A wide body of research points to the fact that human beings are hardwired for connection – no wonder it feels good to be physically and emotionally close to those we love! The emotional bond that we share with others, also referred to as attachment, can impact our wellbeing and stress levels. In romantic relationships, this is especially true. In fact, in some ways our bodies are even regulated by our partners.
A study conducted by James Coan and colleagues assessed married women’s brain activity after being told they would receive an electric shock; results from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) indicated that hypothalamus (the brain’s internal regulator) activity lit up (aka: their stress detection system freaked out) when they were alone, reduced slightly when they held the hand of a stranger, and was barely detectable when their partner was holding their hand. The main message: there is a biological link between our stress response and attachment to our partners.
The good news is that there are collaborative techniques that couples can use to help regulate their nervous systems, ways in which can simultaneously increase intimacy, offer supportive presence, and find a mutual calm:
Take a Break and Reconvene.
When you and your partner argue, do things get a little loud or out of control? This may be a good time to agree to some space for a specific window of time, whether that be 10 minutes or an hour. During this time apart, each partner can regulate their nervous systems by engaging in a calming activity or self-care. For example, you may want to go for a short walk outside and your partner may take a shower.
When the agreed time apart has passed, then you can come back together and continue the conversation from a calmer, more regulated state. By being consistent with the established time apart and coming back together, this also builds trust – though you took time apart to regulate, you still show up for each other to work things out!
Try a “Heart Hug.”
There’s a good reason why hugs from our significant other calm us. Physical contact with our partner can help us feel grounded and safe. Why not enhance the comfort and safety of the experience with a more intentional hug? A “heart hug” describes hugging your partner with your hearts touching (on the left side); notice when your breathing aligns to the point where you can exhale with ease. Hold each other until you both feel soothed. Use this technique when one partner is feeling dysregulated or overwhelmed.
Ball Toss Activity.
When you need to talk through something with your partner and it is an anxiety-inducing conversation, one way to co-regulate is through a ball tossing activity. Gently toss a soft ball (such as a small bean bag/hacky sack or a stress ball) underhand to your partner as you work through the conversation. The rhythm, focus and coordination, and movement can help you both regulate and attune to each other.
Breathwork is another technique that can be used anytime and anywhere, referring to intentional use of the breath to reach a state of calm. Though many people use breathwork individually, it can also be used with your partner present. Find a comfortable place to sit with your partner; this may be on a bed or comfy couch. Inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth, take deep breaths together (inhaling for 4 counts, holding the breath for 4 counts, and slowly exhaling for 4 counts).
Seek Therapeutic Help.
Though coping skills are wonderful tools to have in your kit, it is also important to get to the root of the overwhelm or challenges in your relationship. Therapists can provide empathy and compassion while helping you work through the root of the issue, whether that be communication and conflict resolution, intimacy concerns, or other challenges that may show up in our relationship. For help with this, more tips, and attentive support, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at Love Heal Grow.
Hi, I’m Ashley Barnes, therapist for individuals and couples at Love Heal Grow Counseling.
I help individuals and couples who seek to improve and enhance their relationships, those who wish to heal from painful experiences and navigate big life changes, and those who aspire to improve their mental well being.
You can read more about me or schedule an appointment here: About Ashley