Effective emotional regulation skills is essential to our well being. Developing techniques to proficiently manage the waves of feeling affects keeps us within our windows of tolerance during the internal tossing and turning of emotion from daily encounters with life. Emotional regulation is a key function of resilience. We may think of emotional regulation as strictly an internal function. A skill we develop independently. However, one of the greatest regulating forces is the ability to draw calming resources externally. Regulating emotion through interaction with others in psychology is referred to as dyadic regulation.
We pretend we are autonomous. We love internet quotes that give us superhero powers over our the flow of internal affect experience. Improperly emotional coaches fling thoughtless “truths” at those suffering internal emotional battles. They sing of strength and choice. “You choose how you feel,” they teach, ignoring the biological truths flowing through our veins.
Emotions are a biological function, largely to assist with complex social interactions. Internal motivators and inhibitors guide action, pushing for one course over another. We don’t choose our emotions; we regulate and mediate our emotions, drawing from their wisdom and avoiding their misdirection.
Emotional Worlds Intertwined with Others
T. Franklin Murphy explained that “we are emotionally tied to others; the more intimate the connection, the more significant the other mobilizes our emotions. Intimate relationships intensify biological responses” (2012).
Daniel Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA school of medicine, repeatedly teaches the importance of dyadic regulation in intensive work and research on the brain. He wrote that “balanced interpersonal communication allows the activity of one mind to sense and respond to the activity of another. The ways we connect with each other directly shape how we ‘regulate’ our emotions and alter our states of mind. In other words, dyadic regulation directly shapes ‘self-regulation'” (2001, Kindle location 532).
According to Diana Fosha, the developer of Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy, a healing-based and transformation-oriented model of psychotherapy, explains that “the most essential information that emotions convey is information about the self in relation to and with others” (2001).
Because of emotions significant role in relationships, interpersonal communications calm or magnify states of arousal. A partner may soothe heightened emotions, bringing them back to manageable levels or further excite the arousal inviting emotionally overloaded states of disorganized chaos.
According to T. Franklin Murphy, healthy dyadic regulation occurs when “emotionally connected partners attune to each other’s feelings. This connection provides an additional resource for regulating emotions. Emotional arousal doesn’t ignite frightening conflict but elicits compassionate support” (2021).
In a 2019 paper, the researchers explain the dyadic regulation process as interpersonal emotion regulation. They wrote, “interpersonal emotion regulation refers to the up- and downregulation of emotions through social interactions, in which individuals’ emotions are connected to and affected by the emotions of their interaction partner (Koivula et al., 2019).
Mother-Child and Dyadic Regulation
The earliest and most impactful experience of dyadic regulations occurs in the mother-infant bonds. During the dawning moments of an infants life attachment is demonstrated by the mother, setting into motion a dyadic regulating pattern that promotes security or confusion.
Linda Graham, a professor in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education at the Queensland University of Technology, wrote that “dyadic regulation is the process by which the brain of a calm, well-regulated parent teaches the brain of a fussy baby to calm down and soothe itself: it provides the conditioning that enables the baby’s prefrontal cortex to learn to regulate its autonomic nervous system (ANS)” (2013).
At these early stages of life, Siegel writes that “the parent provides ‘hidden regulators’ that directly facilitate these basic functions in the infant.” He continues to explain that, “as maturation unfolds, ‘dyadic regulation’ becomes important in enabling the child to monitor and modify more complex states of mind” (2001, Kindle location 6,106).
Misattunement and Repair
The process of learning regulating skills from the mother doesn’t require a perfectly responsive mother. We would all fail. Occasionally, a mother’s attention is drawn away from the child, cues are missed, ruminations of life stressors intrude, and personal emotions drift into states of chaos. Our lives beyond the cradle will always be marred with occasional moments of disconnection. Security is not a product of constant attunement. Security emerges from a process of repair following emotional disconnections.
Fosha taught that a dyadic regulating process of “attunement, misattunement, and reattunement are imprinted into the early developing brain” (2008, Kindle location 444). The pattern of attachment rupture and repair teaches the child that emotional states can be regulated and a homeostatic balance regained. She reiterates this process of disconnection and repair, writing, “we know that the caregiver is not always attuned; indeed, developmental research shows frequent moments of misattunement in the dyad, ruptures of the attachment bond. She continues, “the reattuning, comforting mother and infant thus dyadically negotiate a stressful state transition of affect, cognition, and behavior” (Kindle location 364).
The caregiver is responsible for the reparation of dyadic mis-attunements because the child has not yet learned self-soothing. Siegel adds, “mis-attunements lead to dysregulation, which requires ‘interactive repair’ if the child is to regain equilibrium” (2001, Kindle location 6106).
See Still Face Experiments for more on this topic
Dyadic Regulation Throughout the Life Span
Dyadic regulation is not just a mother infant phenomenon. We continue to draw upon dyadic emotional regulation throughout out lives. The tools available for regulating mature along with the developing child. Life becomes more complex and so does internal organizing of the complexity.
As a child’s complexity increases, interpersonal communication can facilitates autonomous self-regulation. The child still needs a caregivers attunement to their budding emotions, receiving emotional messages and responding with gentleness. The caregiver can help the child walk through the emotions, labeling the experience with words through a “reflective dialogue that permits the child to develop coherence and mentalizing capacities” (2001, Kindle location 6904).
In adulthood, we typically mature, learning to self-soothe and down regulate emotions. We rely on a wider array of regulations skills and tools. Dyadic regulation can be a valuable resource in successfully managing emotions.
