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.)
Self-regulation VS Co-regulation
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 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 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 codependant.
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 what stage your relationship is at, 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,
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