In the first line of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the passionate Duke Orsino declares, “If music be the food of love, play on.” Indeed, love is its own kind of music, an art unto itself—or at least that’s how couples therapist Stan Tatkin, Psy.D., thinks about it.
Tatkin happens to be a trained musician in addition to being a licensed marriage and family therapist. But he’s also another kind of artist—the creator of a unique method he calls the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy (PACT). In short, Tatkin has woven together cutting-edge research in neuroscience, attachment theory, and human arousal regulation to create a model that addresses the physiology of the human brain, our biological need as mammals to bond with others, and the basic way we regulate our energy and attention in relationships.
Sound complicated? Well, humans are complicated, and the beauty of that complexity is part of what drew Tatkin to this work. “I started off as a musician for the first half of my life—until I was about 26,” Tatkin recalls. “When I got out of music, I panicked. A friend of mine at the time was a musician as well as a psychologist. He convinced me to work with his mentor. I ended up going back to school and never looked back.”
After earning his doctoral degree, Tatkin began working with families under the tutelage of the well-known self-help guru and best-selling author, John Bradshaw. He eventually became one of the lead therapists at the John Bradshaw Center in Los Angeles, California, and taught Vipassana (insight meditation) to patients and staff. He became an expert on personality disorders and then became interested in infant development and mother-infant and father-infant pairing. “Basically, I wanted to prevent personality disorders,” he says.
Understanding how adult romantic relationships are affected by the relationship partners have with their parents has become essential to Tatkin’s current work.
“What I’ve realized in my research is that the real purpose of pair-bonding in most mammals is not only to procreate but also to protect one another,” he explains. “We protect our offspring from predators. What we’ve seen is that people—even crazy people—know that their life depends on collaboration. We have to look out for each other and have each other’s back in order to survive.”
If you grew up in an environment where you felt inadequately protected—whether you were not given enough care or were smothered with attention (or some variation thereof)—you are going to have trouble building what Tatkin refers to as “secure functioning relationships” (relationships in which both parties feel they are the other person’s first priority). “If other things come first—self-interests, performance, the need to be taken care of—people in a relationship tend to feel insecure,” he explains.
Unsurprisingly, most couples coming in for therapy are operating from an insecure place. When we are part of a couple, Tatkin explains, we are functioning as a “two-person psychological system.” If insecurity exists somewhere in that system, both partners need to make explicit agreements about how to build a secure functioning relationship. Making such agreements helps create what Tatkin calls a “couple bubble”—a safe space for partners where they agree to support and protect each other by following certain principles (such as fairness, justice, or sensitivity) that are important to them.
Despite societal myths such as “love conquers all,” a lot of effort goes into making love work, and it’s a lot easier said than done. As a therapist, Tatkin helps couples better understand the way humans operate in the context of an attachment relationship. For example, Tatkin says that too often we are conditioned to believe ideas such as you have to love yourself before you can love another. “Viewing relationships in these screwy ways is developmentally impossible,” he explains. “These kinds of messages cause relationships to not last because people don’t make explicit agreements about principles for the relationship that they agree on.”
The word principles may seem a bit clinical or cold, but Tatkin’s approach is anything but. While the PACT method relies heavily on clinical research, Tatkin bases his outlook on an integrative understanding of our basic human need to survive and feel safe. In Tatkin’s view, a healthy relationship isn’t born out of mechanistic or formalized agreements, nor is it ineffable and overly sweet, as is too often suggested by pop culture.
So what does a healthy relationship look like to Tatkin? “You take each other on as each other’s burdens because everyone is a burden. You accept the fact that there’s no such person as a low-maintenance person, really.”
The rewards of taking on such “burdens,” of course, are great. Within the safe space partners create between them, each learns how to support and encourage the other—especially when the other partner is stressed in some way—because they’ve gotten vulnerable enough to see and understand the other’s issues and how they are wired. Instead of getting defensive and either retreating or attacking, each can be accepting, nonjudgmental, and nurturing toward the other.
