Even the best relationships are bound to have some high-stress moments. Whether you’re facing a big life change, dealing with financial strain or simply struggling with conflict, dealing with relationship stress is just part of being in a long-term partnership. Thankfully, co-regulating for couples can help.
Co-regulation is a process where two individuals in a relationship can help each other regulate their emotions and more effectively manage stress. Co-regulation strategies can be used by one partner to help the other reduce stress. Or, they can be used to help a couple step back from a conflict, calm down and begin to repair.
Keep reading to learn more about what co-regulation is and to discover techniques couples can use to practice emotional regulation and stress relief together.
What is Co-regulating for Couples?
Before diving into co-regulation techniques for couples, it is essential to understand what emotional regulation actually is. Self-regulation is a process of managing one’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in response to external and internal stimuli. It’s critical for maintaining mental and emotional well-being and for dealing with personal or relationship stress.
Some examples of emotional regulation include:
- Mindfulness Meditation
- Deep Breathing Exercises
Co-regulation, on the other hand, is a process where two people work together to manage their emotions. In order to coregulate successfully, each individual needs to be aware of their own emotions and be able to communicate them with their partner.
Ways to Use Emotional Regulation in Relationships
Whether you’re dealing with stress about your relationship or simply in a partnership where one individual is dealing with their own stress (about work, money, family or friends, there are many different ways you can help reduce stress for your partner or work together on co-regulating for couples.
One of the most basic ways to coregulate as a couple is by building strong communication skills to ensure you and your partner are able to understand each other’s feelings and points of view.
Communication for Emotional Regulation
Some of the best ways to start reducing stress in your relationship or help reduce a partner’s stress is by using these pillars of strong communication:
- Validate Each Other’s Emotions – Validating your partner’s emotions involves acknowledging and accepting their feelings – even if you don’t understand or agree. This is often easier said than done. Especially when your partner is dealing with stress, it can be tempting to simply try to make that stress or bad feeling go away. But too often those attempts feel dismissive to the other person and can actually add stress and make conflict worse.
- Use “I” Statements – Using “I” statements instead of “you” statements can promote effective communication and reduce defensiveness. If you’re dealing with relationship stress or trying to relate to your partner’s stress, make sure to focus on how you feel or felt instead of trying to put those emotions onto them.
- Take a Time-Out – A time-out is pretty much always a good idea! Taking a time-out during an argument or other stressful experience can help regulate emotions and prevent further escalation. It allows both partners to calm down and return to the conversation when they are in a better state of mind.
- Practice Active Listening – Active listening involves focusing fully on what another person is saying and trying to understand their perspective. It promotes effective communication and can help reduce stress. Whether you’re in an argument or simply listening to your partner describe a stressful situation at work or with family or friends, it’s important to give your partner your full attention.
- Use Your Love Languages – Everyone has a love language – a way that they most feel love and appreciation. Understanding your partner’s love language and showing you care by embracing that love language is one of the simplest ways to reduce your partner’s stress. If you’re not sure what your or your partner’s love language is, take this quiz.
Stress Relief Activities for Couples
Sometimes even the best communication with a partner can only get you so far. If you’re finding that you, your partner or both of need some additional support in relieving support, try one of these stress relief activities for couples:
- Take Deep Breaths – This is one of the simplest strategies for co-regulating for couples. Simply sit together, hold hands, and take deep breaths in unison. Focus on your own breath and on your partner’s breath. This is a great strategy for self-regulation but can actually be even more powerful when you try it with a partner.
- Try Meditation – Meditating is another powerful tool for emotional regulation. Meditation can also assist couples working on co-regulating, helping both partners step back from their current stressor, calm their nervous systems and think more clearly about the issue at hand. Try a guided meditation for couples or simply put on some calming music, sit or lay down together, hold hands, close your eyes and breathe deeply.
- Exercise Together – Exercising together can be a fun and healthy way to reduce stress and bond with each other. Exercising produces feel-good endorphins, which not only help reduce stress but can also help you feel closer to your partner.
- Take a Relaxing Bath – Taking a bath together can promote relaxation and enhance intimacy. It’s a great way to unwind at the end of a long day or reconnect after a period of stress or conflict. If you don’t want to take a bath together, just getting a bath ready for your partner to enjoy alone can go a long way toward helping them feel less stressed.
