social-emotional acuity.
None of us is without some manner of disability.
No brain or body can do everything well.
Sometimes neither person has a problem. The problem is that the partners’ interests have diverged, and the partners cannot find a middle ground that satisfies both.
Asking a partner for permission is not the same as asking Mommy or Daddy. Only a child believes that.
Among equals, getting consent is a sign of respect, an awareness of separateness and autonomy. You are not me. I am not alone. I impact you, and you impact me. Therefore, I check, I ask, I notify, and I get consent on anything that could affect you.
Formalities like these exist for a very, very good reason.
Soothing repair may simply be to turn to your partner, look them in the eye, and apologize. “Oh, that was my fault. I should have said something earlier. Sorry sweetheart. My bad.”
The only shoulds in this book refer to what you and your partner have mutually agreed should happen in any subjectively important matter.
Most partners think in particular ways that are inconsistent with teamwork.
Bargaining and negotiation, if done in the spirit of fair play, leads to mutual satisfaction and, therefore, peace.
When you’re bored you’re not engaged with the outside world in a manner that produces dopamine and norepinephrine.
You may think you are bored, but what if you’re actually experiencing depression, anxiety, sadness, grief, or dread?
Boredom is linked to inattentiveness. Inattentiveness is linked to automation. If partners rely on their automatic brains to get by in life, boredom will ensue.
The automatic brain is a part of nature’s energy conservation design. It allows us to be efficiently mindless. It dupes us into believing we know something that is familiar enough to ignore or to not give it our full attention.
* Presence and attention are the only antidotes to the automatic brain and boredom.
If I am not present and attentive with my partner, I may find them boring because I am not looking closely at them; I am not listening closely to them; I am not fully engaged with them.
Bargain or negotiate your way to a win-win solution of some kind.
Partners must work together as a crew of equals.
Political beliefs have become grossly mismanaged thirds whereby relationship values are subjugated by different belief systems.
Refuse to shred your relationship over your opposing beliefs. Don’t mutually mistreat each other over politics.
Can we respect another person’s beliefs and still get along?
Hating their beliefs will be felt as hating them.
- Mismanaging thirds:
My partner cares more about their friends.
My partner is an alcoholic/addict.
Our kids sleep in our bed.
My partner is always sick.
My partner throws me under the bus.
My partner and I don’t see eye to eye about …
Thirds are best managed by both primary partners and not by one partner alone.
Secure-functioning partners are obligated to ensure each other’s sense of safety and security. Blaming someone for feeling insecure is self-harming because (1) it’s dismissive and derogating of attachment values, (2) it will increase that person’s insecurity and lack of safety, and (3) it will combine to blow back on the dismissive partner big-time.
The mind, folks, is not Disneyland. It’s not the happiest place on earth. Our minds practice things, often negative things, that can keep us angry, resentful, and justified in our hostile or distancing behavior and can increase the threat level of the relationship.
People will make mistakes, get defensive, speak in a manner that compels the other to defend themselves, yell, swear, and take other missteps detailed in this book. We’re human.
Secure functioning is not an ideal. It’s a practice. Only practice will ensure a long-lasting relationship with anyone who matters.
Any other practice is simply too unfair, too unjust, and too insensitive to last.
Amends, repair, making things right, and getting back on a collaborative track is the only remedy for making mistakes.
We are all perfectly imperfect, which is why we plan on our imperfections and put behaviors and principles in place to fix what we break and learn from our mistakes.
Determine the central problem and come to the table with possible solutions.
When engaging in a back-and-forth problem-solving discussion, asking too many questions can be provoking.
Better to make statements, suggestions, and offers.
And remember, anyone who says no to an idea or solution must throw in with another suggestion or counteroffer.
Secure-functioning couples know that in order to survive, they must serve each other and not simply themselves.
A high principle of secure functioning is full transparency and information sharing between parent-partners. Any other arrangement portends bad downstream effects between them and for the children.
