Counselling Articles Sex and Relationship Advice

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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Counselling Articles Sex and Relationship Advice

Is it possible to love without attachment?

Is it possible to love without attachment?Dear Justice,

I’ve been listening to some Buddhist teachings on love and attachment. This teacher says that to truly love someone is to want them to be happy, with or without you, but usually what we really want is for ourselves to be happy, and we believe we need someone else to make us happy. We call this love, but that is not love says the Buddhist teacher, that is attachment, and attachment is the cause of suffering.

I’ve struggled a lot with love. It’s true that the love I’m used to has caused me a lot of suffering, so maybe it hasn’t been real love at all! My question – Is it really possible to love someone without attachment?

In Love and Suffering

Dear In Love and Suffering,

The kind of love that is incompatible with being attached to someone or loving them for your own pleasure is a spiritual love. Spiritual love is a high ideal, and one that some people are called to. In a way, attachment IS the cause of suffering just as the ascetic spiritual traditions teach, and so it makes sense from that point of view that if we want to be free of suffering we should attempt to eliminate our attachments. Since romantic love has caused you a lot of suffering personally, I can see why it would be appealing to trade it in for a love without attachment. But please understand, it won’t be the same love.

Buddhists tend to idealize the emotional equanimity that comes with “non-attachment”. For some this offers a satisfying and enriching path, despite its difficulties. For others the ideal becomes an exercise in self-deception, what is commonly called “spiritual bypass”: rather than face the suffering that comes with the attachments of life, one tries to trick oneself into enlightenment by avoiding life rather than engaging with it. Still others manage to work fruitfully with the tension and dilemmas that come with attachment, even while they continue to live an engaged life.

The classical Greeks offer a different perspective on love altogether. They did not see love as mutually exclusive from attachment (or suffering for that matter), but rather they recognized at least four distinct kinds of love; we’ll look at two: Agape and Eros.

For the Greeks, Agape is spiritual, selfless love. Genitals are not included in this kind of love because bodily desire is not included.

Eros provides a darker foil to Agape. Eros is romantic or erotic love. It is sexually charged and desirous (genitals included).

In some stories the Greek God Eros was said to be mothered by Aphrodite, Goddess of love, and fathered by Ares, God of war. This parentage should give us clues to the temperament of Eros. Erotic love is understood to be frictious and troublesome, obsessive and personal, full of projection and confusion, and yes, suffering. Erotic love is also passionate, invigorating, colourful, and joyous. It’s a mixed bag.

So, do you want a cool and non-attached love? Or do you want a hot love that includes attachment, as well as passion and the associated suffering? There’s no wrong answer, but it’s worth adding that one makes a place for desire, including fucking and other forms of passion, while the other treats desire as a problem, something to be liberated from.

Interestingly, erotic love also has a psychological association that non-attached spiritual love does not. In the old stories Eros himself falls in love with a mortal woman named Psyche. Their love relationship is rocky, there is attachment and suffering in spades, but the suffering is psychologically meaningful; it helps the couple grow.

The Buddhist perspective in your question assumes that liberation from the entanglements of both Eros and Psyche is preferable to the psychological deepening that suffering in love can provide. Another way to say this is that attachment and suffering (and fucking for that matter) might be the enemies of spirituality, but they can be necessary for the soul (to read more about spirit as distinct from soul and the spiritual journey as distinct from the soul journey click here).

We’ve been looking at this in polarized terms for the sake of clarity and understanding, but these may not be mutually exclusive realms. We can question our attachments in love even as we wrestle with and even indulge them (I sometimes hold my partner’s face in my hands and teasingly tell her “I’m so attached to you”).

Can you have it both ways – can you do away with suffering and still feel the kind of fiery love that many crave? Probably not. Is it worth trying? Maybe, but keep in mind that much hinges on the meaning that you make of your suffering. If you believe, as I understand Buddhists do, that suffering is essentially meaningless, then suffering and attachment merely become problems to solve, something to be liberated from. But if you find psychological or soul meaning in the suffering and attachment of erotic love, then suffering becomes perhaps not only tolerable, but even purposeful.

Thanks for asking hard questions.

All My Best,

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Counselling Articles Sex and Relationship Advice

“My husband’s anger is wrecking our marriage.”

My husband's anger is hurting our marriage

Brian and Glory had been working with me for just over a year. The complex impulses and patterns shaping their relationship were slowly being revealed. Brian had a war-like energy, and could escalate a conflict to massive proportions in a matter of moments. This frightened Glory, who disliked conflict and shied away from any expressions of anger, even just a raised voice. To Glory it was obvious that, faced with a partner’s anger, any reasonable person would naturally want to retreat.

