If you are in a relationship that is negatively impacting your emotional, mental, or physical health, hurting others you love, or compromising your inner values, you are likely in a toxic relationship – and addictive neural patterns are in control.
If you have not already, take time to reflect on the dynamics, and to consider what you can and cannot do – that would allow you to break free of their control, and to take charge of your emotional response, so that your mind and body may restore balance, and let healing begin.
In Part 1 of this series, we identified five toxic patterns partners get stuck in that activate one another’s protective-response patterns. In Part 2, we looked at the neuroscience beneath the emotional command circuits that destabilize each partner’s inner sense of emotional safety in relation to the other. We then touched on key factors that affect relational balance in Part 3, and considered the first step partners can take – cultivating awareness of one another’s triggers – to break free of the toxic patterns and restore balance in your lives.
In this final post in the series, we continue with 4 remaining steps of 5 that, when mindfully applied, can help partners stop, change and move away from toxic scripted patterns that destabilize their sense of emotional safety, particularly in triggering situations that activate each partner’s preconditioned protective neural patterns.
Steps to End Toxic Relating Patterns
So what can you and your partner do to restore your inner sense of emotional safety and love in relation to one another, especially in challenging moments? Here are 5 steps to get you started in putting together an action plan that can serve as a springboard for considering healthier options – and making conscious choices to stay free of toxic relating patterns.
1. Cultivate awareness of one another’s triggers.
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 more (and therefore, a discussion between partners) than the level of emotional safety each partner brings to the moment in which they interact. (To continue reading Step 1, see Part 3)
2. Accept that healing yourself is a prerequisite.
To balance the equations of your relationship, you must first accept the following: Healing yourself is prerequisite to healing your relationship. It was never your job to take over another person’s behaviors, or emotional life, as if they were some kind of a fix-it project. When you do (even with children, by the way), both the fixer and fixed suffer the consequences of getting into ‘power struggles.’
At best, it stunts emotional growth. At worst, it builds resentment. It sends a message that you do not value the other as a person, their ability to do their own thinking, their capacity to master and handle upsetting emotions, and so on. Meanwhile, reminders, angry outbursts, the silent treatment, shame, guilt, intimidating putdowns, etc., do not work in the long run – except to make things worse.
You cannot fix your partner, or control what they feel or do, any more than they can fix or control you. You can, however, affect huge changes by being a calming presence from within.
Not surprisingly, human relationships follow the laws of nature. Like mathematics, relationships are a science. Unlike statistics, the field of mathematics is series of discoveries and not inventions. Scientists discovered laws and formulas that existed, and have used them with precision, for example, to land a space capsule at any predetermined location in the universe (time permitting, of course). The natural response to being treated as ‘incapable’ of doing your own thinking, for example, follows Newton’s third Law of motion, which states for every action in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction.
The more you try to force change, the more this activates one another’s emotional defenses. As a result, neither of you are open to the influence of the other.
No one likes being someone’s fix-it project (although it may be flattering at first, it gets old sooner or later). Why? It goes against our hardwired yearnings. As human beings, we have inborn urges to seek to be accepted for the unique value and contributions we bring to life. These are core emotional drives. (Look closely, and you’ll see these drives in children as well.)
In a healthy relationship, partners are in best position to give the other useful feedback. In toxic patterns, most feedback falls by the wayside because of how it is delivered – or received. Neither heart is open; and when the heart is closed, so is the mind. The body’s autonomic nervous system ensures all influence is blocked, as a protective defense.
Safe to say, the intense focus you or your partner have on fixing one another other (rather than healing self) is one of the main problems. Any notions that you can, should or must control or fix the other are illusions, perpetuated by romanticized ideals.
Your efforts to fix the other’s behaviors or feelings about you, or change a particular situation, etc., are the cause of much discontent, resistance and suffering. It’s also been a way to avoid a life task awaiting you: healing your self and your relationship with you.
The latest findings in neuroscience reveal the human brain is always in subconscious communication with other brains, your loved ones in particular. Your brain can be a calming or disorienting influence. In either case, it is designed to work inside-out. To heal your relationship, or to be a healing influence on your partner, is an inside job of healing you.
In other words, you cannot do the emotional work for your partner (or children); however, you can calm your own mind and heart, in challenging situations, and allow miracles to happen (potentially).
It is simply not possible to change or to heal others against their will, as it is not possible to ‘control’ what the other thinks and feels. You can however heal yourself, respond in healthy ways, learn to love and fully accept yourself, honor your needs and aspirations and life – and by doing so, you will increase the chances of healing your relationship – and the possibility of inspiring the other to engage in their healing work.
