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.
The wrong kind of intensity – or why these scripted patterns fail?
Thanks to brain imaging technology, we now have a better understanding of protective-response patterns that activate, as preconditioned emotional command circuitry, whenever emotional safety feels threatened in relational contexts.
In The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication and Self-Regulation, neuroscientist Dr. Stephen Porges labels this particular subsystem of the autonomic nervous system, the social engagement system, which refers to parts of the brain that are active when we feel open to empathically connect, to respond to others, etc. His work provides new insights on the central role that the autonomic nervous system plays, as a subconscious mediator in contexts of social engagement, safety and trust, and emotional intimacy.
When we experience emotional safety, at any moment in time, a different neurological subsystem of the brain and body is in operation than when we experience a perceived threat that destabilizes our sense of emotional safety.
- Emotional safety is associated with feelings and physiological sensations of love, safety and connection in relational contexts, whereas insecurity is linked with fear, anger and disconnect and so on; thus, the body can be said to shift between two overall modes of operation that motivate partner’s responses, either: love or fear.
- In the former, the brain (and body) are in learning mode, a overall relaxed state that allows new social learning to take place.
- In contrast, the latter shifts the brain and body to protective mode, an overall anxious state of mind and body that inhibits or blocks social learning (and instead may strengthen or expand protective-response strategies in new directions, each time they activate).
When partners interact defensively, with protective-responses, such as angry outbursts, blaming, lies, withdrawal, etc., they inhibit or short-circuit the love and safety system of their brain, according to neuroscientist Dr. Porges.
Their actions intensify the opposite kind of emotional energy in their mind and body instead – one that escalates emotions rooted in stress (fear). This releases high levels of stress-response hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, into the bloodstream, and activates the body’s survival response. With each activation, partners strengthen the protective-response strategies, their own and the other’s, perhaps even enhancing them in new ways.
Naturally, this whole set up never works.
These scripted patterns merely exacerbate each partner’s stress, fear and protective responses. Neither partner feels safe. Both feel compelled to over rely on their protective strategies, which only strengthens the hold they have, as emotional command circuits, on their mind and body.
Both partners are at a loss. At some level, they both realize that their protective strategies are not working, and that their actions, rather than producing the response they seek from their partner, are instead increasing the emotional distance between them.
After repeated failures, broken promises, futile attempts to stop their own reactivity, emotionally and behaviorally, from causing further harm, etc., more and more, partners may experience feelings of inadequacy, powerlessness, helplessness, etc.
It can feel as if someone else is in control of them. That someone is their body-mind. While each may blame the other, in truth, the subconscious mind of their body, and not their partner, is in control of their ability to make choices, thus, decide which direction – love or fear – their autonomic nervous system shifts toward.
The threat to a partner’s sense of emotional safety?
We easily understand why, as human beings, we “fight or flee” from life-endangering situations; our hardwired instincts to ensure physical survival are obvious to us.
Not so with our emotional drives to survive, which are equally if not more intense.
Our greatest fears – rejection, inadequacy, abandonment, and the like – are unquestionably relational in nature. They are perhaps also evidence that, even without the latest findings in cognitive neuroscience, humans are hardwired with yearnings to love, to matter, and to meaningfully connect in life.
Paradoxically, however, it appears we fear both intimacy-closeness and distance-separation, and this corresponds with two seemingly opposing hardwired emotional drives.
- On the one hand, a key attribute of our brain is that it is “a relationship organ,” as Dr. Daniel Siegel points out in Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. We are hardwired with circuitry that propels us, with motivational urges, to care, to empathically connect to others and life in and around us, and so on. These urges engage us in processes that grow our compassion and regard for others. When healthy options to fulfill this emotional drive are impeded or unavailable, we find quick-fix, temporary options, solutions that are often life-harming substitutes, i.e., drugs, food, sex or love addictions, to name a few.
