What is most noticeable about a healthy functioning intimate relationship is both experienced by the couple and seen by others: that they delight in each other's presence. If we look closely and recognize that everything we do has an emotional component, however small or hidden, this is true even of relationships we value but which we do not consider “intimate.” Couples do other things that strangers don't: they keep one another in each other's awareness, look out for their safety, think of them frequently and fondly, spending time together with no other purpose than companionship, perceiving things similarly (mutuality) –to name only a few of the many things that we instantly recognize as signs of a special bond between two people. We also instantly recognize when a relationship is in trouble, perhaps best characterized by Gottman and Silver (1999) as the four horsemen: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.

Most of the books written on relationships over that past several decades have focused on various aspects of compatibility and relationship skills such as communication as the basis of relationship functioning and best predictors of relationship longevity. At the stage of mate selection, these criterion-oriented and functional approaches raise the probability of relationship success by helping the dating single maintain good boundaries and avoid being swept away by aspects of the other that in the longer term will be over-shadowed by differences easily ignored early in dating. David Steele's Conscious Dating (2008) approach to dating is an excellent discipline for the single who wants to make mate selection as much of a science as it can be, beginning with housekeeping within: self-awareness, correction of negative and limiting belief patterns and behaviours, becoming a successful single, clarification of personal values, life vision and developing a sense of one's purpose in life; and finally the development of clarity about life partner criteria that align with who you are and want to remain in or out of an intimate relationship. Steele's Relationship Coaching Institute (RCI) and it's member coaches1 provide support to extend this highly useful and rational approach to serious but pre-committed relationships, couples having difficulties and couples who are doing well and want to be even better (bliss coaching).

Steele's conscious dating, conscious relationship and conscious living are refreshing “how-to” approaches but they are not intended to explain the origins of attraction, nor do they explain couples that seem to have highly dysfunctional relationships which they would never leave. A deeper understanding of the basis of attraction and dynamics of intimate relationships is found in attachment theory which has evolved over the past 60 years beginning with the work of Dr. John Bowlby (1969, 1973, 1980, 1988), and elaborated by many others including Ainsworth (1978), Main (2000), and Fonagy (2001). Attachment theory and applied to adult intimate relationships in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT; Johnson, 1996; Greenberg & Goldman, 2008) and Solomon and Tatkin's Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy (PACT; Solomon & Tatkin, 2011).


The fundamental principles of attachment theory relevant to mate selection and relationship dynamics are:


  • infant-caregiver attachment is survival need of the infant which may be well or poorly supported by the caregiver reflecting their own early experience

  • attachment style is set by age 2

  • attachment style /history is associated with a deep relational schema – how we relate to others

  • the quality of early attachment (secure / insecure) will persist and be played out in adult relationships

  • neither the style or the adult behaviour is likely to be universal with respect to others; e.g., one's attachment history with mother may be different from that with father, and as an adult one may behave with some persons in ways aligned with one's attachment history with a primary caregiver and not with others.

  • partner selection serves to entrench or resolve attachment history


Ainsworth's work with children identified four principal attachment patterns: secure, insecure-avoidant, insecure-ambivalent and disordered:


  • secure attachment develops in the context of adequate and attuned care-giving

  • insecure-avoidant attachment arises when the caregiver is perceived as unsafe or punishing

  • insecure-ambivalent children have a history of care-giving that is perhaps adequate but not attuned, giving rise to a demanding character in the child attempting to ensure that its needs are met

  • disordered attachment arises in the context of trauma and/or grossly inconsistent or neglectful care-giving


Research using various forms of Main's Adult Attachment Interview indicates that slightly more than half of adults have a secure attachment history, around one-fifth an insecure-avoidant history, slightly less are insecure-ambivalent and a small percentage disordered.

