This post is part of my Vital Skills series, a collection of 10 non-negotiable practices we absolutely must hone if we are to craft the loving relationships we truly desire. The word ‘vital’ has been used here intentionally for its dual significance; these skills are not only essential, they are life-giving. The time and energy invested in developing these habits is paid back immeasurably in the connection we share with our partners as a result.
What Is Co-Regulation?
Have you ever been so hurt or angry during an argument that you did or said something you later regretted? Do your interactions with your partner ever produce physically distressing sensations like a rapid heart rate, a knot in your stomach, or feelings of panic? Do you and your partner tend to escalate one another? Do you end up needing several hours or even days after a fight just to calm down? Is there palpable tension in your relationship?
Conversely, can you remember a time when you were upset and your partner comforted you? Has your partner ever helped you through difficult feelings with a touch or an embrace? Do you notice yourselves being more physically engaging when you are connected? Do you find yourself craving touch and support, but are unable to ask?
If the answer to any of these questions was “yes,” your relationship could benefit from learning how to co-regulate. Co-regulation is the process whereby one nervous system calms another, producing a feedback loop that is soothing for both. We might think of it as being the opposite mutual dysregulation, a feedback loop in which distressed partners become distressing partners.
To understand co-regulation, think of how a mother calms a distressed infant through the use of gaze, touch, and a soothing voice. The child feels safe and secure even though he or she cannot understand the mother. These non-verbal safety cues are soothing for any nervous system, including adults’. Verbal de-escalation skills have received much attention in relationships of late; however, co-regulation primarily occurs body to body.
Physical co-regulation is foundational to the basic sense of safety in a relationship. This is why it is so important when we are experiencing attachment distress. This distress, or “primal panic,” is the hardwired fight-or-flight survival response we experience when our love relationships feel threatened. In these moments, our nervous systems are in overdrive, and we cannot reason our way out. Only a partner moving closer and offering reassurance will soothe us.
As adults, we are expected to self-regulate; that is, be in control of our thoughts, emotions, and physiologies and take corrective action when each expands beyond certain parameters. Particularly in romantic partnerships, we intuitively understand the importance of keeping our cool. Without this ability, relationships are at best rocky and unstable, and at worst volatile and even violent.
Self-regulation is certainly important, but it’s a bit of a myth, at least the way we often think of it. So far as I can tell, there is no such thing as “pure self-regulation.” The truth is that we learn to self-regulate to the extent we were co-regulated as children, and we continue to affect one another’s biologies throughout our lives. In fact, if our partner didn’t impact us at a physiological level, we wouldn’t feel attached to them. Intertwined physiologies is a defining feature of attachment relationships.
The question then becomes, “How are we affecting one another?”
Do we soothe one another?
Or do we pour fuel on the flames?
Disagreements and distress are bound to occur, but the extent to which we succeed or fail in returning to a baseline level of safety will determine the overall quality of the relationship.
Frequently we fall into the trap of believing that this felt safety hinges on us agreeing with one another (typically achieved by convincing our partners exactly how right we are). What we find in reality is that far from bringing us towards peace and security, many of our tactics serve to fan the flames. When we understand co-regulation, we can turn the usual model on its head; negotiation becomes secondary to soothing. Couples who understand co-regulation soothe each other first so that they can continue disagreeing!
Benefits of Frequent Co-regulation
There are times, when our nervous system goes into overdrive, that we actually are in danger. These fight, flight, or freeze responses are adaptive.
But the vast majority of the time the warning bells go off unnecessarily. Our otherwise adaptive responses pump our relationships full of anxiety and become self-defeating. Particularly when a haze has set in on our interactions and we begin viewing our partners more negatively, our alarm systems are on a hair trigger.
Each act of co-regulation helps the brain correct false alarms. When, instead of saying something incendiary, you move in to calm your partner with a soothing word or touch, the nervous system slows down and allows room for different choices. The more slowly we can move through conversations about contentious topics, the more likely we are to come to a meaningful resolution.
It can be tempting when your partner is experiencing a “false alarm” to brush it off or even look at it with contempt. I’ve certainly been there: “You’re just overreacting!” or “I can’t believe how insane you are!” (Side note: If you want to see a woman really act crazy, call her insane.)
But we all come by our false alarms honestly, and by failing to respond in a soothing manner, we are reinforcing the brain circuitry that created the alarm in the first place. This is why it’s in your best interest to respond to your partner, even if it is a “false alarm.” Detecting false alarms early is an act of love and creates the trust that allows intimacy to flourish.
At least once a week, I must hear a partner say something like: “I don’t respond when he/she cries wolf. If I do, it will be this way forever!” To couples in this camp, I offer the cold comfort of science. Consistent non-verbal reassurance from a partner changes the brain’s wiring so that, over time, they are triggered less often. Said differently, a nervous system that is consistently co-regulated will eventually learn to regulate itself. You are literally doing minimally invasive brain surgery on one another!
It can be helpful to realize that false alarms often have little to do with what is going on presently and instead reflect older wounds from the past. Part of the beauty of relationships is that they bring these wounds to light so that they might be dealt with. These wounds might include neglect, abuse, misattunement, and other trauma. In this manner, co-regulation is much more than a way to prevent blow-ups. Co-regulation is the way we help each other heal.
Here is the list of common co-regulation behaviors that you can add to your repertoire:
- Light touch
- Rubbing your partner
- Putting an arm around your partner
- Making and maintaining eye contact
- Using a soothing voice
- Audibly sighing in relief
- Leaning on one another
In order to best implement these co-regulatory behaviors, follow these three steps:
Notice – Stop what you’re doing. Become aware of your own body. Notice how distressed you feel and how it is affecting the way you approach your partner.
Pause — Pausing allows for slower, more deliberate decision-making. Take a short pause, close your eyes, and breathe. It is perfectly fine for your partner to look at you like you’re crazy.
Engage Physically — Make the deliberate effort to move toward your partner and engage them physically with a touch, embrace, or eye contact if that is all that can be tolerated. You may choose to do this after a time-out, depending on how escalated the argument has become. Your goal here is not to “fix” anything, but to increase the felt sense of safety.
Ask for Support
You may be arguing your case, but you and your partner are still a team, and your goal is mutual regulation. Ask for support in the form of a soothing touch or embrace, or simply by moving closer to one another.
Keep In Touch
Do these behaviors throughout the day, not just when you’re distressed. The overall sense of safety will improve, and you will insulate one another from outside sources of stress.
One of the things I look for in therapy room the way partners are “missing” one another’s’ attempts at co-regulation. When we are escalated, it can be difficult to see our partners’ soothing efforts even as we need them most. Often what we are looking for is some grand gesture or apology, but real-life co-regulation is much more subtle. We must learn to speak the language of nuance. Be on the lookout for your partner’s “olive twigs,” and accept them when you can.
Sometimes the soothing moment is elusive. Any given argument might involve many rounds of partial soothing and then re-escalation. Be deliberate about what you’re going after and prioritize the soothing moment above all else. And be patient with your partner. Our nervous systems are designed to ramp up quickly and come down slowly. It may take several moments before a supportive touch is “felt.”