- Correspondingly, we are also hardwired, with motivational impulses, to express an authentic self distinct from others, to matter, as unique individuals. When healthy options are blocked or unavailable, this drive also turns to quick-fix pseudo feel-goods. This emotional drive propels us to creatively express our self, in some way, which grows our courage and regard for our self. Whereas a healthy ego creatively finds life-enriching ways to contribute value and self-actualize, an out-of-control ego can wreak havoc.
Together, these intertwined drives say a lot about who we are, as human beings. Our essential nature is to seek to do more than merely survive – to thrive – to authentically express our self, to courageously face fears, to meaningfully connect, to contribute, in short, to “self-actualize” as psychologist Abraham Maslow described it, in his widely applied Theory of Motivation – Hierarchy of Needs (quite successfully, by the way, in business, marketing, advertising campaigns, etc.).
Perhaps nothing is more dangerous (to others or self), in contrast, than a human being who feels scared and cornered – which is perhaps an apt description of how partners in toxic relationships may feel at times. Specifically, what can threaten partners’ emotional safety?
A threat to emotional safety can be any words, ideas or actions by one partner that, based on the other’s early survival-love map, are interpreted in some way as ‘threats’ to their emotional safety.
- A partner’s emotional safety can feel threatened when their efforts to fulfill an emotional drive is perceived to be blocked in some way by the other, i.e., by withdrawing from a discussion or yelling in anger.
- The partner that, in general, seeks to avoid conflict or rocking the boat (flee) perceives as threatening any attempts of the other to confront (fight), that is, to resolve, to take action, etc., in order to eliminate the issue at hand.
- In contrast, the partner that, generally, wants to take immediate action to deal with issues (fight) perceives as threatening any attempts of the other to avoid (flee), that is, to ignore, to minimize, to withdraw from, etc., in order to prevent any disturbance this may cause.
Beneath the words they speak and actions they take, essentially, each partner is sending underlying messages that:
- Tell the other that they do not feel safe enough, in the moment, to shift back to their brain’s love and safety system.
- Say that, in addition to not feeling safe enough to connect, even worse, they have no clue how to maintain their sense of safety in certain situations, that is, to deal with any upsetting emotions – without triggering their body’s survival response.
- Send emit cries for help, as whenever they feel inadequate or incapable in a situation, this activates their core fears that, as a result, they may be rejected or abandoned, etc.
In relational contexts, when partners use their protective or defensive strategies, such as angry outbursts, blame, lies, withdrawal, etc., subconsciously, they are sending one or all of these messages to one another.
The biggest problem they face, however, is not the strategies themselves. Their main problem may be that each partner is addicted, more or less, to the quick fixes of relief that their protective strategies provide.
Protective neural patterns lower anxiety. These emotional command circuits provide a pseudo sense of love and safety as they can release of hormones, such as oxytocin and dopamine.
Each partner, for example, gets “caught” in entrenched addictive thinking and scripted interactions patterns, subconsciously, convinced their happiness — and self-worth — are somehow dependent on what they do, or believe they must do, based on instructions in their early survival-love map, to either “fix” the other or to win the other’s approval or appreciation. What each ‘does’ at some level, therefore, feels comfortable, satisfying, familiar.
As such, they are addictive in nature.
Additionally, the actions partners take also likely feel-good because the body releases the reward hormone, dopamine, at the anticipation of a reward – and not its achievement. Each partner absolutely believes in the approach they take, at levels felt in their physical body, with a resolute certainty that it ‘should’ work. (In fact, they may feel perplexed why the other isn’t using their methods!)
Thus, people can, and do, get stuck in addictive patterns.
The subconscious mind of the body, or the body-mind, seems compelled to fire and wire neural circuits (habits) that release feel-good hormones. It’s not a question of whether our body-mind will find a way of releasing feel-good hormones into the bloodstream, it’s a matter of how. It’s also a matter of who will be in control of this choice, whether we or our body-mind will be in charge.
To be certain, whoever is in charge is also in command, at any time, of the operating mode of body’s autonomic nervous system.
The wrong tactics – what keeps partners off balance?
