Is Self-Regulation or Co-Regulation Better for Couples? By Tony Rousmaniere, PsyD on 1/20/12 - 4:59 PM

Should couples in distress attempt to change their partner or themselves? Recent research discusses concerns about both of these strategies, and raises an interesting third option. Shreena Hira and Nickola Overall examined 160 couples attempting to change their partner or themselves. As they expected, attempts to change their partner didn’t make either their partner or themselves feel better. Surprisingly, however, a focus on self-change did not consistently help the relationship either. Instead, the researchers discovered that the most beneficial change occurred when one or both partners in the relationship perceived the other as changing themselves (self-regulating.)

This poses an interesting challenge for couples therapists, as partners don’t always perceive the change (or effort) made by their partners, and rarely does either partner want to “go first”.  One idea to address this dilemma, proposed by Victor Yalom, is for the therapist to help clients  tune into the changes and effort made by their partner, even if the change or effort is very small.  This can help build trust, morale and set the stage for greater changes later.  Likewise, therapists could use recognition of small-item effort or change as an assessment tool for determining when the couple is ready to work on more challenging change goals.

There is currently a hot debate in the field between therapists who promote self-regulation (differentiation) and therapists who promote co-regulation (attachment). This research suggests that couples may in fact improve co-regulation capacity by witnessing self-regulation efforts by their partner. 

From: Shreena N. Hira & Nickola C. Overall. (2010). Improving intimate relationships: Targeting the partner versus changing the self. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 28, 610-633.

File under: Couples Therapy, Therapy Training