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On Being Found

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,

A study by Nagasawa and his colleagues in Japan (2009) some years ago involving dogs and their owners found that if a dog looked into its owner’s eyes by finding the gaze first, the owner’s oxytocin levels went up. (I suspect dopamine might also be increased). However, if the owner’s gaze found the dog’s eyes first, no increase in oxytocin resulted. This finding has continued to “dog” me as I thought about infant attachment studies and adult romantic relationships. What is it about a dog, a baby, or a lover finding our eyes that leads to an increase in dopamine, oxytocin, vasopressin, or other neurochemicals related to the reward system?

During early infancy, when the newborn’s gaze is largely undirected, the catching of the mother’s gaze by the infant leads to a dopaminergic rush—a reward that is evident in the mother’s subsequent inviting vocal tone and facial expression. This excitement on her part amplifies the infant’s own interest in returning to the mother’s gaze, and thus the pattern repeats. We might imagine that if the mother chased the infant’s eyes (as in the case of the dog), the same neurochemical reaction would not occur for her. There does seem to be, in fact, a difference between finding and being found.

Find the Baby

A common maxim in the field of infant development is that, in the first year of life, the baby must lead. The baby’s mind has yet to be located; it is floating in some nether land, waiting to be discovered by an interested, attentive, and curious adult mind. The adult mind, or brain, must find the baby’s mind, and that can only be accomplished by allowing the baby to lead and the caregiver to follow. Donald Winnicott wrote about the mother’s intense primary maternal preoccupation with the newborn. She focuses attention on the nonverbal being, who can neither fend for itself nor express needs in an adult manner, and whose very life depends upon an interested other who can read its cues for comfort, food, and relief from pain. Indeed, the mother’s capacity for what Dan Siegel (2009) terms mindsight—her ability to read the infant’s needs and locate the baby’s mind—creates an external psychobiological womb-like experience for the defenseless, unhatched infant (Mahler, Bergman, & Pine, 1975).

Find Your Partner

Unlike the baby, your partner’s mind should be fully formed (we hope), and therefore not in need of being found in order to survive in the world. Nonetheless, it could be argued that both you and your partner need to be found to thrive in mind, body, and spirit if life together is to be worth much. Do you know how to find your partner? Have you been found?

The Eyes Have It

We are animals that function optimally by regulating our nervous systems (and emotions) interactively with others. The means of interactive (or mutual) regulation is primarily through touch, vision, and sound, in that order. Though touch has great power to down- and up-regulate another person, eye contact comes in a very close second. Indeed, when it comes to finding and being found, the eyes have it.

When we gaze at our partner (or baby or dog, for that matter), we are in real time. By gazing I don’t mean staring or looking through or looking inward; by gazing I mean being fully present in the eyes of our loved one. If we maintain presence—something our partner can see—we also become anchored in real time, in the present moment. If we look into our partner’s eyes, we can see him or her think, feel, and change before us.

Finding, Losing, and Finding Again

In case you think finding and being found is a one-time event, you’re dead wrong. The process of finding and being found is a series of losing the other and being lost. It’s an error-filled process of attunement and misattunement, of error making and error correction, of injury and repair. It’s not being found for good that is most important; rather, it is the continuous interest, as demonstrated by the other, in refinding you over and over again!

Our focused gaze and interest in finding our partner over and over again not only cultivate a feeling of love and excitement (dopamine), but also reintroduce us to the strangerness that is our partner—his or her uniqueness, unpredictability, and complexity. Our sense of self and other becomes refreshed, new, updated, and novel. When our partner gazes attentively, he or she can find us despite our attempts to hide or remain unknown and unfound. Couples who rely on interactive regulation, which is really close-up play, benefit from the moment-by-moment experience of finding and being found.

Of course, we must have an interest in finding our partner! Some partners are as disinterested in finding each other as were their parents in finding them as a baby. Some partners are overly interested in finding but not in being found, as happened in childhood with their caregivers. Always turning away toward the self as a masturbatory exercise in self-finding is as lonely as always turning toward another person in a perpetual search for the other who may one day find us. Finding and being found must be interactive, mutual, and effortful. Otherwise, just stick with the dog.

Mahler, M. S., Bergman, A., & Pine, F. (1975). The psychological birth of the human infant: symbiosis and individuation. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Nagasawa, M., Kikusui, T., Onaka, T., & Ohta, M. (2009). Dog’s gaze at its owner increases owner’s urinary oxytocin during social interaction. Hormones and Behavior, 55, 3, 434–441.

