You might be the partner who does everything you can to connect and keep your relationship alive. Or you might be the partner who feels like your significant other needs too much. In fact, you wish they would give you a little more space. As a couple, how do you balance taking care of yourself with taking care of your relationship? Emotional regulation is an important piece in finding that balance.
Maybe you feel like you’re the one putting in all the effort. You’re the one who makes his favorite meals, watches his shows with him, and remembers his passwords when he forgets.
It might even feel like if you stop, the relationship will fall apart.
In other unbalanced relationships, you might feel like your partner is too demanding. And she may insist she can’t function unless you’re always there. She makes you feel like you can’t get any space to breathe.
Unbalanced relationships with one partner doing all the work are often the result of anxious attachment. The partners are relying on one another too much for “mutual emotional regulation.”
On the other hand, relationships in which one partner feels the other is demanding, needy, or clingy, may rely too much on individual, “self-regulation” of emotions. This is also known as an avoidant attachment style.
No matter what type of imbalance is present in your relationship, if you’re the only one making efforts to keep things copacetic, you’re exhausted. Although you’re scared to stop for fear your relationship will suffer, you’re tired and maybe even getting resentful.
In the end, the key is not swinging from one type of emotional regulation to the other or using one type exclusively. You have to find a balance in the relationship between self-care and relationship care through both self and mutual regulation.
What are “self-regulation” and “mutual regulation”?
At its most basic, emotional regulation is how you influence your own emotions and what strategies you use to control your emotional state (“Emotion Regulation,” 2021).
For example, you might have strategies for cheering yourself up when you’re down, or for calming yourself when you’re anxious. These might include talking yourself through it, stuffing the emotion, visualizing a calm place, or asking someone for a hug.
While some people prefer strategies that take them into themselves, others prefer to turn to outside people for support.
Both of these strategies and styles of coping with big emotions are “emotional regulation.”
In life, you experience a whole range of emotions, all the highs and the lows, but the emotions don’t overwhelm or paralyze you. As the authors of the book The Power of Discord put it, you can feel deep sadness, intense anger, and overwhelming joy all without losing yourself (Tronick & Gold, 2020). Self-regulation is when you can competently go about life and take all its ups and downs in stride.
The Mutual Regulation Model came from research on mothers and infants. It states that the infant-mother pair (which can be a model for other relationships later in life) are a system working together to regulate negative emotions (Gold, 2011). When one of the pair is able to signal calm or ease to the other, the other is made calmer in response.
Why is emotional regulation important to your relationship?
To stay engaged with your partner and keep your relationship healthy, you need to be emotionally present. Naturally, being emotionally present involves emotional regulation.
The psychologist and developer of the widely successful Emotionally Focused Therapy, Dr. Sue Johnson, explains that emotional responsiveness has these three components (Johnson, 2008):
- Accessibility: even in the face of your own emotional challenges, you are able to be there for your partner.
- Responsiveness: you recognize your partner’s emotions and can comfort them when they need it.
- Engagement: you look at and touch your partner in ways that show you’re present and supportive.
When you are distressed, sometimes self-regulation can look like shutting out the world and can result in being unavailable to your partner.
Researchers studying mutual regulation watched children trying to self-regulate become unable to connect with their mothers. It required too much effort for them to self-regulate, and they couldn’t be emotionally present (Tronick & Gold, 2020).
In the same way for adult romantic relationships, if you shut down to calm yourself and regulate your negative feelings, you become emotionally unavailable to your partner. Without you holding up your end of the mutual regulation in the relationship, your partner may also fall apart.
In their book, Tronick and Gold give the example of a partner who is unaware of his emotional withdrawal and becomes unreachable. He becomes distressed, quiet and looks away. He’s not letting his partner in and tries to self-regulate, but he hasn’t communicated what is going on for him in this moment of distress. Instead, he is simply quiet and won’t make eye contact. His partner panics, eventually breaking into tears. (Tronick & Gold, 2020)
Being able to effectively self-regulate your own emotions will help you will stay emotionally present and engaged in your relationship with your partner.
Balancing Emotional Regulation
In addition to self-regulation, a romantic relationship (and a caregiver-child relationship) also involves mutual regulation. Moments of distress arise when there are mismatches between the partners, but easing of that distress can come from within the relationship.
You need to be able to show your partner your emotions and receive signals from them that connection and support are available.
While you may feel like you should already know how to interact with and support your partner, or be on the same page all the time, it is more common to be out-of-sync with the other person (Tronick & Gold, 2020). What matters is how you come back together and how you communicate things are going to be alright.
You will repeat this process of finding each other after disconnecting many times over. And it’s the experience of working through failures to meet each other’s needs that creates trust in the relationship and in yourselves individually.
Steps to Balance and Repair: Finding Emotional Regulation When Yours Feels Out of Whack
In couples therapy, the first step in finding balance in your relationship is simply finding awareness of your own patterns of emotional regulation. Knowing if you shut down or become anxiously attached in the face of distress can help you recognize when it happens and makes self-regulation a little easier.
Additionally, a therapist can help make the cycle of emotional disconnection and its effect on distress in the relationship explicit.
Couples therapy is a designated time and space for each of you to hear the other’s point of view and be emotionally present. Because your partner’s emotional state is always influencing your own and vice versa, it’s important to allow that time and space for mutual regulation.
Finally, if it’s difficult to listen, take a walk with your partner. The physical movement and the side-by-side position can make it easier to say what you need to say.
About Dr. Irena
Dr. Irena is a certified Emotionally Focused Couples therapist offering online therapy for couples in Texas and New York City. She and has helped many couples find emotional regulation, connection, and balance. Email Dr. Irena for a free 10-minute video consultation: firstname.lastname@example.org or call (281)-267-1742.
Emotion Regulation. (2021). Psychology Today. Retrieved August 3, 2021, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/emotion-regulation
Gold, C. M. (2011). Don’t Lose Your Cool: How Parents and Children Regulate (And Dysregulate) Each Other. Psychology Today. Retrieved August 3, 2021, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/child-in-mind/201108/dont-lose-your-cool-how-parents-and-children-regulate-and-dysregulate-each
Johnson, S. (2008). Hold Me Tight. Little, Brown Spark.
Tronick, E., & Gold, C. M. (2020). The Power of Discord: Why the Ups and Downs of Relationships Are the Secret to Building Intimacy, Resilience, and Trust. Little, Brown Spark.