When a relationship becomes toxic it reflects the habitual ways partners manage their emotions, in particular, the emotions that human beings find most challenging, such as anger and fear.
In Part 1, we explored five toxic interaction patterns in which partners collude in scripted roles with one another, and get stuck activating one another’s protective-response patterns. In Part 2, we looked at the neuroscience beneath these emotional command circuits, in ready position to activate, and how they destabilize each partner’s inner sense of emotional safety in the relationship, setting them up to be at their worst, when they most need to be at their best to effectively handle challenging situations.
In this post we explore key factors that affect the balance of relationships, and the first step partners can take to break free of the toxic patterns and restore balance in their relationship and, or personal life.
What would it take to restore balance?
Restoring balance in a couple relationship is primarily about each partner establishing their own inner sense of emotional safety in relation to the other.
The human body works best when everything is in a relative state of balance, physically, mentally and emotionally. For hundreds of years, modern science held a dualistic view of the mind and body as separate entities, based on the rationalism ideas of Rene Descartes. Recent advances in neuroscience disprove this long held assumption. All body and mind and heart processes are, unquestionably, one vast communication system.
What is more, the autonomic nervous system appears to play a key role in relaying messages between parts of this network involved in the formation of relationships, according to neuroscientist Dr. Stephen Porges, who labels this, the social engagement system.
At any given moment, each partner’s sense of safety directly affects, and is affected by, their autonomic nervous system.
These processes are automatic and subconscious, handled by the part of the mind, the subconscious, that operates all the systems of the body. It continually accrues data, and based on this, and new incoming data, relays messages back to partners, at any given time, to let them know where they are in relation to where they aspire to be as individuals and, or as a couple.
Powerful hormones, or neurotransmitters, act as chemical messengers that virtually control all functions of life, continually regulating the balance of physical, mental and emotional processes throughout the body.
Some of these messengers produce feel-good and feel-bad feelings that are key in shaping behaviors, thus, partners’ responses to one another.
Oxytocin, endorphins, serotonin and dopamine, in particular, are the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Oxytocin is an essential hormone that acts to increase each partner’s sense of safety and love in relation to the other. Endorphins are a reward mechanism inside the brain, released through exercise and other strenuous activities, to lower pain by producing good feelings. Serotonin is a feel-good brain chemical that acts as a natural anti-depressant and helps temper impulsive feelings. Dopamine is a key reward chemical, one that is released in anticipation of or association with the completion of a goal.
These feel-good hormones may explain why certain behaviors are compulsively repeated, even toxic ones that merely escalate reactivity. They help lower the intensity of painful emotions – and thus can be addictive in nature, as they offer temporary, quick fixes that release some level of the feel-good chemicals.
Meanwhile, feel-bad hormones associated with stress, such as cortisol and adrenaline, may explain why partners feel so shaky and panicky in certain situations that trigger their core fears, i.e., inadequacy, rejection or abandonment, etc., in relation to the other.
All systems of the body are continually interacting to maintain homeostasis, a relative state of balance for the physical body. Stress hormones, such as cortisol, for example, activate the body’s survival or stress response (sympathetic nervous system); other body chemicals, such as the safety and love hormone, oxytocin, restore emotional equilibrium (parasympathetic nervous system).
It is no wonder that partners say and do certain things that are counterproductive or even downright destructive. At subconscious levels, it is to make themselves feel better.
Steps to End Toxic Relating Patterns
The bottom line is that, unless each partner feels safe enough to love, the love connection is broken by protective strategies. It may sound counterintuitive, but restoring balance in a couple relationship is first and foremost about each partner maintaining their own inner sense of emotional safety in relation to the other. Naturally, each partner is responsible for using caring-response skills to make it less likely the other’s stress response gets activated. Ultimately, however, a healthy mutually responsive relationship between two people can only work when each partner accepts responsibility for remaining in ‘control’ of the regulation of their own emotions to prevent reactivity. To form a effective partnership requires teamwork, and that means each partner agrees to take 100% responsibility for doing whatever they can to access their caring-response skills, and remain in charge of their own emotional state of mind and body.
It’s about what partners can do to disengage from old toxic thinking, protective strategies, etc., and thus stop their own body-mind from taking over to activate their body’s survival system, as if their survival were at stake.
There are several steps partners can take to restore their own inner sense of emotional safety in relation to the other?
1. Cultivate awareness of how the emotional states of each triggers their reactions to one another.
Partners tend to focus on the details of their problems with one another. As a result, they get lost arguing repeatedly over the particulars of who did or didn’t do what, to whom, when and where, how often, and so on.
