A toxic relationship is one that is out of balance, in many ways, a reflection of its impact on the inner world of each partner. It is kept off balance, paradoxically, by the attempts each partner makes – in triggering moments – to increase their own sense of safety in relation to the other.
In Part 1, we explored five toxic interaction patterns in which partners inadvertently collude with one another, getting stuck in scripted roles that mutually trigger one another’s protective-responses.
In this post, we look at the neuroscience beneath these toxic protective-response strategies, as emotional command circuits in ready position to activate, and how these scripted patterns destabilize partner’s inner sense of emotional safety in the relationship, setting them up to fail in their attempt to realize personal and relational fulfillment.
Current advances in neuroscience allow us to identify patterns of activation and function of the brain and body’s central nervous system in ways that were only theoretical for psychological thinkers of the 20th century.
Love that turns toxic is neither healthy nor genuine, though the intentions of each partner are often well-meaning.
A couple relationship can be described as toxic when, due to intense emotional reactivity and defensive interaction patterns, it no longer promotes, and instead harms the individual mental, emotional, and physical, well-being and growth of each partner. The relationship is increasingly off balance, a factor that is affected by, and directly affects the individual inner sense of balance, health and safety of each partner.
In contrast, genuine love is an empathic connection that recognizes the authentic other and self as separate and unique beings, even encouraging the individuality of each as essential to the formation of healthy intimacy in a relationship.
Neurological findings in the last decades show that we are wired for certain early protective behaviors in life, and that these become habitual responses automatically activated throughout life, often without conscious awareness. Intense emotional experiences in childhood can alter the structure of the brain and have enduring effects in adulthood.
Everyone has ideas about love; for human beings, it is a lifelong preoccupation. The love relationship is unique in that, across cultures, nothing drives otherwise normal human beings to do crazy things than the quest for a love bond in a couple relationship.
What is genuine love, however?
It has many attributes. One experience of love is, as Mark Twain describes, “the irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired.” Recent findings in neuroscience would agree with Mr. Twain’s statement. Romantic attraction appears to release the same levels, if not higher, of dopamine and oxytocin into the bloodstream as drugs.
Genuine love, however, is all encompassing. It mirrors the attributes of human nature at its best.
“Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence,” says psychological theorist Eric Fromm. It’s something that “stretches your heart and makes you big inside,” notes poet and author Margaret Walker.
An even more far reaching view says that,
“Love has no awareness of merit or demerit; it has no scale… Love loves; this is its nature.” ~ HOWARD THURMAN
Attributes of a genuine love are ones that reflect our human nature. We are relationship beings, hardwired with inborn strivings, for empathic connection.
Your thoughts are an inner dialogue. You have an average of about six thousand thoughts a day, most of which you habitually repeat to yourself. In many cases, you learned to think these thoughts from experiences with your primary caregivers in childhood, and have been repeating them from that time.
Considering that cognitive abilities do not fully develop until the mid-20s, you can imagine how many of these thoughts no longer serve you.
Why develop your awareness of this inner dialogue? Your ability to choose how you think about your self and lie around you allows you to regulate, or choose, your response to any triggering events.
Very simply, you want to become aware of what you tell yourself inside so that you—rather than your emotions—direct your choices. Your happiness depends on it. This is critical because your thoughts activate emotion-driven processes within you. That’s right, even painful ones. Your thoughts, and the underlying beliefs that drive them, automatically trigger emotions.