In a world that emphasizes independence and self-regulation, the transition to attuning to the needs of a romantic partner can be challenging. This is especially true for individuals who have experienced attachment trauma during their early years. However, the secret to maintaining a long-lasting and emotionally fulfilling relationship lies in the ability to have emotional attunement, self-regulation, and coregulation with your partner. While some people may naturally possess these skills, others can develop them through education, communication, and practice.
Understanding Attunement and Coregulation
Attunement and coregulation are deeply rooted in our biology and are crucial for survival. During infancy, caregivers demonstrate emotional attunement by paying close attention to and responding to a child’s physical and emotional states. This helps children develop mirror neurons, which are essential for empathy. Attunement in early childhood builds trust and shapes a child’s perception of the world.
Coregulation occurs when someone can attune to you first. It is evident from the earliest stages of development, as infants find comfort in the sound of their mother’s voice. Caregivers responding to a child’s emotional shifts by offering comfort and support also exemplify coregulation. This process models self-regulation and creates a sense of safety. While coregulation is essential throughout life, individuals who have experienced trauma in their early years may struggle with achieving and maintaining emotion regulation, especially in intimate relationships.
How to Cultivate Emotional Attunement and Coregulation With Your Partner
Even if you didn’t experience emotional attunement and coregulation as a child, you can still develop these skills through practice. Our brains are highly adaptable, and continuous effort can create new neural pathways that facilitate attuning to others and achieving coregulation.
Paying Attention to Nonverbal Cues
Dr. Stan Tatkin, the creator of the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy (PACT), employs interventions to teach partner attunement and arousal regulation. One exercise involves partners facing each other and carefully observing their facial expressions and body language. By honing this skill, you can gather valuable information about your partner’s inner world. For example, noticing your partner playing with their hair during a conversation about work could prompt you to ask about their thoughts and feelings. The goal is to foster emotional understanding, attunement, and effective communication, ultimately reducing conflict.
Becoming an Active Listener
Becoming a better listener requires skill and practice. Dr. John Gottman, the founder of the Gottman Institute, highlights the importance of weekly check-ins with your partner. This dedicated time allows both partners to express their emotions freely, including the negative ones. It’s crucial not to anxiously try to fix your partner’s negative emotions, as research shows that expressing these emotions leads to increased attunement and improved mental health. Active listening involves focusing on your partner’s words, maintaining eye contact, and asking questions for clarity. By empathetically listening and expressing gratitude for your partner’s vulnerability, you foster trust and safety within the relationship.
Understanding Your Triggers
Trauma in early childhood can impact an individual’s ability to attune and regulate emotions, especially when hyper-vigilance is present. Working with a skilled trauma therapist can help you identify and understand your triggers in a safe environment. By discussing your triggers with your partner, you allow both of you to care for each other and provide support as a team, rather than relying solely on self-regulation.
The Importance of Attunement and Coregulation
Couples therapists often observe a common pattern during therapy sessions: a lack of attunement and difficulties with coregulation. When couples struggle to attune to each other, they may feel isolated, leading to resentment and unmet needs. By learning and practicing attunement and coregulation, couples can repair unaddressed ruptures within their relationship. These skills allow them to work together as a team and care for each other deeply.
Attunement and coregulation form the bedrock of healthy relationships. By improving these skills, you can significantly enhance the quality of your relationship in the short and long term. We often emulate our early experiences of attachment and coregulation in our romantic relationships, both in healthy and unhealthy ways.
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