Think about a time you looked into the eyes of your partner (or crush). Your heart probably started beating fast, and your breathing may have shallowed. Whatever those moments made you feel, it may be comforting to know that you both might be feeling the same things due to a fascinating phenomena known as physiological coregulation. Simply put, physiological coregulation is when partners unconsciously influence each other’s nervous systems to physiologically synchronize. Your racing heart and quick breathing shouldn’t be something that makes you feel nervous or weird - it’s a natural response.
You might be wondering, why haven’t I heard of this phenomenon before? And how does it work? Ample research had been done on the physiological effects of a situationally induced stimulus on a single person. One type of such research covered in Intimate Relationships is the misattribution of arousal, framed as when “something else in our immediate environment is really the cause of [our] reactions, then we might misinterpret physiological reactions caused by that environment as attraction to people who happen to be nearby” (Goodfriend, 2020). It wasn’t until about a decade ago that dyadic models began to be used in this research. Dyadic models studying physiological coregulation measure both participants’ physiological responses simultaneously, allowing researchers to investigate if and how social influences between partners are a two-way street.
One of the most notable early studies on this topic, conducted by Helm, Sbarra, and Ferrer (2012), brought in thirty-two heterosexual couples to complete three laboratory tasks while their respiration and heart rate were monitored. The couple would first sit separately in the room, eyes closed and relaxed, to establish a baseline. In the second task, the couple would gaze into each other’s eyes, an exercise chosen by the researchers for its established usefulness as a task of emotional poignancy, strongly associated with feelings of closeness and intimacy. The last task was another gazing session, but this time the couple was asked to try to imitate their partner’s physiological state, so that researchers could investigate whether coregulation, if found, was consciously activated. Male and female partners’ heart rates and respiration achieved significant synchronicity during the gazing task, as hypothesized. However, during the imitation task, a strange reverse synchronicity was observed, showing that positive physiological synchronization between couples is an unconsciously driven phenomenon - getting in your head about what your partner is feeling doesn’t bring you any closer to them. Your body will find a natural rhythm with your partner’s - without your “help.”
A more recent study on physiological coregulation in couples looked at physiological synchronicity as couples discussed the positive and negative aspects of their relationship. Coutinho et al. (2021) reported that heart rates of spouses are positively associated in both directions, corroborating previous research. Additionally, their discussion explained a key difference found between overall heart rate, which was positively correlated, and heart rate variability, which was negatively correlated. This difference in synchronous direction is suggestive of our autonomic nervous system divisions, since overall heart rate is associated with our sympathetic nervous system (our “gas”), while heart rate variability is associated with parasympathetic nervous system control (our “breaks”). Our body’s systems are working in complex ways to simultaneously raise and manage our physiology, as our partner’s does the same, all without any conscious work necessary.
A 2015 study investigating physiological coregulation found a significant association between physiological coregulation and empathetic accuracy in couples, especially in the women’s ability to match their partner. Specifically, Timmons et al. found that when women were more accurately able to distinguish the emotions of their romantic partner, there was a greater physiological linkage (i.e. coregulation) between the couple. This finding was associated with higher relationship satisfaction. Improving our ability to emotionally understand our partner goes hand in hand with our bodies’ ability to literally “sync up”.
Valentine’s Day comes with a lot of pressure to express love. For those of us with partners, it might make us overthink the ways we show our partners love. However, research on physiological coregulation shows us that when we’re with our special person, we have no choice but to literally follow our heart. Whether you’re already spending this Valentine’s Day with them or they’re out there waiting for you, your special person’s heart is made to beat with yours.
Coutinho, J., Pereira, A., Oliveira‐Silva, P., Meier, D., Lourenço, V., & Tschacher, W. (2021). When our hearts beat together: Cardiac synchrony as an entry point to understand dyadic co‐regulation in couples. Psychophysiology, 58(3), 13. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/psyp.13739
Goodfriend, W. (2020). Intimate Relationships. Sage Publications.
Helm, J. L., Sbarra, D., & Ferrer, E. (2012). Assessing cross-partner associations in physiological responses via coupled oscillator models. Emotion, 12(4), 748-762. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0025036
Timmons, A. C., Margolin, G., & Saxbe, D. E. (2015). Physiological linkage in couples and its implications for individual and interpersonal functioning: A literature review. Journal of family psychology : JFP : journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43), 29(5), 720–731. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000115