By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
People are emotional beings. Unlike video recorders that unemotionally document events, people often respond with intensity to exciting possibilities, threats, and everyday challenges. To function effectively, they have to regulate their emotions, finding a way to experience their lives while not becoming overwhelmed by them. And when two people meld into one couple, they become part of each other’s system of emotional regulation.
If you have ever had a partner, you know this from experience. With a look of adoration, your partner can excite you. In contrast, their words of disapproval can make you feel sick. And together, with each of you playing a part in your ‘couplehood,’ you affect each other in a chain of reactions. If you are a good team, you soothe each other’s distress by truly listening, sharing words of support, and offering a hug. Even during a disagreement, you can help each other calm down when exchanges get heated. A well-placed joke or gently holding onto your partner’s hand can redirect the interaction from a destructive path to a relationship-building one.
Consider this example of how partners can help each other feel better: Allison sobs as she struggles with feeling rejected by a friend. Her boyfriend, Louis, consoles her by listening empathically and just holding her. Allison feels loved and begins to calm down. She hugs Louis back and tells him how special he is. Louis feels appreciated and loves Allison all the more.
Not only is this a psychological dynamic between partners, it is wired into every person on a physical level, too. For instance, scientists have identified oxytocin as the “hormone of love and bonding.” When people feel cared about– with a hug, caress, or kind words – their bodies produce oxytocin. With that, they experience more of a sense of trust, safety, connection, and warmth. And, as a result, they express more love and caring, triggering an increase in oxytocin in their partner.
Another example of how couples regulate each other’s emotions on a physical level can be seen in experiments conducted in 2006 by neuroscientist James Coan. He had women in committed relationships receive an electrical shock. When those in healthy relationships held their partner’s hand, they were less distressed, had lower blood pressure, and actually felt less pain than when they did not hold their partner’s hand. It’s important and interesting, however, that those in unhappy relationships did not experience this protective effect.
Similarly, another study showed that when those deeply in love stared at their partner, they physically felt good—the reward centers in their brains lit up. While new lovers were also afraid and anxious, those in long-term relationships felt calmer, indicating that they felt safe with each other.
If you basically feel positively toward your partner, you might want to test out this bit of science at home. Pay attention to how your body feels when you meet your partner after being away from each other for a day or longer. When you are particularly distressed, see if you can calm yourself by looking into your partner’s eyes and then sharing in an extended hug. Finally, try using this knowledge to help you and your partner negotiate conflicts, doing something to help calm the tension if it gets too intense. What you may discover in doing these experiments at home is that you and your partner are wired together; you are an integrated emotional system that can help you feel good as you negotiate the challenges of daily life.
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