You have the ability to bring a calming presence to a situation which would create the necessary conditions for personal healing to take place. Is it easy? No. Is it essential, and worthwhile? Yes, it can make the difference between living merely to survive, and living to thrive as authentic beings.
To break free of toxic relating patterns and restore balance, accept the following bottom lines that govern the making of healthy relationships:
- You cannot fix your partner’s behaviors or emotional states.
- You cannot do the work that is theirs to do to learn to stretch in order to love courageously with their whole heart.
- Your focus on fixing or healing one another (instead of yourselves) is, and has been the main problem.
- Your attempts to fix the other with angry outbursts, pleading, intimidation, guilt or shame, etc., are, and have been, the cause of much suffering.
- Healing your relationship with you is prerequisite to healing your couple relationship.
Give yourself complete permission to let go of any responsibility of having to fix the other’s emotional states. The best, most powerful, and prerequisite option to healing your couple relationship, and to breaking free from toxic patterns, is to shift most of your focus to healing your self from within – it’s an inside job.
3. Be honest and seek support of safe persons you can trust.
Honesty is a key step in breaking the power of secrecy that toxic interactions often feed on. You need to be willing to see and admit the truth that something hurtful is happening or happened to you (or that you’ve been doing something hurtful to your partner). It may cause angry feelings toward the person who acted wrongly and took hurtful actions. It may bring up anger toward yourself for allowing the other to take these wrongful actions (or for engaging in ways that hurt your partner).
If you are in a relationship with someone who is emotionally, physically or sexually abusive, forceful or treats you more like an object than a person with feelings and thoughts of your own, or if this person cannot relate to those you most care about, without hurting them emotionally, seek the support of safe others, and if necessary, look into professional help.
A safe person has the following characteristics, in that they:
- Do not judge, demean, belittle you, etc.
- Seek to understand you, respect your choices, and view change as a process.
- Listen without giving advice – unless you ask for it, and even then respect your choice to apply or not “apply” some or all of their advice.
- Believe in you, your ability to think and make effective choices.
- Want your highest good, growth, interest, and this is evident in their actions, how they treat you.
- Maintain confidentiality.
- Never use what you disclose against you.
Building honesty is about learning to deal with any anger in healthy ways, firstly, to separate healthy anger from toxic anger.
How? By separating ‘the person’ who acted wrongly from ‘the actions’ of the person. Healthy anger sees hurtful actions as wrong, and takes action to change, stop or move away from them. Toxic anger, in contrast, wallows in the anger, and turns it into toxic emotions of hatred, rage or retaliation toward the person who acted wrongly. Toxic emotional states are also not helpful, and may make the other more resolute about not changing.Have they worked so far?
Expressing Healthy-Anger Exercise: To separate healthy anger from toxic anger, write down what specifically angers you using the format below. Note the use of action verbs, in the examples below, to describe what specific actions you are angry at. Let yourself ‘get into’ your feelings as you write what angers you, and keep listing items until you notice you are repeating yourself. (It can be pages and pages, that’s fine!) Be careful to avoid any harsh words that judge, blame, tear down, etc., for example, “I’m angry that he/she is a jerk” will not work. This would intensify toxic emotions instead, and the purpose of this exercise is to better understand what’s angered you, to gain clarity, and to build confidence in handling anger in healthy ways by articulating it to yourself (first).
I am angry that you ______ .
“I’m angry that you called me names when you were upset.”
“I’m angry that you walked away from discussions instead of listening to understand me.”
“I’m angry that you ignored me when your friends were around.”
Note! This exercise is designed for you to get to know and better understand your angry feelings, and not as a communication to relay to your partner (unless you’ve determined he/she is a ‘safe’ person). Find a safe person to share these feelings. Also, if you feel overwhelmed at any time during the exercise, please stop immediately, and turn to something that calms you, i.e., going for a walk or listening to music. Seek professional assistance, if necessary, to explore feelings that overwhelm you at present.
Life is challenging and growth is painful as it is. Suffering, however, is unnecessary. To stop and replace the toxic relationship patterns with life enriching ones, make a determined decision to stop hiding behind the veil of secrecy anymore. Stop listening or making excuses for hurtful actions.
The suffering will only stop when you are no longer willing to excuse hurtful behaviors, to participate in toxic interaction, to stop doing what is harmful and within your control to stop, and to replace old patterns with life enriching ones. In some situations, it may be necessary to create physical and, or emotional distance from the other. If the toxicity is out of control, or your partner is not willing to work with you to abort the toxic cycles, seek professional assistance.
4. ‘Get comfortable with uncomfortable’ feelings.