Dyadic Regulation in Adult Relationships
While our partners impact our emotions for better and worse, we cannot place our entire emotional life at their doorstep and demand they take complete responsibility. Adult relationships are complex. The communication, negotiations, and compromises engage emotions.
Healthy relationships embrace dyadic emotional regulation. They understand and respect their partner’s personal experience of emotion and contribute to the work of keeping a partner within their own boundaries of emotional tolerance.
In over a decade of research, I have identified a few helpful techniques that improve dyadic emotion regulation for partners:
We can’t soothe emotions if don’t recognize the emotion. Attuning requires a sensitivity to a partners emotional experience. Attuning is honoring a partner’s emotion without need to change their experience. Attunement is a resonating with the experience of our partner.
Through emotional attunement, a partner may “safely project ‘valued’ parts of the self” onto their lover know that their vulnerability will be honored. When we attune to a partner, we enhance their ability to regulate. Through attuning, our support soothes fears of aloneness in difficult emotion.
Validating emotion adds to attunement. Not only do we attune but we express acceptance. Validating emotion “is communicating to another person that their emotions are heard, understood, and appropriate.” T, Franklin Murphy explains that “we want to matter. Our world flows deep beneath our skin. Our sense of aliveness is the energy of emotion” He continues, “invalidation of our emotions stings, sending waves of shame. We experience the devastation of aloneness in our experience” (2021).
Siegel wrote that “the joining of minds is in full force—there is an overwhelming sense of immediacy, clarity, and authenticity. It is in these heightened moments of engagement, these dyadic states of resonance, that one can appreciate the power of relationships to nurture and to heal the mind” (2001, Kindle location 8497).
Fosha refers to this validating interpersonal state as “the basis for affective resonance, the feeling of being understood, and thus, ultimately, secure attachment” (2008, Kindle location 1,744).
Partner buffering is a term I discovered in a 2014 research paper. Just as we need individualized responses to our emotions, so do our partners. There are no ‘one-size-fits-all’ technique to soothe emotion. Shoving our personal experience into some canned, pretend, caring response won’t do.
When overwhelmed my wife soothes emotions by making lists, creating budgets, and identifying a plan. These techniques gives her a handle on the anxiety. However, these regulating practices magnify my stress. I need space. I need a cup of coffee and a reflective session listening to the birds.
An effective dyadic regulating partnership understands the increased complexity of emotion when expanded by the inclusion of another person. I can’t force my wife to listen to the birds in her states of arousal. Her mind will torment her, preventing any down-regulation. I can’t focus on plans until my heart slows. The song of a robin and the coo of a dove distract me attention and bring me back within my widow of tolerance.
In Jeffery K. Simpson and Nikola A. Overall present partner buffering within the framework of insecure attachment styles. They explain that a partners individualized response can address the both anxious or avoidant attachment styles. In their words, “some partners find ways to buffer (emotionally and behaviorally regulate) insecurely attached individuals, which helps such individuals feel better and behave more constructively and improves the relationship.” In conclusion, they wrote that “understanding when and how this important interpersonal process works requires a dyad-centered approach” (2014).
How does this look in practice?
- You give your avoidant husband space
- You help your process oriented wife brainstorm
- You give your anxiously attached boyfriend reassurance of love
Limiting Negative Affect
Healthy dyadic relationships limit negative affect. Just as a couple can revel in positive affect, lifting each others moods, they can also magnify negative affect. Consequently, these patterns are mutually escalating. One partner’s arousal may routinely lead to mutual arousal, each partner upping the ante, until the final explosion. These relationship dramas damage closeness.
Emphatically, Fosha warns, “a dyadic system that mutually amplifies intense negative affect, can rapidly escalate” (2008, Kindle location 2,010). She explains that “resilience-engendering dyads minimize the amount of time spent in negative emotions associated with stress and misattunement, and maximize the time spent in the coordinated states” (2019, Kindle location 3,814).
A Few Final Remarks from Psychology Fantatic
Independence is wonderful. Autonomous strengths are wonderful. However, Developing inner resilience does not require abandoning the tremendous power of external resources. Healthy relationships with loving partners adds to our inner strength, multiplying personal resilience by adding the foundational and emotional strength of a healthy other.
Fosha, Diana (2001). The dyadic regulation of affect. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 57(2), 227-242.
Fosha, Diana (2008). The Transforming Power Of Affect: A Model For Accelerated Change. Basic Books.
Fosha, Diana (2019) Emotion and Recognition at Work Energy, Vitality, Pleasure, Truth, Desire & The Emergent Phenomenology of Transformational Experience. In Daniel Siegel, Marion Solomon, & Dianna Fosha (Eds) The Healing Power of Emotion: Affective Neuroscience, Development & Clinical Practice (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition
Gillis, A., & Roskam, I. (2020). Regulation between daily exhaustion and support in parenting: A dyadic perspective. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 44(3), 226-235.
Graham, Linda (2013). Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being. New World Library; 1st edition
Koivula, K., Kokki, H., Korhonen, M., Laitila, A., & Honkalampi, K. (2019). Experienced Dyadic Emotion Regulation and Coping of Parents With a Seriously Ill Child. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 8(1), 45-61.
Murphy T. Franklin (2021) Emotionally Connected. Flourishing Life Society. Published 2-8-2021. Accessed 5-19-2022.
Schore, A.N. (2003). Affect Regulation and the Repair of the Self (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition
Siegel, D. J. (2001). The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press; First edition
Simpson, J., & Overall, N. (2014). Partner Buffering of Attachment Insecurity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(1), 54-59.