Helen Fisher, Dan Siegel & Stan Tatkin on Neuroscience at Couples Conference

One of my most satisfying professional accomplishments is the 21-year collaboration with the Milton Erickson Foundation co-sponsoring the Couples Conference. Each year we bring together an inspiring faculty with a large group of couples therapists from around the world. Our mission is to push the field and provide training and updates on what’s new.

The theme for this year’s conference was Integrating Attachment, Differentiation and Neuroscience in Couples Therapy. Each day we focused on one area via a collection of keynotes, workshops and panels.

Friday was our day on Neuroscience.

Helen Fisher

Helen Fisher got us started by describing the three brain systems involved in Romantic Love. She explained the different combinations of hormones/neurotransmitters directing them:

  • Romantic Attraction: High Dopamine and Norepinephrin/ Low Serotonin. This combination creates obsessive and sometimes intrusive thinking and intensifies the high desire to be with the other.
  • Attachment: High Oxytocin and Vasopressin, which creates calm, security and a positive feeling of connection.
  • Sex Drive: Testosterone, of course!

These three systems often interact but not always. Helen Fisher concludes from her research that the human animal is wired for serial pair bonding and clandestine adultery.

Helen likened romantic love to a natural addiction with some of these characteristics: focused attention, craving, motivation to win the partner, euphoria, and insomnia. And intense despair when things are not going well.

Because this stage of love can be so powerful, and as Plato wisely observed, “The god of love lives in a state of need,” Helen cautions partners not to make significant life decisions when caught in this spell.

Dan Siegel

Dan began by surveying the audience to drive home the point that most of us never learned a definition of the mind during our education, even though we are trained mental health practitioners.

He defined the mind as an emergent, self-organizing process that both emerges from and regulates the flow of energy and information within and between our bodies and our relationships.

A healthy mind integrates and links differentiated parts in a way that is flexible, adaptable, coherent, energized and stable. Therefore, when he sits down with a couple, he looks to see whether their interactions are chaotic, rigid or flexible.

My favorite part of Dan’s talk was his emphasis on how relational integration (between partners) stimulates brain integration! In other words, when one partner focuses on learning about and hearing the subjective experience of the other, they are facilitating greater integration of their own brain.

And, an important conclusion from Dan’s presentation is that when partners allow themselves to be influenced by the other and when they apply themselves to hearing the other’s experience, they are simultaneously doing something powerful for their own development.

Stan Tatkin

Stan’s keynote focused on how he expects couples to protect each other and not threaten their relationship with unrealistic demands or innuendos about ending the relationship.

He then demonstrated three types of therapeutic intervention:

  • Cross tracking: when talking to one partner, always watching all the varied nonverbal reactions in the other (body posture, skin tone, gesture, facial expression, etc.).
  • Cross questioning: asking one partner what the other thinks or about how the other will react.
  • Cross-commenting: saying something to one partner that is meant for the other partner.

By using these interventions, Stan is training each partner to pay attention and care how they are affecting the other. In Stan’s psychobiological approach partners are trained to be in each other’s care.

That – and so much more – was on the first day. My next blog will highlight the second day of the conference, on Differentiation.

I love finding ways to introduce these concepts into sessions. Please share any ideas you have for how you might use them with your couples in your practice. And if you attended the conference, please share how you have benefited from something you learned. I read every comment.

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Will you make this conference available in audio for future listening and learning?


Thank you for sharing.


So well put Ellyn!! Thanks so much..

Carol Grace, LMFT
Carol Grace, LMFT

Thank you so much for posting these highlights from my favorite couple teachers. Hope to be there next year.

Mary Ackerman
Mary Ackerman

Dear Ellyn and Pete

I was at the Conference and had a most wonderful experience!

The speakers were outstanding, topics topical, challenges (yours to Stan!) interesting, insights many, wish to explore pretty much every single speaker’s books/blogs/videos has been heightened. A very worthwhile experience.

I came from Hong Kong (soon to be moving to Melbourne) and this Conference was certainly a highlight of my CPD and work with couples.

My heartfelt gratitude to you both and Jeff for continuing to provide this kind of environment – one in which we can safely learn, question, explore, clarify our own methods.

Again, my thanks.

Mary Ackerman
CARE Counselling (soon to be ex-Hong Kong; soon to be in Melbourne Australia!)

P.S. am thinking that Paragraph 2, Helen Fisher, should read “clandestine ADULTERY” (rather than monogamy! might be wrong……..


Really appreciate your offerings as they are concise and worthy of my time.
Thank you. I am not a couples counselor, nor am i part of a couple. I find your work fascinating and of use in any relationship. Even with myself.
Always look forward to your generous emails.

Viera Stark
Viera Stark

Clandestine monogamy sounds really interesting!

Trish Stanley
Trish Stanley

Wonderful. Thank you.


Anna Eraut
Anna Eraut

Hello Ellyn. Thank you for this summary. Could you please elaborate a little/ give examples of the “cross-commenting: saying something to one partner that is meant for the other partner” from Stan Tatkin’s presentation?

Katrina Waller
Katrina Waller

Hi Ellyn, thanks for your wonderfully informative and clear summaries of the learning from day one, I only wish I could be there (maybe next year!), something that has really caught my attention is the piece from Dan Siege about how relational integration also fosters individual brain integration which is very relevant to the I:I process. I am thinking about how this adds to the task as a therapist of encouraging clients to engage with the process particularly with a client that may be ambivalent in their motivation of being in the Inquirer role as if nothing else if will benefit their own personal development in learning the skills as a Inquirer. It has also sparked another idea for me around perhaps asking clients when they do I:I work how they might benefit from learning these skills in other areas of their life which could help engagement and motivation.

Gail Rae Walker
Gail Rae Walker

Great to hear from my heros.

Jackie and Phil Solem
Jackie and Phil Solem

Ellen, we had some training from you re: The Mythical Mate material way back in the 1980’s or so and to this day the info from that material has helped us work with clients, before retirement, with our family and their questions and in our everyday living in a 45 year marriage. Very insightful, practical, and balanced for couples as well as therapists. We are fortunate to have had this experience and shared it with many people, in many circumstances. A big THANK YOU from all of us!


Sincere gratude to your selfless sharing of information. Highly appreciated


I am so grateful for your work and sharing.

gerald m
gerald m

Thank you for sharing

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy. Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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