Throwing a parent-partner under the bus with children has dire consequences for all involved.
Friends can be a disruption if the couple allows splitting.
Many partners maintain their separate friends and fail to unite their social networks. This can lead to mismanagement of thirds.
Transparency is the best policy for mitigating suspicion and jealousy.
My partner disapproves of my parenting.
I don’t like how my partner parents.
My partner and I are blending families and it’s not working.
My partner is childless.
I don’t like my partner’s children.
My partner treats their own children better than mine.
I hate my partner’s ex.
Children are one of life’s major stressors, and an insecure-functioning couple will falter under stressful conditions.
Divorce is not the driving factor in child unhappiness, traumatic memory, or sustained anger toward the parents. Rather it’s the couple’s ongoing unhappiness, rancor, contemptuousness, disdain, distancing, and unloving behavior that hurts kids.
A couple invites children into their relationship only when and not until they’ve achieved secure functioning and have become good parents to each other. They are good at handling and managing each other, and in the best way.
A poorly structured and operating couple system is awful for children, not to mention for the partners involved.
Partners must look to where they agree first before they fight over where they disagree.
The best place to start is with shared vision.
You will probably find that you agree more than you disagree.
Your children constantly observe your relationship as their brains develop. They observe how relationship works. How to love, fight, make amends, make up, and forgive. They observe what is fake and what is authentic. What are truths and what are lies.
* Failing to lead with relief, keep the other partner in mind, stay on message, keep to one topic only, or work on the problem only will always follow a predictable course.
Repairing injuries or misunderstandings with children is separate from letting them off the hook for bad behavior. The parent’s willingness to show remorse and make amends for their bad behavior only demonstrates secure functioning between the child and parent. It does not excuse the child from responsibility.
Too much talk by parents can make kids feel trapped. Make your point and exit. You will have a next time.
Issues involving children as thirds almost always point to the same issues that belong to the couple relationship, and the kids get used as proxies.
It is easy for partners to go off topic by using:
a sidebar (“ And another problem I have . . . You always interrupt me . . .”),
the past (“. . . like you did last week at dinner . . .”), or
a defensive tactic (“. . . because I’m the one who has to do it all . . .”).
Each of these examples will delay, if not prevent, any mutual relief, solution, or agreement.
Neither of you wants to lose, and if you believe for one second that your partner fails to have your interests in mind, you are going to fight!
A good parenting team predicts, plans, and prepares (PePP) for what could possibly go wrong. Now let’s add the R to account for either of us having to either revise a plan or repair a mistake with each other. PePPeR
Generally speaking, the nonbiological parent should not consider themselves a replacement for the biological parent. Nor should that stepparent be or become placed in a position of disciplinarian. That is the job of the biological parent.
The three things you can count on coming up in blended families are envy, guilt, and jealousy.
If the couple isn’t organized and clear about their purpose and vision for themselves and the others, everyone is going to be confused and angry.
My partner is always anxious about money.
Money is one of the “big five” issues (along with time, sex, mess, and kids) that couples fight about.
Unfairness, injustice, and insensitivity arise when one partner raises a money issue with a complaint.
For many, money represents love. Perhaps money and things were the currency of love during their childhood.
For others, money equals value and respect. It’s society’s currency of value, which translates into self-worth, appreciation, importance, and even prestige.
For all, money is inherently connected to safety and security. Without money, life becomes about survival if you’re an independent adult.
Partners are coexecutives of their mutual safety and security system.
* Predicting, planning, preparing, and revising (PePPeR) are the four essentials for managing all things—finances, living together, childrearing, vacations, holidays, meetings, social gatherings, healthcare . . . everything!
Doubling down on counterattacks and getting off topic cause chaos.
“We” statements level the field and is less accusatory.
Punch your partner, you get punched back. (counterattack)
Another way to get off course is by bringing up a different subject.
Dismissing your partner’s distress is a terrible mistake, as does blaming.
Without relief, without a plan or temporary solution, it will not get resolved or repaired.
