The Neuroscience of Romanticized Love – Part 2: Either-Or Thinking
The selling of ideals for romantic love is a multibillion-dollar industry. While these notions contain elements of authentic love, they largely consist of myths, social order politics, and certain either-or thinking patterns known to jam the brain and body’s communication network.
Why the paralyzing effect?
Simply put, this thinking has attributes of belief systems known to jam the reflective thinking processes of the human brain with … fear. Only fear can paralyze the otherwise remarkable abilities of the human brain to reflectively think, learn, understand, empathize, thus, help partners form vibrant, mutually enriching couple relationships.
At best, romanticized ideals, a phenomenon peculiar to the West, form a system of unrealistic expectations that lead single and married partners alike … to look for love where it cannot be found.
The role of language and the ‘power of the pen’?
In romanticized love, this system of either-or thinking tells men and women that they are from different planets, with different purposes, yearnings and emotions, and even worse, that their self-worth depends on how closely they conform to these standards.
In essence, for centuries philosophy, religion, and other political institutions have worked together, wittingly or unwittingly, to interpret physical differences between men and women into laws that legalized ideals for dominance, might makes right, survival of the fittest, and hierarchical values in general.
With hierarchical values in mind, the power of the pen, and the use of language accordingly, have played powerful roles in crafting ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ ideals. Overall, we’ve been culturally conditioned at home, school, work, etc., to use these either-or “shoulds” and dichotomous labels to judge ourselves, our partner, and men and women in general, for example, as either:
- Rational or irrational
- Powerful or powerless
- Strong or weak
- Emotional or emotionally detached
- Dependent or independent
- Deserving or undeserving
- Perfect or flawed
- Loved or unloved
It’s limiting to define what emotional states men and women “should” express. In truth, all of these attributes are normal to human experience. Such labels have the power, however, to effectively turn male and female relations into a competition for dominance.
Men are particularly tuned into hierarchically positioning, as they have been taught (warned) from boyhood that their self-worth as men (human beings) depends on “proof” of dominance and “power over” women (and children, weak men, etc.). Recent studies, for example, found bullying behaviors between males are socially approved strategies in which males establish dominance.
Beliefs are life shaping.
It may seem as if persons or events around us cause the upsetting feelings we feel, however, events are only the triggers. Our response depends on our perceptions – our core beliefs – what we tell ourselves about events we experience.
Our subconscious mind, the part that runs the body, depends on them to know how to “interpret” events. When partners interact, for example, their subconscious minds check on their beliefs to determine what overall emotional state to activate when interpreting what they say or do (sensory data) – and there are to primary options, either the brain’s ‘learning mode’ (state of safety and love) or ‘protective’ mode (state of fear).
What we believe about an event tells our brain’s operating system, the subconscious mind, how to handle it, more specifically, whether to remain in a ‘learning’ mode (parasympathetic nervous system) or to activate the body’s ‘protective’ mode (sympathetic nervous system), also called the “fight or flee” response.
Examples of these either-or beliefs?
No matter how you slice it, a value system that emphasizes hierarchy imposes a worldview in which human relationships are experienced in terms of positional stances of either: top-dog or under-dog.
These romanticized ideals:
- Emphasize obedience to authority and win-lose competitions.
- Define power in “zero-sum” and “power-over” terms.
- Associate the ability to exert “power over” with status, strength, men, authority.
- View battles, differences and power imbalances between men and women as inevitable.
- Define “listening to” or “respecting” the other as “doing what told,” in short, obedience.
- Teach that love, self-worth, acceptance, respect are earned based on performance.
- Judge performance on the basis of conformity to external expectations or standards.
- View mistakes as defects, failures or willful disrespect or disobedience.
- Control behavior with external rewards and punishments.
- Legitimize use of physical violence, force and/or emotional manipulation tactics (fear, shame, guilt).
- Teach us to judge self and others by making comparisons.
