Toxic relationships always require two people, two willing participants. When one partner becomes unwilling to participate, the relationship ends. Unfortunately in many cases, neither partner is ready or willing to leave. Until someone lets go, the dance continues.
These difficult relationships can be highly addicting despite being fraught with emotional, verbal, and physical abuse. “Toxic coupling,” described by Anna Motz in her article (2015), “is created by the interaction of two disturbed individual attachment systems in each, revealing the violent impulses and psychic disturbance” of each person. Within these destructive partnerships, it is the interaction of the two individuals that creates (the) destructive force, even when one partner is the principal enactor of the violence.” These relationships can be highly addictive and the pair’s bond appears to be based on a shared need to engage in abusive practices.
A shared need?
Yes. Both people.
In her blog, Dr. Athena Staik describes how relationships become toxic when each person’s emotional reactivity and defensive reaction patterns combine to create a recipe for conflict. These toxic patterns are difficult to break because they have a neurological basis, one that has been hardwired in our brains through evolution. (If you are interested, it is part of polyvagal theory).
Let me try to explain:
Humankind’s biggest fears are abandonment, rejection, and inadequacy. In paleo times, these meant certain death: if abandoned by your tribe, you will have no protection and you will die; if you are rejected by your tribe, you will be an outcast and will die; if you are an inadequate hunter, you will either starve or be eaten, and will die.
Humankind also seeks to thrive through intimacy, sex, procreation, connection, and contribution to the tribe (family, partnership). In paleo times, lions and saber tooth tigers threatened our safety; in modern times, words, ideas, and actions by our intimate other threaten our emotional safety and vulnerability.
Our brains have been wired early on (evolutionarily and developmentally) to protect us against abandonment and rejection. As a vulnerable baby - either in the wild surrounded by now-extinct mastodons or the hospital ward - our brain begins pruning neurons to create automatic, habitual responses designed to prevent abandonment. Think of a crying baby. This pruning continues until our brains are fully developed at between 18 years for women, and the early twenties for men. “What fires together, wires together” as Daniel J. Siegel said in his book The Developing Mind (2012).
As adults, each person comes to a relationship with their own inner sense of emotional balance, health, and safety. They come seeking an empathetic and authentic connection with another person to form a healthy relationship. They also carry those pruned neurological connections that create automatic, habitual reactions designed to protect them from abandonment.
When two people meet seeking an empathetic and authentic connection, emotional balance, and safety, their vulnerability is high. Their pre-conditioned reactivity against abandonment and rejection is primed, and is triggered when balance and safety are threatened. One person feels threatened, which triggers the other, and so on.
What does this look like in a relationship? Jill - just tell me why we fight all the time!!!!!
Your relationship is being kept off balance because you (and your partner) are reacting to protect yourself from the other. You feel threatened in triggering moments. It looks like this:
Partner A notices something that triggers the fear and survival response, and reacts with defensiveness, anger, blame, withdrawal or general snarkiness. (You’re late!)
This reaction hijacks the safety of Partner B, fear escalates in Partner B activating the fear and survival responses, triggering a reaction of defensiveness, anger, blame, withdrawal or general snarkiness. (I’m being attacked! “Why are you always on my back?”)
Partner B’s response enhances the fear response in Partner A, who escalates the reactivity (He might be seeing someone else. I feel threatened. “This is the third time this week you have been late!)
And so on.
In the heat of an argument, your partner is actually telling you that they do not feel safe, that they don’t know how to deal with their upsetting emotions without triggering their survival response, and that their cries for help will cause them be rejected or abandoned (Staik, 2015).
In truth, each partner’s subconscious is in control of their own ability to make choices...not their partner. Each person chooses how to react.
But it isn’t necessarily that simple: a person becomes addicted to their defensive reactions because it brings quick relief, lowers anxiety, provides a false sense of safety. It satisfies the need to “do something” to win. And then their partner does the exact same thing. Thus, an addicting toxic pattern is established and a power struggle ensues.
The bad news is that continuing this patterns over time actually strengthens these reactive patterns and further entrenches your preconditioned protective-response strategies. Toxic couples refuse to change and become very skilled at frequent and intense use of protective reactions.
Even worse, you may even recognize yourself in the gloating, proud “winner” scorning your partner for their inferior approach. You’re the winner; they’re the loser. Contempt makes its home in your heart. A scorecard is maintained.
Meanwhile, your partner is feeling emotionally vulnerable and anxious because you are incapable of fulfilling their need for safety, intimacy, and connection. They see you as scary, unwilling, an obstacle to connection, the enemy, and embodying fear, pain, and control.
What can you do?
Both partners must resolve to break free of these patterns. Just stop it! Unfortunately humans are also resistant to change, particularly when change is demanded by another.
Here’s what healthy relationships look like:
Both partners seek genuine safety and security and do not use quick fixes for a temporary feel-good-but toxic reaction. Both are willing to make honest assessments of what is working, what isn’t, and are each willing to implement changes and act together as a team. No credit is needed and in fact, if one person claims credit and blames the other, it will destabilize the mutual effort. Each partner accepts complete responsibility (not “you made me do it!”) for their part, and accepts responsibility for building an effective partnership. They each learn new ways to regulate upsetting emotions.
Healthy partners help each other, steering clear of triggering their partner, and quickly working to soothe their partner when emotional injury occurs.
Motz, A. (2015). Female violence and toxic couples. Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02668734.2015.1058850. Retrieved from Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, 2015 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02668734.2015.1058850 December 1, 2015.
Siegel, D. J. (2012). The Developing Mind (2nd ed.) New York: The Guilford Press.
Staik, A. (2015). Toxic relationship patterns: Five protective neural patterns & role scripts. Neuroscience & Relationships with Dr. Athena Staik. Retrieved from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/relationships/2011/11/toxic-relationships-oppositional-dynamics-scripted-roles-1-of-3/ December 1, 2015.