* Whenever interactions become disorderly, go off topic, bring in thirds, focus on self-interests only, or center on the partner as the problem and no relief is offered, disaster will follow.
When any of us feels under attack, misunderstood, helpless, treated unfairly, or abandoned, we will sooner or later become two-year-olds on steroids. It’s human nature.
* Rather than overfocus on each other, focus on the issue causing anxiety and find solutions to rein in whatever is causing repeated chaos.
Dismissive reactions to a real problem don’t go away just because you want them to.
* Your job as secure-functioning partners is to manage stress and distress together.
Find ways to calm and soothe each other.
Be careful not to negatively interpret your partner’s motivations.
Carefully prepare your first words.
Accusatory words and phrases are charged, and their impact pushes people into a defensive position.
Start with a request or goal.
* Be curious, not furious.
Decide what’s most important.
With secure functioning—you are in each other’s care, not simply your own. You serve each other’s desires, wishes, needs, and wants as the other would like to be served. In that way, you both win.
You must care about the other’s sensibilities, expectations, and wishes.
It feels good to be the sole monarch, but it sure is foolish and shortsighted in a couple relationship.
In a union of equals, unfairness is an invitation to be robbed.
Have a partner who has the same things to gain and lose as you do. That is a basis for trust right there.
Avoid inequity anywhere.
Authoritarianism? It is attractive to those who wish to remain passengers only. In secure-functioning relationships, however, you have no passengers.
My partner lies.
My partner is avoidant.
My partner won’t say what they are thinking/feeling.
My partner withholds information/turns things around on me/gaslights me.
Secure functioning partners share all information, right and left hands must know everything and coordinate.
If you decide on non-transparency, I hope you will predict plan and prepare for what might go wrong with that deal. Pepper
People commonly fear saying what is true. This fear of saying what is true goes back to early childhood.
Sharing all information willingly with one’s partner is an adult act of interdependence whereby partners choose to be each others confidants and most trusted person.
To trust another with one’s life is an extremely vital human need and the very definition of secure attachment.
By far the most damaging betrayal of all is the withholding of vital information that if known would change everything.
The withholding of vital information is a betrayal that is very difficult to repair.
Withholding vital information is especially pernicious in that it is an entirely unilateral act of a one person system that deprives an equal partner of choice.
Transparency and the free flow of information are foundational to a couples safety and security system.
Lies come in various forms: fibs, fabrications, deceptions, exaggerations, denials, broken promises, tiny lies, bold faced lies, compulsive lies, and lies of omission.
The average person lies 1-2 times/day.
* Not all lying is evil or meant to harm others- it’s a form of self protection.
* What’s the point in making agreements if they’re broken? The result is the wild wild west.
We lie to cover up our one-person choices.
Excusing oneself from an agreement by blaming the other for being difficult is not an excuse, it’s close to gaslighting.
People lie because they believe they can. The biggest liars are likely some of the most avoidant, isolated, or cynical people on the planet.
Conflict avoidance is almost always experienced as frustrating, threatening and non-collaborative.
Catch yourself just after choosing avoidance and then immediately reverse yourself.
* To accept relationship with people is to accept conflict.
Embrace conflict, don’t seek or avoid it.
A refusal to engage creates the conflict and provokes abandonment threat in the other.
Conflict avoidance, general avoidance, distancing, and dismissiveness often go hand in hand.
Insecure people on the clinging side are also pro-self despite their ability to sound pro-relationship. They may be more related but their fears of abandonment, withdrawal and rejection make them as self centered as those in the distancing group.
Yes everyone is selfish, but secure functioning means being self and others focused at the same time.
Avoid phrases like:
I’ll work on it.
I want to …
They don’t bring relief to the other person. These are among the cheapest words to use.
Conflict management through engagement costs energy, patience, consideration, collaboration and cooperation.
Actions speak louder than words.
If a partner keeps repeating behavior that damages the safety and security of the union, that should be a deal breaker.
