If you have reached that stage in your relationship when domestic bliss has given way to chronic domestic hostility, do not abandon hope. Yes, you can save your relationship. I speak from experience.
My husband and I have been married for ten years. We never even had a honeymoon period. Instead, we had a prolonged and tumultuous battle of wills, resulting in endemic bickering that easily escalated into name-calling, door slamming and worse. Family vacations typically ended in disaster. Our kids covered their ears if they so as much heard our tones become edgy, knowing where that inevitably lead to. In short, we were the epitome of dysfunctional. We had begun to explore the possibility that we had truly reached the end of our rope together.
And before you start to wonder, rest assured we tried couples therapy, many kinds and for many years, with varying degrees of success. We worked with a psychologist who helped us discover our amygdala scripts, then a clinical social worker that recommended we separate. We worked with a licensed professional counselor specializing in ACT—acceptance and commitment therapy—who came ultimately to that same conclusion. We even, in desperation, saw a psychic.
Finally we worked with a “relationship oriented” psychotherapist who actually was able to get us to see how we were responsible for the hostility and not merely the innocent victim. But it wasn’t till we attended a weekend with Stan Tatkin, the author of Wired for Love and the developer of a Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy® (PACT), that we actually learned how to love each other better. (Hint: It involves building a couple bubble.)
We discovered what we think of as love, when stripped of the bells and whistles, is often the ability to protect and soothe one another’s nervous system.
While there is still no app for that, Tatkin offers practical tools to help you nourish that kind of real-time love, tenderness and security. The weekend may have saved our marriage—it at least motivated us to try.
Tatkin’s model is a dynamic mix of neuroscience and attachment. It’s about learning to track our own moment-to-moment arousal as well as our partner’s. It combines neurobiology with our deepest need to be loved and seen.
Tatkin, in a sense, helps demystify love. He sees love as a matter of interdependent wiring, however seamless or glitchy. He leads us step by step into the big reveal: how we regulate each other is how we regulate ourselves. Through listening to your partner’s needs, you can actually attune to our own.
His retreat—and method—involves a huge nervous system reeducation project. It can’t be done alone either. It must be willingly undertaken with your partner for mutual benefit. Here’s how he explains it in an interview with Tami Simon, the founder of Sounds True, a multimedia publishing company dedicated to disseminating spiritual wisdom:
“But there is a misunderstanding in our culture that that is solely the responsibility in a relationship is each partner for themselves. I regulate myself, you regulate yourself, and if you have a problem you deal with it. If I have a problem I deal with it.
This idea leads to a lot of other problems….Doing things that are kind of like the idea—which I also take umbrage to—you’ve got to learn how to love yourself before you can love another person. If you understand infant development and developmental trajectory, we don’t do anything very well by ourselves, on our own.
Everything we do, basically, we learn from another person or other people. We learn about ourselves. We learn to love ourselves. We learn about our value. And that’s continually happening in our interactions with other people.”
Mutuality trumps independence
I had always prided myself on my independence, my ability to figure things out, how I can move through the world alone without fear. Turns out, independence kills marriages. It’s not that the answer is to be codependent and live for each other. Rather it’s to fully recognize that you and your partner are in each other’s care in a way that meets your own needs.
In a thriving marriage, i.e. a high functioning couple bubble, each partner feels not only protected, but tethered to each other as to a secure base. As Tatkin says, “The 24/7 idea is to calm that system down and to give two people a sense of primacy—that they are connected to each other, tethered together—which I think I’ve said to you is the best anti-anxiety medication—anti-depression medicine—there is.”
Tatkin is all about learning healthy ways to tether ourselves to one another. For many they might be instinctive, for example, most of us tend to seek out ways to strengthen the bond we have with our children. In marriages marked by a failure to thrive, we outgrow this kind of bonding with our partner.
Here are three micro-attunements we learned at the retreat that our essential for a secure relationship.
Put each other to bed:
The way we go off into the world and the way we return home are more important than we think. In the PACT model, bedtime and morning are opportunities ripe for becoming what he calls “launching and landing rituals.” He suggests, in the spirit of taking good care of each other, making it a nightly practice to put each other to bed. If you like to go to sleep at different times, you can still do this and then the night owl can return to his desired activities. It can be as simple as looking into each other eyes, snuggling or rubbing your partner’s feet or back. Or you can read to each other, debrief on the day, watch TV holding hands. By continually making and remaking secure connections with our partner, we show each other how much they matter to us.
Rise and reconnect:
Waking up marks the time we go from our relationship to less pronounced relational world. It can help us launch successfully if we feel supported in tangible ways by our partner. Again, it doesn’t mean we have to be on the same timetable. If one of you gets up early, you can still help your partner feel like you hold him or her in mind by kissing them gently on the forehead before you go. Leaving them a note, or prepping their coffee or juice, can also serve as tokens of support. If you both are on the same schedule, making eye contact and giving each other a loving good morning goes a long way to setting a copacetic tone for the day to unfold.
Being tethered doesn’t mean being tied together at the hip. It means holding your partner in your mind and heart while still relishing your ability to function independently in the world. When you do go off on a trip, don’t just fall into the old familiar “out of sight out of mind” trope. Text your partner several times a day, send selfies, call or email.
One woman at the retreat mentioned that whenever her husband goes on business trips of any length he brings cards to mail her and leaves notes hidden throughout the house for her to find. Even if it sounds like overkill, don’t knock it till you try it. Taking the time to honor your partner and let them know they are important to you is the gateway gesture to a relationship that rewires your ability to connect.
The burden to find opportunities to care for your partner is on you. The unexpected dénouement of such thoughtfulness is its boomerang effect: the way you care for your significant other is the way you care—and reclaim—your own significance.