Various similarities stand out among happy, successful couples. These things are reflected in great literature and are assumed to be what normal relationships are made of. Happy couples regard their unions with mutuality, deep commitment, kindness, and respect. The culture they create together is playful, safe and nourishing. In his important book, Wired For Love: How Understanding Your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship, Stan Tatkin refers to healthy attachment as a tether. He says, “Partners who create and maintain a tether to one another experience more personal safety and security, have more energy, take more risks and experience overall less stress than couples who do not.”
This tethering is the idea I’d like to talk about first, here, as the primary connection or bond that can be created between partners. In his book, Tatkin describes what he calls a “couple bubble,” in which a couple can agree to certain principles which guide their attitudes, behaviors and priorities, and actually allow them to “build synergy in [their] relationships, such that [they] are able to operate together in ways that are greater than if [they] each lived as essentially separate individuals.”
While it’s hard to argue the advantages of such a theoretical safe haven, my concern about such an agreement is that so many individuals who have experienced relational trauma 1) do not bring their full, embodied selves to the relationship because they do not know how, and 2) do not have the social or emotional development necessary to agree on the principles and comport themselves accordingly. One need not look far to see the relationships that create more stress than they relieve; that leave their members doubting their value, feeling unsure, unsafe, and unlovable. The elusive bond is not experienced, and the mental constructs that support it cannot be held in place. The couples who find themselves in this unfortunate situation match or mirror one another in their unpreparedness; neither of them can understand what is actually going on, and so it is beyond their capability to support one another and create this safe bubble. It goes without saying that the environment of these unions is anything but safe.
In this important book, Stan Tatkin distinguishes between various attachment styles, which can describe the different kinds of dances people engage in in their relationships. ANCHORS, he says, are securely attached. They readily attach and are able to navigate healthy relationships. Characteristics of the two different insecurely or anxiously attached styles are bulleted below. See if either of these styles describes you.
- Often feel intruded upon by others
- Feel trapped, out of control in response to closeness
- Fear too much intimacy
- Fear being blamed
- Don’t believe much in the value of being soothed, comforted or protected by someone else. After all, we’ve figured out how to do that for ourselves, and others can be such a bother.
- Prefer to have control, i.e., if I withdraw first, I don’t have to fear being abandoned
- Fear being abandoned by a partner
- Fear being separated from a partner
- Experience discomfort in response to being left alone for too long
- Feel that they are a burden
- Elevating someone to primary attachment status makes that person dangerous
- Overly sensitized to the anticipation of rejection
- Often copes with this by rejecting a partner
- Want to be tethered, but either don’t expect it in return or are unwilling to give it in return.
As even Tatkin points out, to date there is no evidence that being in relationship is inherently better than being single. For those of us who are “islands” or “waves,” and being in relationship is actually more stressful than not, it is probable that the couple bubble is not our best option. We’ll look at how we might use certain pieces of the idea, however, and implement them in our other relationships so as to achieve some of the benefits that lifelong partnership provides, but not to us – yet.
I’m not denying that there is great benefit to be had in engaging the muscles that are required to maintain a couple bubble. People universally feel and act on the need to be tethered, and this could be where your greatest potential for growth lies. And I’ll submit, as Tatkin points out, if we do not experience the need to be in an exclusive relationship when we are generative and bodily fit, the need to be dependent on at least one other person becomes more obvious and pressing as we near the end of life. But for others, remaining single, at least for a time, may be their potential for greatest satisfaction and growth.
For many of us, the hard-to-ignore drive to pair up seems to have a biological component, and in many ways, social forces compel us, as well, to be in exclusive, partnered relationships. The enticement is obvious. The benefits of being part of a well-bonded partnership include:
- A durable sense of membership and belonging
- A consistent go-to person with whom you can relax, feel accepted, wanted, protected, and cared for
- A consistent go-to person for comfort and immediate care
- Satisfaction of the human longing for a safe zone where you can let your guard down
- Knowing that you each have an advocate and an ally against hostile forces
- The potential for synergy, that makes two greater than the sum of its parts
For those of you who are already in committed relationships, by all means, read Stan Tatkin’s book, Wired for Love, and create a couple bubble. Working toward this kind of relationship has the potential for profound healing and growth, even if it is never fully achieved.
But people have unique needs when it comes to safety. What many of us could benefit from understanding, at a deeper level, is that our relationships in adulthood are completely elective. And it is up to us to decide what works for us. If we have tried, and have not experienced safety and comfort in intimate relationships, it is okay to admit that. And it is okay to change up the strategy.
