What Makes a Couple a Survival Unit?

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Excerpted from an interview with Tami Simon and Stan Tatkin, who is a clinical psychologist, licensed marriage and family therapist, and author of We Do: Saying Yes to a Relationship of Depth, True Connection, and Enduring Love.




Tami Simon: Talk to me a bit about what makes a couple a good and successful survival unit.

Stan Tatkin: I think it’s understanding that together you’re better off if you both see it the same way, if you’re both working towards the same vision than you would be on your own.

We’re talking about a system that is based, again, on safety and security. That foundationally, you and I, regardless of things that change through time—our parents, our interests, our peccadilloes; all these things that change through time—one thing that doesn’t change is our agreement to support each other, to move together. And that creates a sense, hopefully, of absolute safety and security so that you and I feel like what true home is—that it’s not a place, it’s our relationship, it’s our orbit. Everywhere we go we feel protected, we feel safe and secure. If one of us feels hurt, injured, the other licks our wounds. Right? If one person feels that their confidence is dropping, the other person lifts them up.

When you have a secure functioning relationship, there’s an ease, a breathing. I feel comfortable, I can relax with you. I feel safe with you no matter where we go. I trust you with my life. You trust me with your life. We understand we’re perfectly imperfect. We understand we’re different people with different minds and different motives and interests that at any given time . . .  moods, different histories.

But we agree on working together. The benefits of that are tremendous because we don’t live in a world where we have a constant. Our parents, perhaps, but then they get old, maybe they weren’t ever that or they’ve passed away. Our children aren’t supposed to be used for that; they have their own life. But the couple can be—the partners can be a constant for each other. And that’s a kind of experience and a kind of love that is very very different from the infatuation and the romantic love that we feel when we first start out.

Tami Simon: Yes. Now, obviously there are some actions that are very glaring, that would disturb a sense of safety and security for a survival unit. The glaring instances of having an affair or outright lying to your partner—it’s hard to feel trusting, safe and secure. But what are some of the more subtle things that can disrupt safety and security in a couple?

Stan Tatkin: Well, an example might be not protecting each other in public. One partner exposes the other partner without their permission in public and humiliates them, embarrasses them. This is a kind of betrayal.

It’s something we call “a mismanagement of thirds.” In the dyadic world, there are thirds—other people, things, activities, habituation, and so on that will draw one person’s attention at the cost of the relationship. That could be a child, it could be a job, a boss, it could be an ex, it could be a parent.

These are errors that in the area of mismanagement of thirds where people can misstep by throwing the other person under the bus. This would be embarrassing the person in public, or leaking information that the partner didn’t want known, or taking someone from the outside their side over the partner—aligning with a child against the partner. Any number of situations where there’s a breach in that primary attachment system and a misunderstanding of the primary unit.

Tami Simon: Stan, let’s get into that a little deeper because I think it’s really important. Let’s say somebody feels a great loyalty to their own mother or father, and now they’re in a relationship. The new partner says, “I don’t want to go visit your mother or father,” or “I can’t stand your mother or father,” you know, basic in-law issue. The person says, “Look, I feel loyal to my own parent here. Of course I need to put them first.”

What would be the PACT (Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy) way to strengthen the safety and security of my relationship, but I also honor this bond I have with my parent?

Stan Tatkin: I think the important idea here when we think of putting our couple relationship first . . . let me just zoom out for a moment, if I may, and take a long view. The important idea here of putting the couple relationship first is not to say that all other relationships are less important—isn’t to say that all other relationships will then have to suffer the consequences. All it means is that when we decide to put our relationship first, it gives us a hierarchy from which to govern, and not just each other but everybody else.

If two people really understand that they’re working together in a fair and just way that’s mutually sensitive, cooperative, and collaborative, then the partner who has an ailing parent or a parent who needs them simply invokes to their partner, “Remember this is what we do. We support each other. I support you when you have somebody or something that’s very important, and I am there for you as you are there for me.” This is what we do. We don’t ask each other to give up things that would make us unhappy the rest of our lives. That undermines the whole idea of this union.


Adapted Excerpt from Insights at the Edge Podcast

Listen to the full interview: Stan Tatkin: I Vow to Take You On as My Burden


stan tatkin, what makes a couple a survival unit?


Stan is a clinical psychologist, licensed marriage and family therapist, and an author who integrates neuroscience, attachment theory, and arousal regulation in a method he’s developed called PACT—a Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy. Stan is the author of We Do: Saying Yes to a Relationship of Depth, True Connection, and Enduring Love.


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