Book Review: Wired for Love
Wired For Love by Stan Tatkin is described on Amazon as
a complete insider’s guide to understanding your partner’s brain and enjoying a romantic relationship built on love and trust. Synthesizing research findings on how and why love lasts drawn from neuroscience, attachment theory, and emotion regulation, this book presents ten guiding principles that can improve any relationship.
I’m inherently skeptical of books like this because most books that claim to use new breakthroughs in science to help us improve our lives are usually making ridiculous assumptions and logic leaps to explain how some new study shows that, coincidentally, we should all be doing the thing they’ve been advocating for years. It’s science! And half the time, the studies they are relying on fail to replicate. But I did my best to go into this one with an open mind.
Living Within Reason is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Wired for Love is, at its best, a guide from taking a relationship on the edge of collapse back to a healthy, stable place; or a list of practices that, in an ideal relationship, you’ll be doing already. This makes sense because Tatkin is a couples therapist who mostly sees couples experiencing serious problems. At its worst, it is mononormative popsci grift that encourages romantic partners to simply perform the role of good husband/wife without actually changing anything substantive.
The Couple Bubble
Chapter 1 is devoted to the idea of a “couple bubble,” which is a “mutually constructed membrane, cocoon, or womb that holds a couple together and protects each partner from outside elements.” This is the foundation for the rest of the book. The couple bubble is made of commitments such as “I will never leave you,” “Our relationship is more important than… any other competing value,” or “You will be the first to hear about anything.”
To my sensibilities, it sounds pretty codependent. In general, I’m not a fan of commitments or agreements in relationships. I prefer setting expectations to making promises. But more than that, Tatkin seems to be encouraging people to make promises they can’t necessarily keep. “I will never leave you” is a fine thing to hope for, but couples break up all the time for unexpected reasons and every healthy relationship has a breaking point. A truly honest partner won’t make promises they can’t be sure they’ll keep. Promising to stay together forever is either dishonest or shows an unhealthy lack of boundaries.
There’s a healthy version of this, though, which is about making predictions and setting expectations. Rather than saying “I will never leave you” a partner can say “I’m very confident that I’ll never want to leave you” (so long as it’s actually true). In addition to being more honest, this statement carries an implicit understanding that things may change if something unexpected happens.
One of Tatkin’s ideas that he repeats often is that couples should adopt a “pro-relationship stance.” I almost like this idea, but as stated it’s not ideal. One of the themes of More Than Two (one of my favorite books) is that the people in the relationship are more important than the relationship, and that devotion to a relationship over and above the people in it can lead to coercion and suffering. I worry that Tatkin’s “pro-relationship stance” encourages couples to value the existence and health of their relationship over the health and happiness of the people in the relationship.
Still, the idea appeals to me because I think one of the most important things people can do in a relationship is to internalize their partner’s interests as equal to their own. I often describe the key to my nearly-20-year relationship as both of us always being confident that we are on the same team. That’s not valuing the relationship as an end in itself - it’s valuing one’s partner - but it accomplishes the same thing. Tatkin’s negative examples in this section feature partners who behave selfishly and disregard their partner’s concerns. Tatkin’s solution is to put the relationship first, but my feeling is that the healthier and more sustainable thing to do is for partners to put each other on a equal level. When everyone’s concerns matter equally, then it becomes not just possible, but nearly unavoidable, to find creative solutions where everybody wins.
Tatkin attempts to distinguish his ideas by saying
Codependent partners live through or for each other, while ignoring their own needs and wants, thus leading to resentment and other emotional distress. In contrast, when partners form a couple bubble, both agree on the principles and comport themselves accordingly.
I agree that in relationships, it’s important to have guiding principles rather than trying to accomplish specific outcomes. The issue is that where he says “principles,” he’s actually talking about agreements. This is driven home two sentences later when he says “[i]f either of us continues to renege on our principles, one of us surely will be fired.” Not only does this implicitly recognize that promises like “I will never leave you” aren’t serious, it also implicitly frames the “principles” as nothing but promises that one must not “renege” on.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out the rampant mononormativity in the entire book, but especially this section. Tatkin speaks only of couples, and frames any outside interest (romantic or otherwise) as a threat to the primacy of the couple. I was moved by several parts of this. I believe that being in a loving relationship is like being in a protective bubble. I agree that when partners truly support one another, their relationship will be resilient against all outside threats. And it breaks my heart that almost everyone I see talking about good relationships can’t fathom how it could be done without the structure of compelled monogamy. It is possible! I promise!