To that end, one of the more notable aspects of PACT is videotaping couples to study their faces and bodies using digital frame analysis. This allows Tatkin to look at people in a way that they can’t necessarily see themselves. “We study couples the way we would study animals that don’t speak,” he explains. “Not by what people say, but how they say it, with their faces and eyes and bodies— even their pupils.”
To make a relationship sustainable, we must accept the less-than-romantic idea that, as Tatkin puts it, “Love, as a task, is harder than work. Two partners have to be better at their jobs as partners than anybody else could be—otherwise, somebody else will take that job.” That work includes learning to put the relationship ahead of each partner’s needs as an individual. Paradoxically, as a result of the security and safety partners create in their “couple bubble,” they’ll actually end up healing not only their relationship, but also much of their long-held individual pain.
Although the couples themselves are responsible for doing the work in their relationship, Tatkin guides them in getting there.
“My job is to push them toward secure functioning,” he explains, “and to repeat if necessary. It’s the coolest part of this job.” If he notices, for example, that one partner is not taking things seriously he will intervene not as a problem-solver, but as someone to help point out the problems on the table.
“If one partner isn’t putting in the work, I’ll turn to the other partner and ask, ‘What would you like to do if your partner is not taking this seriously?’” he explains. “I will ask that person if they believe in a truly mutual relationship, and if they answer ‘Yes, I do,’ then I will be honest and say, ‘You have a problem because your partner doesn’t.’”
Such conversations are inevitably difficult and deeply uncertain but they provide couples with a model of how to work toward being fully collaborative. Tatkin believes this is an essential part of the foundation of security.
Feeding the Friendship
If maintaining security in relationships takes so much work, does that mean there’s no room for warmth, friendship, fun, or even sex? Absolutely not. Of course, every couple must deal with the wearing off of the “honeymoon phase” neurochemicals—the initial infatuation that accompanies the beginning of all relationships.
The key then is to keep paying attention, even as fears and trepidations come up.
Friendship is at the center of good relationships. It happens when we’re “fully present, face-to-face, eye-to-eye, maybe even skin-to-skin,” Tatkin explains. Despite the popular belief that relationships get stale as time goes on—as romance becomes friendship—Tatkin perceives deep friendship as the by-product of paying close attention to others. By paying attention, we avoid the trap of falling into an automated way of being—thinking we know another person and making all sorts of assumptions (and mistakes) as a result.
In this way, Tatkin’s understanding of friendship is rooted in the principles of Vipassana—insight meditation or mindfulness. In fact, Tatkin and his therapists recommend an exercise they call “outsight meditation,” a fun, face-to-face meditation for partners to do together. They sit down, look at one another, and breathe as they do a mental sweep of their bodies to identify tension as it arises; but unlike insight meditation, the object here isn’t the breath, but the other person’s face.
“The reason it works better for couples is that it makes your partner feel safe—that you’re really there and paying attention,” Tatkin elaborates.
Recent studies have certainly corroborated that mindfulness offers its fair share of benefits.
Traditionally, the real goal of the practice is insight—wisdom about ourselves. But as Tatkin points out, “We can never get to know ourselves by ourselves.” Real spiritual enlightenment can occur, he argues, only through devotion to another person. And that devotion can arise from the practice of paying deep attention.
“When we pay attention to somebody up close, and look into their eyes, we tend to fall in love,” Tatkin says. “Try this out yourself and see if it’s not true.”
Stan Tatkin, Psy.D., maintains a clinical practice in Calabasas, California, where he has specialized in couples therapy for 15 years. He is the author of four books, including Wired for Dating: How Understanding Neurobiology and Attachment Style Can Help You Find Your Ideal Mate (New Harbinger, 2016) and Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship (New Harbinger, 2011). For more information on Tatkin (including his couples retreats), visit stantatkin.com.