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Communication Skills

How to build intimacy? (Stan Tatkin)

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Be poised to effectively defuse conflict when it arrives.  Get an owner’s manual for mastering and understanding yourself, your partner and your relationship. Stan Tatkin’s book Wired for Love presents simple, proven strategies based on cutting-edge research to help build intimacy in marriage.

What is intimacy?

Webster’s Dictionary: Definition of INTIMACY

1:  the state of being intimate: familiarity

2:  something of a personal or private nature

Intimacy is a type of closeness that can be identified as emotional, physical, or a feeling of familiarity with another person. Not surprisingly, physical intimacy is created when we feel safe emotionally. Emotional safety develops when we feel understood, supported, and protected. This guide on intimacy provides some foundational skills used to build emotional intimacy.

“Intimacy means that as a couple we spend a decent amount of time eye-to-eye, skin-to-skin, and that we are experts on each other. I am as good at YOU as I am at anything else I do.  And you have my owner’s manual. You know how to deal with me in ways that other people don’t know”- Stan Tatkin PsyD MFT

Hear more on how Stan Tatkin defines intimacy here and why creating a couple bubble is critical for creating intimacy:

Creating a couple bubble

In “Wired for Love” Stan Tatkin shares the importance of a couple bubble for creating a safe environment that enables intimacy to occur and building trust to weather the storm when conflict arises.

During the interview, Stan asks “Why do we choose to be in a relationship versus just being alone?” He explains that we all seek a safe zone, which is a safe place where we feel accepted, wanted, protected, and cared for by another. Ideally, our partner is a safe haven for us to settle and find a place of comfort.

Sadly, a common failure among many marriages is that one or both partners feel as if their efforts are being disregarded or unappreciated. Another common obstacle is feeling insignificant to our partner and believing that we are always competing with another person, task, or thing for our partner’s attention.

Couples can create a sense of safety and security by creating a couple bubble. Stan Tatkin describes this as a cocoon that holds the couple together and protects each partner from outside hindrances. It’s designed to create an intimate environment where each partner agrees to put the relationship before anythingand everything else. Each partner must agree to put their mate’s wellbeing, self-esteem, and distress relief as a top priority.

Here are some pledges or vows used to reaffirm the agreements made during the creation of the couple bubble:

  • “I will never leave you”
  • “I will never frighten you purposely.”
  • “When you are in distress, I will relieve you, even if I’m the one who is causing the distress.”
  • “Our relationship is more important than my need to be right, your performance, your appearance, what other people think or want, or any other competing value.”
  • “You will be the first to hear about anything and not the second, third, or fourth person I tell”. P12
  • “We come first.” P 19

VIDEO: What is a creative couple bubble? It’s being in a foxhole with someone and we live on principles that are good for BOTH of us, which enables us to thrive. We do that by making agreements that protect us in public and private. Everything is transparent. Our partner is the first person we confide in. Our purpose is to take all fears off the table and learn how to care for each other.

How does couple bubble relate to psychology?

Research findings that were first made popular by John Bowlby (1969) and Mary Ainsworth and her colleagues (Ainsworth, Bell, and Stayton 1971) explains how infants form what psychologists call attachments. As a child, we experience certain degrees of security and love from our caregivers that correlate to this type of bond. Tatkin has observed that these attachments continue as adults. He theorizes that when we become adults, we transfer our primary attachments from our parents to our partners. Each partner comes with one or a blend of different attachment styles that they bring into the relationship (see section below on “Understanding Your Partner’s Emotional Style”). A couple bubble (as described above) helps create a secure attachment as an adult, which enables us to individually be strong, loving, and secure. Conversely, an insecure attachment causes us to feel fearful or worried about starting a relationship and being intimate.

Building Emotional Intimacy

Creating a couple bubble allows partners to keep each other safe and secure.

According to Stan Tatkin, a couple bubble demands the following principles:

  • Devote yourself to your partner’s sense of safety and security and not simply to your idea about what that should be.
  • Don’t pop the bubble, which means don’t act in an ambivalent manner, or take a stance that is partly in and partly out of the relationship.
  • Make sure the bubble is mutually maintained and honored. Tatkin clarifies that this is different than codependency where each partner live through or for each other while ignoring their own needs and wants. This eventually creates resentment and emotional distress.
  • Plan to use your couple bubble. Each partner can rely on the other and share vulnerabilities (e.g.- please save me from Cathy when we go to the cocktail party tonight). P21

Intimacy Issues: Fear of intimacy

What beliefs get in the way of creating intimacy in a marriage or partnership? What are the origins of these beliefs?

