CALM DOWN! THE IMPORTANCE OF REGULATION

My previous article talked about the “problems” that show up in relationships and how there is a difference between solvable and unsolvable problems. In both cases, the solution to finding out if the problem is a deal-breaker is to talk through it, with the goal being greater understanding. 

Understanding must come before solutions, because without understanding, problem-solving can miss the mark–addressing only the symptoms but not the cause. This can leave partners feeling resentful toward one another. Successful discussions about problems can eliminate resentments and bring couples closer. Additionally, they make it easier to accept, or learn to live with, differences. 

Why then is it so hard for couples to have these helpful conversations? Why do they more often resort to arguments and fights rather than healthy conflict? In this part two of my articles on problems I want to address what gets in the way of successfully talking through it. 

What I notice is that it is not lack of caring or desire that keep us from wanting to understand each other, instead it is our brain’s natural defenses. When our partner is upset with us, the brain senses a threat and reacts by limiting blood flow to the rational brain, or left brain; the result can be amygdala hijacking. We become less able to listen, learn, or care–focused instead on protecting ourselves from harm.  

This is on major reason why it is hard to have conversations around greater understanding. But all is not lost–the trick is to learn how to hijack the hijacking! Below I lay out what happens when our brains sense a threat from our partners, and how to reverse the process so that we can lean in and listen. 

TWO TYPES OF DYSREGULATION: What is dysregulation? Basically it is when your left brain, or rational brain, is deprived of oxygen and shut down, leaving your right brain, or emotional brain, to react and run the show. Dysregulation can go one of two directions–either up or down. When our response escalates quickly into agitation it is called hyper-arousal, and when it shuts down into numbness it is called hypo-arousal. You can think of it as your brain either stepping on the gas, or stepping on the brake, respectively.

It is not necessary to memorize these emotional states, but it is important to be able to recognize when they are happening in you or in your partner. This is because in either state, talking and listening cannot happen! When the left brain is shut down, we cannot listen, learn, or care about another–our main objective is to care about how we are being treated in the moment

Why do we become dysregulated? Though it can cause problems today, we would not have survived without this process. Dysregulation happens when our brain senses a threat, either real or imagined. Our left brain is “slower” than our right, and that is why we evolved to shut it down, because historically when facing danger, we had to act fast! Commonly known as our “freeze, fight, or flee” response, our amygdala evaluates the threat and decides in a split second which course of action is best for our survival. 

So how do we control this process in our relationships?

SELF-REGULATION: Although many of our brain processes are automatic, we do have some ability to control and influence them. The whole Mindfulness movement is one approach to doing this–and even Buddhist philosophy (from which Mindfulness emerged) talks about how we cannot control what happens, only our response to it

Modern life works against mindfulness by offering endless distractions to what is happening in the moment with us and in our environment. No wonder we feel more reactive than responsive! Responsiveness only happens when we are present in our bodies and in the moment–a skill that takes practice and intention. Responsiveness is the act of choosing what our brain does with what is happening, not just reacting to it. 

Responsiveness in relationships is practiced through regular self-regulation–being aware of what your brain is sensing and using your left brain to influence that interpretation to match reality. Self-regulation is difficult, but not impossible. It involves a few key steps:

  • recognizing when we are either up-regulating or down-regulating by noticing what happens in our bodies (increased heart rate, hot face, shaking, numbness)
  • using our mindfulness tools to interrupt the process and keep our left brain “online”: taking deep, slow breaths; grounding ourselves, drinking some water or chewing something, doing something with our hands
  • using the left brain to make a choice about how we are thinking about what is happening (responsiveness rather than reactivity)

Trauma can interfere with self-regulation because it can result in stuck painful memories that keep us in a heightened state of arousal, even when there is no current threat. If you suffer from trauma, there are several approaches that can help to process it so that painful events remain in your past and not in your present. 

Fortunately, we do not have to always self-regulate ourselves completely–we can ask for help. 

