A Conversation with Dr Stan Tatkin; One of the World’s Foremost Experts on Relationships.

Dr. Stan Tatkin, is a PsyD, MFT, clinician, researcher, and developer of the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy® (PACT), best-selling author of his most recent book, In Each Other’s Care. And the relationship must have book, Wired for Love and More than 1.7 million people have tuned in to Dr. Tatkin’s TEDx talk 

Dr. Tatkin is an expert on human behaviour and relationships and can speak on all topics related to relationships, dating, marriage, love, intimacy, and mental well-being. He speaks and teaches around the world on how to understand, create, and support secure-functioning relationships, along with authoring six bestselling books, and training thousands of therapists around the world. In addition to his robust clinical practice in Calabasas, California, Dr. Tatkin and Tracey lead couples through Wired For Love Couple Retreats — both online and in person across the United States and Europe.    

Dr. Tatkin and his wife, Tracey Boldemann-Tatkin, PhD, created the PACT Institute in 2010 to train mental health professionals to successfully integrate a psychobiological approach in their clinical practices. Dr. Tatkin is an assistant clinical professor at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, Department of Family Medicine. He is on the board of directors of Lifespan Learning Institute and serves as a founding member on Relationships First, a nonprofit organisation founded by Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt.   

In this interview, I speak to Dr. Stan Tatkin, one of the world’s foremost experts in relationships. We discuss what it takes to make relationships work and the common reasons they don’t. We also learn some of the most important factors he has seen, through decades of clinical practice and research, for why the most resilient relationships stand the test of time.   

Q: Why is it important to understand a relationship as mutual care? 

[Stan Tatkin]: Every relationship, whether it’s a close bond, a team, or a free and fair partnership between adults, including parent-child connections, can be perceived similarly. We’re discussing the challenging feat for our species of being both self-advocating and relationship-oriented, particularly in stressful circumstances. When stressed, we all tend to lean towards self-preservation, which may be perceived as a threat by others. This is a typical human issue. 

The concept of mutual care emerges from what we understand about psychobiology and neurobiology. As social primates, we thrive in close, intimate connections – face-to-face, eye-to-eye, skin-to-skin. We fare better under the care of each other than when we only look after ourselves. This is an inherent part of our wiring. We’re not solitary entities; we’re community-driven animals, natural herders. By our very nature, we are interdependent creatures, and we build such relationships based on shared objectives or visions. 

For example, the necessity for our mutual survival tends to blur our differences. That’s where we discover our commonalities and reach agreement – in our shared goals, shared vision, or collective desire for prosperity or victory. This pursuit of a common reason for existence has bound us since the dawn of time, overriding the concept of “otherness” that is so prevalent in our DNA. This refers to the paradox that we are too alike to disregard but too diverse to coexist peacefully. 

Q: What do we forget about human nature in relationships? 

[Stan Tatkin]: Indeed, there exists a segment of our brain that feels revulsion at the idea of us being animals. Yet, the truth remains that we are part of the animal kingdom, aren’t we? We generally resist acknowledging that our survival instinct is constantly operational. This instinct is indeed a characteristic that is evident in our everyday lives. However, borrowing terminology from the realm of computing, this instinct can also act as a glitch in relationships as it prompts us to perceive threats in places that may even astonish us. Hence, it is crucial for us to comprehend our nature. 

Just like other individuals who have been socialized and have evolved to exhibit social-emotional complexity, including moral discernment on a personal level, we must hold faith in a purpose beyond ourselves. This faith allows us to control the primitive facets of our nature, which are always itching to make their presence felt. It is precisely these primitive aspects that can sabotage even our deepest relationships if not properly managed.
Q: Why don’t couples, and partners, discuss the agreements and dynamics of their relationships early-on? 

[Stan Tatkin]: Indeed, I don’t forge a business partnership with you simply because I’m fond of you. Instead, our collaboration is grounded on certain terms and conditions. We collectively devise a plan and decide whether it’s a feasible arrangement or not. Romantic relationships, however, don’t operate on the same principles. We enter into love affairs often based on our individual mythology, rather than a shared one, driven by expectations shaped by our family backgrounds. We also base relationships on certain perceived entitlements inherited from our familial environments, often forgetting that as partners, we’re not actually family. We are essentially strangers continuously striving to understand each other.    

Yet, our brains tend to conserve energy by simplifying relationships. In this process, we make the erroneous assumption that we thoroughly comprehend each other. This leads to us overstepping boundaries, letting go of formalities, and infringing upon each other’s rights and sensitivities. 

As humans, as animals, we necessitate boundaries. We need to define our shared culture, and decide on our operational dynamics. Love relationships, paradoxically, prioritize emotions above these considerations, which often turns out to be their downfall. In the grand scheme of things, be it a romantic or a non-romantic relationship, we should aim for a purpose-oriented partnership. What truly sustains us is what we mutually agree upon as beneficial and righteous, irrespective of our emotional state. 