- Associate emotions of vulnerability with weakness, emotionality, women, children, etc.
- Associate emotions of anger with strength, power to make things happen, men, authority, status.
- Relegate emotions of caring, nurturance, love, affection, etc., to secondary status.
We use these standards, subconsciously for the most part, to continuously judge (shame) ourselves (i.e., self-talk), or those around us, as either deserving or undeserving of love. Regardless whether those victimized are young or old, male or female, at home or work, it is a belief system that underlies both what is now socially condemned as bullying on the one hand, yet, on the other hand, has been a culturally endorsed ‘might makes right’ value system in the West for ages.
In contrast, partnership values define “power” as a choice. Power is as power does, and power can be a conscious choice to enrich life, work cooperatively together, empower the best in life and one another. When men and women are free to respond in caring ways that release oxytocin into their bloodstream, they feel “safe” with one another, thus, safe enough to give and receive love.
Why the relationship between men and women matters?
According to Riane Eisler’s seminal work, The Chalice and the Blade, how a society structures relations between men and women is a critical component that forms the basis for all aspects of society, family, school, church, government, politics and so on.
Hierarchical values are associated with either-or thinking patterns, not unlike group-think or thought control methods, in that they:
- Impose contradictory demands on the brain that can – and do – cause men and women to relate to one another, without their conscious awareness, primarily out of fear.
- Activate the brain’s “fight or flee” system during problem solving – thus, when they most need their reflective thinking skills, they are not available; they react defensively instead.
- Interfere with the formation of emotional intimacy in the couple relationship, as well as each partner’s personal growth and well-being.
- Train the brain to adopt limiting thinking patterns that require men and women, in different ways, to shut down their awareness of what they each emotionally need, and have the power to realize, as human beings, and that is – to meaningfully connect and feel valued in relation to one another.
Noting the brain is a relationship organ, these beliefs about what it means to be a “real” man and a “good” woman in a committed love relationship are what keep the brain in survival mode and block partners from fulfilling key strivings in life.
Romanticized ideals leave men and women at cross-purposes, holding onto static images of themselves and one another. For example:
- Once the “in love’ phase ends and the “power struggle” phase starts, partners start to form “enemy” images of one another in their heads, each blaming the other for their own unfulfilled expectations.
- Whether they express disappointments openly or silently, their thinking forms inner pools of resentment.
- Each is unaware that their suffering and addictive relating patterns are largely, if not solely, a result of the limiting beliefs they hold.
- To cope, they stay in comfort zones entirely of their own making — and when they try to achieve their goals, these negative images and pre-conditioned comfort zones always block their well-intended efforts.
- These limiting images, thoughts and beliefs make life seem like an ordeal; meanwhile, the futile attempts they use to get the love and relationship they want are about as effective as taking a shower wearing a raincoat.
Defensive strategies are effective in dealing with real threats and crises. By design, they help to distance us from a perceived threat.
In relational contexts, however, they are most often problematic. When partners are on the defensive during conflict, they automatically, at subconscious levels, view one another’s ideas, thoughts, perspectives, actions, etc., as “threats.” As a result, they use words and nonverbal gestures that instill their partner with fear, shame and guilt … all the while hoping to get a response of love and recognition in return!
What are the chances, however, that their tactics of fear, shame or guilt will succeed in getting the love they want? Zero to null.
In contrast successful couples, on the other hand, continually breakthrough barriers to consciously get comfortable with the uncomfortable, manage their fears, not by using tactics of force or emotional manipulation, but by replacing fear-based beliefs and images they have of themselves, one another, and their relationship with life-enriching ones. “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent,” Charles Dawin pointed out, “but the one most responsive to change.”
What makes either-or thinking harmful?
Safe to say, an either-or view of love relationships hits the brain’s circuitry like a ton of bricks. This thinking pattern forms a black-and-white worldview of men, women, and their relationships, that is replete with fear-inducing “shoulds” of what “has to” happen … or else.
