Emotion regulation and dysregulation often unfold within interpersonal contexts. Parent–child relationships provide early scaffolding of emotion regulation processes. Parents attune to, and influence, their children’s emotions, through pathways such as physical touch, infant cry, facial expressions, and stress physiology. Interpersonal emotion regulation and dysregulation processes continue to evolve within other close relationship contexts such as romantic couple relationships in adulthood. Partners shape each other’s emotion regulation through stress contagion and physiological interconnection, and through interactions that can be conflictual or supportive. This chapter reviews the theoretical foundations and the existing literature describing how emotion regulation and dysregulation take place within interpersonal relationships.
Researchers have highlighted the reciprocal nature of emotion expression, perception, and modulation within interpersonal groups. In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), Darwin postulated that emotional facial expressions play a role in evolutionary survival and group dynamics. Later researchers furthered Darwin’s account by attempting to parse out the intra- and interindividual functionality of emotional expressions (Ekman, 1992, 1993; Shariff & Tracy, 2011), theorizing that intraindividual emotion expression likely served to help regulate the individual’s own physiological state (Susskind et al., 2008), and over time, emotion expression became linked with social communication. Additionally, Bowlby’s (1969) and Harlow’s (1959) seminal research on the role of emotion in dyadic processes during infant development culminated in attachment theory and an emphasis on parent–child relationships as foundational for adult expression, perception, and regulation of emotions. James Gross and colleagues have studied individual differences in emotion regulation and well-being (e.g., Gross & John, 2003; Ochsner & Gross, 2005), emphasizing the role of emotion regulation in adaptive functioning.
Developmental researchers emphasize that infant and child emotion regulation is almost exclusively an interpersonal process, and more recent reviews theorize that adolescent and adult emotion regulation abilities remain interpersonal, rather than transitioning to an intraindividual process (Rimé, 2009). Indeed, for over a century psychologists, biologists, evolutionary scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists have studied the phenomena of interpersonal emotional expression, perception, and regulation. This chapter will focus on various types of interpersonal processes that contribute to emotion dysregulation, while acknowledging that dysregulation is only one side of the coin. Thus, we will examine interpersonal processes leading to effective emotion regulation to provide a context for emotion dysregulation as a deviation from adaptive processes. We focus primarily on close dyadic relationships, since the preponderance of research on interpersonal emotional regulation and dysregulation has focused on dyads. We begin by describing interpersonal emotion transmission processes within parent–child dyads, including modalities such as touch, cry, facial expressions, and physiology. We then move to the literature on adult couples and describe research on couple conflict and couple support. Finally, we conclude with recommendations for further research.