Chapters 2 and 3 were… not great. Chapter 2 was mostly a bunch of evolutionary psychology and pop neuroscience nonsense about how our “primitives” (reptile brain) can be tamed by our “ambassadors” (civilized brain). The advice basically boils down to “if you start getting angry, take a deep breath.” Good advice! But I could have done without the “this is science!” framing, especially given the evopsych.
Chapter 3 is all about attachment theory. I covered the issues with attachment theory in my review of Attached: The New Science of Blah Blah Blah…, but the short version is that your attachment style is not static, it is not determined by your childhood, and it’s often just a reasonable response to your circumstances. I’m looking forward to reading Polysecure because it sound like it has a much more nuanced take on attachment.
Chapter 4, though, that’s the good stuff:
The role of primary partner is a big one: it entails taking good care of another human pain in the rear. And the only way for this to work is for it to be fully mutual. Both partners need to become experts on one another. With this kind of arrangement, nobody really loses and everybody truly wins
Yes! This is the content I’m here for!
Tatkin claims that while we may think of ourselves as having lots of insecurities, usually when we boil it down, there are only about 3 or 4 issues that can really make us feel bad. And honestly, that sounds kind of right to me. So it’s important to learn what those things are about yourself and your partner so you can navigate them effectively. We should learn them so well that when something is wrong, we already know. “Asking a partner, ‘What’s wrong?’ is a bit like asking ‘Who are you, again?’ As partners, we should know” This isn’t mind-reading. It’s just knowing your partner really well, and I agree that it’s one of the keys to a truly loving relationship. I think it’s fine to ask “what’s wrong?” instead of making assumptions, but you should probably have a good idea of what it is. He also includes this helpful chart:
Tatkin also suggests that, in addition to what makes our partners feel bad, we learn three or four things that make our partners feel good, that we can spontaneously do or say to lift them up. Good advice, though I think if you don’t know at least a few ways to do that, it indicates a larger issue. I also have to disagree with Tatkin about this:
self-esteem and self-worth are developed through our contact with other people. You misunderstand if you think these goods are provided by the self. They’re not; they’re provided by the other. That’s how it works and that’s how it has always worked, starting from infancy.
It’s true that people have social needs and our happiness and self-esteem are absolutely wrecked by too much isolation, but that’s not the same thing as having them “provided by” another person. A person can’t give you self-esteem. They can help, but ultimately you’re the only one who can make it happen.
Despite its flaws, this was the best chapter in the book. When people truly love one another, most conflicts are, at their heart, misunderstandings. Often fights occur because people in relationships fail to recognize each other’s true values, motivations, and desires. When you understand a person on that level, it’s difficult to fight because you can see the underlying reasoning of their actions and assuming you care about them, you naturally focus on how to resolve conflicts in a positive-sum way. This is a lesson I’ve learned from serving as a divorce mediator. The quickest way to resolve a conflict, even among people who don’t necessarily love each other anymore, is to help them see the other’s perspective. Learning how your partner works so you can see and anticipate their perspective is absolutely key.
Chapter 5 is about morning and bedtime rituals. The whole chapter is devoted to the idea that it’s important for couples to have some kind of ritual for when they wake up and go to sleep, and recommends that partners do as much as they can to try to line up their sleep schedules. Tatkin also recommends separation and reunion rituals for when couples separate and come back together. His examples include reading to one another, eye-gazing, giving each other expressions of gratitude, or just chatting with one another.
This is the kind of thing that strikes me as possibly forcing people into playing roles or putting on performances that aren’t sincere. Rituals like this can absolutely increase intimacy and provide stability, but only if they are done out of love, not obligation. I worry that Tatkin is looking at his evidence, noticing that the people in the best relationships have these kinds of rituals, and then concluding that the rituals are causing the security rather than the other way around.
One of the worst things people can do in relationships is put on a performance rather than show vulnerability. Performing a role removes the potential for genuine intimacy by hiding one’s true self. When you put on a performance, your partner is no longer interacting with you - they are interacting with the character that you’re playing. Even worse, once you start performing a role, you can get trapped in it. It becomes psychologically impossible to stop, and the pressure to keep acting in an unnatural way creates stress and resentment, which poison the relationship. Partners sometimes spend their entire relationship pretending to be different people until the resentment grows too large and they flame out, often causing trauma or leaving partners hating each other.
