Psych Central

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.

The part of the brain that is in control of habits, known as the subconscious mind, does not let go of old neural patterns easily, particularly ones woven into the fabric of the brain during childhood experiences associated with survival fears, i.e., rejection or abandonment. Their prevalence makes sense. Who among us has not experienced fears of rejection, inadequacy or abandonment, and the like, in childhood?

Perhaps nowhere is the toxicity of these pre-conditioned response-sets more intensely evident, however, than the couple relationship. The misguided attempts of each partner are driven, subconsciously, by early emotional command neural patterns, or early survival-love maps, that automatically activate to protect each partner from the other, in pattern very similar to one each adapted in early childhood.

Toxic Neural Patterns – Scripted Roles

In a toxic relationship, relating is off balance. Both partners in a couple relationship collude with one another, inadvertently in subconscious processes, to get stuck in one or more toxic interaction patterns.

Though the individual patterns of each couple are as unique as the individual partners themselves, nevertheless, most toxic collusion patterns between partners tend to fall into one or more of the following toxic role scripts:

1. Pursuer Versus Avoider Role Script – Expressed VS Internalized Anger

In this script, one person openly seeks the other’s cooperation, more often, specific actions they insist ‘must’ occur for them to feel safe and loved in relation to the other. In contrast, the other person seemingly agrees to go along, and in some cases, may even compromise their own value system to please the other. In time, however, when the latter perceives their efforts unnoticed, they increasingly resist their partner’s demands, mostly with methods that are hidden rather than openly saying so.

For example, Partner A regards certain activities as all-important and increasingly ‘urgent,’ such as discussing an issue or doing some activity together, i.e., having more frequent sex or spending more time together, and seeks to engage Partner B’s participation.  Meanwhile, Partner B, who seemed willing to go along with Partner A’s plan at the start of their relationship, increasingly, performs a juggling act in which they, on the one hand, resist complying with Partner A’s demands while also, on the other hand – with equal or greater intensity – seek to avoid upsetting or angering Partner A in any way.

Whereas Partner A has no problem expressing their anger, admits to having a temper or regards it as one of their strengths, Partner B typically internalizes anger, and seeks to hide or deny feeling this emotion, from themselves as well from others; even when Partner B occasionally explodes out of anger, they consider it rare or describe it as  ’frustration’ rather than anger.

2. Blamer Versus Blamee Role Script - Expressed VS Internalized Disappointment

In this patterned interaction, one person openly blames the other for their own unhappiness or hurtful actions, and frequently complains of the other’s seeming lack of respect or appreciation. The other person inwardly blames themselves, and lives in dread of disappointing their partner. The latter may wallow in feelings of guilt and disappointment at themselves, for failing to make their partner feel secure enough to stop getting upset, on the one hand, and yet, and yet, increasingly, on the other hand, they feel disappointed that their partner seems impossible to please.

For example, Partner A deals with stress by compulsively reminding Partner B what they need to do to stop upsetting or angering them, listing the ways their demands or expectations have not been met, etc. In general, Partner A blames Partner B and may dramatically display their disappointment when specified demands or expectations are not met. In the meantime, Partner B accepts blame, holds themselves responsible for causing upsets, and deals with any stress by apologizing, appeasing, and promising to do better in the future.

For the most part, no one holds Partner A responsible for how they treat others, and for not regulating their own emotions, and, as a result, Partner A has little or no understanding of their role in exacerbating the intensity of problems. Meanwhile, everyone expects Partner B to take care of things to keep the peace, and Partner B holds themselves completely responsible for the emotional ups and downs of their partner, and others in the family, i.e., children; in fact, Partner B may even feel proud of their ability to put-out-fires, to act as a mediator of sorts in smoothing out issues, even ones between Partner A and other family members.

3. Doing Versus Feeling Role Script - Expressed VS Internalized Depreciation

In this scenario, one person is connected to what they want or don’t want, and what to do to get fast results, and is the ‘doer’ and problem solver, who likes to get things done, to make decisions, and, comparing themselves to their partner, often complains about the other’s relative indifference, inability or lack of initiative in getting things done.

For example, Partner A wants Partner B to complete ‘to do’ lists and produce specific results, and evaluates Partner B’s performance against certain standards; overall, Partner A mistrusts Partner B’s ability to make even minor decisions, and feels certain Partner B will let them down. Meanwhile, Partner B anxiously hopes that, by working hard to make Partner A happy, at some point, Partner A will express appreciations, and stop withholding caring feelings of acceptance, love or admiration, etc. Partner B seeks to fix or control the feeling states of the former, more specifically, to stop them from ever getting upset or angry, however, and has little or no interest in ‘getting things done.’

As Partner A’s ability to express these emotions is often limited, increasingly Partner B doubts their ability to fix Partner A’s feelings toward them; increasingly Partner B stops working so hard. Similarly, Partner A increasingly feels frustrated by Partner B’s resistance to ‘listening’ to them, and interprets not listening as lack of respect or appreciation. Partner A may feel increasingly anxious, inadequate about their own perceived inability to control or make Partner B give them what they need to be happy. Partner B feels emotionally flooded or shut down at the first sign of disapproval or anger, and worried about the future of their relationship, family, etc., if they fail to meet with Partner A’s expectations.