Siegel, D. (2009). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York, NY: Bantam.

 © 2003-2013 Stan Tatkin, PsyD – all rights reserved

Arousal Regulation and Mindfulness for Couples

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,

In PACT, we talk about various strategies for emotional and arousal regulation. Auto-regulation is a process of self-management that is internally focused, energy conserving (because it doesn’t involve interactions with people), and somewhat dissociative. It is a non-social strategy in the sense that it does not require another person. For instance, when I manage myself by self-stimulating and self-soothing; others are not required or even wanted. Some people find using mindfulness practices for auto-regulatory purposes to be a better strategy than constantly seeking to be left alone.

Self-regulation, on the other hand, is a pro-social strategy that focuses on self-management. In other words, I manage myself so I can better maintain social engagement with others.

Mindfulness practices can be used effectively for self-regulatory purposes. I suspect this is one of the reasons behind their recent popularity.

In fact, the term “mindfulness” carries various subtle shades of meaning, reflecting different schools of practice. For example, when I studied Morita and Naikan (two forms of Japanese psychotherapy) with David K. Reynolds (1989), mindfulness was emphasized differently in each. Morita required me to pay continuous attention to the outside world while accepting my thoughts and feelings as outside my conscious control. Because thoughts and feelings cannot be controlled by will alone (like the weather), the smart thing to do is to accept them “as is” and focus on one’s purpose. So I learned to be mindful and centered on purpose (not on feeling or thinking). The initial result of such a practice was intense existential angst, but eventually it disciplined me to appreciate details in the world around me while being less hung up on my internal world. Naikan required a continuous attention on what I received from people, what I gave to people, and the trouble I caused people. The initial result of that practice was strong feelings of guilt and remorse, but it also led to profound, pervasive feelings of gratitude. Naikan practice helped me see what I got from people and what I continually get from people despite my attitude, my greediness, my envy, and my self-centeredness.

When I learned vipassana (a form of Theravada Buddhist meditation), also known as insight meditation, from Shinzen (Stephen) Young, mindfulness meant continuous, moment-by-moment attention to body sensations, thoughts, emotions, impulses, and urges as they arose and soon faded. The two-part technology of vipassana (attention and equanimity) taught me to manage my internal world. Notice and allow. Notice and allow. I could learn to handle physical pain, as well as mental and emotional anguish, without suffering. Wow. Talk about self-regulation! Vipassana was (and is) a mind-blower.

Each of these—Morita, Naikan, and vipassana—is an example of mindfulness practice. Each is powerful and quite different from the others, yet each yields benefits for only as long as the practice is maintained. Stop the practice and the benefits stop, too.

These practices can be done either alone or with a partner. For instance, my wife and I can decide to practice vipassana or any other mindfulness practice together, in the same room at the same time. Nice.

We can also face each other and practice mindfulness meditation while in each other’s eyes (simultaneous attention to both inside and outside). Practicing in this way cultivates interactive regulation (sometimes referred to as co-regulation or mutual regulation). Because it involves use of the near senses (e.g., vision, voice, or touch), interactive regulation is like a dance between two nervous systems, two minds, two bodies. It is a social-emotional balancing act that requires attention, presence, and equanimity. Each of the following suggestions emphasizes mindfulness and equanimity as a two-person, interactive regulatory practice.

Using Morita, mindful attention is placed onto the outside world. That includes your partner! We pay attention to each other’s eyes, facial expressions, body movements, implicit signals and bids for attention. We accept feelings and thoughts, both positive and negative, “as is,” without judgment or complaint. Instead, we focus on purpose, such as providing each other relief, anticipating each other’s needs and wants, and attending to what needs to be done rather than on what we feel or think. For example, my wife and I can decide to have an entire evening of nonverbal interactions—on purpose, of course. We can make and eat dinner, relying solely on nonverbal communication. We have to anticipate each other’s moves; interpret each other’s signals (e.g., “pass the salt”); and work together cooperatively.

This practice of noble silence can continue through the evening and into bedtime, as well as during our transition to sleep. An adventurous couple could try this for an entire day or maybe even a weekend. If you’re in a couple, see what it’s like. Pretend you can’t talk and can only use nonverbals.

Another Morita mindfulness exercise could involve giving one another a massage. The massage should be like a mindfulness meditation in which the giver pays moment-to-moment, purposeful attention to the act, while accepting all thoughts and feelings “as is.” The Morita reason for giving a massage is that it needs to be done with full attention! The good thing about massage, like eye contact, is that the receiving partner can always tell if the giving partner’s mind is drifting.