My view is that intimacy (much like greatness) cannot be planned. Just performing the motions of intimacy won’t make it happen. Sincere expressions of intimacy have to come from the heart. When partners have effective intimacy rituals, it’s because they arose spontaneously as expressions of affection. The ritual doesn’t create intimacy, it is a byproduct of intimacy that was already there, and merely reinforces the love and affection that partners already feel for one another. If partners try to plan an intimacy ritual rather than letting one arise spontaneously, they run the risk of just performing intimacy instead of actually feeling it.
Tatkin’s advice may be helpful to people who feel as though they want to express their affection and aren’t sure how. A person may read this advice and get inspired to show love for their partner in a new way. But it also could read as encouraging partners to just play the role of loving partner without really feeling it, which is the kind of thing that can ruin relationships.
Maintaining a Tether
Chapter 6 is about how partner should be “tethered” to one another. The main principle is that “partners should serve as the primary go-to people for one another.” On its face, this seems like good advice, though again, it’s not advice that people need if they truly love each other. Of course if you care about your partner you’re going to want to be available to meet their needs.
The issue is that Tatkin takes this to ridiculous extremes, often advocating codependence rather than a secure dynamic. Here are some of the thing he advocates for:
“Make a formal agreement to be available to each other 24/7.” Tatkin clarifies that “I mean it literally. Each partner must enjoy a 24/7 hotline to the other… if one partner wants to call the other in the middle of the day simply to report an itch on the nose, his or her partner is expected to answer cheerfully.” I find formal agreements between partners to be unhelpful generally, but specifically this one seems ill-advised. Nobody can actually be there for someone 24/7. We all have (or really ought to have) other things going on in our lives that will occasionally take precedence. There’s a difference between wanting to always be there for your partner and formally committing to 24/7 availability. In the latter, even something as simple as silencing your phone seems to be a violation. I advocate partners being available to each other, but (cough) within reason.
“It’s okay to be high maintenance” and “expect [your] partner to be at [your] beck and call.” It “can feel burdensome at time,” but is justified because you “will receive the same in return.” This is perhaps an unpopular opinion, but I think partners should feel burdensome to one another as little as possible. If your partner is viewing your relationship as burdensome, something has gone wrong. In a healthy relationship, partners will provide immense amounts of care to one another if necessary, but like with expression of intimacy, this needs to be internally motivated. When you truly love someone, providing care doesn’t feel burdensome at all. If you’re doing it because you’re playing the role of “good partner,” it’s just going to create resentment and end up tearing you apart.
Tatkin gives a positive example of a couple who promise “I will tell you everything,” including a promise to “not tell anyone else something without first informing the partner” - including a therapist! Once again, I find that Tatkin is taking a good general principle - that partners should be honest and open - and taking it to a toxic extreme. It’s ok to have some privacy, even from your partner!
I find this section especially worrisome because it seems to be suggesting that partners shouldn’t have any boundaries from each other. This kind of dynamic can get toxic, or even abusive, rather quickly. Insisting that your partner be available 24/7, be at your beck and call, and have no privacy doesn’t sound intimate - it sounds controlling. That’s the sort of thing that leads partner to snoop into each other’s private messages or place tracking devices on each other because “you shouldn’t worry if you have nothing to hide.” Even if partners are reciprocating (which is in no way guaranteed), it’s important for partners to be able to establish healthy boundaries. I worry that Tatkin’s advice will lead people to think they aren’t being good partners unless they completely sacrifice all individuality or privacy for “the relationship.”
Two Against the World
Chapter seven is about how to protect the couple bubble from “thirds”:
third people can include children, in-laws, other extended family members, friends, business partners and bosses, and even strangers. Third things can be work, hobbies, video games, TV shows . . . and the list can go on and on.
I’ve already commented on Tatkin’s mononormativity, but this section turns it up to 11. I’ve never seen jealousy elevated to a virtue quite this much. Tatkin encourages partners to insist on primacy at all time over anything else in their partner’s life, including children! Several of the negative examples he gives involve someone “taking sides” against their partner without regard to who was actually correct. This is one of them:
“Turn off that TV!” Suzanne is yelling, mustering all the authority she can. “I gave you a five-minute warning, and you just ignored it. The TV goes off now!”
