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Emotional regulation in relationships – Whose job is it to make me feel OK?

Self-regulation VS Co-regulation

From time to time you’re bound to experience fear, jealousy, anger, inadequacy, anxiety and other uncomfortable feelings. When you have these uncomfortable feelings do you try to manage them yourself, or do you bring them to your partner in the hopes of obtaining help and finding relief together?

At a certain point in the couple therapy process, I sometimes find it useful to introduce the concepts of self-regulation and co-regulation. These terms give us a reference point for discussing and working with the differences between managing our own emotional difficulties and managing emotional difficulties together.

Most people are “naturally” (ie – unconsciously) inclined to do one while mostly excluding the other. Either you’re accustomed to attempts at self-regulation or you’re accustomed to attempts at co-regulation. (I say “attempts” because at this unconscious stage emotional regulation of either sort doesn’t tend to be very effective – more on this later.)

Many relationships are fraught with mismatched, misunderstood, or poorly developed self-regulation and co-regulation strategies. The good news is that with a little work it is relatively easy to understand and improve the situation. The first step is to recognize the strategies you employ:

Do you tend to deal with your emotional unrest by yourself?

Or do you bring your emotional troubles to your partner?

As my clients examine their own habits, the question often emerges: Which is better? Should I try to regulate my feelings on my own, or with the help of my partner? The answer, of course, is both.

I always take it as a good sign when a client asks this question because it indicates that they are considering a possibility that they may not have considered before. As I pointed out earlier, most people adopt a preference for doing either one or the other, self-regulating or co-regulating, while neglecting its opposite, and as long as these strategies remain unnamed and unconscious they tend to be relatively ineffective.

For self-regulating types there comes a time when it becomes necessary to share our struggles with our partner and let them soothe us (of course we’ll be called on to do the same for them). For co-regulating types there comes a time when it becomes necessary to work out our struggles internally with little or no active involvement from our partner (and to allow our partner to do the same).

(Note – If you are familiar with how attachment theory is commonly applied to adult relationships, you’re probably recognizing some overlap between attachment styles and the language of self-regulation/co-regulation.)

Both self-regulation and co-regulation are valuable, legitimate, and necessary. Each approach can be practiced with varying efficacy, ie – there are effective ways to self-regulate and ineffective ways to self-regulate just as there are effective ways to co-regulate and ineffective ways to co-regulate.

If we want a relationship (and the people in it) to become more mature it’s important to recognize the difference between self-regulating and co-regulating, and to become more effective at both.

Effective self-regulation

Effective approaches to self-regulation might include meditation or mindfulness, physical exercise, visualization, yoga, martial arts or other body-centred practices, breath-work, journalling, art, prayer, various forms of self-confrontation, self-inquiry, self-soothing, and self-validation.

Ineffective self-regulation can include denial, rejection, withdrawal and distancing, avoidance, isolating, dissociation, substance abuse, and self-harm.

Effective co-regulation

Effective approaches to co-regulation might include communication methods like non-violent communication (NVC) and active listening, doing massage or body work on each other, matched breathing exercises, partner yoga, dancing, hugging or cuddling, constructive arguing or fighting, negotiating in good faith, intentional sexual practices, and making clear requests for emotional support.

Ineffective co-regulation can include shaming, blaming, nagging, demanding, sulking, manipulation, threats, unreasonable expectations that your partner will “read your mind”, non-constructive arguments or fighting, passive-aggressive behaviours, and any behaviour that can be generally understood as co-dependant.

Integrating self-regulation and co-regulation in your relationship

After examining your own habits around self-regulation and co-regulation, and practicing effective approaches to both in your relationship, you might discover a valuable truth: it’s sometimes possible, and often necessary to do both simultaneously.

In my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples (click here to read a free sample chapter), I state –

“Underneath all our words and our conscious intentions, our primary relationship follows the twists and turns of two highly attuned nervous systems. Your nervous system and your partner’s nervous system are in constant, silent communication. Beneath the radar of awareness, these two parts of self are setting the mood, raising the stakes, making peace, or waging war. This is happening under the surface of normal consciousness, despite whatever agreements you might be making and whatever ‘communication tools’ you might be employing.