Partner A is also increasingly frustrated that Partner B will not state their wants or take initiative in making plans to get things done; in contrast, Partner B professes not to have wants, and views their focus on Partner A’s wants as a key way they express their love, and feel “valued” in the relationship.

4. Responsible Versus Negligent Role Script  - Expressed VS Internalized Disregard

In this script, one person in the relationship takes on the role of the other’s judge and jury, and makes open accusations, demands, tells the other what to do, how to dress, what to think, etc.

For example, Partner A feels they are the ‘responsible’ one, duty bound to act in accordance with high standards to fulfill duties in the area of family, children or work, etc., and may disregard Partner B as incapable, perhaps feeling annoyed or mistrusting them to handle certain situations, such as handling finances or children. Partner A feels it’s their responsibility to hold Partner B’s feet to the fire, and may do so with regular doses of scolding, accusations, and evidence of failed performance, etc. Feeling dependent on their partner’s approval, Partner B, at least outwardly, seeks to please, to appease or to prevent conflict – yet they also dismiss any indication that things are not going well in their relationship or family. What Partner B fears most is failing to meet Partner A’s expectations, yet the more they attempt to do so, it seems, the more they associate failure with their attempts. At some point, Partner B may resist to the point of being unwilling to take any action, rather than risk failure.

Whereas Partner A outwardly disregards the value of Partner A, Partner B increasingly expresses their resentment or disregard of their partner’s feelings, with resistance. On the one hand, Partner B wants nothing more than to win over Partner A’s admiration; on the other hand, Partner B increasingly looks down at Partner A for the way they so casually dismiss or mistreat Partner A as well as others, i.e., the children.

5. Moral Versus Immoral Role Script  - Expressed VS Internalized Contempt

In a script similar to #4 above, one person acts morally superior to the other – and the other as morally unprincipled. The former sees themselves in position to judge the other with displays of righteous indignation, contempt or intimidation, all of which are believed to be necessary to improve or benefit of the other. In contrast, the other outwardly accepts that they have lower moral standards in comparison, and, apart from occasional attempts to appease, they inwardly relish resisting what they view as unnecessarily confining moral codes.

For example, Partner A adheres to high moral standards, traditions or ethical codes at home or church, etc., and is obsessed with getting Partner B to comply with these rules of conduct, i.e., going to church, dressing more appropriately, etc. Partner A feels it’s their responsibility to convert Partner B, to save them from themselves. Meanwhile Partner B seems to take the “admonishments” in stride, and makes little or no attempt to change, apart from outwardly going along to keep the peace.

Partner A may regularly express their feelings of contempt (moral superiority) toward Partner B for “not being the person” they once believed, while Partner B, feigning humility, may inwardly feel superior, relishing their ability to block Partner A’s attempts to change them. At some point, using hidden or secretive ways, Partner B may express or act out their growing feelings of contempt for what they see as Partner A’s harsh, self-righteous stance to control them.

The self-defeating nature of toxic collusions?

Naturally, this whole set up never works! A toxic couple relationship is one that is off balance, an outcome that directly affects, and is affected by, the inner balance of each partner.

The scripted roles of each partner in the above five toxic patterns are designed to diametrically oppose one another’s efforts to form a secure sense of safety in the relationship. Not surprisingly, the core issue(s) that a couple faces at the start of their relationship tends to remain a consistent theme throughout the course of their relationship.

Despite occasional dramatic shifts and swapping of scripts, perhaps in different areas or stages in the course of their life together, each partner gets “caught” in scripted interaction patterns, subconsciously convinced their future happiness – and self worth – depends on more rather than less reliance on their own protective strategies, despite ample evidence to the contrary.

What keeps partners and their relationship off balance? Emotional command circuits that activate preconditioned protective neural patterns.

In Part 2, how these toxic scripted patterns destabilize emotional safety, partners and their relationship; and Part 3 and Part 4, what partners can do to break free of them.



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From Psych Central's website:
PsychCentral (November 20, 2011)

Mental Health Social (November 20, 2011)

Delicious Flavour (November 20, 2011)

Athena Staik, Ph.D. (November 20, 2011)

Peter Staatz (November 21, 2011)

Dr. Relationship (November 21, 2011)

From Psych Central's website:
PsychCentral (November 21, 2011)

Athena Staik, Ph.D. (November 21, 2011)

Sarah J. Storer (November 21, 2011)

Noel McDermott (November 28, 2011)

Judith Haire (November 28, 2011)

    Last reviewed: 13 Dec 2011

APA Reference
Staik, A. (2011). Toxic Couple Relationships – Five Protective Neural Patterns & Role Scripts (1 of 4). Psych Central. Retrieved on April 17, 2014, from



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