In Wired for Love, I suggest that couples do bedtime rituals. One such ritual is to do a loving kindness meditation. Variations of loving kindness practices include those stemming from vipassana. Naikan also has a loving kindness practice that can be done at any time of day. For instance, make a list of people who gave you things today, whether or not you wanted the gift, whether or not they intended to give it to you, or whether their attitude was good or bad. Take a piece of paper and draw three columns, with the first entitled “What he/she gave to me today.” Both partners should spend considerable time on this particular column before moving on to the next column, which is entitled “What I gave him/her/them today.” The third column should be entitled “The trouble I caused him/her today.” This last column should also receive proper attention to detail. Reading this list aloud to one another can become a Naikan loving kindness practice.

Alternatively, a couple can give their best wishes to those people past and present, living and dead, as the partners drift off to sleep at night. This mindfulness practice of attending to others in a loving way can provide an internal social connection for those who feel alone, lonely, abandoned, or isolated.

Whether doing vipassana, Naikan, Morita, or any other self-enhancing mindfulness practice, the purpose should be to increase one’s presence. It should not be a means to avoid, space out, trip out, self-soothe or self-stimulate. We are social creatures and mindfulness should be a means toward becoming more connected to ourselves and others.

Reynolds, D. K. (1989). Flowing bridges, quiet waters: Japanese psychotherapies, Morita and Naikan. Albany: State University of New York Press.

© 2003-2013 Stan Tatkin, PsyD – all rights reserved

Daily Rekindling of Love

by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT,

Romantic love is an addiction. Although we “feel” romantic love, the feeling is largely the result of a particular brain circuitry and neurochemical cocktail more closely related to the addiction or reward circuit.

Successful long term couples understand how to maintain their “addiction” to one another through daily techniques that result in mutual amplification of positive feeling. In other words, partners are able to rekindle their reward circuitry, the very same neural network that contributed to their initial romantic excitement with one another. There are three practicals ways to do this, two of which are well-known and the third not-so-well-known.

1. The Lovers’ Gaze (aka primary intersubjectivity)
2. Joint attention to a third object, person, idea, activity, etc. (aka secondary intersubjectivity)
3. Conversion of Personal Positive Feeling for Mutual Amplification

The Lovers’ Gaze

Arguably, it is with the eyes, or more specifically, the lovers’ gaze, that we fall in love. True also that other senses are also involved — smell, touch, prosody (vocal tone), and even taste. I have said in other writings, such as Wired for Love, when it comes to the eyes, lust is at a distance but love is up close. That is because when we look into each other’s eyes we are looking into the windows of our nervous systems — live! The lovers’ gaze, alternately beguiling and relaxing, is dopaminergic in that it activates the reward circuit. When we gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes we mutually amplify or “get high” off our internal psychostimulants. The eyes up close carry simultaneous streams of familiarity and the strangerness. The correct combination of these two qualities of familiarity and strangerness are bound to get the reward circuit cooking especially due to the mixture of fear (amygdala and anterior cingulate) and desire (dopamine, noradrenaline, GABA, testosterone, and oxytocin). Helen Fisher and John Gottman have covered the subject of neurochemistry and romantic love in their publications.

There are many couples who do not utilize primary intersubjectivity (eye to eye), at least not after the courtship phase. Too bad for them.

Joint Attention

We can’t always look to the eyes for rekindling of our love addiction. If forced, that could turn into a kind of torture, the opposite of what we want to create. So, the alternative is to focus on a third thing. Perhaps it’s a (fun) discussion of politics, or an episode of some television show, or where we’re going to travel for our yearly vacation. We could jointly attend to our child, or our dog, or our dinner. We could play a game, engage with friends, dance, have sex, watch the sun set, and any of a multitude of third things, people, activities, etc. As long as we jointly attend and share the positive experience and not spend too much time in parallel play, we increase our chances to rekindle our addiction to one another. In other words, we can mutually amplify a positive state by activating reward circuits in our brains.

Joint attention allows us to amplify positives through common interests and common activities. Sadly joint attention is under-utilized by the majority of couples. Too many, by contrast, over-utilize parallel play and engage in separate activities while together but fail to connect or use one another for positive amplification. Too much parallel play often leads to complaints of loneliness by either or both partners. Parallel play is different from Donald Winnicott’s “going on being” which refers to one’s comfort while in the presence of an other while maintaining a quiet but alert state. Secure couples often engage in parallel play but generally do not favor it over primary and secondary intersubjectivity. Allan Schore has written extensively on the use of both primary and secondary intersubjectivity between mothers and infants and also on mutual amplification of positives which we discuss next.