Glory was a highly intelligent and sensitive woman, and she had been clear in our sessions that she was willing to investigate her role in perpetuating the conflict cycle that had developed. Nonetheless, despite her stated willingness in this regard, she always came up empty handed when searching for her own complicity. After all, it was HE who would raise his voice, it was HIS anger that would spark and catch fire.

Many counsellors, as well as family and friends, will naturally side with the more “peaceful” person in this dynamic, the assumption being that the onus is on the “war-like” personality to change. This bias has its problems, as we’ll see.

To really understand all that is going on beneath the surface of a relationship like Glory’s and Brian’s it’s useful to take problem-solving off the table for a time. I like to do this transparently with clients, and to get their explicit consent and participation. I assure them that we can and will come back to the matter of solutions, but for now, I ask, can we just investigate without any agenda… can we simply be curious? Interestingly, this is where change tends to actually begin. When we start to examine a relationship with simple, genuine curiosity we make new discoveries.

Putting problem solving aside allowed Glory and Brian to come to some new realizations about their relationship patterns. By doing “little experiments” (this is a Hakomi term for setting up small, carefully controlled interactions for the purposes of observing the experience and noticing habitual responses) Glory discovered that she had virtually no tolerance for anger or conflict. In the face of anger, even the subtlest anger, she would begin to retreat. The idea of meeting anger or conflict face-on had never even occurred to her as a possibility.

In Glory’s world, anger and conflict were intolerable. They were, in the simplest terms… bad. It made sense that she had been unable to identify any role that she might play in the relationship conflict cycles that plagued her marriage. After all, she always did everything in her power to avoid anger and conflict!

Once it dawned on her that her aversion to conflict and anger might actually be her role in the pattern, Glory had something to work with. She experimented with facing anger and conflict more directly. This let her see just how conflict-avoidant she was, and she got a glimpse of how this part of her personality had shaped her life.

Now remember, we’re still in simple curiosity mode. No problem solving, no prescribing, just noticing. And we’re not just talking about anger and conflict, we’re actually working with it as it comes up in session. We’re doing little experiments all the time. This requires a particular orientation from a therapist – they must recognize these opportunities as they naturally arise and use them for a client’s insight and learning.

This is not an orientation every therapist shares. I’ve been witness to many sessions where a counsellor does just the opposite; they try to calm down or smooth over strong emotions or outbursts in session so that they can get back to talking about the couple’s problems from a safe distance. Certainly there are times for de-escalation and peace-keeping, but if this is always the strategy, and if it is an automatic or unconscious strategy, opportunities will be missed, and old cycles will continue.

Back to Glory and Brian… Glory has now realized that she has always treated anger and conflict as inherently bad, something to be avoided, and she is beginning to see how this avoidance has both perpetuated their cycle, and has blinded her to role within it. She sees that her task may be to confront Brian’s anger and, it is revealed later in our sessions, perhaps her own anger as well; not surprisingly, it isn’t just other people’s anger that makes her uncomfortable.

Here’s what I presented to this couple and asked them to consider –

The moment that Brian feels Glory retreat in even the smallest way, he panics (it took some careful attention for him to recognize the degree of this panic response). Brian’s panic is expressed first as annoyance or criticism, but then moves quickly into rage. His rage is the rage of abandonment.

On her side of the equation, the moment Glory feels the smallest expression of Brian’s annoyance or criticism, she begins to retreat; she knows what is coming next. It’s crucial to note that we are talking about the tiniest expressions here. Barely discernible eye movements. Subtle changes in body language, posture, or verbal tone. Like most long-term couples, Brian and Glory are exquisitely attuned to each others state of being, and like most couples they are in denial of the power that their anxiety holds over each other and the relationship.

As I’ve often explained in my various writings, our nervous systems are in constant communication with each other, for better or for worse. Most of this communication is happening below conscious awareness, hence those conversations that everyone knows, beginning with –

“Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Like what?”

“Like THAT.”

“I’m not looking at you like anything!”

As we debriefed a particular incident that had threatened to escalate into a familiar multi-day meltdown, I was struck by the fact that both Brian and Glory experienced major incongruence between their two accounts of the event; they believed that their stories did not match. But I found their two stories remarkably consistent, the only notable discrepancy being this –

Each was acutely aware of each others subtle cues, but more or less oblivious of their own.

Glory could describe in detail Brian’s eye movements and the change of tone in his voice that led her to retreat, and yet she was blind to her equivalent cues to Brian, cues that essentially said “I’m disconnecting from you now.”

Conversely, Brian had a photographic memory of the moment Glory averted her gaze, and how that affected him, but he could not understand how his accusatory tone could possibly elicit such a strong response from her.

