Who looks after me when I’m married?

Nicky Lock

We all know the criticism of the individualism of the 21st century. Babyboomers (of whom I am one) whinge about how young people are not community minded as we were in the 60s and 70s. Student demonstrations now are focussed on “what’s in it for the individual”, not for the greater good of society as were the “ban the bomb” marches of the 60s.

The spirit of individualism has likewise infected the practise of marriage counselling, couched in terms of the necessity for individuation and differentiation and the need for each person in a relationship to “take responsibility for themselves”. David Schnarch, author of “Passionate Marriage”, promotes the concept of the need to develop a solid flexible self where we are not dependent on our partner for a sense of reflected self. A need for validation, acceptance and unconditional love can get in the way of intimacy as people are demanding of these from their partner. He does not decry wanting our partner to provide these, but argues against making provision of them part of the couple contract. Individuals within relationships must work at achieving by themselves what he describes as the four points of balance: a solid sense of self, the ability to soothe one’s own heart and mind, to be emotionally grounded and to tolerate discomfort for the sake of growth

Hence my ears pricked up at a recent training day given by Stan Tatkin, an American couple therapist, who focuses on the psychobiological aspects of marriage, when he said “as a primary partner, we are responsible for our partner’s past”. Taking the view that we are hardwired for “interactive regulation”, Tatkin takes the opposing view to Schnarch, positing that not only are we dependent on our primary partner, i.e. spouse, for regulation of our autonomic nervous system (the system which controls how elated or distressed we feel, amongst other things), but that “interactive regulation is more efficient than turning to oneself for stimulation and soothing “. Hence Tatkin’s approach to marriage counselling is one whereby the couples are taught to recognise their partner’s signs of dysregulation, or moments of misattunement or injury, and make an appropriate response which will assist in repairing the relationship. He coaches couples so that they can achieve “uninterrupted interactive regulation” which goes through the full cycle of dealing with negative interactions and promoting positive ones. The onus is on each to be other focused for the one who is in distress.

Thanks, Stan, for a rebalancing of the world of relationship counselling: as the marriage vows indicate, being married really is about mutuality, love and care, and ministering to each other.