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Collaborative alliance: David Schnarch´s model for problem solving as a couple

How should one take decisions as a couple? From the I-point, or from the We-point?

Here are three concepts that I like, and more importantly, that have become relevant for my own behaviour. All of them have this in common: it´s not about feeling good. It is about acting right.

These are

  • David Schnarch´s "Collaborative Alliance",

  • Stan Tatkin´s "Secure Functioning", and

  • Terry Real´s "Fierce Intimacy" (recently updated to "Us").

David Schnarch (Collaborative Alliance)

David Schnarch is originally a sex therapist. But the various components of his thinking have wide applicability to all kinds of couple issues.

One of his key models is the pattern for the Collaborative Alliance, which is not based on feelings and making each other feel good, but on rules, integrity, and letting the other read one´s mind.

Stan Tatkin (Secure Functioning / We do)

Stan Tatkin is a couple therapist, who has integrated a lot of neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology into his work. He too stresses the need for a couple to take decisions such that both parties can see an advantage for themselves.

Terry Real (Fierce Intimacy / Us)

Terry Real and his "Relational Life Therapy" postulate a model of intimacy that is radically open, honest, and skilled.

Scenario: two broken promises, or one?

In this post, I will only refer to David Schnarch´s model of a Collaborative Alliance.

How, for example, can it help to make a good decision in a case where promises have been broken by one partner?

In this scenario, it is not important whether they "really" have been broken. It is sufficient if one partner feels / thinks that they have been broken.

Situation: overview

Partner A breaks a promise, because Partner B has also broken a promise. Is this correct?

Situation: the unpaid doctor´s invoice

Partner A, some time ago, has given Partner B a promise to pay their next medical invoice.

Then, partner B breaks a promiseion relating to a specific situat. Their explanation is "well, I gave that promise, but the conditions to keep it were not there - it´s your own fault".

Now, this partner B receives a medical invoice. It is now urgent to pay. Partner B get into trouble when the other partner doesn´t keep their promise - now!

But now, Partner A feels cheated because of B´s broken promise and re-considers whether they should pay the invoice as promised. What are the options?

Option 1: Revenge

This option is the "let´s show it to them how it feels to live with broken promises". Don´t pay and don´t say something. This option feels good, initially, because after all, revenge is sweet. It´s the tit for tat, tooth for tooth option.

Option 2: Blackmail

This is also a revenge scenario. However, it explicitly gives the partner with the invoice to be paid the "option" to keep their promises retroactively. But in reality, it is blackmailing them, because the non-payment would put them into trouble. And, there is time pressure.

Option 3: Integrity

The partner who promised to pay the invoice decides to keep their integrity, regardless of what, and pays the invoice, even if the other partner has not kept their promise.

Why decide for integrity?

In this case, Partner A who promised to pay the invoice, decides to keep the promise and then pays. They also inform the other partner that they expect them to keep their promise too - but only after having kept their´s unconditionally.

This decision for integrity, and how to implement it, it is based on a review of the principles of the Collaborative Alliance by David Schnarch.

Here is a selection of relevant points in this scenario:

Rule #4: "How you feel isn´t the main issue"

The "cheated" partner certainly does not feel like paying. But that does not matter - it is not about feelings. Not paying because one really doesn´t feel like it (in particular not expressed ones) is destructive.

Obviously, in the same way, the promise-breaking partner should not have used their feelings as excuse for breaking a very important promise.

#5.In a collaborative alliance your responsibilities are unilateral, not mutual or reciprocal.

This principle means "there are no excuses for broken promises". The fact that partner A has broken a promise (or is felt to have do so) is no excuse for partner B´s own "unethical" behavior.

#7.Collaborative alliances never involve blinding yourself about your partner, or yourself, or what’s going on between you

This principle means that one has to inform the partner about what´s going in one´s mind and not shield one´s mind, for fear of conflict.

So, both partners have an obligation to keep the other informed:

  • The promise-breaking partner should not have done that, but informed the other partner of the discomfort - and still have kept the promise.

  • The paying partner must not do this silently, but inform the other about the internal conflict and the way of its resolution.

#6.Collaborative alliances don’t always feel good.

It certainly doesn´t feel good to remind a partner that they have broken a promise. In particular not, if the partner on the receiving end has an victim attitude, that gives wide leeway to "suboptimal" behavior. It may lead to another conflict.

The 8 principles of David Schnarch´s "Collaborative Alliance"

Here is the full list of the eight principles for the Collaborative Alliance, as direct quotes.

#1.First and foremost, collaborative alliances focus on what needs to be done. Listening to your partner and speaking up for yourself are important in a collaborative alliance. But at the end of the day, collaborative alliances don’t float on feelings, particularly when they’re not backed up with behavior.

#2.Re-establishing a collaborative alliance with your partner is more important than the fact that your alliance crashed. Relationship repair is the most important thing. Keeping your marriage going is more important than your fears that your marriage is sinking.

#3.Pay attention to when you drop your alliance. The more super-sensitive we are to others dropping their alliance with us, the more oblivious we may be to ourselves doing it. The first, hardest, and most important step in rebuilding a collaborative alliance involves being aware and acknowledging when you drop your side of it. Getting clear how you (not your partner) repeatedly drop your alliance improves things quickly. (It often echoes your prior life history, so you can anticipate where you’re prone to do this.)

#4.How you feel isn’t the main issue. Getting nervous doesn’t entitle you to drop your end of things. The key issue in collaborative alliances is living up to your responsibilities. The fact that your feelings are understandable, given your circumstances, doesn’t change your responsibility to hold on to your self and do what’s right.

#5.In a collaborative alliance your responsibilities are unilateral, not mutual or reciprocal. A collaborative alliance involves unilaterally keeping up your end of the deal when your partner has temporarily dropped his (or hers). Your partner’s bad behavior doesn’t excuse your own. Rather than leaving your responsibilities unfulfilled and letting the lowest common denominator run your relationship, confront your partner about dropping his part of the bargain after you are sure you have fulfilled yours.

#6.Collaborative alliances don’t always feel good. Sometimes collaborative alliances require confronting, challenging, and refusing to accommodate. This can be hard. Likewise a collaborative alliance does not mean always making your partner feel good about himself, or validated or accepted, or safe and secure. Collaborative alliances are defined by function, rather than feeling. (Collusive alliances revolve around making people feel particular ways.)

#7.Collaborative alliances never involve blinding yourself about your partner, or yourself, or what’s going on between you. In a collaborative alliance everyone keeps their eyes open and their minds alert. Mind-mapping plays an important role. Don’t shield your mind from being read accurately. (Asking someone to overlook your shortcomings, and offering to overlook his or hers, is a collusive alliance.)

#8. Collaborative alliances test your integrity. Ultimately, people keep their end of good-faith bargains to maintain their own integrity. It’s always easier to drop your alliance and “look out for yourself” in the narrow sense. But as you become better differentiated, you do what you know to be right, in order to be at peace with yourself in your own mind. An alliance formed of convenience may look collaborative, but when things get difficult it will fall apart.


Real, T. (2022, June 7). Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship (Goop Press). Rodale Books.

Schnarch, D. (2020). Intimacy & Desire: Awaken The Passion In Your Relationship. Independently published.

Tatkin, S. (2018). Tatkin, S: We Do: Saying Yes to a Relationship of Depth, True Connection, and Enduring Love. Sounds True Inc.


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