At some point, you must show not tell that something is unacceptable.
Anger alone doesn’t demonstrate that “you can’t do that” for everyone.
The decision to act or leave a situation should be made out of resolve, when one takes a stand it should be for the union and for their self.
People have many reasons for not saying what they are thinking/feeling.
– They don’t know what they’re thinking/feeling.
Many people don’t develop a witness mind- brain area that observes oneself. Without the witness mind, we lack insight/awareness of thoughts or sensations/emotions. We can be present but not aware. This is called alexithymia, the inability to put words to feelings. Typically this way due to neglect of nurture. Expecting them to know this will just lead to shame and anger.
– They lack self-awareness.
Caregivers who didn’t recognize emotions in us as children or give words to them then we may not have learned this.
Caregivers who didn’t express or talk about feelings and thoughts may have prevented child from learning them.
– They are on spectrum or narcissistic.
– They are conflict avoidant.
If a partner pushes too much, becomes overly frustrated or angry, that simply drives the low or nonresponsive partner into further mutism.
Partners are expected to read their partners through explicit and implicit channels, not just through words.
Insecure functioning partners will amplify each other’s worst inclinations, creating an illusion of extremes. Rather than help one another, they make each other worse.
I’ve given up being affectionate, loving, romantic because my partner isn’t.
We’re always in our own silos.
My partner tells me to get more friends.
Being alone with someone for extended and repeated periods is a particular kind of loneliness.
Secure-functioning partners take responsibility for the other’s sense of happiness, well-being, safety, and security.
The other’s distress is a call to action.
If a response is distancing and dismissive, it actually reinforces their partner’s sense of disconnection.
A nonresponse is perceived as negative to others, passively amplifying their distress, which leads to more disruption, not less.
Denial, distancing, dismissiveness, and avoidance will kill the relationship if not addressed.
The relationship must come first before all other people and matters.
Interdependency, connection, and relatedness are necessary human “inconveniences.”
Where there is one (distancing), there will be the other (clinging).
If a partner is recommending personal changes for which the other has little or no interest, the pushing will be perceived as judgy, critical, and unfriendly.
* Emotional dysregulation in one partner often turns into mutual dysregulation in the couple.
Confusion between inside and outside, what’s going on inside my head and what’s actually going on outside my head, can easily cause mayhem in the relational field.
Curiosity: gathering knowledge and studying your partner but never for the purpose of defending yourself or blaming them.
Human beings are insufferably lazy. We do only what we believe necessary and reserve our energy for those things.
If we don’t believe examination of the self and other is necessary, no way will we do it.
* Do not wait until you are absolutely forced to take a good look at yourself, not just as you are now, but how you got here.
Do not delay being actively curious and knowledgeable about your mate. Be an expert. Be competent. Learn about yourself and about all humanity by studying your partner carefully and in detail.
Partners should have the right to have a say in each other’s health and health habits as they are interdependent survivors.
Some people’s expectations lack two-person thinking and sound judgment because the expectations are too often one-sided with feigned or strained attempts at sounding mutual and collaborative.
My role (as a therapist) is to clarify and help partners make agreements that serve both partners’ interests.
Having and talking about sex is uncomfortable.
My partner fantasizes about other people.
Attachment and sex
Arousal and sex
The brain and sex
Flow and sex
Near senses and sex
Sexual Intake for couples
Most sexual problems are not what people think.
Proximity seeking: my behavioral interest in seeking you out.
Texting you, calling you, sharing social media memes with you—all are behaviors that can be proximity seeking.
Contact maintenance is the length of time that I can stay in physical contact with you. It is also the length of time I can maintain emotional presence with you.
Partner differences in proximity seeking and contact maintenance can make for a big deal.
When we are courting, we are literally on love potion drugs that can override our sexual baselines. Our sexual drive and passions can become supercharged in the early frame of romance and courtship.
Partners are moving through time. They are changing.
Nostalgia— the mind’s proclivity for going back.