CO-REGULATION: You are 100% responsible for your actions and your reactions. This can be a difficult idea to accept, because it suggests that others have no responsibility for upsetting us, but the truth is that they don’t! They do, however, trigger us and our vulnerabilities, so they are not off the hook for their behavior, just our for our reaction. We are the ones who choose our response, based on how we think about what has happened. In other words, while the pain is inevitable, our suffering is optional because suffering is based on our interpretations, perceptions, and how we make meaning of things. 

Co-regulation is when another person helps you bring your left brain back online so that you can talk or be comforted. The challenge for many is that one of the best candidates for co-regulating us is the person who upset us in the first place. This is because co-regulating actions can be reparative, and also a “corrective experience” that is different from what we have received before. As a therapist, I often use co-regulation in the room to give clients an experience of caring that is new to them. This can be very healing!

Co-regulation is also an example of accountability–acknowledging that you played a role in what the other person is feeling. Remember that even though you didn’t cause it, you did trigger it! Often the triggering is unintentional–it is just partners being themselves. This is why it is so important to be curious about the other’s past hurts, soft spots, and vulnerabilities, because with this information you are less likely to trip on those trigger wires. Co-regulation lets someone know that you care about them and how they are affected by you. 

GOAL: THE WINDOW OF TOLERANCE: I mention above that regulation involves bringing the left brain back online. What does that mean? Our left brain (pre-frontal cortex) is the seat of rational thought, while our right brain (limbic system) is the source of our emotions. The left brain is “slower” than the right because it deals with interpretations while the right brain focuses on reactions, so when we get upset, our left brain is deprived of oxygen so that we can respond quickly and protect ourselves. 

This is great if we are facing a tiger in the woods, but not so great if we are facing an upset partner who needs to be responded to! In order to have healthy conflict we have to be able to keep both our right and left brains online so that they can work together. This does not mean that we have to be calm as a cucumber, instead we need to be able to feel what we feel and still talk about it. This is called the Window of Tolerance, and the size of the window is based on our past experiences. Trauma can shrink it and make it harder to stay regulated, but a caring response can enlarge the window

When we are able to talk to, and respond to, each other from within our respective windows of tolerance, then conflict can bring us closer by making the relationship safe for vulnerability.

HOW TO GET THERE AND STAY THERE: Getting to regulation takes work, but what kind of work? Ultimately if you want to get somewhere new you first have to first know where you are. This is where mindfulness comes in–it is the ability to have awareness of our emotional life so that we can be in relationship with it and exert influence when needed. 

Remember that dysregulation is the brain/body responding to a real or imagined threat, so it is up to our rational brain to distinguish between the two. The left brain can be thought of as the “navigator” of our emotions–the right brain chooses a course and the left brain decides if that is a good course to pursue. But we can’t access the aid of the left brain if the blood supply is cut off from it! Mindfulness of what we are feeling in our body can help us to notice if we are moving toward dysregulation–and then interrupt it if we don’t really need that level of response.

Many experts recommend meditation as a way to increase mindfulness, but we can also work on it by minimizing distractions, slowing down our conversations, using breathwork, and “unplugging” at the end of the day.  In relationships, we can ask our partner to help us out, by allowing them to comment when they notice us getting dysregulated. This can be as simple as agreeing on a “code word” or hand gesture, so that the comment itself does not trigger greater upset. 

Once you have experienced choosing your response, and the connection it fosters, it is hard to go back to reactivity! Fortunately, doing this work regularly also lessens the need to become dysregulated during conflict–we are strengthening the safety of our relationship, and our brain recognizes this. A safe and trusting relationship gives your brain the message that it does not need to “panic” when there is conflict.

Maintaining our emotional regulation requires good self-care and supportive relationships. But you also have to want it. If you feel that your life and relationship(s) would benefit from a calmer response, if you think that by being present you could make choices that lead you to the life you want to live, then set your goal on regulation as a step in that direction. Living your life means feeling it, not letting it drag you around. Being regulated shows that you are ready to do that as a functional, responsive adult!

IS LOVE A FEELING OR A CHOICE?

