Romantic relationships can be hard. Like, really f’ing hard. And it can be so nice to have help given to us in the form of a succinct list.
Stan Tatkin, leading couples specialist and developer of the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy (PACT), wrote what he feels are the ten most important rules and outlooks to maintaining a secure relationship and building secure attachment in ourselves. As a husband and couples therapist, I use them regularly and have seen their worth proven in countless real-time situations.
But there are two problems I have found with what Dr. Tatkin has dubbed The Ten Commandments¹ for a Secure-Functioning Relationship. The first problem is in the name and presentation, in which he invokes the Old Testament and uses early English (like Shakespeare early) pronouns like thy and thou. For some Christians, I am sure this is not an issue and that’s all good. But for many of us, Biblical references are at best outdated and at worst a traumatic trigger, reminiscent of a punitive and preferably out-of-mind pseudo-religious upbringing. So for those who do not feel like thy or thou and do not prefer to be reminded of Moses when learning how to be a good partner: I hope this blog feels inclusive.
The second issue is that many of these relationship rules need a good deal of explaining. Although I ruffle my feathers at his presentation, the rules were written with precise wording and profound implications. After scouring the internet looking for a slightly less Henry-the-Fourth re-write of his Ten Commandments, I only found one or two. And these writers took liberties with most of the wording (not just the thy and thous), which led to a loss of essence conveyed with his intentional vocabulary. So, I will first present the rules in his exact words with the early English removed and then my elaboration into their meaning and significance, as well as some of the science that backs them up.
In this post, I will do the first five. Check back to ,our blog in a week or two to see numbers six through ten explained, along with some practical tips for remembering and enacting these rules in your relationship. Let’s begin…
1. You will protect the safety and security of your relationship at all costs.
Protecting the safety and security of your relationship can mean many things, and this aspect of the first rule can serve as an umbrella commandment encompassing the rest. Nonetheless, I like to think of safety and security in this sense as a commitment to being on guard, constantly watching for people, events, habits, and anything else that can threaten the existence of a healthy connection and sense of teamsmanship. When one is identified, the team makes it explicit and orients toward it together, lessening its power to divide.
The phrase at all costs can sound controversial. Obviously, this is not meant to suggest that one partner will protect the relationship should one or more of the partners become abusive or neglectful, or refuse to follow any of these rules. Instead, at all costs can be thought of as a reminder that nothing, and I do mean nothing, comes before the quality of the relationship and nothing comes between the partners. Putting the relationship before such things as work, kids, creative pursuits, and even spiritual practices is in itself a spiritual practice, and does not usually require sacrificing the existence of any of these.
This type of at-all-costs commitment to understanding and taking care of another is a grounding way to move toward selflessness and away from self-importance. And as we will see, the pay-off to such selflessness is handsome.
2. You will base your relationship on true mutuality, remembering that all decisions and actions must be good for you and for your partner.
This is an obvious reminder that you and your partner(s) are a system. Merriam-Webster defines a system as a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole. Interdependence in this sense serves as a sharp reminder: that which benefits your partner benefits you. No matter the task, favor, or decision that is done, performed, or made to take care of your partner, the simple truth exists: a happy, resourced partner is better at helping you become happy and resourced.
3. You will not threaten the existence of the relationship, for doing so would benefit no one.
This one is paramount. NO threatening the relationship. This means no ultimatums, such as, “If you don’t quit going out every night, I am leaving you.” This means no suggestive proclamations of despair like, “You lost another job? I don’t know how long I can live like this!” Nothing of the sort, y’all.
With my couples, I stomp these out like an invasive plant species attempting to overtake an exquisite garden. Most individuals who threaten the relationship do so as a reactive attempt to get their needs met. The problem is that doing so actually decreases the likelihood of your partner being able to provide. Let me explain.
As infants, our brains and nervous systems are developing rapidly–,more than one million new neural connections per second, to be exact.² We are literally wiring the hardware that will support various softwares, such as creativity, personality, self-soothing ability, and, perhaps most importantly for our discussion of relationships: our attachment system. Our attachment system, in short, is our biopsychological system that dictates our knee-jerk reactions to relationships.
Unfortunately, during this crucial period of brain development in the first 18 months of life, we do not have the ability to calm ourselves or regulate our own emotions. We literally ,do not yet have the necessary nerve development to do so.³
Fortunately, our evolution into a species with a long gestation period (where babies are also physically dependent on their caregiver for many years) has come with parental impulses to be in constant relationship with our infants–no one has to tell a healthy mother to hold and soothe her child. Unfortunately, parents and the conditions in which they parent, are not perfect (and some are much, much worse).