Most Americans are raised with a strong survival instinct. It is an inherited belief that only the strong will survive. Independence and autonomy are paramount for our success and survival. Many partners carry this attitude into a relationship and believe that each person should stand independent of the other and not expect to be protected or cared for. In this model, the individual’s personal needs is the priority and comes before the needs of the couple as a whole. Granted it is important for each partner to have a level of autonomy that is devoid of needing another person to complete them (see more at:, this ideology also neglects the reality that every couple is interdependent. For example, if you need to make a family decision, your answer is dependent on what your partner wants as well since they are part of that family decision.  Any decision that neglects your partner’s needs often leads to problems in the long-run.

Intimacy versus isolation

What happens if you ignore your partner’s needs?

Couples that choose to ignore their interdependence often find themselves in a marriage where they are physically together but still feel alone, lonely, and alienated. This type of relationship examplifies the prevailing attitude of “You do your thing and I’ll do my thing” or “You take care of you and I’ll take care of me”.

Lack of intimacy

Intimacy  forms once the emotional and physical safety is established. The type of intimacy will vary depending on that person’s preference to physical proximity, emotional intimacy, and concerns regarding safety and security. Couples that lack intimacy must start first in investing in getting to really know their partner starting with their emotional style.

Building Emotional Intimacy: your partner’s emotional style

The first place to start in building intimacy is for both partners to really understand the emotional style they are must comfortable with.  Once both partners understand each other’s emotional style, it makes it much easier to resolve and feel compassionate once  issues arise.

Tatkin describes three emotional styles: anchors (securely attached), islands (insecurely avoidant), and waves (insecurely ambivalent). These emotional styles emanate from childhood  and  are based on the amount of positive attention that each partner received from the figures that raised them. Tatkin notes that it’s possible to morph from one style to another over time. For example, if both partners in a relationship are anchors, one will likely adapt to more of an island style to balance the relationship. Because this type of changeover of emotional style can take place and evolve with a relationship, it’s important to not judge your partner’s emotional style as “good” or “bad”, but to accept it “as is”.

Children that receive lots of positive attention grow up to be adults who can more easily handle their emotions and impulses. These “attached children” are often more adept at reading faces, voices, emotions, body sensations, and getting the overall gist of things. As a result, they generally have more empathy, better moral judgment, greater control over impulses, and more consistent management of frustration. P49

VIDEO: Stan Tatkin describes how your emotional style may be a result of the relationship you had with your parents or primary caregivers

VIDEO How much does personality play into your emotional style? What about a person that is more emotional or likes being independent regardless of how they were raised?

VIDEO: Why is it important to know your emotional style? Stan believes that it will expose how you may react under stress.

VIDEO: How does our brain affect the way we interact with one other? We have a lot of long-term memories and we have an automated response, which is what the primitive part of our brain operates on. The upper brain, referred to as ambassadors, is needed to balance out our automated and primitive response.

Find Your emotional Style

Stan Tatkins identifies three different emotional styles based on attachment parenting which arebriefly described below.  Anchors

Anchor Emotional Style

Anchors are secure individuals. They are more apt to commit and interact with one another and are generally happy people who can easily adapt to any situation. Anchors were typically raised by caregivers who placed a high value on relationships and interactions. Their parents were attuned, responsive, and sensitive to their signals of distress, bids for comfort, and efforts to communicate.

Anchors never feel anxious about getting too close or too far away. When they have to be apart, they frequently touch base via phone and email. Anchors are generally unafraid to share their thoughts without concern for negative consequences. They respect each other’s feelings and treat one another as the first source to share both good and bad news.

People are drawn to anchors because of their strength of character, love of people, and complexity. They adapt easily to the needs of the moment and can make decisions without fearing the consequences. Anchors take good care of themselves and their relationships. They are unlikely to abandon the relationship during tough or frustrating times and are unafraid to admit errors and are quick to mend injuries or misunderstandings.

VIDEO: What is an anchor style of relationship? Why are anchor kids more resilient and easier to get along with? Stan explains here:


Islands are independent and self-reliant. They take good care of themselves, are productive, creative and low maintenance.

Islands are typically latchkey kids that spent a good deal of time by themselves. Islands may not have parents that believed in physical contact. Their parents are often unresponsive, dismissive and insensitive to the needs of their children. As a result, islands often adapt to this neglect. They learn that instead of relying on their parents for affection and physical contact, they focus on being independent and taking care of themselves.