We should uphold this agreement, even though we understand it might be challenging to adhere to. This level of commitment is what we need to aspire for to ensure the longevity and happiness of all relationships. 

Q: How do we choose the right partner? 

[Stan Tatkin]: In a previous book I authored, titled “Wired for Dating” (which, in my opinion, doesn’t quite capture our biological disposition since I don’t believe we’re naturally programmed for dating, but it was a fitting sequel to “Wired for Love”), I proposed that individuals should prioritize searching for the relationship they desire, not necessarily the person. The person should ideally align with the relationship dynamic you’re seeking, akin to meeting the requirements of a job description. 

For instance, are you interested in a relationship where the partnership is paramount, taking precedence over all else? If the answer is yes, then proceed with this outlook. Do you envisage a relationship built on complete transparency? If yes, then establish this as a necessity. Therefore, I suggest you create a checklist of characteristics for your ideal relationship with a potential partner or partners. Commit yourself to find someone who agrees with and is keen on pursuing the same relationship dynamics, because such a shared vision is what will truly endure over time. The question is, can you find a partner willing to navigate this relationship journey the way you envisage?

Q: What are the common reasons for relationships coming under stress? 

[Stan Tatkin]: The hallmark of a robust union, of any sort, is its ability to withstand pressures without falling apart. Stress itself isn’t the crux of the problem; there are two more pressing issues. Firstly, many romantic relationships lack a solid structure or guiding compass. These are couples who haven’t taken the time to align their individually imagined concepts of a relationship. A relationship, in essence, is an abstract construct; it doesn’t exist in tangible reality. We create it in our minds. The question, then, is: have we created the same version? If not, conflict is inevitable. 

So, it’s all about structure, organization, co-creation, and co-architecture. You and I, as a team, build and shape this relationship throughout our lives, continuously updating it according to our needs. As we spend time together and strive to maintain an equitable, sensitive, and just relationship, we influence each other along the journey. Thus, the establishment of structure or “guardrails,” also known as shared principles of governance, is vital. These guidelines dictate how we safeguard each other from potential harm caused by one another. 

The second major issue concerns understanding how to collaboratively navigate stressful situations. During times of stress, our brains undergo changes, and this shift is universal, transcending cultural, age, or gender differences. Every human reacts similarly when feeling threatened, a state often induced by stress. So, you and I must strategically pre-plan by anticipating potential challenges and learning from past mistakes. We need to put mechanisms in place that will guide us and prevent us from actions we’d rather avoid. Simultaneously, we should strive to enrich our shared lives, even when it might seem difficult, because the ultimate goal is to lead a fulfilling life together. 

Q: How do we best manage conflict in relationships?

[Stan Tatkin]: Consider a scenario where you and I are together in a trench. We may be upset with each other, but do we really have the luxury to refuse communication or collaboration for several days out of anger? Definitely not. Our survival hinges on each other, so such an indulgence is not affordable. I must ensure your well-being at all times, as you hold the potential to save my life, and vice versa. We’re bound by a shared destiny, unified by a common purpose. This understanding cultivates maturity, leading us to acknowledge that the relationship’s integrity outweighs the satisfaction of being right or upholding personal beliefs. 

In such relationship dynamics, we prioritize the other person’s perceptions. We adopt a time-honoured approach that dates back to the dawn of civilization – we sacrifice our egos, seek reconciliation, and apologize. This approach allows us to progress without amassing a catalogue of threatening memories or resentment. We learn to offer amends promptly and unconditionally. This is the kindest gesture we can extend to each other. It represents a higher order of functioning, a morally superior way of interacting that demands discipline and character.

So, I place more value on our relationship than my individual thoughts, because it’s our relationship that will propel me towards my aspirations. This perspective is both self-centered and relationship-focused simultaneously. I must care about both you and me concurrently, or else I end up gaining nothing. If not, we might end up in a conflict. This dynamic essentially sums up the human condition. 

Q: How do we simultaneously care for ourselves, and our partner? 

[Stan Tatkin]: Certainly, prioritizing you over me isn’t a feasible strategy as it leaves me vulnerable and susceptible to resentment. It’s also risky for you to accept such a deal, as it will likely breed resentment on my part. If the gain is skewed in my favor and the loss heavily weighs on you, I should be wary, as such imbalance disrupts the premise of a fair and equal partnership. Hence, it’s in my best interest to ensure that either we both benefit or, at the very least, that neither of us suffers a loss.   

This balanced state can be achieved through negotiation and bargaining, not compromise. There’s always a pathway to finding solutions that are beneficial for both of us. This approach requires discipline and an understanding that any deviation from it could result in adverse consequences that may harm us in the long run. 