Many events that cause stress in a relationship, such as dealing with key issues or one another’s requests, are healthy and essential. Unfortunately, many partners have bought into romanticized notions of ideal love, and enter their relationship with unrealistic expectations. Movies, TV and entertainment only add to the myths and misconceptions, making matters worse.
Many partners expect to arrive at a place where, once and for all, there are no more painful emotions of fear or anger, they stop upsetting each other, they perfectly trust one another, and they meet one another’s needs in perfect timing. That doesn’t happen on earth, Venus or Mars, or any known planet.
In truth, life and relationships are challenging, that’s how they grow us. It’s that way by design.
To strengthen emotional intimacy requires each partner to stretch and to grow, and thus to become increasingly comfortable with emotions and physiological sensations they are uncomfortable feeling. Emotions of vulnerability are inherent in forming intimacy, and essential to grow the capacity to love courageously, in moments when partners face their greatest fears, i.e., inadequacy, rejection, abandonment, and so on.
The core fears are connected to hardwired human urges – emotional drives, such as the drive to matter, to be valued for who we are, to meaningful connect in relation to a loved one, and so on. These urges directly modulate partners’ sense of safety, an emotional drive to build a trusting love-connection with the other, meaning that they subconsciously control the activation of the autonomic nervous system.
Partners need to learn how to ‘get comfortable’ with the vulnerable feelings associated with loving and being loved imperfectly, giving and receiving imperfectly, and remaining empathically connected to their compassion for self and other in moments when they are triggered. Facing fears imprinted in memory is a way to heal them. For this reason, you need skills that will help you regulate emotions rooted in fear.
When partners remain open to respond out of compassion, rather than fear, this stretches and strengthens their confidence and critical ability to feel feelings of vulnerability, without being triggered by them, that is, without tipping the scale in the balance between love and fear toward fear. Each needs the courage and confidence to stay connected to their feelings of safety and love, and not get triggered by any feelings of insecurity and fear.
Even in optimal conditions, realizing a happy and healthy relationship is akin to walking a tightrope. Gentle swaying to one side, and then the other, is part of the journey. If they try not to sway, they will lose balance and fall off the rope. What keeps the tightrope walker balanced is their sustained efforts and action, one step at a time, and a conscious intention to stay balanced.
The autonomic nervous system operates our mind and body using the same laws. Its highest intention, for the purpose of our emotional and physical health and survival, is always to restore balance the energies of the mind and body, known as homeostasis, and to keep gently bringing things into balance when anxiety sways too much in one direction.
As essential aspect of getting comfortable with uncomfortable feelings is growing your awareness and understanding of your self, body and mind. It’s helpful to identify any toxic thinking, limiting beliefs, addictive relating patterns and replace them with life enriching options. You have options. When you feel fearful or anxious, stop, breathe and become aware of what emotions you are feeling; connect to where in your body you experience them; then assess what action (helpful, caring, restorative) you can take to restore optimal calm. It may be to say or think something affirming, for example, or to stop or move away from something that is harmful.
Experiencing strong emotions from time to time is just part of life. Avoid keeping your feelings bottled up inside – and also avoid doing the extreme opposite. Blasting another with your feelings, for example, may be ‘expressing’ them, but it’s just as harmful than bottling them up! Other suggestions are to look for reading materials on developing emotional awareness, cultivate a positive attitude in life, and keep reaching for what brings health and balance to your life. It’s in your hands to no longer allow angry outbursts, anxiety or depression to control the direction of your life, and if necessary, seek professional assistance to realize this goal.
5. Describe wrongful actions with action- or solution-words.
Acting in ways that strip away hope or demean, humiliate, intimidate, or tear down another person, etc., is harmful and inhumane. It also erodes relationships. Those that rely on these tactics also need healing, however. They are using them to get quick-fix feel goods, and their actions are misguided.
These behavior patterns keep partners stuck in root problems of low self-esteem, feelings of powerlessness, and so on. They are detrimental to both the user and usee. The power to love or to act in a thoughtful, kind way toward another is infinitely more powerful than the power to hate, to demean, to intimidate, etc. These tactics may offer quick-fix cheap thrills, however, in the long run, they backfire. Persons who use them often live in fear of getting the short end of the stick, and are ever on guard to make sure no one gets the best of them, etc. This approach to life damages emotional intimacy, and makes life hell on earth.
Ideally, your partner will open and willing to work with you to stop, change and move away from problematic behaviors. It will take this, at minimum, to retrain your brain’s neural patterns. You want to create 180 degree shifts in what currently holds your imagination, to include the beliefs, values, images, feelings, wants, actions, and so on, to a new healthy vision for your self and partner, as individuals and a couple.
If your partner is not willing, you can still do your part. As you change, you may notice your partner change. He or she may surprise you, and join your efforts.