All of us experienced moments as a child where we were not consoled because our mother and/or father was temporarily emotionally or physically absent. Some of us endured long periods of this type of neglect. When this happens to a baby, it feels life-threatening (because it is), and the rapid brain development I mentioned continues within this context of fear. These experiences create lasting memories built into our attachment system, which become our physiological blueprint for relating to others.
So, now we are thirty years old and our partner makes a relationship-threatening comment during a heated conversation. In a fraction of a second, these early memories of neglect or abandonment arise (usually without our knowledge), we feel literally threatened, our frontal cortex (part of the brain that enables us to self-reflect, empathize, and problem solve) decreases in activity, and our limbic system (part of the brain that registers threat and cues stress hormones) increases in activity. Now we are literally less capable of understanding the other person’s needs and are more likely to fight back or want to run away. Nobody wins.
Ask for what you need, share your emotions, but don’t threaten the relationship in an attempt to get what you want.
4. You will appoint your partner as the go-to person for all matters, making certain your partner is first to know—not second, third, or fourth—in all matters of importance.
This is another example of protecting the safety and security of your relationship. Making your partner the first and primary person with whom you discuss all important news, confusions, or decisions is a testament to the dedication of allowing nothing to get in between you and your partner and basing your partnership on mutuality. It is also highly practical. If you and your partner are steering the ship on the ever-changing waters of connection and disconnection, you want them to have all the information related to doing so. An informed partner is more equipped to understand you and your needs.
In my experience, this one is most likely to become an issue when one person in the relationship, who processes emotions and life challenges loquaciously and tends toward anxiety in general, discusses aspects of the relationship with another friend or family member before discussing it with their partner. Those with a more wordy and anxious processing style tend to have a greater need for long talks about their relationship struggles and often their partner (likely more quiet and depressive) struggles to meet the entirety of this need. So long as the couple discusses important matters first and are clear about the information each is okay with their partner sharing with specific others, this is no problem.
Our partners must be our primary confidant. If there is even a question as to whether or not your partner would want to know about this thought, plan, or bit of news: tell them first. It is an empowering experience to know we are the most important consultant in our partner’s life.
5. You will provide a tether to your partner all the days and nights of your life, and never fail to greet your partner with good cheer.
This is my personal favorite. It functions as both a guideline and tool for creating secure attachment. This is actually two commandments in one, with similar themes. While I appreciate both parts, I think the first has bigger implications, so I will address the second part first and the first part second–got it?
Greeting your partner with good cheer is all about those sticky points known as transitions. This word gets thrown around a lot in psychology and spirituality communities. We often regard transitions as difficult, but what does that actually mean in this case? Well, a lot happens very quickly in the moments following a reunion.
When your partner comes home while you are in the middle of an important task on the laptop, what happens in your body and mind? Do you feel an immediate desire for their attention and hope they will give you theirs, giving you a break from a grueling moment of work? Or do you feel a slight pang of discomfort followed by an impulse to keep your head down and plow on with your work, assuming they will understand how important it is? Something in between?
These different types of responses to relational transitions typically depend on your attachment style and early childhood history. These reactions tend to be left over from a time when your developmental focus was navigating a biological impulse to be close to your caregiver–known as ,proximity maintenance⁴–while also learning to explore the world with your own senses and faculties. A large factor in our successful completion of this developmental task is the reliability and predictability of the caregiver’s soothing presence when we shift our attention back to them when we have finished exploring.
This ,secure base⁴ the parent provides during this time of transition aids the child in trusting and enjoying their increasingly singular experience of the world. Even with adults, ,research shows⁵ we are more likely to interpret life as safe and pleasant if we know someone we care about will be there as we interpret it. Sadly but truly, we all likely had moments where the process of developing trust in our ability to smoothly re-enter a relational space was interrupted.
So, when our partner arrives home, or vice versa, putting down our computer or task for a minute or two to greet them warmly can go a long way in healing those inevitable moments of developmental disruption that occurred during this crucial period of our childhood.
I believe the first part of this commandment is the sharp edge of the healing tool and spiritual practice that is intimate relationships: provide a tether to your partner all the days and nights of my life. I like to think of this as two distinct tasks. The first task involves offering practical support to your partner as much as humanly possible. This means that you are available by phone, text, or with your physical presence as much as you are able and/or are needed. This means they can count on you to take their phone call and talk them out of their tree or pick up soup or medicine on your way home. This means that your partner knows where you are and what time you will be home, etc., etc. Very practical and supportive.
