When two people come together in a romantic relationship, both individuals must learn how to effectively communicate their needs, fears, and vulnerable emotions to ensure a secure and intimate relationship. How this is achieved is the couple’s ability to utilize both self-regulation and co-regulation strategies. Self-Regulation and co-regulation are two distinct yet interrelated strategies that couples utilize to improve communication and overall relationship satisfaction.
Self-regulation is the process of an individual regulating their own emotions and inner world. The individual owns his/her feelings, thoughts, and behaviors; S/he are able to move through prickly emotions when their partner is unavailable either emotionally or physically. Self-regulation is an important skill that allows an individual to manage stress, express feelings in a congruent manner, and make decisions from a grounded place. Self-regulation can help individuals maintain healthy relationships with their partners and when conflict arises, to move through it in a healthier manner.
The key benefit of self-regulation is the ability to manage big emotions and not avoid or distance from the emotions, nor do you get completely overwhelmed or lost in them. And, when in conflict with your partner, you feel a sense of self-efficacy to sit with the hurt or distress that naturally arises, creating an ability to send a clear emotional signal to your partner. This lays the groundwork for co-regulation.
Simply put, co-regulation is the ability for our nervous system to interact and respond to another’s nervous system. Ideally, co-regulation can help two people get in sync and feel closer to one another. One can see co-regulation play out most clearly between a child and their parent. Imagine a child walking alongside a parent, enjoying the crisp fall air, when a strange dog walks up and innocently begins licking the child’s face. The child responds with fear! Their nervous system is fully dysregulated, but the parent gently picks up the child, embraces them and with a soft voice, reassures the child that they are safe. The child is mostly non-verbal, the comfort’s origin isn’t in any rationalization or comment to convince the kid to feel differently, but in the unconscious pairing of the child’s dysregulated nervous system and the parent’s regulated nervous system, the child feels soothed and safe.
In adult relationships, it works slightly differently, but there is a parallel. When a partner’s reach to their loved one is emotionally clear the other partner is able to be responsive. This call and response is similar to the parent/child example; however, it is benefited by each partner having a clear connection to self, their own emotional experience in order to connect, seek and receive comfort from their loved other.
Partners with anxious strategies often struggle with fears of abandonment and organizing their emotions on their own and thus may over rely on co-regulation both as a sign their partner won’t abandon them and to help process what feels like chaos inside. Additionally, avoidant partners fear their vulnerable emotions won’t be received and that if their partner was to get emotionally close, they wouldn’t measure up and thus, co-regulation is well… avoided. About 80% of couples find themselves in this dance of pursue/withdraw.
Ultimately, the goal of EFT couples’ therapy is to bring these two valuable skills to the couple. Each person learns how to connect, name and share their own emotional experiences, so that their partner can hear, understand and respond in a caring, comforting way. When a partner is unavailable (because no one can be 100% available) each person is able to use healthy strategies to regulate their own experience until the opportunity to connect and share with their partner arises. Thus, self-regulation and co-regulation dovetail and complement each other in all our significant relationships.
If you’re interested in EFT and how it could help your relationship, please contact us.
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