Islands tend to be forward thinkers and avoid looking at present or past relationships. They enjoy their alone time and dislike intrusions, which can cause difficulty in a relationship. Islands tend to feel more interpersonal stress in social situations.

Both islands and waves are easily triggered in a fight and ready to go to war. However, Islands are more inclined to talk things out and are seemingly more logical and rational. However, they can be arrogant, unemotional, and unable to communicate their own feelings or notice their partner’s feelings. Under stress, islands can be terse, dismissive, inflexible, or too silent or still. Islands will want to focus on the future instead of dwelling on the past.

Common vulnerabilities: Feeling intruded upon; Feeling trapped or out of control; Fear of too much intimacy; Fear of being blamed.

VIDEO: What does it mean to have an island emotional style? Stan describes how islands relate to others and why they move away from people.


Waves are generous and giving, focused on taking care of others, happiest when around other people, and able to see both sides of an issue.

Considering the analogy of an ocean wave, the “wave” represents the drama of ups and downs and a sense of movement and unpredictability. Waves can become preoccupied with fear, anger, and ambivalence about being close. Often times, they are caught up with past injuries and unfairness and don’t like to look toward the future.

Reminiscent of an ocean, waves move in and then pull back. They do not like to be left alone or ignored and sometimes feel that they are too overwhelming and anticipate being abandoned or punished. This anticipation can be so strong that it causes the wave to push their partner through anger and negativity until the partner pushes back.

Common vulnerabilities: Fear of being abandoned; Fear of being separated; Discomfort with being alone for too long; Feeling of being a burden.

Unlike Islands, waves demand a lot of verbal assurances of love and security. If under duress, waves can appear overly expressive, dramatic, emotional, tangential, irrational and angry. They can be unforgiving, arduous, withdrawn and inflexible.  A wave will want to focus on the past (i.e. “I can’t move forward until we resolve what just happened”).

VIDEO: What is the wave style of relationship? Stan explains here:

Owner’s Manual: Understanding your partner

Partners who are experts of each other’s emotional style become skilled in how to please, move, shift, motivate, influence, soothe, and inspire one another. Once you have a sense of your emotional style and your partner’s style, it may be easier to know what to do during a conflict.

Tatkin offers three principles in getting to know your partner:

  • Discover your partner and your own relationship style.
  • Be unapologetically you versus feeling ashamed and pretending that you are someone that you’re not.
  • Don’t try to change your partner. Recognize that the fundamental wiring that takes place during our earliest experiences stay with us from cradle to grave.

VIDEO: How do you create an owner’s manual for yourself and others? Figure out what your kryptonite is from childhood and how to handle your vulnerable moments.  Do the same for your partner. This enables you to be sensitive to the things that may hurt your partner. Stan explains more here:

Dealing with Conflict – Learning to fight well

Partners can avoid war when the security seeking parts of the brain are put at ease.  Check out these video on how to deal with some common conflicts that partners experience.

Physical intimacy

Experiencing a sexless marriage? CJ sits down with Laurie Watson, sex therapist and author of Wanting Sex Again and asks all the questions you want to know, but were afraid to ask. In addition to the practical truths about sex education, we also discussed the 3 most common reasons couples have sexless marriages and the top 3 questions to ask your partner that can make a difference in your sex life. See more at:

6 Tips: Keeping the Spark in Your Marriage Alive

Here are a few ideas from Tatkin’s book to jump start the process of creating intimacy in your partnership:

Tip 1: Get your daily routines in Synch

Tatkin offers three tips for creating intimacy:

  • Sleep and wake at the same time as your partner. If you have one partner that is an early riser or a night owl, have one partner shift their schedule or find some type of compromise. Tatkin emphasizes the importance of togetherness at bedtime and when waking as a way to create security.
  • The way you settle and reunite with your partner when coming and going from home is important for creating a secure connection. Consider connecting with your partner via a hug or some physical touch whenever you leave your partner to go to school, work, or wherever. Similarly when you come back home, seek your partner out and connect again before launching into other tasks.
  • Create some bedtime rituals and morning rituals where you have some time together.

VIDEO: What are some tips for creating connection? It doesn’t matter what your style is, we are all sensitive to abandonment and the 2 most vulnerable times are when we go to sleep (death) and when we awake. We want our partner to put us down and to wake up together so that we are moving through the day fully charged (tethered and safe).