“Why?” Tammy wails. “Daddy, tell her to stop!”
“What’s going on?” Klaus asks Suzanne.
“I told her five minutes, and the TV had be off so she can get ready for bed. I’m tired of this same battle every night! It’s already past bedtime.”
“I’m not tired!” Tammy screams. “And she didn’t say five minutes.”
“She didn’t,” Brian chimes in. “Tammy’s right.”
“It’s not fair!” Tammy’s voice continues to escalate as she makes her case to Klaus.
“Maybe they didn’t hear the warning,” Klaus says calmly to Suzanne.
Suzanne’s eyes widen and her nostrils flare. “What?” she says in disbelief.
“‘Maybe they didn’t hear you’ is all I said.” Klaus looks with disdain as Suzanne gestures wildly. “Hey, calm down.”
“Okay, you handle it!” Suzanne snaps. “You put them to bed tonight!”
Klaus watches helplessly as his wife grabs her purse and car keys and flies out the door.
It’s never explicitly stated, but the suggestion here seems to be that Klaus is an asshole for treating his children as people who are worthy of respect. Suzanne’s anger at Klaus merely suggesting that the children might be telling the truth is framed as an understandable reaction to Klaus taking sides against her. Tatkin takes a similar attitude toward other people and priorities in people’s lives, urging partners to always put each other first, no matter what.
Tatkin briefly addresses “infidelity,” but goes well beyond the usual mononormative assumption against a sexual relationship with anyone outside of the monogamous pair-bond. He also warns against “emotional closeness with a third that leave you or your partner out in the cold” or “use of pornography that excludes the other partner.”
This seems consistent with Chapter six. Tatkin’s attitude seems to be that couples’ lives should be completely merged with one another with almost no separation. I do not think that’s a healthy way to have relationships. People have varying needs for autonomy and independence, but everyone except the most codependent of partners needs some. I think autonomy is one of the most important things in a relationship, and I think Tatkin seriously underestimates its value.
When a partner respects my autonomy, it makes me feel loved and respected like nothing else. Without that, my couple bubble stops being a shield against outside threats and starts being a suffocating prison that’s slowly running out of oxygen. If my partner reflexively took my side without thinking about whether I was actually in the right, I wouldn’t trust them. If my partner tried to be everything to me, it would feel controlling and desperate, not loving. Much like Attached, Tatkin’s advice seems tailored toward people with anxious attachment, and ignores the needs of people with other attachment styles.
Chapter eight is about fighting well. Here, Tatkin reiterates his advice that people should focus on win-win situations, and generally gives good suggestions that all kind of boil down to “care about your partner and make sure nobody loses.” He also says foolish things like “if a couple tell me they have never fought, I am immediately suspicious.” My experience is that fighting is a symptom of something deeper being wrong with the relationships, but Tatkin’s advice for how to fight well seems fine.
Chapter nine is about eye-gazing. Tatkin claims that
When we look into one another’s eyes close up, it becomes impossible to remain in a total state of familiarity. This is because at close range, as we looking into another’s eyes, what we see is inherently strange and complex. We become aware of each other’s stranger-ness, which makes us aware again of novelty and unpredictability. This allows for just enough familiarity and stranger-ness to rekindle love and excitement.
He claims this will rekindle a couple’s love and intimacy at any time. I am skeptical, but maybe? This strikes me as another thing that’s more an indication that people love each other rather than a way to make that happen, but I haven’t tried it!
Chapter ten is very short and mostly pop science about how a good relationship can be healing, both physically and mentally. Which is true! People in good relationships experience less stress, which has all sorts of health benefits. It’s also healthy to have someone watching your back, even if all they’re doing is encouraging you to go to the doctor’s. Before we were even dating, my wife had to convince me to go to the ER when I had an accident that left me with a big gash in my leg. I ended up needing stitches, but I was just going to wrap it in a bandage and head out to see a show. Having a partner looking out for you helps!
Overall, it’s hard to recommend this book. There’s a good book in there somewhere! Tatkin offers great advice on creating a safe and loving environment for your partner, focusing on win-win situations, and getting to know your partner on a granular level. Unfortunately, Tatkin also advises that couples completely disappear into one another, without maintaining seemingly any distinct identity or autonomy, which seems stifling at best, and enabling at worst. I can’t get on board for that.
Living Within Reason is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.