The second part speaks to something much deeper. What more could it mean to provide a tether–to be tethered–to your partner all the days and nights of your life? It speaks to the possibility of feeling connected to them at all times–whether they are in your presence or not.
With my couples, I often begin the session with something I call the connection meter exercise. Using mindfulness, I guide them in becoming aware of their sense of connection (or lack of it) to their partner(s) and rating it on a scale of one to ten. Through various tips and tricks, we attempt to increase the score until they have a felt-sense of connection in their body. This often becomes a state of being marked by calm, love, and clear-mindedness. At this point, we are working on healing childhood wounds. But how?
Dr. Diane Poole Heller, leading attachment expert and developer of Dynamic Attachment RePatterning, a somatic therapy for working with attachment disruption, uses a similar technique to create a physical response to imagined protectors and caregivers, as well as to the therapist themselves. But why? It all has to do with memory.
In his book, Trauma and Memory, Dr. Peter Levine, world-renowned trauma expert and developer of Somatic Experiencing, states that trauma memories are, by and large, procedural and emotional. By this, he means they are not the type of memory you use when remembering your shopping list. They are a form of memory stored in the body via muscular bracing/flaccidity, unresolved motor sequences, and various health-related symptoms. This is now common knowledge in the field of trauma⁶ and psychological⁷ research.
So because traumatic memory is stored in the body, it can be incredibly useful to access the memories by feeling the body directly. To do this, we use internal awareness of the body–,known as interoception⁸–to more readily access those traumatic memories directly related to relationships. It has been my experience that providing a tether to one’s partner can serve as a psychological/spiritual visualization like the kind used in Dr. Poole Heller’s therapy to rewire memories of neglect, abuse, and abandonment.
After my couples learn what it feels like in their bodies to be connected to their partner, I coach them to use their tether to re-access this state of connectedness anytime they need. Having a hard day at work and feel like the world is against you? Bring to mind your partner’s current whereabouts and see them clearly in your mind. What happens in your body? Look for any softening of the muscles, smiling, changes in breathing patterns, etc. Staying physically engaged with your tether over time can dissolve somatic memories of neglect or abandonment, making this feeling of connection to your loving partner the new default–the felt sense of secure attachment.
Protecting the safety and security of our relationship can be a tremendous effort. But the beauty of such a commitment is the positive feedback loop that is created. When we base our relationship on mutuality, we nourish a system that grows stronger and stronger, decreasing our ability to be selfish. When we do not threaten the relationship, we create room for all parties to work through their ambivalence and avoidance, creating more dedication to the union. When we go to our partner first with all matters of importance, they become better equipped to handle our specific stressors, decreasing our future distress. And when we greet our partner warmly and tend to our tether, we heal the wounds that keep us from connection, increasing our ability to stay connected.
A subtle but profound cycle of warmth and affection emerges and we begin to love following the rules.
- “The Ten Commandments for a Secure-Functioning Relationship.” The PACT Institute.
- “Brain Architecture.” Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 20 Aug. 2019.
- Cannon, Chris. “Developmental Trauma vs PTSD: Getting A Sense.” Somatic Spiritual, Somatic Spiritual, 27 May 2021.
- Gomez, Lavinia. An Introduction to Object Relations. Free Association Books, 1998.
- Karreman, Annemiek, et al. “Attachment Styles and Secure Base Priming in Relation to Emotional Reactivity after Frustration Induction.” Cognition and Emotion, vol. 33, no. 3, 2018, pp. 428–441.
- Instaread. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD | Key Takeaways, Analysis & Review. IDreamBooks Inc., 2015.
- Ianì, Francesco. “Embodied Memories: Reviewing the Role of the Body in Memory Processes.” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, vol. 26, no. 6, 2019, pp. 1747–1766.
- MacDonald, Kai. “Interoceptive Cues: When ‘Gut Feelings’ Point to Anxiety.” Current Psychiatry. vol 6. no. 11. Nov, 2007
Original PACT 10 Commandments (1-5)
- Thou shalt protect thy partner in public and in private from harmful elements, including thyself.
- Thou shall put thy partner to bed each night and awaken with thy partner each morning.
- Thou shalt correct all errors, including injustices and injuries, at once or as soon as possible, and not make dispute of who was the original perpetrator.
- Thou shalt gaze lovingly upon thy partner daily and make frequent and meaningful gestures of appreciation, admiration, and gratitude.
- Thou shalt learn thy partner well and master the ways of seduction, influence, and persuasion, without the use of fear or threat.