I recently read an opinion piece that explored what led to a more successful relationship: feeling love for, or choosing to love, a partner. This got me thinking about the two, and whether they were in fact different approaches at all. The debate is often based on data showing that arranged marriages, those in which the partners meet only briefly before commiting to a life together, tend to be just as happy as love-based marriages (suggesting that choosing to love someone works as well as feeling it “naturally”).

What is going on here? If we can be just as happy in an arranged marriage as a love-based one, then why go through all the trouble and expense of dating? If dating does not guarantee a better match than one set up by your parents, what is the point? I started thinking of all the time that could be saved! And yet there is not just one right way to start a relationship. The concern for me as a couples therapist is whether the approach my clients take to relationship is working for them.

Love is often misunderstood, and that can get us into trouble. It is like thinking that if you have courage, you have no fear–when courage is a response to fear, not the lack of it! If you take love as a stand-alone concept, you might be missing the point. Rather, think of love as the heading for a whole list of influences–love is a category, not an item. So when we ask if love is a feeling or a choice, the answer is…yes! Let’s look at why that is…

THE BIOLOGY OF FEELINGS: When we meet someone and feel a connection, we may think that it is “love at first sight”. Let me assure you that it never is love! What it is is the limbic system (a series of structures in the brain that release hormones and are involved in emotion and motivation) wanting desperately to bond with the other, and if it finds someone who it attunes to emotionally, physically, and intellectually, well, that need to bond can feel overpowering–like love. But it’s not. More likely it is your limbic system releasing dopamine and  norepinephrine, making you feel really great when you are with this new person!

This is why it is a good idea to hold off on starting a sexual relationship with someone new–giving the rational brain a chance to catch up with the limbic system. This is not a moral stand, but a practical one. The lymbic system does not evaluate whether a partner is a good match–it just wants what it wants. This is why feelings can mislead us into thinking that something is a good idea. Ideally we use both parts of the brain when making emotional decisions. If we take our time, we give our brains a chance to bond based on time spent with a person, resulting in the eventual release of oxytocin and vasopressin, the bonding hormones. Love, or care and concern for the other, begins to build. True love is not about us!

DO WE CHOOSE OUR FEELINGS? The short answer is: sometimes. Since the brain and the body are part of a system, they work interactively and they affect each other. Sometimes we have a feeling that causes us to think a certain way about what is happening, and sometimes we have a thought that result in a feeling. I suspect that in arranged marriages where love develops, it is a result of both processes happening.

I often tell couples that if you want to be in love with your partner, “act” like you are in love with them. This is a cognitive exercise that uses thought to trigger feeling.  Have you ever gone to a movie that you want very badly to love? Your thought about wanting to love it will influence how you feel about it, regardless of the merits of the film! You can’t completely separate the brain’s rational thought processes from its feelings center, so why not use it to your advantage? Go with the “feelings” initiated in the limbic system, and then use your rational brain to either support or suspend that process.

LOVE AS A CONSCIOUS CHOICE: It is time to do away with the harmful, foolish, and frankly crazy notion of “falling in love” as an actual state of being. Let’s replace it with a combination of both the great feelings that occur during attraction and a rational exploration, over time, of whether the other is responsible for his or her own stuff, and responsive to yours. This approach uses the best of both feeling and choice, and can lead to healthier results!

Choice is best done with an awareness of what the options are, and therapy can help to uncover these and make them conscious! I like to think that this type of work on the self helps one to respond to the world rather than react to it–leading to a more preferred experience and outcome. What could be wrong about that?

We all love falling in love because it feels great and makes our “regular” world extraordinary for a while. I am here to say that by inviting the rational mind into the process, that extraordinariness can be extended into something real and lasting: secure attachment with another and feeling cared for. Relationships are hard enough even when they are good, so why make them more difficult by relying only on your feelings? When you make love a choice, the odds are that you will feel even better about it in the long run!

TRAVELING WITHIN YOUR RELATIONSHIP

I recently spent a couple of weeks in Europe visiting ancient sites and eating wonderful food. This trip was special, as I don’t usually travel outside of California, so I really got a chance to see and do things that I don’t normally do. Since it is summer, you might have had a similar experience with your own travel adventures lately–and you may have even chosen your destination with “doing something different” as the goal.