As part of this re-imaging of your interactions, you’ll need to use words in conscious ways, being aware of the power they have to activate emotional states – whether helpful or harmful ones.
Instructions: Put together a written action-plan that describes in detail what behaviors to stop, change or move away from, and what behaviors to replace them with and actively engage. In a conscious way, start to describe the problematic actions using action-verbs and solution-oriented words. They should include the following four areas:
- Label the problem as a solution. Example: Hitting – Use hands to care or create, not for hitting.
- Describe in specific terms what needs to stop.
- Create pictures of new vision and beliefs, values.
- Describe specific new actions to replace old.
- Label problem of “Name-calling” or “Fault-finding” as solution: Use words to enrich or to make requests, and not for finding-fault.
- Stop all words that demean, tear down, find-fault, judge self or other as persons, and so on.
- In our family, words are for building mutual understanding, communicating clearly what we like and do not like, growing kindness in the world, inspiring others, making requests, having fun with (but not at) each other, energizing a bright future, and so on.
- (We use words that) Chose to use words that consciously increase mutual understanding, cooperation, kindness, clarity, caring, compassion, hope and inspiration, and the like.
Remember, no one can get the best of you or make you feel less than a valuable human being unless you believe this in your mind and heart. Refuse to do so. This means it is your hands to take action to stop, to change or to move way from the toxic actions of your partner. Never take abusive actions or words personally – and choose to see them as problems of the person who acts wrongfully. If distancing yourself from wrongful actions is too challenging to do on your own, however, professional help may be necessary to stop ingrained patterns.
An ongoing choice to enrich life for self and other?
If addictive relating patterns are taking over your relationship, take heart, you can retrain your brain, so that one or (hopefully) both of you may choose what’s in the highest interest of your personal health and well-being. For the relationship to heal, in optimal ways, however, it will require both partners to be open and willing to take full ownership. You each played a contributing role in the toxicity, and thus now, as consciously aware partners, you must play an active role to stop, to change – and to move away from toxic interaction patterns.
To do so, in effect, is to rewire neural brain patterns that were emotionally-charged, and thus automatically activated (controlled) your autonomic nervous system. That means, by acting in conscious ways to enrich life for both self and other, you can balance the equations of your brain and body, and at the same time bring balance to your life and relationship, more specifically, when you act:
- To stop focusing on what the other needs to change, and instead to cultivate an awareness of what triggers you and your partner. It’s essential to understand how each impacts the other’s sense of emotional safety, so you may respond in caring ways to minimize the reactivity, and optimize the capacity your brain, and your partner’s, to unlearn the old and rewire new healing experiences of one another.
- To accept that healing your self, and how you relate to your inner world of thoughts and feelings, is prerequisite. It’s time to stop using your energy to fix and control what has only been an illusion of false power, and instead to focus on using the power of your choices to become a calming presence in your life and relationship.
- To cultivate honesty with your self, and seek the support of safe persons. Ultimately, in a healthy relationship, partners increasingly become ‘safe’ persons to turn to for support. It’s a healthy expectation and standard to set in your relationship. Each must, however, work to develop the ‘characteristics’ above, and not expect to give or be given a free pass.
- To expect some strong emotions from time to time, and learn to ‘get comfortable’ with them. Life and relationships are challenging, and dealing with hurts is part of growing together, and learning to do better. See your relationship as a work in progress, keep ever reaching for the stars, and do yourself a favor – let go of thinking either of you ‘have to’ arrive at some ‘ideal’ destination. See your work together as a process, a labor of love.
- To describe wrongful actions and energize solutions by using words that describe both the actions to stop and change, and a positive vision of what actions to take instead that are aligned with what you aspire to create. Words have power to control your emotions and thus behavior; use them wisely to energize optimal states of compassion, enthusiasm, fun – to bring out the best in you and your partner.
Naturally, to unlearn and rewire your brains will require determined effort. It’s not easy to act in consistent ways to break free of the addictive-reaction patterns that have imprisoned the otherwise amazing healing capacity of your beautiful brains.
What determines whether you or your partner will change, however?
The determining factors are: whether you really want to change, how much you want this, whether you believe you and your partner can, and what you’re willing to do to make this happen. You are each responsible for making changes to what you think and believe, literally, to create new perceptions of yourselves, one another, your relationship.
Stay positive to put the power of what you really want, believe, and envision into action. Believe in you. Believe in each other. Own 100% responsibility. And, take action, and more action, to do whatever is in your power to break free of the control of addictive relating patterns, and retrain the neural patterns of your brain in ways the enrich you as individuals and a couple. No excuses. You can.