CPPNJ - The Center for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy of New Jersey


The New Jersey Couples Therapy Training Program Hosts Our Fall Conference on Attachment

By Sandra Sinicpropi, LCSW and Rose Oosting, Ph.D.

On October 30th, Stan Tatkin, PhD presented the CPPNJ fall conference, “Attachment Approaches to Couple Therapy.” For over twenty years, Dr. Tatkin, the founder and developer of A Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy TM has been researching the psychobiological components of how couples regulate each other. Integrating neuroscience, systems theory, psychoanalytic object relations theory, and attachment theory, Dr. Tatkin has concluded that couples pair in an effort to regulate their need for safety, recognition, and a sense of belonging and love. The partnership contract that Dr. Tatkin uses as the template for his work posits that each individual has needs that cannot be meet alone, that only one’s partner can satisfy.

Dr. Tatkin’s theory is that people can and do have the ability to regulate each others’ autonomic nervous system. He suggests that distress management is a two-person skill and that couples are in fact responsible for each other’s recovery from “mutual dysregulation.” Using the Strange Situation instrument pioneered by Mary Ainsworth and Mary Main to understand types of attachment, Dr. Tatkin observes his couples interacting with one another. The chairs in his office all have wheels for ease in moving to and away from each other, and sometimes he has the couple walk about his office. He instructs them to move closer to and further from each other in an effort to gauge their unconscious visceral responses to their partner, closely watching their subtle facial and body expressionsto help identify what they are feeling and experiencing. How does one member of the couple feel when she is intruded upon by her partner? How does she feel when he leaves the room? When he returns? How easily do they fold into each other when they embrace? How do her reactions to these events register on her face and in her body? And how effective is the couple’s attempt at regulating their partner’s affective state; that is, how effective is their attachment response system, their level of attunement to each others’ signals. These are questions Dr. Tatkin explores in a typical couples session, which can sometimes last up to four hours. Based on the varied physical responses of his patients, he is able to help them articulate and better understand what they are not able to put into words.

“People often don’t know what they want from their significant other, they just have an awareness that something is missing,” Tatkin says. Noting which of the four types of attachment(Secure, Avoidant, Resistant/Ambivalent and Disorganized) is dominant in each individual, he helps patients to not only understand but experience what they need from each other to satisfy their need for safety and belonging. A securely attached partner experiences a partnership as life enhancing, while an insecurely attached partner will likely anticipate partnership as being too much of a compromise, resulting in significant loss and pain. It is no surprise that insecurely attached people have not experienced early caregiving that was consistent, stable and loving enough. Such people (and most people have experienced this on some level) have developed strategies to either avoid really depending on their partner or have learned how to stay with a partner while using a variety of strategies to manage their fear, anger, and feelings of deprivation either on their own or by clinging and trying to get their partner to respond. Dr. Tatkin instructs couples to use their visceral reactions as opportunities to ask for what they need to calm down. When the couple does not know what to request, he offers them the language to use with each other with the hope that they will be able to make the words their own.

Dr. Tatkin works with the assumption that we partner with people who are familiar to us. We attract mates whose characteristics match those of our early care- givers. Furthermore, he suggests, we are attracted to partners whose style of relating matches our own. In other words, we have similar relational deficits that we share with our partners. These deficits are familiar and therefore safe in their familiarity, even if unsatisfying. While some might think he is too directive, research supports evidence that without an early experience of expecting and getting an empathic, satisfying response from a significant other, most people will either avoid asking for what they need or ask in ways that ultimately undermine their efforts. This can re-create the early struggle or deprivation. An unresolved past can cause dysregulation in the present.

Dr. Tatkin said that if early ruptures in relationships were not immediately repaired, the experience of the injury gains enough power to render any thought of having it repaired unlikely. He gave this advice: “even if you don’t believe you have wronged your partner or are too hurt to acknowledge them, the best thing to do is to signal that you are still connected even if you don’t feel it in the moment.” This is based on his belief that we are responsible for down-regulating our partner’s upset when their specific attachment wound is triggered. Aware that he is asking people to do what is against their deep-down intuition, Dr. Tatkin expects that in his office they will learn how to be supportive and empathic and to be able to receive support and empathy in return. He says that this is the contract people ultimately sign on for when they partner: “Thee shall be my pain in the neck and I shall bethine.” Each will agree to provide for the other what is needed; safety, recognition, a sense of belonging and love, ultimately the reasons for why we pair.