My trip got me thinking about travel, both without and within, and as a couples therapist I could not help but wonder how the idea of “travel” might apply to the work I do. Many couples go on vacation together, but I know just as many who purposely go on separate vacations without their partners (including myself)! This used to puzzle me–but I get it now–we need to nurture the individual. I also started to think more about how we can move around without actually going anywhere–traveling within the relationship. And I thought I would share my thoughts about this as we enjoy the summer vacation season.

What does it mean to travel within the relationship, and what is the purpose of doing so?

TRAVELING TO GET AWAY: Most people think of traveling as a chance to “get away” from our lives for a spell–away from work, home, and the daily routine. I like to think of it as a chance to get away from ourselves, at least as much as that is possible. Wanting to get away from oneself does not mean that we don’t like who we are–I am referring to it in the context of wanting a different experience of ourselves than the usual.

Is it okay to want a different experience of ourselves in our relationships? Of course it is! Part of my work is helping couples talk to each other about how they are developing independent of the other: changing, growing, and learning. This is often an uncomfortable conversation, as people are worried they will be judged or rejected by their partners if they change. I help with the understanding and acceptance of this, because if there is one thing we can all count on, it is that change is inevitable!

Traveling to get away within a relationship is not something to be afraid of, as long as it benefits both the individual and the relationship. For example, let’s say that one partner decides to take a dance class on their own in order to explore something that has always interested them. This example of “traveling away” can be great for a couple if the goal is to a) create some healthy distance in the relationship; b) get excited about yourself in a new way; and c) bring the excitement of a new experience back home. You might find that if you support your partner’s individual explorations, you will never get “bored” with who they are. Besides, spending time away from each other gives you space to miss and appreciate each other!

TRAVELING TO GET PERSPECTIVE: Esther Perel has written a lot about how healthy distance elevates passion and interest in relationships. I would like to add that it also gives perspective. Perspective is valuable because it can change how we feel. When couples spend too much time together or share every activity, it can result in staleness. Some couples can be together a lot and thrive, but that is usually because they are extremely well-differentiated, so they retain their one-ness despite living in the two-ness!

Getting a new perspective applies both to how we see our partners and how we see ourselves. There is an exercise for couples where one of them goes to a bar alone and interacts with others, and then the partner comes in later and watches the interactions from a distance before joining the “game”. For extra fun, I will have the joining partner compete with others for their partner’s attention! I will often hear that excitement levels were high, and the joining partner “forgot” how attractive their partner is until they saw others interacting with them. This experiment incorporates the concepts of “risk and the forbidden“, which are two of the key elements of passion. Of course, I am talking about taking a risk, not being reckless!

TRAVELING WITHIN: We can get bored with ourselves at times, too! Daily life can feel like a routine with little change, and many of the tasks we do we are only “half-conscious” for, because they don’t require our full attention. I like the “Zen” way of thinking that says if we can’t be see value in the process, how can we see value in the reward?

Traveling within a relationship is a way to “refresh” yourself, to bring new energy and attention to days that seems just like the ones that have come before. This “traveling” is often done internally–through meditation, journaling, quiet contemplation, therapy, time in nature–where we can be in communication with ourselves and our intentions. I teach partners how to help each other travel within by asking questions about their inner emotional world. Being curious about the other can stimulate curiosity about ourselves, leading to discoveries we were not previously aware of. In a way, we are constantly traveling within, we are just not aware of it!

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At the end of my recent travels, I was ready to come home, and excited to get back into “my life” here. I don’t travel to “get away” from my life, so I always look forward to coming back, but I do enjoy having a new experience and a new perspective. I find that these experiences resonate within me long after the vacation is over.

I encourage you to try out some travel this summer, whether it is around the world, around the block, or within. You might find that it creates changes in small but wonderful ways. We all need a break, even from what and who we love! See what traveling within relationship can do for you–you really don’t have to go too far at all.