Nervous system arousal is like an invisible hand directing your relationship. The felt experience of nervous system arousal is called anxiety. This anxiety is, perhaps surprisingly, highly contagious.”

To effectively help your partner regulate their emotions (co-regulation) it’s necessary to regulate your own emotions at the same time (self-regulation). Otherwise you will be constantly “triggered” or activated by their emotional unrest, and you will end up in a familiar cycle of emotional escalation. This ability to self-regulate in close proximity to your partner as they have a difficult emotional experience is what people sometimes call “holding space.”

With some education and practice, a couple can begin to explicitly name what is happening between them and within themselves, ie –

“It seems like you’re looking to me to help you co-regulate.”

“I’m trying to self-regulate more effectively, but I’m having a really hard time.”

It then becomes possible to make clear requests and boundaries, as well as skillful negotiations around emotional regulation within the relationship. What was previously unconscious and a source of frustration, disappointment, and hurt can potentially become a conscious tool for working with the inevitable difficult feelings that arise in relationship. Couples who make progress in this area start to say things to each other like –

“I’m not able to co-regulate with you right now. I’m going to write in my journal for ten minutes and then I’m willing to try again.”

“I’m feeling really anxious. Will you just hold me for a few minutes?”

“I know you’re wanting my help with co-regulating, but it’s really hard to co-regulate with you when you’re saying nasty things to me.”

“I’m sorry I withdrew from you. What I really want is some co-regulation. Would you tell me a few things you appreciate about me? I think that would help me relax.”

Yes, it takes work to learn to recognize and improve your co-regulation and self-regulation strategies, but it’s worth it. Depending on which stage your relationship is at (watch my video on the three stages of relationship), this kind of work can move the relationship forward by leaps and bounds.

Which do you gravitate toward: co-regulation or self-regulation? How effective are you at each? Which kind of ineffective and effective co-regulation and self-regulation behaviours do you see in yourself and in your relationship? What’s your growth edge? What do you need to practice?

Think about these questions for a few moments and leave your answers in the comments.

All My Best,
Justice Schanfarber

PS – Learn my simple “Soothing the Beast” co-regulation technique: Watch the video here.

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Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber

Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email to request a client info package.

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Counselling Articles

Dilemmas, confusion and the spiral nature of growth – Why dual impulses are natural, “good” advice is relative, and one person’s poison is another person’s balm

Dilemmas, confusion and the spiral path of growthTwo basic impulses –

Virtually every message that tells us how to live has one thing in common. It champions one or the other of two fundamental dual impulses. One is the impulse to merge – to connect or be one with another, an orientation toward “other”. The other is the impulse to separate – to be autonomous, an individual, an orientation toward “self”. These two impulses, or “sides” of ourselves appear everywhere in our lives as polar opposites –

  • Hold on vs Let go
  • Trust yourself vs Trust others
  • Take charge vs Surrender
  • Stay the course vs Embrace change
  • Try more vs Try less
  • Listen to your head vs Listen to your heart
  • Take vs Give
  • Rational vs Emotional
  • Simplicity vs Complexity
  • Individual vs Group
  • Self control vs Self expression

At various life stages we will each, rightly, favour one impulse over the other. Over the course of a lifetime, we will likely change how we orient to these two impulses many times over. We may also simultaneously favour one impulse in one aspect of our lives, and the opposite in another. Cultural biases, gender roles, personality patterns and other factors all have a role in shaping the process.

The trouble with advice - yin yangNeither impulse is essentially better or worse than the other. In fact, each ultimately holds the seed of its opposite. (The yin/yang symbol illustrates this beautifully.) We all align with each impulse at different times in our lives because we have developmental tasks that call on either “togetherness” or “separateness” at each stage of life. Each of these tasks is associated with one side or the other of the two poles. We move back and forth between poles as we mature, honing one, then the other. Head, then heart. Self, then other. Hold on, then let go. As we successfully attend to one aspect of our development and then the other, our expressions of each become more mature, and we become more healthy and whole, with greater capacity to appreciate and respond to all that life hands us.

