In western society, we often place a high value on independence and the ability to self regulate. While those skills are essential to our survival throughout adulthood, as we enter into romantic relationships, it can be challenging to switch from attuning to one’s needs to the needs of another, especially for individuals who experienced attachment trauma during early child developement.
However, the key to maintaining a long-term, emotionally fulfilling relationship is the ability to have emotional attunement, self regulation skills of one’s own emotions, and coregulating with your partner’s inner world. These complex skill sets may come easier to others, but for those looking to strengthen their relationship, emotional attunement and coregulation can be gained through education, communication, and practice.
What is Attunement & Coregulation?
The ability to emotionally attune and coregulate is deeply rooted in our biology and is needed for many species’ survival. During infancy, caregivers demonstrate emotional attunement when they pay close attention and respond to young childrens’ shifting physical and emotional state while being able to simultaneously self regulate.
For example, if the infant shows physical signs of happiness through smiling and cooing, the caregiver will mirror those expressions back to the child to express their enthusiasm. Neuroscience shows that the emotional attunement we experience from our caregivers helps children develop and strengthen mirror neurons which are the building blocks to developing empathy. Attunement in early childhood is essential to the child’s health, which allows them to develop trust for their caregiver and the world around them.
The ability to coregulate with others is experienced after someone can attune to you first. Coregulation is often first experience during neonatal development, as evidenced by infants being able to be comforted by the sound of their mothers. During early childhood, coregulation is often seen when a caregiver responds to the emotional shifts of the child and attempts to help the child regulate through a comforting smile, wraping them in their warm embrace, or giving the child food when hungry. Coregulation is an anchor to safety thus modeling self regulation. The need for coregulation is seen throughout a person’s life span but gradually will lessen throughout childhood and adolescence as they gain capacity for self regulation.
Individuals impacted by trauma, especially during early childhood by primary caregivers who weren’t able to properly attune or coregulate, may have a harder time maintaining their state of arousal and might find it challenging to achieve emotion regulation. In intimate relationships, challenges to regulate can seem more prevalent when unresolved trauma goes unaddressed.
How to Learn Emotionally Attunement & Coregulation With a Partner
Even if you didn’t experience emotional attunement and coregulation as a child, luckily, our brains are highly placid; through continuous practice, we can build new neuropathways making it easier to attune to the needs of others and obtain coregulation.
Taking note of nonverbal cues
Dr. Stan Tatkin, the creator of the PACT (Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy), utilizes specific interventions that teach partner attunement and arousal regulation. Regulation involves strengthening the mirror neurons. In Dr. Tatkin’s book We Do (2018), an exercise he uses to increase attunement is having two partners face one another and pay close attention to all the shifts and changes you notice in your partner’s facial expressions and body language.
Once you have become an expert, observe your partner and vice versa; you can use their subtle cues to gather more information about their inner world, thoughts, feelings, and behavior. For example, you might notice your partner playing with their hair during a conversation about their work life; you might ask your partner, “I notice you play with your hair when we talk about your work; what do you notice about that behavior?”
Dr. Tatkin’s goal of this exercise is to teach attuning to another person noticing the subtle shift in their social, emotional, and physical state, much like a securely attached caregiver would do for their child to foster emotional development. He expresses that you don’t want to jump to conclusions about what those shifts might mean, but note the subtle changes. This will strengthen your emotional understanding of one another, attune to each other during stressful situations, and decrease conflict due to mis communication.
Become a better listener
While learning to be a better listener may seem like an evident approach, learning how to be an active listener involves skill, problem solving, and practice. Dr. John Gottman, the creator of the Gottman Institute, discusses the importance of having weekly check-ins with your partner to allow one another to express all emotions. The critical component of this exercise is the ability to express ALL emotions, even the negative ones. Negative emotions are healthy to express to your partner and, over time, will lead to increased attunement but improve overall mental health for the individual.
Often partners will try to “fix” one another’s negative emotions for fear that it will make things worse when research shows the opposite. If the listener can remain calm and not anxiously fix the problem, they are also modeling for the other partner’s co regulation. Gottman discusses ways to become an active listener, including approaching the role as a listener with understanding, non defensive listening, and empathy, all of which support co regulation.
Active listening includes focusing on your partner’s words rather than how you want to respond. By facing your partner and remaining in their gaze, you can more readily attune to your partner’s non-verbal cues and ask questions for clarity, rather than from a stance of assumption. Letting your partner know they are not alone in their feelings by expressing gratitude for sharing their inner world creates a bond of trust and safety.
Knowing Your Triggers
Early childhood trauma can deeply impact one’s ability to attune to others especially if they are in a state of hyper vigilance. Working with a skilled therapist who specializes in trauma can help individuals better understand and identify their triggers in a safe and non-threatening environment.
When you can discuss your triggers with your partner, you allow for you both to be in each other’s care. In healthy relationships you take care of each other’s triggers and protect one another as a team, rather than relying solely on self regulation.
Why Attunement & Coregulation are Important
Couples therapists will often see a common pattern during couples therapy sessions: the lack of attunement and the difficulty for both or one partner to coregulate. When couples show difficulty to attune, they often feel isolated in their feelings, resentment can start to build, and both parties feel like their needs are not being met.
Thus, learning how to attune and coregulate with one another can help the couple repair years of unresolved ruptures within the relationship as they know how to work together as a team and begin to be in each other’s care.
Attunement and coregulation are the keystones to any healthy relationship. Learning how to improve upon these skills can drastically improve the quality of your relationship in the short and long term. We often imitate our early experiences of attachment and coregulation in our romantic relationships in healthy and unhealthy ways.