- Try a New Activity Together – Trying something new together, like cooking, baking, painting or woodworking, is a fun and therapeutic activity that promotes relaxation and reduces stress. Plus, going out of your comfort zone together can help boost closeness and help you feel more connected to your partner.
- Spend Time in Nature – Spending time in nature is one of the best ways to reduce stress, regulate your emotions and calm your nervous system. And when it comes to co-regulating for couples, spending more time outdoors is one of the easiest things to do. Go for a walk around the block, have an outdoor dinner or even just lay on the grass to meditate together. Turn your time in nature into a fun adventure and you’ll reduce stress while boosting your connection.
Gottman Stress-Reducing Conversation: Another Form of Co-regulating for Couples
When all the stress-relieving activities and standard communication strategies aren’t enough to reduce stress in your relationship, a Gottman stress-reducing conversation could help.
The Gottman Institute is a research-based organization founded by Drs. John and Julie Gottman focused on helping couples build strong and healthy relationships. Gottman Method marriage counseling is based on decades of research about what makes a healthy relationship work and what causes other relationships to fail. This type of couples counseling uses many different techniques to help couples better communicate, including the stress-reducing conversation.
You can use the Gottman stress-reducing conversation exercise during a relationship conflict or just to show your partner you are really listening when they share their own personal stress. Here’s how:
How to Have a Gottman Stress-Reducing Conversation
- Set Aside Time – Don’t try to have this conversation over dinner, with the TV on or with the kids around. Set aside 20-30 minutes to really focus on the conversation. Find a quiet and comfortable space where you won’t be interrupted.
- Take Turns – Take turns being the speaker and the listener. The speaker shares their thoughts and feelings while the listener listens without interruption or judgment. This is especially important (and challenging) if you’re using this conversation to help manage emotions during a conflict.
- Use the Speaker-Listener Technique – The speaker-listener technique involves speaking in a clear and concise manner while the listener reflects back what they heard. Repeat back to your partner what you heard them say. This allows each individual to know their partner is listening, but also gives each of you a chance to clarify if your partner misunderstands your point of view.
- Use Softened Start-Up – Start the conversation with a “softened start-up” by expressing your feelings without blaming or criticizing your partner. For example, “I feel frustrated when I don’t get help with the housework” instead of “You never help with the housework.” A conversation is bound to go a lot better when it starts from a place of feelings rather than accusations.
- Focus on Feelings – Keep that focus on feelings throughout the conversation, rather than just discussing the situation at hand. Remember, no matter what conflict led to this conversation, there’s a good chance the actual stress in your relationship goes much deeper than an argument about dirty dishes or lack of intimacy.
- Validate and Empathize – Validate your partner’s feelings and try to empathize with their perspective. This can help reduce defensiveness and promote understanding. And remember: you don’t have to agree in order to empathize. You can feel differently from your partner and still seek to see their point of view.
- Express Affection – One of the best ways to reduce stress and work on co-regulating for couples is by simply continuing to show love and affection even in times of conflict. This can absolutely be easier said than done (after all, you might not feel up for holding hands if you’re feeling hurt or unappreciated by your partner). But even something as simple as sitting close enough to touch, putting a head on a shoulder or giving your partner a smile can maintain closeness and connection during a stress-reducing conversation.
What If You Struggle with Co-regulating for Couples?
If you’ve read this far, you might be feeling one of two ways. Option one – you might be feeling empowered and ready to tackle your next moment of relationship stress. Or option two – you may be feeling like none of these activities or techniques would actually work when one or both partners are in the throes of stress and anxiety.
So what can you do if co-regulating for couples just doesn’t come naturally?
One of the best approaches is to focus on your own self-regulating strategies. Many adults were never taught how to regulate their own emotions, let alone coregulate with a partner. Build these skills individually by working on meditation, breathing techniques and anything else that helps you reduce stress.
Practice in less emotional situations, such as a stressful work challenge or when making a difficult decision. As your skills improve it will become easier to manage relationship stress and work on co-regulating for couples.
Another great strategy is to seek professional help. If you and your partner don’t deal with stress well together, then talking with a couples therapist could be a great step toward building those skills.
If you’re ready to improve your relationship, regulate emotions in a relationship and have a stronger partnership, contact Couples Learn today to learn how we can support you.
From Gottman Method couples therapists to emotionally-focused couples therapists and beyond, Couples Learn has the expertise and experience to help strengthen your relationship.