While these designations describe the history of a person's attachment to their caregiver, their behaviour as an adult will vary across relationships, nevertheless showing a predominant pattern most clearly seen in their primary adult attachment relationship. To distinguish this adult pattern from from the individual's attachment history, respective adult patterns are designated as:


  • secure-autonomous, functioning with equal aplomb in situations of togetherness and apartness, experiencing the self as “adequate”

  • dismissing, seeking to be alone (for more see “Addiction to Alone Time,” Tatkin, 2006b)

  • preoccupied, irritable, attention-seeking and doubting (for more see, “Allergic to Hope,” Tatkin, 2011a)

  • unresolved, responding in ways apparently unrelated or only weakly related to the behaviour, intention and emotional state of the other, essentially responding to previous emotional experiences which the present situation has triggered.


It may be helpful to relate the above to the ego-states of Thomas Harris' Transactional Analysis best-seller, I'm OK, You're OK, (1967):


  • secure-autonomous: I'm OK, You're OK

  • dismissing: I'm OK, You're not OK

  • preoccupied: I'm not OK, You're OK

  • unresolved: I'm not OK, You're not OK


The Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy (PACT; Tatkin, 2006a; Solomon & Tatkin, 2011) combines our knowledge about human attachment and the function autonomic nervous system in human interaction to understand what brings couples together and what causes difficulties in their relationship. Principally:


  • Through early experiences, the attachment history of the individual become “wired” into the nervous system of the individual.

  • The development of secure attachment can but is not guaranteed to occur in adult intimate relationships.

  • The attachment styles of intimate partners interact in ways that support and parent the other to a more secure base or to chronically dysregulate the other and reinforce their (insecure) attachment history.

  • A relationship between individuals is an interaction of two nervous systems regulating or dysregulating autonomic arousal.


Returning to our central topic, what a successful functioning relationship looks like, in the PACT model a relationship experienced by the participants as “smooth and happy” is characterized by instinctive mutual mood regulation by influencing each other's autonomic nervous system (ANS), cheering the other up (i.e., raising their sympathetic arousal level when the other's mood is falling into the range of negative affect) and calming the other down (i.e., parasympathetic down-regulation when the other is over-activated as in worry, fear, anger, hysteria, etc.) Attuned partners make these adjustments to each other's moods instinctively through words, proximity, touch and other behaviours that we describe as thoughtful, attentive, helpful, generous and loving and described so well in Gary Chapman's The Five Love Languages (1992).

Traditional couples therapies attempt to correct or modify behaviours, thinking and feeling within the intimate relationship—i.e,. the content of the relationship. By contrast, PACT works, not with the stories of who did what to whom –a notoriously unreliable source of information not just for therapists (see Beil (2011) for an interesting review of the literature in this area). Rather, PACT works with what is going on in the couple in the moment at the level of two interacting nervous systems. When a couple offer discrepant versions of something that happened between them, the facts of what really happened are not important; rather the couple is demonstrating one of the ways in which they dysregulate one another. PACT therapists2 use Gestalt based experiential exercises to draw the couple's attention to their influence upon each other at the level of psychological arousal regulation, discord in the relationship is addressed by creating a two-person psychological system out of two separate one-person psychological systems. All of this is in the service of clearing away the unresolved attachment crises of the past that stand in the way of the relationship being a safe and loving one for both partners.


So what does a healthy, functioning -i.e., mutually regulating –relationship look like? Stan Tatkin (2011b) refers to ten relationship essentials (paraphrased):


  1. protecting the safety and security of the relationship

  2. ensuring that decisions and actions that are win-win

  3. never putting the entire relationship on the line

  4. being each other's premier confidant

  5. being each other's secure base where there is always a smile waiting

  6. being a safety net for each other at all times

  7. caring for each other daily including physical closeness, eye contact up close, checking in with each other at the beginning and end of the day

  8. repairing quickly misunderstandings, mistakes, unfairness and hurts, ignoring blame

  9. practising the five love languages (Chapman, 1992) daily

  10. making a priority of knowing one another well


Several of these (e.g., 1, 4 and 5) imply that the couple has developed effective ways of handling “thirds” –people or influences outside the couple that disturb or threaten the couple unit such as outside romantic interests, alcohol, extended family plus many other lesser distractors. Important aspect of 10 are a) learning the style of responsiveness (latency, extent, originality, attentiveness) that reassures the other, and b) being aware how any perceptual deficits of the partner influence their responsivity (e.g., hearing loss, memory loss, brain injury, psychological problems such as AD/HD, depression, etc.)