The reason we want to go back is because we’re afraid of where we are and where we are going.
* If we buy into that comparing brain, we’re going to be mighty disappointed.
Your relationship can never go back to how it was. It’s a forward-moving ship that requires presence of mind, attention to what is, and detailed appreciation of the present moment.
If partners mistake the goal-directed activity of simply having an orgasm for orgasm sake for lovemaking, that could definitely be a problem.
* Lovemaking is being present and attentive to each other, not to yourselves.
Near sense aversion:
Partners rarely pair bond if something is terribly wrong in the near senses and a partner experiences aversions.
The matter of near-senses aversion can be a very sensitive topic—one that is often shame inducing.
Some partner’s begin to not like the other’s smell, or touch, or voice. What’s going on? This strange experience can occur with a small number of people in the insecurely attached distancing group. Fears of engulfment, being trapped, or a felt loss of agency and boundaries can result in this sudden dislike of the other person.
Only an honest self-analysis of one’s relationship history will reveal if sensory issues commonly arise after fully committing to another person.
If a partner is unhappy or threatened—such as when they feel trapped, expected to perform, or forced into being physically intimate. This latter cause and effect of sensory aversion.
First talk about them. Talking about sensitivities does require a high degree of relationship safety and security.
Fair play (batting it back) may be a way for your partner to release their shame and save face.
Free speech regarding near senses is an important health feature.
If you are the chronic critic, be aware that the people around you will rule you out as fit for comment.
Intimacy involves curiosity, truth telling, interest in the other, good will, and trust.
What would your partner say privately as to what they love most when having sex?
What would your partner say they would never talk about regarding sex?
What would your partner say embarrasses them most about sex?
What would your partner say embarrasses you most about sex?
How often would your partner say they masturbate?
How often would your partner say you masturbate?
How often would your partner say they use pornography?
How often would your partner say you use pornography?
What device( s) would your partner say they use when masturbating?
What device( s) would your partner say you use when masturbating?
What would your partner say privately is one of their sexual fantasies?
What would your partner say privately is one of your sexual fantasies?
What would your partner say about how you smell?
What would your partner say about how you taste?
What would your partner say about how you touch them?
What would your partner say about your sensuality?
What would your partner say about your willingness to experiment?
What would your partner say about your willingness to be guided during sex?
What kind of sex would you like?
Lovemaking is more than sex. Intimacy is more than bodies pressing together.
Sex without curiosity, exploration, discovery, and up-to-date knowledge of the other and the self leads to mechanical sexual behavior, boredom, and eventual loneliness.
* Avoidance is quite often the death knell of a relationship. What we avoid eventually gets us sooner or later.
Deal with the elephant in the room.
Big topics, areas of importance, require small bites, lots of chewing, and plenty of digesting.
Learn to pick up and drop topics, particularly hot ones—holding on and letting go.
Bring up difficult subjects when both of you are in a good mood and seem well-resourced, paying close attention to your partner when discussing.
Work the problem, not each other.
Modern self-help culture of independence is unhealthy.
Ask yourself next time an interaction goes off rails: would we have behaved this way if we were just getting to know each other?
When thoughtful and considerate, Neither gives the other cause to be defensive. No one is pointing fingers at the other.
We get most of our ideas about sex early in life.
When a partner confuses thoughts and feelings with deeds, expect conflict.
A similar conflict is when a partner wants a certain behavior from their mate and wants a particular feeling or emotion to accompany that behavior. For instance, I want you to do this thing for me, but I need to believe you want to do it or it won’t count.
Stupid things partners do most often feel personal, but mostly they’re not.
Most people, most of the time, do not know what or why they are doing what they are doing.
Kristi Schwegman is a psychotherapist specializing in helping couples develop healthy relationships, whether dating, engaged, or married. She also draws from her Christian-based approach to lead individuals in becoming aware of the limiting beliefs that can get them stuck.
We offer in-person and virtual services – contact us today to learn more!