Maybe for some of you out there, the idea of intimacy as a trigger is a new one. If this is the case for you, it is important to become aware of any strategies you may have unconsciously employed to protect yourself from getting too close. Whether growing in your capacity to experience intimacy with another is your goal, or you just want to become more connected with your fully embodied self and your heart’s desires, self acceptance is the path. Accepting yourself exactly where you are is the crucial first step. What follows is a list of the covert strategies to avoid intimacy I have encountered in myself and through my work with clients (they are strategies because they are used to hide or distract us from our fear, i.e., fear of dependency or vulnerability):
- Addictions and compulsions
- Exalting the virtues of independence and autonomy
- Judging other people who are comfortable accepting assistance and protection
- Judging other people as selfish when they appear to feel deserving of love and assistance
- Judging people who do things or think differently than us
- Exalting things such as being right, accomplishment, power, performance, money, or image over relationship
I propose that those of us who have been relationally challenged take Tatkin’s idea of a couple bubble and use it as a version of our own personal boundary. Inside this personal boundary, we can commit to forming a safe and reliable partnership with ourselves. In all the world, we are the one person we know who will be right there with us when we are scared, in pain or excited. But we have to make the decision to be there for and support ourselves. Then, with the power and wisdom of our most evolved self, we can agree to work toward an internal culture of safety and comfort. The language we can adopt might look like this:
- I will never leave you (I will not abandon myself).
- I will never purposely frighten you (I will be mindful and not create unnecessary chaos for myself).
- When you are in distress, I will relieve you, even if I’m the one who is causing the distress
- Our relationship is more important than my need to be right, your performance, your appearance, what other people think or want, or any other competing value.
In Tatkin’s bubble, the emphasis is less about helping yourself and more about helping your partner. In this (intrapersonal) version of the bubble, the emphasis is on being sensitive to the parts of you that have been chronically dissociated, or the parts that you have kept pressed out of awareness. When you have a more holistic relationship with yourself, you will learn to benefit from the wisdom, vision and gifts of these parts that you have been dismissing. In this way, not only will these formerly exiled parts be accepted and cared for, but they will help you understand your needs and make them easier to meet.
Everyone experiences stress in a different way, Tatkin explains. He recommends studying your partner and knowing the three or four things that make him or her feel bad, so you can better care for your partner. I propose that we invest the time necessary to know ourselves this well. Study yourself to understand the three or four things that make you feel bad. And then do something about it. Taking this just a short step further, we can actually work toward reducing or eliminating these four things through effective therapy, journaling, or good self care.
“It’s kind of like running a three-legged race,” Tatkin says. “If one person falls, the other can’t go anywhere. So you want to work as a team and hold each other up.” When we throw our body, or “unacceptable” parts of us under the bus, we end up paralyzed, malfunctioning and stymied. That’s why it’s important for us to include our bodies in the conversation and be compassionate with all our parts as we learn about their needs and work toward full integration.
The safety zone, or couple bubble Tatkin helps couples develop to ensure safety in their relationship is a “mutually constructed membrane cocoon, or womb that holds a couple together and protects each partner from outside elements.” Anyone can benefit from developing a sense of committed connectedness with themselves. It is my opinion that this is a necessary prerequisite to experiencing satisfying long-term relationships outside of us. Here are a few things that need to happen to keep an “intrapersonal bubble” healthy and intact.
- Take the time to re-attune after separation. If you find yourself disconnected, tense, or feeling off, check in with yourself to see if you have any pressing needs, i.e., am I thirsty, angry, triggered, tired?
- Use body awareness to see where you are holding tension, and take steps to release it.
- Attune to your emotional state. Becoming conscious of your emotions helps allow you to stay in the here and now, and make continual use of real-time sensory information, rather than shifting into past emotional states and essentially reliving relational or other trauma through a triggered state. This information is readily available to you if you can stay calm enough to access it. Simply by observing yourself, you can make assessments about your emotional state based on muscle tension, energy level, breath and voice quality.
- Develop an up-to-date owner’s manual for your various parts. It is quite possible that a part of you is quite comfortable with the idea of meeting someone new, and another part of you is literally terrified of the prospect. Taking some time to study these parts (or any parts you might have) and understanding what you need to do to stay connected with your larger purpose and goals, while treating each of these parts with the care and respect they deserve is a strategy that can help you stay in the here and now; to ride out a potentially overwhelming situation without needing to shut down the feelings, or to dissociate and abandon your body, and your felt sense.
As an insecurely attached child, I learned it was safer not to trust, and so my needs for belonging, safety, and support were not well met. As an adult, I’ve found the idea of allowing another person to earn my respect, trust, and affection over time extremely seductive. And through much trial and error, I have learned how important it is to stay conscious and connected to my felt sense, to pay attention to my physical responses to people and situations, and to refuse to turn a blind eye to things that are not acceptable to me. I have learned to catch myself when I inadvertently hand my power over to another person, to re-member my power, and choose again. I am learning to separate the seduction of a vague or unrealistic promise from the steady groundedness of my own felt sense, and to take great pleasure in knowing that this is what home and safety is for me.
Another question Tatkin raises is whether it is possible to love yourself before someone loves you. He points out that we learn to love ourselves precisely because we have experienced being loved by someone. We learn to take care of ourselves because someone has taken care of us. Self-esteem and self-worth, he says, are developed through our contact with other people. He is correct. But it is not always from inside a couple relationship that we can get these things. In fact, under certain circumstances, those partner relationships are so unsafe that the overall effect is extreme damage to the self-esteem and self-worth, in which case, we get it where we can, whether it be from authors of self-help books, the Internet, literature or less intimate friendships. But get it we must, until healthy relating is a norm rather than that elusive panacea that continually escapes us.