Conversion of Personal Positive Feeling for Mutual Amplification

This third and last method for rekindling love addiction is not well-known or is often misunderstood. For those of us who did not see our parents use this method, it may not occur to us to use our own personal excitement as a path to mutual excitement.

First, imagine a hunter-gatherer and his wife and children. Everyday he goes out hunting and foraging and each day returns to his family looking a bit fatter. Shrugging, he says, “I got nothing.” Mutually amplified positive feeling is like food and energy for the couple system. Without it, couples have less energy, are less productive and successful, and the love each once felt for the other begins to wither away. Luckily there are ways to avoid this trap. Two methods have already been discussed above. The third one is more tricky.

Here’s how it works:

I feel a moment of positive feeling generated either internally for from some external source. I take that positive feeling and convert it into something useable for my partner; something that will increase positive feeling in her thereby amplifying the experience between us. For instance, I read something in a magazine that excites me. I turn to my wife and say, “I really love you.” I convert my personal excitement (source doesn’t matter) into something that my wife can use such as the real positive feeling I have for her. The gleam in my eyes creates a dopaminergic surge that reverberates between us for several moments thus creating the mutual amplification effect. I could be using my iPad and it could suddenly do something I hadn’t yet discovered. This discovery creates a spike of sympathetic arousal and a positive feeling. I could keep this momentary excitement to myself but that feeling would fade quickly. However, if I simply share with my wife my excitement over my iPad’s newly discovered abilities without converting it she might politely say, “That’s nice,” and my personal excitement would quickly come to an end. If I continue to share my unconverted personal excitement with my wife, I will likely lose any possibility of mutual amplification of positive feeling and, much worse, will risk becoming annoying.

Why annoying? Because my continued request to share my personal excitement with my wife will likely become a burden as it is a one-way deal; there’s nothing really for her. In PACT we call this method of interaction external regulation which is typically one-sided. This would be similar to a child’s repeated refrain, “Mommy, come look at what I’m doing!” While this is a necessary feature of parent-child interaction it may be an inappropriate strategy for romantic partners.

Here’s another example: A couple is enjoying their Hawaiian vacation under a beach cabana. She loves to read and relax. He becomes very excited by the novelty of the Hawaiian beach, the bright blue water, and the sweet atmospheric smells of the Hawaiian air. He turns to his wife and immediately feels disappointed. “How can you just lie there with your book when it’s so beautiful outside,” he says sharply to his wife. The result of this unfortunate tactic is what we would call mutual amplification of negative feeling. Had he simply converted his excitement by saying something like, “It is so beautiful here! I am so happy being here with you,” his excitement would have been useable by her and thereby amplified and shared by both partners.

Personal positive moments emerge frequently throughout any day. Even depressed people experience non-depressed moments. People in physical pain experience non-pain moments. Whether pleasure or excitement comes from internal or external sources or from the relief from pain, partners have the choice of keeping positive feelings to themselves or converting them for mutual amplification. How often do you or people you know do this? Sharing of personal excitement or pleasure can be accomplished in person, over the phone, through email or text message, or pigeon. The shared sentiment is always short, simple, and to the point. “I’m so in love with you,” or “I’m so lucky to have you in my life,” or “You make me happy.” In person, the gesture can simply be a twinkle in the eyes that says the same thing. Transmission of converted personal positive feeling works because the affect is real.

Imagine how many people either keep personal excitement to themselves (no mutual amplification of positives) or require partners to share in their personal excitement (annoying tactic that could lead to mutual amplification of negatives).

Skillful partners know how to convert personal excitement and throw it to their partners for mutual amplification. Most people either do not understand this strategy or do not exercise it for various reasons. For example, so-called love and sex addicts may routinely throw personal excitement to non-primary partners but never to their primary partner. I believe this to be less an “addiction” problem and more typical of attachment concerns.

Again, love, particularly of the romantic kind, is an addiction by virtue of the brain and body’s response to this experience. Acceptance of this idea does not devalue the extraordinary experience of falling in love nor does it pose a problem to long term relationships. Actually, it can be instructive to partners searching for ways to keep love alive. The answer is quite simple: partners must feed the love addiction on a daily basis, utilizing the Lovers’ Gaze, joint attention, and conversion of personal excitement for mutual amplification of positive feeling.

Would love to hear your comments. Do you use any of these methods?

Copyright 2012 — Stan Tatkin, Psy.D. — please do not copy or use without my permission