Tip 2: Make your partner your first Go-to Person

Partners should be each other’s primary go-to person, the one individual that we can always count on to be there for us. Sharing intimate details about yourself (e.g.- news of getting a raise or a promotion) to someone other than your partner can create a sense of exclusion. Thus, it’s important that we make a vow to not tell anyone else something without informing your partner first. Partners should always be privy to things that are important and relevant to each other. There shouldn’t be situations in which an individual therapist, family members, friends, or acquaintances are aware of things that the partner doesn’t already know.

Tip 3: Place your partner as a priority above all others

The idea of marriage is to make a commitment to each other.  We choose one person to form an adult partnership with and we look to this one person above all others for comfort and immediate care. Thus, they shouldn’t be treated as a third wheel when relating to outsiders, which includes in-laws, other extended family members, friends, business partners, bosses, and even children. The problem with these “thirds” is that they tend to marginalize our primary partners.

VIDEO: What about having a “3rd” person in your relationship? This is a competing person (kid, mother-in-law, friend), task (work), or preoccupation (alcohol) that competes with a couple’s resources. Couples have to decide when and how these 3rd’s are let in.  If we relegate our partner to 2nd position, it can be threatening to the couple bubble.

Tip 4: Daily Eye contact is key

Eye contact has the ability to rekindle the love shared between partners. Unlike Waves, who tend to be more comfortable with physical proximity, many islands lack physical interaction including eye contact.

Tip 5: Make a couple bubble Joint Agreement

A couple bubble (See above) is a pact between partners in which the quid pro quo is to commit one another with devotion and care for each other’s safety, security, and wellbeing (p19).  When the going gets tough, the couple bubble is what you can count on to hold your relationship together.

Tip 6: Avoiding the emptiness when the kids leave

Stan offers his thoughts on potential downsides of couples who become empty nesters and stay together even though the relationship is no longer functioning.

VIDEO: How to avoid estrangement when your kids leave and you become empty nesters? How do you rebuild the dynamic if you neglected your relationships?

VIDEO: What should we ask ourselves if we decide to live together but not act as a couple? Stan asks are you happy? If you aren’t, then determine the cost of “settling”.

VIDEO:  What is the point of being a couple?  This is the question we should be asking ourselves as a couple. What is the point of US? What do WE serve?

Other Videos on Relationships



Stan Tatkin – Professor, Researcher, and Developer of A Psychobiological Approach To Couples Therapy

Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, is a clinician, researcher, teacher, and developer of A Psychobiological Approach To Couples Therapy® (PACT) which integrates neuroscience, infant attachment, arousal regulation, and therapeutic enactment applied to adult primary attachment relationships. He maintains a practice in Calabasas, California, and runs a bi-weekly clinical study group for medical and mental health professionals ( and training programs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boulder, Seattle, Austin, and New Jersey.Dr. Tatkin received his early training in developmental object relations (Masterson Institute), Gestalt, psychodrama, and family systems theory. His private practice specialized for some time in the treatment of adolescents and adults with personality disorders. Over the last decade, his interests branched out toward psycho-neurobiological theories of human relationship, integrating principles of early mother-infant attachment with adult romantic relationships. He speaks to professional audiences on subjects of couples therapy and preventative psychotherapy through early intervention with infants, children and their parents.
He has published several articles on the psychobiology of couples’ therapy and is currently training therapists on his unique approach to couples work using attachment theory, neuroscience, and principles of arousal and affect regulation.Dr. Tatkin was a primary inpatient group therapist at the John Bradshaw Center where, among other things, he taught Mindfulness to patients and staff. He was trained in Vipassana meditation by Shinzen Young, Ph.D., and was an experienced facilitator in Vipassana. He was also trained by David Reynolds, Ph.D., in two Japanese forms of psychotherapy, Morita and Naikan.Dr. Tatkin was clinical director of Charter Hospital’s intensive outpatient drug and alcohol program, and is a former president of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, Ventura County chapter.In addition to his private practice, he teaches and supervises first through third-year family medicine residents at Kaiser Permanente, Woodland Hills, through which he is an assistant clinical professor at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, Department of Family Medicine. He is also adjunct faculty for Antioch University, Santa Barbara Graduate Institute, and California Lutheran University.Dr. Tatkin is a veteran member of Allan N. Schore’s study group. He has trained in the Adult Attachment Interview through Mary Main and Erik Hesse’s program out of University of California, Berkeley. His new book, Love and War in Intimate Relationships: Connection, Disconnection, and Mutual Regulation in Couple Therapy with Marion Solomon for Norton’s Interpersonal Neurobiology Series is due April 2011.Dr. Tatkin’s next book, Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner’s Brain Can Help You Defuse Conflicts and Spark Intimacy, will appear Valentines Day 2012 through New Harbinger.