What It Actually Means To Be An Emotionally Available Partner

Couple Therapist By Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT
Couple Therapist
Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, is a couple's therapist known for his pioneering work in helping partners form happy, secure, and long-lasting relationships. His method—called PACT (Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy®)—draws on principles of neuroscience and teaches partners to become what he terms “secure-functioning.”
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Philosophers have written extensively about the basic questions facing all human beings: Who am I? Where did I come from, and where will I go after I die? Does life have meaning? Am I ultimately alone?

So how do we deal with such questions? Historically, people have relied on a range of philosophical, mythic and religious narratives to provide answers in the face of fundamental uncertainty. More recently, we have turned to psychiatry and psychology and pharmacology for answers, or at least to feel better in the meantime. Sweat lodges, meditation, climbing mountain peak, and trekking to the North Pole are among the means used by seekers. But what really do we have to sustain us as life becomes more complex and losses mount as a natural consequence of living longer?

Perhaps it is being tethered to at least one other person who is available at our beck and call; one person to whom we can reach out, whom we can touch and by whom we can be touched in return. I submit to you that the most powerful sustenance available to us is another person who's interested and who cares. He or she serves as our go-to person, the one individual we can always count on to be there for us.

Being available in this way is perhaps the most valuable gift you can give your partner. In early childhood, our go-to person hopefully was our primary caregiver. In adulthood, the go-to person should be our primary partner. But unlike our early caregivers, our adult partner relies on the benefits of tethering in exactly the same way we do; that is, equally and mutually. In other words, while our early tethering was one-way, or asymmetric, our adult tethering should be symmetric.

If you are an "anchor" type, you already know all of this. If you are more like an island or wave — especially what I've termed "a wild island" or "wild wave" — we have some chatting to do. The idea of "tethering" is problematic for you, isn't it? If you're an island, you probably don't believe much in tethering. After all, you are good by yourself, and others can be such a bother. If you're a wave, you believe in tethering, but it's a rather childish and one-way kind. You want to be tethered, but you either don't expect it in return or are unwilling to give it in return.

The brain can set us up for easy tethering…or not. Helen Fisher, a social anthropologist and researcher on romantic love, and her colleagues report that during courtship, couples' brains are awash in excitatory neurotransmitters and hormones, such as noradrenaline and dopamine. Some of the same areas of the brain that are involved in addiction behaviors, such as the ventral tegmental area (where dopamine is produced), also are activated in romantic love. This accounts for the addictive qualities so characteristic of the infatuation phase of a relationship.

Although noradrenaline and dopamine are plentiful in the infatuated brain, serotonin, a calming neurotransmitter, is in low supply. Hence the obsessive, anxious and worried aspect of romantic love. Couples who make it beyond the courtship phase and into a more secure, settled phase — notably the anchor types — have a more active raphe nucleus, where serotonin is produced. They are able to readily calm down and relax with one another.

Before you commit to being the go-to person for your partner, you may find it helpful to take a look at your own early experiences. Chances are that how you related to go-to people as a child will influence how you approach being the go-to person in your current relationship.

Exercise: Your Childhood Go-To People

1. Ask yourself, To whom did I go as a child?

Then proceed with further questions. What was it that you typically wanted? Stop for a moment and think about the go-to people in your early life. Think back as far as you can remember. To whom did you run (or even crawl)? If it was a parent, which parent was it?

2. See if you can recall any specific incidents, however small they might have been.

Perhaps you had a nightmare and called for your mother. Maybe she brought you a glass of warm milk. Or perhaps you got a booboo on the nursery school playground, and the teacher took you inside and put some ointment on it.

3. As you recall these incidents, see if you also can remember to what degree you felt safe with your go-to people.

Could you count on them? Or were there times when your go-to people let you down? Perhaps a particular go-to person who repeatedly let you down? If so, were you able to find a new go-to person with whom you felt safer?

4. Finally, ask yourself what your relationship is today with the most important go-to people from your childhood.

Are you still in close touch? Do you still go to them for anything?

After thinking about these questions, let's face the facts: childhood is not elective. Our earliest relationships are not chosen by us, and we do not get to decide how they function. In adulthood, however, our relationships are elective. We get to choose our partners and how our relationships will function. We can demand these relationships be fair, that they be just and that our partners will want to know who we are.

Reprinted with permission from New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Excerpt from Wired for Love:How Understanding Your Partner's Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship Copyright © 2011 by Stan Tatkin, PsyD.

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