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 emotional reactivity and defensive reaction patterns, it no longer promotes, and instead harms the mental, emotional and, or physical health, 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 can become habitual responses that get automatically activated, as they most often operate 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. The prevalence of reactivity in couple relationships makes sense. After all who has not experienced fears of rejection, inadequacy or abandonment, and the like, in childhood and adulthood alike?
Perhaps nowhere is the toxicity of this pre-conditioned reactivity 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 patterns that are very similar to ones they adapted in early childhood.
Toxic Neural Patterns – Scripted Roles
In a toxic relationship, relating is off balance. Both partners wittingly or unwittingly seem to collude with one another, more often get stuck in one or more subconscious scripts — or toxic interaction patterns.
Though the individual patterns of each couple are as unique as the individual partners themselves, nevertheless, most toxic relating patterns seem to follow role scripts:
1. Pursuer Versus Avoider Role Script – Expressed VS Internalized Anger
In this script, one person openly seeks the other’s cooperation, and insists on specific actions that ‘must’ occur for them to stop getting upset or angry, to feel safe and loved in relation to the other. In contrast, the other person seemingly agrees to go along, at least at the start of the relationship. In time, however, when the latter perceives their efforts unnoticed, they feel increasingly unappreciated, and start to resist their partner’s demands, more often in hidden ways, i.e., forgetting, denying, withdrawing, etc., 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, 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 do so in a way that avoids conflict, and lowers risk of upsetting or angering Partner A in any way.
Though Partner B is well intentioned, their juggling act becomes the source of growing anger and frustration for Partner A, leaving them feeling alone, unsupported, and overall powerless to persuade their partner to change. Whereas Partner A has no problem expressing anger, and may regard angry outbursts as a strength, for example, telling self that berating the other is the only way they get the attention they’re starving for; they risk escalating to violence and getting addicted to outbursts as main way of coping with problems. Meanwhile, Partner B typically internalizes anger, and may even hide or deny ever feeling upset or angry feelings — in fact they regard their ability to maneuver out of conflict a strength, and think their approach to stress is the way to go, perhaps even looking down at their partner “always” being angry. In most cases, Partner B occasionally explodes with anger (when they feel cornered or after stewing on resentment for so long), however, they don’t like doing so and tend to describe their outbursts as ‘frustration’ or ‘stress’ rather than anger.
2. Blamer Versus Blamee Role Script – Expressed VS Internalized Resentment
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, increasingly, on the other, they may stew, and feel increasingly resentful, 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, and growing resentment, 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 the problem interactions. Meanwhile, both expect 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, taking on the role of mediator in the family, i.e., between Partner A and children. In fact, Partner B may even feel proud of their ability to put-out-fires, to act as a mediator in preventing upsets, 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; they act as the ‘doer’ and problem solver, the one who likes to make plans, to get things done, wants outcomes, and change. The other person is overall laid back, and prefers not to work with plans. , comparing themselves to their partner, often complains about the other’s relative indifference, inability or lack of initiative in getting things done.
Partner A, who easily states their wants, feels increasingly frustrated that Partner B does not have or state wants of their own, and takes little or no initiative in making plans to get things done. Meanwhile, Partner B insists they do not have wants, and prefers to go along with Partner A’s wants and plans, as a key way they express their love, and feel “valued” in the relationship. In short, whereas Partner A looks for love cues mostly by monitoring what Partner B does to love and respect them, the actions, the plans, the changes they make, the results and outcomes they produce, etc., Partner B looks for cues signs they are loved and appreciated mostly by monitoring Partner A’s emotional states in terms of how happy (and not upset or angry) they are with Partner B.
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. Partner A may mistrust Partner B’s ability to give them what they ask 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 their appreciation, and stop withholding caring feelings of acceptance, love or admiration, etc. Partner B seeks to fix or control the feeling states of Partner A, 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 appreciation and thoughtfulness for Partner B’s feelings is often limited, increasingly Partner B doubts their ability to fix Partner A’s feelings toward them, and stops working so hard. Similarly, Partner A increasingly feels frustrated by Partner B’s resistance to ‘listening’ or ‘supporting’ them, and interprets this as lack of love, respect or recognition of their value. Partner A may feel increasingly anxious, lonely and inadequate about their own perceived inability to reach and move Partner B to action. Partner B feels emotionally flooded or shut down at the first sign of disapproval or anger (or may may resort to the use angry outbursts rather than hiding to stop the other’s perceived attacks); increasingly they may worry about the future of their relationship, family, etc., and be hard on themselves for failing to make Partner A happy (which by their definition means to stop Partner A from ever getting upset at them).
4. Responsible Versus Negligent Role Script – Expressed VS Internalized Disregard
In this script, one person in the relationship takes on the role of judge and jury of the other’s personhood or character, making open accusations, demands, telling the other what to do, how to act, what to think, or how to dress, and so on. The other person wants nothing more than to win the admiration or approval of their partner, and fights hard to change into what they want them to be, at least at the start of the relationship.
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 regard Partner B as incapable, perhaps feeling annoyed or mistrusting them to handle certain life areas or 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 is often spinning and confused, and at least outwardly, seeks to please, to appease or to prevent conflict – and, feeling Partner A exaggerates problems, they may refuse to acknowledge that things are not going well in their relationship. What Partner B fears most is failing to meet Partner A’s expectations, yet the more they attempt to do so, the more their failed attempts leave them feeling like a failure. At some point, Partner B may resist to the point of being unwilling to take any action, rather than risk failure.
Knowingly or unknowingly, both increasingly look down at their partner with scorn. Whereas Partner A uses verbal attacks to outwardly expresses dissatisfaction with Parner B (and their seeming unwillingness to change etc.), Partner B keeps most resentment with Partner A inside (stewing over how unreasonable, easily triggered, demanding, impossible to please etc.), and only expresses their resentment mostly indirectly with resistance, and other “acting out” behaviors, i.e., spending sprees, drinking, infidelity, etc. Partner B may want nothing more than to win over Partner A’s appreciation, however, the primary focus is to stop them from being upset, which distracts them from noticing how judgmental and resistant they are (iow, as difficult, just in different ways…).
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, scolding or contempt, all of which are believed “necessary” and of benefit to 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 — and also judge with some level of contempt, 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 feelings of contempt (moral superiority), scolding Partner B for “not being the person” they once believed, however, they come across as morally superiority, and this is a “trait” that Partner B looks down on. So, while Partner B may look down on Partner A for acting “morally superior,” their own humility is superficial. Inwardly, they too feel superior, paradoxically for not thinking they’re superior or making demands for others to change. They also relish their ability to limit or block Partner A’s attempts to change them, which is how they hold power in the relationship. At some point, using hidden ways, keeping secrets, or resorting to angry outbursts they abhor, Partner B may act out their growing feelings of contempt for what they perceive 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.