Whether we can benefit from being in an exclusive relationship is not always an easy decision to make. For some individuals, remaining single is the best option because they are wired in a way that makes committed relationships way too stressful. What keeps people trying is the hope that experience and healing can change such wiring so that the individual can benefit from the safety and comfort of a committed union.
Here is my current checklist for relationship readiness:
- Unambiguous desire for primary partnership
- Self knowledge about our personal relational style, and whether having a partner makes sense for us
- Clarity about what we desire, need and expect from our partner
- The willingness to fight. This allows the partner to experiment with and learn through engagement how to manage one’s own power, and activates the mental and emotional muscles necessary to negotiate and advocate for one’s self.
- Ability to attune to your emotional state and to that of another person. Emotional attunement is a state of consciousness that allows you and another person to stay in the here and now during interactions so that continual use of real-time sensory information can be made, and the shifting into past emotional states and essentially reliving relational trauma through a triggered state can be avoided. Real-time information is readily available to you if you can stay calm enough to access it. Simply by observing yourself and the other person, you can make assessments about emotional state based on muscle tension, breath and voice quality.
More on Fighting
Tatkin quote: “Couples who are in it for the long haul know how to play and fight well, remain fearlessly confident in the resilience of their relationship, and don’t try to avoid conflict.” Tatkin says that while self-interests are a necessary given, they exist as part of the greater good of the relationship, such that, “when a fight occurs, nobody loses and everybody wins.”
Smart fighting, Tatkin says, is “about wrestling with your partner, engaging without hesitation or avoidance, and at the same time being willing to relax your own positon. You go back and forth with each other, until the two of you come up with something that’s good for both of you. You take what you each bring to the table and, with it, create something new that provides mutual relief and satisfaction.”
Emerging from a life marked by relational trauma, we each have our automatic response: the one that worked for us when we were young. For me it was freeze and eventual flight. Having defaulted to the freeze response so automatically, I missed out on the opportunity to experiment with and develop the other three possible responses that would have provided me with an effective fight reflex, that might have allowed me to maintain equilibrium in my relationships (the other stress responses include the cry for help, fight, and flight).
Violence and Abuse
John Gottman, of the Gottman Institute and Stan Tatkin agree that contempt is one of the biggest threats to relationships. Contempt includes expression of disgust, disrespect, condescension, and sarcasm. These attitudes, when directed toward the self, threaten an individual’s self-esteem and sense of self worth and severely undermine an individual’s interactions with intimate others. Whether you want to heal your relational trauma from childhood or nurture a deep and authentic relationship with another person, you owe it to yourself to immediately eliminate all threatening behavior. Think about this next list in terms of how you treat yourself (in a stressful situation) and past unsuccessful relationships. Think also about relationships you witnessed as you were growing up. Threatening behavior includes:
- Hitting or other forms of violence
- Threats against the relationship
- Threats against the person
- Threats against others important to your partner
- Holding on for too long and not letting go
- Refusing to repair or make right a wrong
- Withdrawing for periods longer than 1-2 hours
- Being consistently unapologetic
- Behaving habitually in an unfair or unjust manner
- Putting ego-based interests ahead of the relationship too much of the time
- Expressing contempt (devaluation: e.g., “you’re a moron.”)
- Expressing disgust (loathing or repulsion; e.g., “you make me sick.”)
Finally, lack of physical contact contributes to actual, measurable health problems. In a study of baby rhesus monkeys, back in 1975, James Prescott found a stronger drive for physical comfort than for food. These needs are the same for people, and they continue into adulthood. Directly and consistently addressing one’s need for touch is an important way to clear away the fog of the seduction of pairing off before one is actually ready. And if one is aware, he or she can take steps to meet this physical need. According to Tatkin, a minimum of 10 minutes of close physical contact every day can make a measurable difference when it comes to stress management. If you are not partnered, you can absolutely benefit from cuddling with yourself, or even cradling yourself as you would a baby. Hugging, holding or being held, dancing, exercises such as yoga and tai chi, being given or receiving a massage, and so on are all ways you can nurture and care for your precious body and let it know you appreciate it. Notice the effect any amount of physical touch and conscious, loving attention has on your level of stress and on your physical health. If you can slow down enough, you will notice that such care and indulgence is not only enjoyable, but that it also serves to help your body heal, and as a preventive means to reduce the effects of stress and maintain your health.
In case you were wondering about the re-posts, I recently migrated my blog, and in the process lost a lot of material. I’m going back to reconstruct the articles that seem relevant. This one is from July 4, 2016. thank you for your interest!
 I teach a 5-week class on boundaries called Boundaries 101: Learning to Recognize, Honor and Communicate Your Personal Limits. You can get your copy of the study guide here.