Unquestionably, as human beings, we are well designed to handle stress. It is a matter of understanding when either-or thinking is useful to us and when it is not.
- Either-or thinking is useful to us in crisis situations, such as seeing a snake on our path or waking up on a work day to find our alarm clock didn’t ring.
- The hormones released in crisis situations, such as the stress hormone cortisol or adrenaline, help us deal more effectively with the situation at hand; in this case, we can avoid a snake bite or the risk of losing a job.
- Our body is not designed to live in constant fear or alert mode, however; the sympathetic nervous system does not have time to make repairs and restore balance in the energies of the body.
- As a result, overtime the stress of this type of thinking on the body wears down its systems and can cause illness.
When a snake startles us, either-or thinking associated with the body’s “fight or flee” response works best to ensure our safety. In cases where we feel anxious about taking an exam, or discussing a sensitive issue with our partner, however, low levels of fear and anxiety optimize our performance. We just need to know how to regulate our fear response, in other words, how to calm our mind and body in challenging situations, to prevent the activation of its fight or flee” system.
While hierarchy may work in military structures for the purpose of defense, in human brain and body terms, either-or thinking keeps the brain’s “fight or flee” system on alert, thus, it promotes unhealthy conditions for the physical body as well as for an intimate relationship. Studies show bullying produces chronic stress, elevations in the body’s cortisol response, and lifelong physical and physiological effects.
It’s simply not how the brain, “a relationship organ” based on the latest neuroscience findings, is designed to work.
Humans are paradoxical both-and beings.
Life and relationship issues cannot be solved by either-or thinking. As paradoxical beings, we are both-and rather than either-or.
- We yearn to be recognized as unique individuals, yet we also yearn for shared connection.
- We aspire to meaningfully contribute, yet our hearts are warmed when someone gives us a helping hand.
- We are insatiably curious, wanting to learn all about the world around us, yet our most essential connection to understanding our self and world is within … life is an inside job.
Equally important, we depend on both-and reflective thinking processes to inform our understanding of life and relationships.
- Either-or thinking, when it comes to solving relationship issues, shuts down our brain’s amazing capacity for both-and possibility thinking.
- For example, it is limiting to think of our self as either dependent nor independent, and rather healthier to find balance in experiencing (and developing) both in relation to others.
Hierarchical relationships, by definition, are a defense against emotional intimacy. In partnership relationships, power is a choice to empower emotionally healthy intimate relationships.
- Power is a multi-dimensional concept.
- Ultimately, it is a choice in how we relate to self and others that can produce dramatically different outcomes.
- For example, what is power in one situation, i.e., lifting heavy objects, is not power in another, i.e., facing a fear of rejection or loss of self.
Life is about finding balance, not unlike walking a tightrope, a process that grows us personally and relationally. We are strongest when we find balance in connecting to both our capacity for strength and resiliency yet also our ability to empathically feel our emotions of vulnerability without reacting defensively.
If you find yourself replaying old scripts in your life or love relationship, or repeating the same lines and the same outcome of not getting what you want, there is hope. Thanks to the plasticity of your brain, it’s never too late to learn how to break free of this downward spiral thinking.
In relationship contexts, either-or thinking supports a hierarchical value system that keeps the brain in survival mode, promotes unhealthy conditions for the body and blocks the formation of emotional bonding in intimate relationships.
The answers to questions of what it means to be a man or a woman, what it means to be emotionally or sexually intimate should not imprison partners in the confines of their minds with addictive relating and love addiction patterns – and rather personally free partners and both sexes to relate in humanizing ways.
More in Part 3 of this series.
Staik, A. (2015). The Neuroscience of Romanticized Love – Part 2: Either-Or Thinking. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 5, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/relationships/2011/06/the-neuroscience-of-romanticized-love-%e2%80%93-part-2-either-or-thinking/