As we fulfill the developmental tasks associated with one pole, it will miraculously, sometimes painfully, give way to the other. A client, Christopher, was stifled by extremely strict parents as a child. When he came to see me he was face to face with the task of finding his own self expression, his own voice. It was awkward and messy for a while. He hurt people around him and created chaos as he learned to un-censor himself. Eventually, as he fulfilled his task sufficiently, life began providing clues that it was time to orient back toward self-control, self-discipline. But this new version of control/discipline was different from the version that had been inflicted on him as a child. It was of a higher level, healthier. This illustrates an important point – Each pole has a spectrum of expressions that can be seen as more healthy or mature on the “higher” end, and less healthy or mature on the “lower” end. Imagine moving up a spiral as you mature through your life. You move around the spiral from one side to another (self then other, independence then connection) but each revolution also moves you to a higher level. Thus, a six year old’s expression of self, or other, will (hopefully!) be different from a sixty year old’s.

Gaining maturity and developing healthier relationships to both sides of ourselves allows us to loosen our grip on a particular point of view. Our self-righteousness relaxes. We experience greater flexibility and choice in our beliefs and our actions. Our relationships improve. Eventually, through hard-won experience and insight, the dual nature of the poles begins to dissolve. The rigidity of either/or gives way to the flexibility of both/and. Self AND other. Freedom AND responsibility. Connection AND autonomy. Contradiction gives way to its wise elder, paradox. Until this happens, we have a tendency to reject the parts of ourselves, and others, that represent the other side of the spiral from where we currently reside. If we’re presently tasked with growing the cooperative, generous, other-oriented side of our self, we’re likely to be biased against self-reliance and independence in all its forms, seeing them as “selfish”. If, instead, we happen to be currently developing healthier levels of individuation and self-orientation, we might view acts of generosity as manipulative, and all urges for connection as weakness or co-dependency.

A recent marriage and relationship article I wrote sparked intense response and debate from readers on both sides of the poles. For readers longing for deeper connection, the article was balm… a deep soulful YES. For those currently orienting toward the value of independence, the message felt toxic and untrue. While both poles are ultimately valid and important (in marriages and in all aspects of life) the messages we get can feel alternately challenging or validating depending on which pole we currently favour, and how healthy or mature our own expressions of “togetherness” and “separateness” are.

Here’s a scenario to further illustrate the point –
A new client comes to see me. They feel perpetually stuck in a co-dependent relationship pattern. Through therapy we discover that they feel torn between a familiar (but tired) impulse for togetherness, and an emerging (but frightening) impulse for autonomy. Are they being called to cross the pole over to independence? Or are they ready to explore a more mature form of togetherness? Should they leave their co-dependent relationship? Or should they attempt to transform it?

The core dilemma for each of us, at any juncture, is essentially this – Do I now focus on healthier expressions of my current orientation, or is it time to cross the spiral? More simply – Take this path further, or take a different path? We’re wise to be wary of simplistic, universal answers to this question.

It’s useful to remember that the inner compass that provides direction to our lives is not merely a product of applied willpower and rationality (forces well sanctioned and preferred by our culture), but rather arises from some deeper congruence of body, mind and spirit. Unconscious aspects of our path may remain hidden from us until we are ripe to recognize them. Many useful tools, insight practices and wisdom traditions are available to help ripen us in this regard. Jungians work with archetypes, myth and dreams. The enneagram provides a map based on different personality types. Attachment theory and family constellations therapy help us understand appropriate boundaries and developmental timelines. Cognitive and narrative therapies help clients piece together congruent views of self and others through examining beliefs in the face of evidence. In Hakomi we use mindfulness to notice those subtle aspects of our experience which point toward the next step of our healing, growth and integration.

Choose whichever tools suit you, take advice with a grain of salt, and be prepared to change your focus many times as you move between dual impulses on your life path.

Like what you’re reading here?
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Read the first 10 pages free.

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Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email to request a client info package.

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