Happy gay women couple celebrating together with engagement ring in bed

Relationship First

By Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, author of Wired for Love, 2nd Edition

The first guiding principle is that your relationship should come first if you both accept the idea that you are a union of equals. If that is the case, your relationship, or alliance, represents something greater than yourselves as a shared mythology. You accept that you represent leadership and place your union hierarchically above everyone and everything because everyone and everything depends on these leaders getting along, being happy, and making things happen. Therefore, you must remain allies and cannot afford to be adversaries. You serve each other and the union.

Here are some supporting principles to guide you:

1. As an alliance, you must co-create a shared purpose (at least one, if not more) and a shared vision for the future. These two structural items flatten differences among people and keep them focused on who, what, and why they are unionizing. Shared purpose and vision should be clear on every project, every plan the couple creates as well as problems they solve.

2. Agreements among allies—made for the purpose of survival amid any threat—should never be made in passing, informally, and without a good amount of rigor. Let’s say you and I put an idea on the table. It could be a principle of some kind (i.e., “We can go to bed angry, but we have to at least touch toes”), or a guardrail of some sort (i.e., “This keeps repeating. Can I remind you, cue you, prompt you the next time, and if I do, will you yield and cooperate?”). Make sure you stick to the idea—just one—and make it a back-and-forth. “What do you think?” Do not over-explain, over-describe, or bring up an example from the past. Any of these will get you both off-topic and into a fight. This should be policymaking, not a personal indictment. Anytime either of you talk like you care only about your interests and concerns, you compel the other to do the same. And now you’re adversaries. That’s one-person thinking. Remember, whatever you come up with has to be good for both of you, not just one of you.

3. Because you represent leadership, you both predict, plan, and prepare for eventualities that could destabilize your alliance. Since your union comes first, you both plan for your good time, your safety and security, and your happiness first. Then and only then do you consider everything and everyone else. The reason is simple: if the two of you are not okay, everything and everyone is affected.

4. Why have you unionized? What’s the point of your relationship? What is your shared vision? Where are you going and why? Where are you both pointing? How will you govern as two separate people with your own histories, family cultures, and two different nervous systems? Answering these questions as a couple helps build the foundation for secure functioning.

5. Secure functioning is not a set of principles and values set by the outside world of opinion. Partners are only expected to co-create their own shared values, organization, and structure. All they have to do is agree. If partners wish to put their careers first and both are rigorously honest with themselves and the other, terrific. That might mean their relationship will take a backseat to their central organizing purpose, career. Same if partners agree to put themselves first—their personal growth, freedom, and exploration—fine. Or they might put their children first. Same thing.

As a couple, you can face the next world-shaking existential threat and emerge more unified. When you view your relationship as a survival alliance with a shared purpose, rather than solely based on emotions or attraction, you can navigate your individual histories and differences, and recognize the need for mutual safety and security. That is the journey we will continue in the next chapter: how the two of you will protect each other from everyone else.

PP. 31-33 Excerpt taken from Wired for Love, 2nd Edition

Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, is a clinician, teacher, researcher, and developer of the psychobiological approach to couple therapy (PACT). He and his wife, Tracey Boldemann-Tatkin, cofounded the PACT Institute to train other mental health professionals worldwide to use this method in their clinical work. Tatkin is an assistant clinical professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He maintains a private practice in Southern California, and directs PACT programs in the US and internationally. He is author of In Each Other’s Care and six other books.

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