This was a good opportunity to draw some parallels. I explained that their two accounts of the same event sounded remarkably congruent to me, and I observed that each of them put disproportionate significance on each others cues, while downplaying the impact of their own responses on each other.

In other words, Brian couldn’t believe that a tiny little bit of criticism from him could make Glory retreat so dramatically, and Glory was baffled that the mere hint of disconnection or retreat from her could throw Brian into a rage. Each downplayed their own cues and reactions, while simultaneously inflating the other’s.

“I get a little angry. No big deal. But then she totally withdraws!”

“I take a little space for a few minutes, like any normal person, and then he totally blows up!”

The behaviour of each is deeply habitual, and feels completely “natural” from the subjective point of view. Neither Brian nor Glory could imagine how their minor little habits could trigger such a strong reaction in the other. A switch gets flipped, for both of them, a switch that runs right to their core.

As we continued experimenting and gaining insight through a collaborative curiosity and a willingness to suspend judgement, Glory and Brian each discovered how much impact their own triggers had on each other, and how this caused the escalation they experienced.

This was in important and ongoing discovery. Previously, they had dismissed each other’s reactions, while simultaneously holding their own to be natural and valid. Now they were each beginning to see how the other’s experience was as legitimate, in its own way, as their own. This, by the way, is an example of genuine empathy.

Empathy has its own nature and arises spontaneously when the conditions are right. Having an actual felt experience of each other’s vulnerability, coupled with a growing understanding of each other’s life experiences, outlooks, and character provided the right conditions for empathy to organically emerge. This allowed Glory and Brian to imagine themselves more as allies than adversaries, and it set the ground for co-operation as we began to address behavioural change.

As we began to address behavioural change and taking responsibility for one’s own actions, we started with some education on what I call “building capacity.” Both Glory and Brian needed to develop tolerance for each others anxious behaviours.

Brian needed to practice allowing Glory to make small retreats. Glory needed to practice allowing Brian to express anger or criticism. Neither Brian’s anxious anger nor Glory’s anxious withdrawal were inherently bad or wrong, and they only threatened the relationship to the degree that each could not tolerate the other. By growing their capacity, stretching their tolerance for each other, the burden of change falls on neither, and yet both are apt to find their own way of changing. Like most profound relationship work, it’s paradoxical. By allowing each other to be themselves, by practicing tolerating one another, a behaviour pattern is interrupted and the stage is set for change based on personal maturation; much more valuable than ultimatums or even negotiated compromise.

Change that comes out of growing our capacity feels satisfying and nourishing. It’s a source of pride and freedom. Change that comes from making demands, ultimatums, or even negotiated agreements about behaviour – “You promise to do this and I promise I won’t do that” – tends to be short-lived and can even be potentially destructive.

You might have noticed that there is virtually no story, no content, no “he said/she said” included in the account above. That’s because the issue that this couple faces isn’t, at core, about a particular disagreement or argument. Their conflict is rooted in something much deeper. We might call it habituated nervous system responses, or we could use another lens and call it attachment styles. The point is, we could spend forever dancing around the details of who said what and who did what, but underneath all that are two nervous systems doing their thing. Attending too much to “story and content” would just distract us from the work of capacity building.

So how to build capacity? How to develop tolerance for our partner’s small cues that set us off?

First we must begin to notice that which has always gone unnoticed. Brian and Glory, like all of us, developed strategies early in their lives for getting their needs met – needs for safety, for connection, for soothing, for autonomy, and so on. These strategies are unconscious, and are sometimes even pre-verbal. We make certain decisions about how to be in the world and with others before we even begin speaking as children. These strategies do not live in our conscious mind, they are held in the body, in the nervous system, in the emotional and instinctive parts of ourselves.

When these unconscious strategies get expressed in our adult relationships, they might create strong impulses and feelings (or perhaps numbness), but they tend to elude conscious awareness. Because they feel so naturally a part of us, it’s necessary to practice recognizing them. Until we do some work examining them, they really aren’t negotiable, they’re more or less hardwired. It’s also worth mentioning that the gender associations in Glory and Brian’s case can just as easily be reversed; a woman might tend toward anger and a man toward withdrawal, in fact I see this just as commonly.

Our task is to start noticing how we respond to particular stimuli, how we react to our partner’s cues. We practice in session, slowing down these interactions and noticing the subtleties contained within. From here, with a little experience under their belts, client couples will take this practice into their lives. If they will continue this difficult work, they will likely be rewarded. To learn more, read my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples – Insights and practices for cultivating love, sex, and intimacy (even in difficult times).

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