In essence, it’s all about self-preservation, underpinned by the realization that my survival is closely interlinked with yours. Therefore, we must engineer situations where both parties emerge as winners, which is entirely feasible. If we presume that we can avoid this, we won’t put in the necessary effort, or we’ll procrastinate or inadvertently compromise the safety and security of our partnership – all of which will, ultimately, cost me. 

Q: How do your learnings about relationships apply to leadership? 

[Stan Tatkin]: Indeed, the cultural milieu of a workplace constitutes the socio-emotional environment in which people operate. If individuals feel exploited, ignored, belittled, or taken for granted, it invariably hurts anyone who aspires to benefit from being a part of the organization. It simply won’t function effectively. This is equally applicable in a familial context. Parents, assuming they acknowledge their role as such, are leaders. I often characterize couples as dual generals, co-bosses, or joint executives – they’re the authorities, responsible for everyone and everything. Hence, their harmonious interaction is imperative; otherwise, the household will experience discord. If the monarchs are at odds, the kingdom suffers. 

We have a multitude of notions regarding leadership that are more about demonstration than instruction. Leaders should illustrate their ideas about the right course of action and appropriate ways of treating one another, rather than merely verbalizing them. This is crucial for any organization. However, a challenge arises when organizations expand significantly – systems tend to deteriorate. Leadership becomes problematic as the size of the membership increases. 

Let’s consider the United States, for instance, currently grappling with a crisis, similar to several other Western nations. There’s a discernible deficit in a robust shared purpose and vision, unlike the unity seen in the 1950s. Societal division ensues when people aren’t collectively committed to a common idea or goal. Without such unity, we end up in a state of despotism or subjugation. To earn people’s allegiance, it’s crucial to present them with a vision they can believe in, promising an improved collective life. 

Sometimes, it involves identifying a common enemy, tapping into our innate xenophobia and predisposition towards racism. We often marginalize anything or anyone perceived as foreign to our group. Although this isn’t conducive to global harmony, it does underscore the fact that as systems grow larger, maintaining unity becomes increasingly challenging. It’s difficult to convince a vast populace to subscribe to a principle they genuinely believe in, like the assertion that all humans are born equal. This claim loses credibility over time as disenfranchised individuals contest it based on their lived experiences. 

Hence, what we’re observing is a complex issue related to organizational structure and leadership. This problem recurrently manifests in nations, communities, organizations, and families. 

Q: How do we manage the common challenges to a relationship? 

[Stan Tatkin]: For those who might not be acquainted, a dyadic system is a two-person setup where both parties are primary figures to each other, or what we call a primary attachment system. This arrangement mirrors our earliest bond with our caregivers, and it’s driven more by a primal survival instinct than by love. It’s the adhesive of nature that binds us together, although we often mistake it for love.   

Now, in a primary attachment relationship, neither of us would appreciate being downgraded to a secondary position or being made to feel like a third wheel. This is inherent in our nature and remains true even in polygamous societies where a primary attachment always exists. 

It’s essential to respect the impact that the intrusion of a third element – an activity, a habit, or even another person – can have. If it disrupts the harmony between the primary figures, it can eventually undermine the relationship. This is the real essence of jealousy – it’s triadic. While envy is dyadic, meaning I desire what you possess, jealousy means I want to safeguard what I already have from perceived threats. 

So, we must understand and respect the nature of our brain functions. The solution here lies in collective decision-making when it comes to ‘thirds’. I won’t act independently or conceal my interactions with the third entity in a way that might lead you to feel insecure or unsafe. 

Gaining an understanding of how these systems operate is crucial for their effective management. We can’t dispute aspects rooted in our neurobiology. Although our culture frequently promotes ideas that contradict our natural tendencies – such as the myth of the self-made individual, the notion that we can do everything by ourselves, or the belief that we don’t need anyone else – these concepts are fundamentally flawed. 

Q: What do you hope your legacy will be? 

[Stan Tatkin]: I am a staunch advocate of this philosophy. As is often the case, I teach what I personally need to learn. I confess that, like everyone else, I can be selfish, self-absorbed, temperamental, and opportunistic. I require this framework – this faith in maintaining discipline and character and upholding a higher purpose. It’s because I value my relationships deeply. I’m aware that they hold the utmost significance for me, both now and in the future. As such, I strive to safeguard them and aspire to become a better individual.  

I fervently hope that by championing this message and continually bolstering it with scientific evidence, I can sway people’s thinking. This age-old concept of interdependence, of learning to coexist and collaborate with each other, is something we seem to have forgotten, yet it remains essential. It holds significant value for everyone, not just couples – society’s smallest unit – but also for families, communities, businesses, and beyond. My ambition is to influence people in this regard. 

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.