Affect Toleration and Regulation: One of 16 Essential Characteristics of Healthy Relationships
This is the 10th in a series of 16 characteristics describing mental “health” (a list I have borrowed from psychologist Nancy McWilliams). Each characteristic defines not just “mental health” but also relational health. Humans are built for relationship and in our relationships both health and illness are easily transferred. If one suffers, it is rare if those attached to that individual don’t suffer as well. If one is healthy, it is also rare if other’s don’t benefit. This series is about evaluating just how how both our health and our suffering may impact those with whom we relate.
On the surface, the concept for this article, “affect toleration and regulation” may either seem like I’m speaking a foreign language or just be of little to no concern. I doubt any of you woke up this morning wondering how well you were doing in the area of affect toleration and regulation. These are words and concepts psychologists think about but to which few others would even give a passing thought.
However, diving a little deeper can get us below the surface and can reveal just how all of us work at this every day without even knowing that we are doing it. Before we get to that, let me try to put this in terms we can all understand.
A secure attachment are one thing that all humans require for survival and well being. As even God is claimed to have said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” Managing the anxiety we experience when our primary attachments are threatened is one of our foremost occupations.
Think about your most important relationship. Now think about the last time that relationship felt threatened in any way. It might be as obvious as an argument this morning on the way out the door. Or, it could be that you wrecked your new boyfriend’s car when he let you borrow it. Or, maybe you saw your husband’s eyes follow a pretty girl across the room. Maybe your wife was intoxicated at a party and embarrassed you. Or possibly, you hear those dreaded words from your spouse, “I have something I need to talk to you about.”
It could also be more subtle. For instance, maybe your girlfriend makes a joke at your expense. Or, maybe a coworker casually remarks that she saw your husband at a downtown restaurant the other day having what appeared to be a lunch meeting with a woman (nothing inappropriate is suggested but it’s a meeting you knew nothing about).
Even more subtle are the nagging thoughts you have about a loss of desire you feel for your spouse; or simmering resentments over feeling unappreciated for all your hard work; or disappointments that married life is much harder than you had once imagined. It also could be as subtle as a forgotten kiss at the door or a look in your spouses eyes that leaves you feeling empty or distant.
Each of these scenarios are threats to your closest and most important relationships. Whether overt or subtle, the threats evoke feelings of anxiety. The anxiety might manifest itself as worry, terror, dread, or just a nagging doubt. As the intensity level rises you may be tempted to flee or attack, become frozen with fear or disconnected and dissociated from yourself altogether.
The real test of health is how you respond to these different affective (i.e. feeling) states. Health is defined here as our ability to manage these states of feeling without denying or disavowing them, or acting impulsively in our effort to defend or distract ourself from them.
Affective states can often be overwhelming leading us to dissociate or, at least, fail to understand or fully appreciate the impact it is having on us. We can end up “acting out” what we feel instead of being able to “talk it out” with our partner or someone else who can help “contain” it for us. (It’s also why psychologists will sometimes warn, “What you don’t talk out you are likely to act out.”)
Sometimes when people hear the word “contain” they hear it as encouraging the repression of feeling or bottling up the feeling. It’s just the opposite. To contain a feeling is to be able to hold onto it, to look at it from a more objective position, to examine its intensity, its toxicity, its potency, without experiencing to need to moralize it, minimize it, or eradicate it.
One of the benefits of therapy is that the therapist performs this function for clients by being their container. It describes the absolute freedom you have as a client to feel what you are not supposed to feel, think what you are not supposed to think, and say what you are not supposed to say. This is the “transcendent function” of the therapist as Carl Jung would say, or the “play space” Donald Winnicott described.
It is also one of the benefits of a healthy marriage. The safe haven or secure base of one spouse is the other. This is the person you go to when you are discomforted and and are in need of someone to hold you emotionally as you attempt to reconstitute yourself. Your partner helps you tolerate the intolerable feelings you have by helping you regulate them.
Unfortunately, it is also one of the great risks of marriage or any intimate relationship. The closer you get to someone the more he or she can hurt, frighten, or even terrorize you. Your partner, even through unintentional failures to successfully hold or contain your feelings, can awaken in you similar experiences hiding in your past of betrayal, humiliation, shame or despair.