Nothing, however, affects the quality of a relationship (and therefore, a discussion between partners) more than the level of emotional safety each partner brings to a moment in which they interact.
And herein lies part of the solution.
Emotions affect relationships, and, in similar ways, what is going on in the body of each partner. They are commands to the body that subconsciously organize partners’ beliefs, thoughts and actions – and life! Accordingly, they form the neurochemicals that activate the firing and wiring of new or old neural patterns.
In a couple relationship, at any given moment, each partner’s brain and physical body is directly affected by their own – as well as their partner’s – emotional responses. Regulating emotions, however, relies on the individual skills of each partner to experience the full range of their emotions, even upsetting ones, without getting unnecessarily triggered.
What partners think, say and do, and how they relate emotionally to one another, and their own emotional states – in the moment – has a direct impact on the internal balance of their individual autonomic nervous systems. The receptor sites for feel-good and feel-bad hormones in the brain are in the same area that deal with emotion.
Thus, each partners level of emotional safety activates dynamic processes inside that directly affect:
- … their brain chemistry…
- … the physiological sensations they feel in their body…
- … their thoughts and behavior…
- … how they will respond (relate) to one another …
- … the quality of emotional-intimacy in their relationship
Like a compass, emotions and feelings are also messages each partner receives from their autonomic nervous system. This data is essential. It tells partners whether they are on or off track in relation to where they want to be, their goals, or vision – and also whether their current approach is moving them closer or farther from their aspirations, perhaps even what to do about it.
Having access to the full range of emotions is a vital resource that informs decisions. Connected to this resource, partners grow their comfort levels with difficult emotions, alongside their awareness of how these affect their behaviors and responses to one another.
In a toxic relationship, most of these messages largely fall by the wayside, however, ignored, missed or misinterpreted. Herein lies the problem, and another part of the solution.
More specifically, the problem is that, subconsciously, each partner mis-interprets certain emotional cues – their own and, or their partner’s – quite literally as dangerous threats.
Why is this a problem? The part of the mind that runs the body, the subconscious, makes no distinction between physical and emotional survival. Thus, when each partner is triggered by something the other says or does (which may be hurtful, but typically not life threatening), each may as well be in a cage with a real tiger (that, suspiciously, can act like an endearing, purring kitten at times)!
In other words, emotional command circuits have formed in the brain that, in triggering moments, give each partner a felt sense of danger that feels very real. To their brain, in these moments, the other is a life-threatening ‘enemy’ – and their subconscious mind has a accrued proof – a special intelligence report in memory that lists all of their ‘terrorist’ activity.
Under the circumstances, it makes sense that each partner is reactive to the other, right?
[Arguably, by the way, threats to emotional survival may be more intense. Our greatest fears have to do with rejection,inadequacy, abandonment, etc., all associated with fear of intimacy and our hardwired human concerns with acceptance, adequacy, love, personal agency, belonging, connection, personal value, contribution, and so on.]
Given the problem, what is the solution? The solution lies for each partner to:
- Become aware of what triggers them and their partner, and to understand the specific ways their own reactivity activates the other’s survival response.
- Realize that all reactive pattens are counterproductive, harmful to the personal growth of each, and detrimental to the healing of their relationship. (Thus…)
- Take 100% responsibility for regulating their own inner sense of emotional safety in relation to the other to prevent reactivity, or unnecessarily activating their body’s survival response.
- Learn to understand their own emotions, comfortably relate to the full range of their emotions in healthy ways, especially upsetting ones, treating them like helpful guides and friends, not enemies.
Cultivating awareness of how emotions affect their responses to one another is a first step partners can take to break free of toxic relating patterns.
In practice, the tasks above require each partner to make a commitment, along with determined effort, to learn to get comfortable with uncomfortable feel-bad emotions. Often there are personal taboo emotions to identify. For example, anger is often a taboo emotion for female partners, while emotions of vulnerability, such as hurt, sadness, empathy, etc., are taboo male partners.
The bottom line is that all emotions are powerful agents that inform and grow partners, and upsetting emotions are particularly beneficial. By developing greater awareness of their emotions, and getting comfortable with the upsetting ones, partners can position themselves to respond in caring and engaging ways that heal and enhance their personal and relational well being.
Both partners must explore all options to learn to manage their emotions, in particular, the most challenging emotions of anger and fear.
In the final post, the remaining steps to breaking free of toxic relating patterns.