So what does a healthy, functioning -i.e., mutually regulating –relationship feel like to the members of the couple? True mutuality, joint attention (antithesis of autism: the ability for both partners to attend to something as a shared experience with mutual positive amplification), safety, security, trust and physical presence felt as warm, welcome and welcoming –all experienced without merging, losing the sense of difference and individual uniqueness that is necessary for us to celebrate being with the other.

The words “love” or “being in love” or “falling in love” have not been mentioned in the foregoing discussion. Love in the absence of a successful, functioning relationship takes many forms. But it is highly likely that love will emerge concomitantly with the creation of a successful, functioning relationship.




Ainsworth, M. (1978) Patterns of attachment: a psychological study of the Strange Situation. New York: Erlbaum.

Beil, L. (2011) “The certainty of memory has its day in court,” New York Times, Nov. 28, 2011. Or online at:

Bowlby, J. (1969) Attachment and Loss, Vol I: Attachment. New York: Basic Books.

Bowlby, J. (1973) Attachment and Loss, Vol II: Separation: anxiety and anger. New York: Basic Books.

Bowlby, J. (1980) Attachment and Loss, Vol III: Loss: sadness and depression. New York: Basic Books.

Bowlby, J. (1988) A Secure Base: parent-child attachment and healthy human development. New York: Basic Books.

Chapman, G. (1992) The Five Love Languages. Chicago: Northfield.

Fonagy, P. (2001) Attachment Theory and Psychoanalysis. London: Other Press.

Gottman, J. & Silver, N. (1999 ) The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Greenberg, L. & Goldman, R. (2008) Emotion-Focused Couples Therapy. Washington, DC: APA Press.

Harris, T. (1967) I'm OK, You're OK. New York: Avon.

Johnson, S. (1996) The practice of emotionally focused marital therapy: creating connection. New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Main, M. (2000) “The organized categories of infant, child and adult attachment.” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 48, 1055-1096.

Solomon, M., & Tatkin, S. (2011) Love & War in Intimate Relationships. New York: Norton.

Steele, David (2008) Conscious Dating: Finding the love of your life and the life that you love. 2nd ed. Campbell, CA.: RCN Press.

Tatkin, S. (2006a). A Synopsis of My Approach to Couples Therapy. The Therapist(January/February), 7. Online at:

Tatkin, S. (2006b) “Addiction to 'Alone Time:' Avoidant attachment, narcissism and a one-person psychology within a two-person psychological system.” The Therapist, 57 (Jan/Feb). Online at:

Tatkin, S. (2011a) “Allergic to Hope: Angry resistant attachment and a one-person psychology within a two-person psychological system.” Psychotherapy in Australia, 18(1), 66-73. Online at:

Tatkin, S. (2011b). Ten Commandments for RELATIONSHIP ESSENTIALS. In J. Zeig & T. Kulbatsk (Eds.), For Couples: Ten Commandments for Every Aspect of Your Relationship Journey. Phoenix: Milton Erickson Foundation. Online at:

1Don Edwards, Ph.D. is a relationship and life coach and Certified RCI Singles Coach. For more information about relationship and singles coaching, see the coaching pages of and the public pages of

2Don Edwards, Ph.D. is a PACT couples therapist and Gestalt therapist practising in Toronto and Stratford, Ontario, Canada. For more information on therapy visit the psychotherapy/PACT pages of, and for general information on PACT, visit