Humans are wired to be social creatures. The drive to share experiences is buried deep in our DNA, but it’s not perfect; toxic relationships certainly exist, and they’re often difficult to break.
Know Who You’re Dealing With
If your life soundtrack consists of nothing but 808s & Heartbreak, it’s time to reevaluate your romantic entanglements. Toxic relationships are cyclical, and it’s important to know how to recognize the signs you’re in one.
Clinical psychologist Thomas L. Cory defines a toxic relationship as “a relationship characterized by behaviors on the part of the toxic partner that are emotionally and, not infrequently, physically damaging to their partner.”
The difference between a positive relationship and a toxic one involves every aspect of our lives, Cory suggests. “While a healthy relationship contributes to our self-esteem and emotional energy, a toxic relationship damages self-esteem and drains energy,” he wrote.
You would think the characteristics of a toxic partner would be obvious and easy enough to walk away from. However, there’s something in our brains that keep us coming back to the people we know aren’t good for us.
Brain Games That Fool The Heart
The desire for unstable partners is rooted in the pleasure centers of our brains. While it may seem like these erratic relationships are the furthest thing from a “reward,” our brains beg to differ. The unpredictability of a bad boy or girl actually makes our neurons go crazy, and we get hooked on the chaos.
Psychiatrist Gregory Berns conducted a study that tracked the neurological effect of rewards under two conditions: predictable and unpredictable. In this study, subjects were placed in an fMRI scanner and given either water or fruit juice as rewards. During one part of the session, Berns’ team administered liquids at 10 second intervals. Later, they handed them out at random times.
Berns found that the reward circuits in subjects’ brains were more active when they were surprised by the drinks. The study seems to suggest that when this circuit fires, your brain releases dopamine (the pleasure neurotransmitter) and remembers the circumstances, hardwiring the effect.
Professor Richard A. Friedman discussed the brain’s love of unpredictable rewards in a piece for The New York Times.
“The brain’s reward circuit has evolved over millions of years to enable us to recognize and extract various rewards from our environment that are critical to our survival, like food and a suitable … mate,” he wrote. “Unlike predictable stimuli, unanticipated stimuli can tell us things about the world that we don’t yet know. And because they serve as a signal that a big reward might be close by, it is advantageous that novel stimuli command our attention.”
Love and Attention
When a friend or partner acts chaotically, our brains activate just like the subjects’ in Berns’ study. The brain’s electrical impulses might excitedly fire when a significant other doesn’t call and disappears for days at a time, but our emotional state doesn’t fair so well.
Berns’ study also revealed the reason it’s so difficult to break this cycle. The researcher found that his subjects couldn’t tell the difference between the predictable and unpredictable timing of the rewards. Despite more dopamine being released under unpredictable circumstances, people weren’t consciously aware of when that was actually happening.
This helps shed some light on why that one friend is always getting back together with their ex. Sometimes we can’t identify things that are bad for us. Thanks a lot, dopamine.
The Signs Of A Toxic Relationship
If you’re worried you have toxic friends or romantic partners in your life, keep an eye out for a few telltale signs. The most obvious characteristic of toxic relationships is the oscillation between extreme emotional highs and deep lows. Chasing the next good feeling keeps people coming back for more.
The good news is that you can break out of this destructive cycle. It takes time and a lot of effort to rewire your brain’s response, but it’s worth it in the end.