What triggers each partner, and keeps them off balance, paradoxically, are the particular tactics each partner uses to restore their own sense of safety and love. The punitive tactics and the underlying false assumptions and negative image each holds of the other, essentially, form a power struggle, and emotional power struggle, for each to feel valued – in relation to the other.
Each feels compelled to rely on these protective strategies, and increasingly, this rigidifies the toxic interaction patterns.
The habits of expressing anger and fear defensively, overtime, strengthen reactive neural patterns in the brain, forming emotional command circuits that, in certain situations, automatically activate preconditioned protective-response strategies.
The particular way each partner attempts to restore balance and their own a sense of emotional safety, is what directly triggers the defenses of the other. Increasingly, each partner feels less safe to respond to the other out of love, and instead, relies on their protective strategies, to take actions rooted in fear or anger, or both.
In toxic couple relationships, the emotional strivings of each partner are diametrically opposed.
- Once set, the scripted roles of each partner in one or more of the five toxic patterns are rigidly set to oppose one another’s attempts to feel connected and, or personally valued in the relationship.
- Neither partner understands how to get out of the power struggle, apart from doing what they already know, deep down inside, is not working.
- Each still feels compelled, however, to reenact the toxic protective-response patterns, in certain triggering situations – as if their very life, their survival depends on it.
- This automatic emotional reactivity is associated with preconditioned emotional command circuits, neural patterns imprinted in early survival-love map, which each partner brings to the relationship.
It has to do with how partners express, or deal with, what are perhaps the most challenging emotions for human beings in general – anger and fear.
In a healthy relationship, partners eventually grow out of the control or influence of these preconditioned ‘maps.’
- They seek a genuine sense of safety and security, not quick-fixes and pseudo comforts, and understand it hinges on maintaining a healthy, vibrant relationship.
- Like a dynamic business organization, healthy partners are always willing to make honest assessments of what works and what does not, and to implement positive changes as a team.
- They know that if credit for success is given to one person, this will destabilize the relationship.
- Each partner accepts complete responsibility for the part they play in energizing teamwork, building an effective partnership, and thus, is willing to learn more effective ways of regulating any upsetting emotions, rooted in anger or fear.
- The overall balance of each partner’s autonomic nervous system leans in the direction of their parasympathetic nervous system – in position to learn and maximize their potential as individuals and a team.
In contrast, partners in toxic relationships tend to take an opposite approach.
- They refuse to change, and become increasingly proficient with the frequent and intense use of their protective strategies.
- They may gloat or take pride in their approach, and regard their partner inferior for the approach they take.
- Their interactions increasingly shift their brains to protective mode, a state that also blocks them from learning from their experiences.
- Instead of learning from their experiences, they increasingly rely on defense-strategies to protect themselves, or devise new protective habits.
- Their giving becomes more and more scripted, as it stems out of emotions of fear, shame or guilt, rather than love, joy and compassion.
- The overall balance of each partner’s autonomic nervous system leans in the direction of their sympathetic nervous system – in ready position to fire.
When actions are rooted in varying degrees of fear or anger, the activation of the sympathetic nervous system causes imbalances in the energies of the brain and body, thus, the mind and heart, and relationships with self and other.
Preconceived perceptions of self and other as extensions?
Events that trigger partners are ones that make them feel emotionally vulnerable, thus anxious, inside. Each partner’s preconceived perceptions of self and the other are in command. Partners either see the other as an extension of themselves, and thus focus on what the other can or ‘must’ do for them – or they see themselves as an extension of the other, with a focus on what they can or ‘must’ do for the other.
Though each partner is unique, they both tend to share some common ground. Both hold beliefs that question their own or partner’s worth and capabilities. For example:
- Both may experience themselves as inadequate or incapable of getting the fulfillment they need.
- Both may see their partner as either unwilling or incapable of giving them the fulfillment they seek.
- Both may feel the other is controlling them in some way.
- Both may view themselves as always ‘giving in’ and letting the other have their way.
- Both may view themselves as either mistreated or unappreciated by their partner, with little or no hope that the other can or will change.
