Discover the Gift of Co-Regulation

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.


Have you ever been so hurt or angry during an argument that you 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 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 more support, but are unable to ask?

If the answer to any of these questions was “yes,” your relationship could benefit from discovering the gift of co-regulation.

What Is Co-Regulation?

Co-regulation is the process whereby one nervous system calms another, producing a feedback loop that is soothing for both. We might think of this kind of mutual soothing as being the opposite of mutual dysregulation. When partners become mutually dysregulating, they produce a feedback loop in which the overall anxiety of the interaction increases. In contrast, partners who co-regulate are able to make moves that are calming to one other, bringing anxiety down.

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 cannot understand his mother. These non-verbal safety cues are soothing for any nervous system, including those of adults.

In couple interactions, we lend priority to reason and verbal communication. Popular psychology and therapy circles have reinforced this stance through an emphasis on “talking it out.” What is often missed is the profound biological need we all have to be soothed physically. 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. Verbal de-escalation skills certainly have their place; however, co-regulation primarily occurs body to bodyWhen we let our bodies lead, the words tend to follow, and they are usually more productive!

Although co-regulation is useful during arguments, healthy couples do not wait until they are on the brink of a meltdown to offer soothing and supportive touch, eye contact, and reassuring tones of voice. Being physically engaging throughout the day will increase the felt sense of safety and insulate you from outside stressors.

The Myth of Self-Regulation

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 wonderful idea, but it’s a bit of a myth, at least the way it is often used. 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.

It is not a question of if we affect one another, but how. 

Are our interactions soothing?

Or do we pour fuel on the flames?

Disagreements and distress occur are unavoidable, but our ability to return to a baseline level of safety will determine a relationships overall viability. 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). When differences are experienced as threats, we will handle them by trying to obliterate them.

What we find in reality is that far from bringing us towards peace and security, these and other tactics for dealing with threat only 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. Or, affectionately: “Soothe first, ask questions later.”

Co-regulating through False Alarms

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 negative haze has set in on relationship, 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’re being!” (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 to our partners 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. This is why it is such a gift.

Quick Tips

Regulation Run-down

Here is the list of common co-regulation behaviors that you can add to your repertoire:

  • Light touch
  • Hand holding
  • Putting an arm around your partner
  • Massaging your partner’s back
  • Rubbing your partner’s feet
  • Turning your body toward your parnter
  • Making and maintaining eye contact
  • Using a soothing voice
  • Speaking “low and slow”
  • Audibly sighing in relief
  • Leaning on one another
  • Putting your head on your partner’s shoulder
  • Going “forehead to forehead”
  • Relaxing defensive body postures

Say NoPE to Dysregulation!

If you’re implementing these co-regulatory behaviors during an argument, 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. Shift your awareness away from your thoughts and onto your breath. It is perfectly fine for your partner to look at you like you’re crazy.

Engage Physically — After a few breaths, make the deliberate effort to move toward your partner and engage them physically with as much supportive touch as you both can tolerate. Do this before speaking again, and take enough time so that you each feel yourselves relax.  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.

If you don’t yet know how to ask, have a conversation about co-regulation when you are both levelheaded. Agree that mutual touch is beneficial, and commit to asking for supportive touch when necessary, as well as responding positively when asked. Also agree that supportive touch will take place primarily in silence until you both return to baseline calm. Never demand for support, as this will only increase distress on both parts.

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. Commit to offering some form of supportive touch whenever you and your partner are in close proximity. Also commit to seek one another out to offer support and affection.

Scan for Soothing

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.

Be Relentless

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.”

 

Co-regulation is a tremendous way to quickly shift the energy of your and your partner’s nervous systems, and over time changes them at the structural level. Commit to making it a part of your relationship practice and you will enjoy the benefits for many years to come.

 

Soothingly yours,

Hayden

My greatest passion in life is to help couples craft the loving relationships they've always wanted. I do this in Austin, TX through my work in private practice, and everywhere else here on my website.

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