I think that Sue Johnson, in her book Love Sense puts it in a way that highlights the contrast between marriage as a battleground and marriage as a safe haven. Both are struggles but they have vastly different outcomes:
“Distressed partners no longer see each other as their emotional safe haven. Our lover is supposed to be the one person we can count on who will always respond. Instead, unhappy partners feel emotionally deprived, rejected, even abandoned. In that light, couples’ conflicts assume their true meaning: they are frightened protests against eroding connection and a demand for emotional reengagement.
In contrast, at the core of happy relationships is a deep trust that partners matter to each other and will reliably respond when needed. Secure love is an open channel for reciprocal emotional signaling. Love is a constant process of tuning in, connecting, missing and misreading cues, disconnecting, repairing, and finding deeper connection. It is a dance of meeting and parting and finding each other again, minute by minute and day by day.”
If we don’t have the capacity within ourself to tolerate and regulate our emotional self, it will be impossible to do that for our partner. We will not be able to contain the intensity and overwhelming sense our partner is experiencing or the reciprocal feelings of intensity and helplessness which are likely surfacing within us. We cannot take on any of their overflowing emotions because our cup is already full.
This creates a situation in which I am looking to my partner to hold what I cannot hold myself at the same time my partner is wanting me to hold for her what she cannot hold.
Our inability to tolerate or regulate our emotional self can also give rise to all sorts of relational problems. Sometimes this can be manifested in that we are simply unaware of the painful aspects of ourself because we have pushed them out of awareness. We might call those blindspots. In those cases, it is often a friend who can see what we cannot see.
Don Miller, in his wonderful but terrifyingly intimate book Scary Close, Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy, writes about how a good friend of his confronted his tendency to use girls to “numb his wounds,” Don struggles to hear this but reluctantly admits that he was using one girl after another as a way to maintain a romantic fantasy that allowed him to be the hero of her story. At least until he was in danger of no longer being the hero.
At that point in his life, Don was not regulating his feeling state effectively (by facing the truth of it) and, instead, was blindly trying to rewrite his past that was full of rejection from the very kind of girl he was using in the present. He was trying to rewrite a broken story that caused him great anxiety but it was coming at the expense of unsuspecting girls that were playing bit parts in a much bigger drama going on inside of him. He writes, “The healthier I get, the more surprised I am at the deceptive desires we so often mistake for love.
Don’s friend was the type of friend that Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor had in mind when they wrote their short, 2009, book titled “On Kindness” :
“It is kind to be able to bear conflict, in oneself and others; it is kind, to oneself and others, to forgo magic and sentimentality for reality. It is kind to see individuals as they are, other than how we might want them to be; it is kind to care for people just as we find them.”
It is actually impossible for us to be authentically kind in this manner toward others until we have learned to be kind toward ourself. If we can’t bear our own conflict; if we can’t see ourself for who we really are; if we need to push out of awareness all of our own vulnerabilities, limitations and ugliness in the belief that it is necessary for our own survival or success, then how can we possibly hold on to the intense feelings of our partner?
Don’s friend held for him what Don needed him to hold so that Don could later hold for his now wife what she needs him to hold. This is how it is meant to work. Each of us bear with one another recognizing our inevitable attachment to each other.
This is the “how to” behind the Biblical injunction to "Love your neighbor as yourself." In order to do that we must first experience a containing love. In Christian theology, that love is based on the unconditional love of God and His grace toward us. We love because He first loved us.
In psychological terms this capacity for love or kindness comes from an internalized love relationship most notably from our parents or first caregivers. If we were reasonably well loved and cared for, meaningfully responded to, and “contained” when our neuro-emotional system was first being formed, then we will develop an internal (i.e. neurological) capacity for tolerating and regulating our anxious feelings that arise when our secure attachments seem threatened.
If we can do this for ourself, then we can also do it for another. This allows an open-heartedness toward others which moves us toward further securing our attachments rather than simply reacting defensively or fleeing them altogether.
If we did not receive that type of parenting, we may experience a deficit in our capacity to hold on to own intense feelings and, in turn, fail to effectively hold them for others.
Give some consideration to how well you do this. How well has it been done for you by your parents, your spouse, your friends? Ask yourself, how well do I do this for others? What would my children, my spouse, or my friends say in that regard?
Once again I hope this is helpful in getting you thinking about your most important relationships. Of course, much more could be said but for the limits of time and space. For now, thank you diving deeper!
Next up on our list is “Insight.” This is a capacity as significant for our relational survival as our eyesight is for our physical survival. Stay tuned!