Their responses are rooted in varying degrees of fear and anger. They more frequently doubt their ability to feel valued or meaningfully connect in the relationship, or to get their partner to make them good enough, and, as a result, increasingly, their actions are out of a sense of desperation or neediness.
The tactics partners use to increase their sense of safety, albeit counterproductive, make sense. They are held in place by a system of limiting beliefs regarding self and other that offer quick-fix relief. The use of fear-, shame- and guilt-inducing tactics, however, keep one another’s sense of safety in question. Subconsciously:
- Each perceives the other – in some way – as ‘the obstacle’ to their happiness or the fulfillment of their yearning to matter or connect in relation to other.
- Each partner forms an ‘enemy image’ of the other in mind, which associates the other with feelings of pain, fear, powerlessness, and so on.
- More and more, the toxic patterns form emotional command circuits that give partners a subconscious felt sense of the other as ‘an enemy’ – regardless that they may consciously know the other loves them.
- These command circuits are increasingly in ready position to activate toxic behavior patterns, such as toxic thinking in the form of blame, fault-finding and other harsh self- or other-judging thoughts.
Subconscious beliefs are in command of these preconditioned protective neural patterns, which activate the emotional reactivity. These neural patterns activate and release feel-good hormones that reinforce behavioral responses based on preconceived perceptions, in which each:
- Views the other as incapable in some way.
- Sees self as the other’s savior in some way.
- Resents the other for what they perceive to be attempts to change or control them in some way.
- Perceives the other with increased annoyance or contempt (either outwardly or inwardly).
- Hinges their sense of value in the relationship on selective evidence that leads them to conclude the other needs them in some way.
Each is subconsciously convinced their happiness — and self-worth — is somehow dependent on their success in “fixing” the other, or winning their approval, in some way, as a condition of feeling valued or worthwhile in the relationship.
Naturally, this is a set up for failure. To begin with, human beings have a built-in resistance to change, and this is particularly intense when it is demanded by another. Survival-love maps often interpret or associate these attempts with feelings of personal rejection, thus, they intensify core fears and related emotions, such as shame.
Unless both partners resolve to break free of these patterns, the core issues often remain the same, though there may be shifts, occasionally quite dramatic ones, in which partners even “switch” the scripted roles they play.
The problem is the destabilizing tactics, and not the partners.
In toxic relationships, the emotional command circuits of each partner are, in truth, misplaced bids for connection with the other because they can never deliver healthful outcomes for either partner or their relationship. Toxic interaction patterns seemingly take control of situations to negatively affect the possibilities for fun and intimacy in a relationship. Once set, the scripted roles of each partner in the five toxic patterns rigidly oppose one another’s attempts to feel personally valued.
They cannot deliver on what they promise. They’re rooted in a neediness linked to wounds and survival fears from early childhood.
- They are driven by early survival-love maps that mislead each to use defensive ways of feeling safe in relation to the other – as if their survival depends on it.
- Essentially, partners’ actions are ineffective or futile as they produce more of the emotional energies that stem from toxic levels of fear or anxiety, shame or guilt.
- They spawn actions based on a set of fear- or anger-inducing limiting beliefs and toxic thinking.
- They keep partners blinded from seeing that the real problem is the approach they each use and believe in – it is their tactics that cause toxic levels of fear – and that fail to solve the problem each has of not feeling valued in relation to the other.
When a relationship becomes toxic it is often because each person came to the relationship with a set of beliefs that cause them to mismanage their emotions, in particular, the two most challenging ones, anger and fear. Both are misled into using tactics that keep them stuck producing the same outcomes, perhaps, throughout the course of their relationship – unless they are willing to see the bogus maps they are using, and replace the toxic relating patterns with life enriching ones.
The good news is that the brain of each partner has plasticity, an ability to make self-directed changes, throughout their lifetime. They can unlearn old strategies, and replace them with new ones that allow each to remain empathically connected even in situations that once triggered one or both. And that’s really good news.
In Part 3, what partners can do to break free of these toxic scripted interaction patterns.