Even when we know better.
“Most people will choose misery with a partner their limbic brain recognizes over the stagnant pleasure of a ‘nice’ relationship with someone their attachment mechanisms cannot detect.’’
— A General Theory of Love
Choosing between what we know rationally, and what we feel emotionally
We live in an age of instant accessibility to information and education.
We live in an era where critical thinking and logic are considered vital twenty-first century skills. We can even pursue degrees virtually, or gain access to online archives of psychological studies, journals and articles, if we desire to plunge deeper into the science of the human psyche. Assuming we are not restrained by conspicuous cultural traditions or obligations, we even have the freedom to choose our intimate partners.
So why are we still choosing dark, dysfunctional connections, over healthy and harmonious love?
1) Logic and emotion are governed by different modules of the brain.
Logic, self-control and precision are governed by the prefrontal cortex, while the limbic system is responsible for emotion, motivation and impulse. While there is an interplay between these two, that can result in co-ordination, in many instances they can push us in vastly different directions, and to make different decisions.
Oftentimes, when it comes to the matters and affairs of intimacy and the heart, we are driven by emotion, which obscures the rational and logical thought processes that might help fortify us from dating people are not right for us.
When we are in love, the limbic processes comprise oxytocin, vasopressin, dopamine, and serotonergic signaling. The amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for fear responses) is deactivated, meaning that we might be more prone to blatantly ignoring or overlooking red flags.
The euphoria of love overrides the threats of danger.
Finally, we are human, and can experience cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance occurs when we are faced with two options: one is unhealthy, but we are disposed to choose it, while the other, is healthier and more optimal for our wellbeing; we know, rationally, that we should choose it, but our emotions are simply not in resonance with it.
“For reason alone, is a force confining and passion, unattended, is a flame that burns to its own destruction.”
— Kahlil Gibran
Strengthening willpower may help us in choosing healthier and more rational options (and relationships); rewiring our brains to habitually make decisions more wisely, creating a stronger inclination to make the wholesome decisions that may not gratify us instantly, but will preserve our long-term peace.
2) We carry forward our childhood experiences.
Psychologist Dr. Shefali Tsabury observes, “We don’t live a life. We live a pattern.” Our psychological patterns govern many of our choices, while these choices cement and solidify the patterns. ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) and PCEs (positive childhood experiences) affect a person’s mental health and wellbeing in adulthood.
According to Bowlby’s attachment style theory, the relationships we have with our primary caregivers shape our relationships, connections and expectations in our intimate lives. Essentially, unstable relationships with primary caregivers can result in insecure attachment styles with romantic partners.
There are four attachment styles:
1) Secure: Adults with this style are generally satisfied with the relationship overall. They demonstrate interdependence, honesty, communication and a healthy balance between support and connection, and individuality.
2) Anxious-Preoccupied: These individuals are on high alert in the relationship. They are sensitive and seek safety and security in their partner. They hunger for affection, attention and validation, and may display clingy behaviour.
3) Dismissive-Avoidant: These adults are distant, isolated and hyper-independent. They may avoid deep and intense connection, in an attempt to maintain their self-reliance and independence. They may also be prone to shutting down emotionally, in times of conflict with their significant other.
4) Fearful-Avoidant: This avoidant style relates to ambivalence; a desire for deep intimacy, but a simultaneous fearing of it. They may feel overwhelmed by their longing for connection to the extent that they avoid it all together. This results in mood swings, instability, commitment issues and a difficulty maintaining healthy relationships.
Despite their blaring incompatibility, anxious and avoidant individuals are often drawn to each other, with the anxious person ‘working hard’ for intimacy, and the avoidant person investing less emotional effort. This union confirms their unconscious belief systems: the anxious party lives in constant fear of the avoidant leaving, while the avoidant believes the solution is to pull away from intimacy.
“It is attachment that makes familiarity trump worth. A golden retriever thrills only to his owner. He is amiably and helplessly indifferent to passersby who may be kinder, fonder of walks, quicker with treats — he does not, he cannot value them. Everyone is in the same limbic boat as those patient, expectant dogs.”
— A General Theory of Love
Self-awareness (awareness of one’s childhood experiences, patterns, attachment style and belief systems) is the first step to accepting and changing harmful dynamics that keep you stuck.
3) We unconsciously believe that life should not be easy.
I often say that life isn’t just a rollercoaster — it’s the whole amusement park, complete with an extravagant circus, theatre and tragicomedy show.
Life isn’t always going to be a gentle meander in the mountains, or a breezy beach amble in the Bahamas. Sometimes it’s a gruelling Everest expedition, complete with severe bouts of altitude sickness.
But it doesn’t always have to be that. It is safe to rest, to relax, to breathe and to admire the panoramic scenery around you.
Unstable upbringings or trauma experienced in youth may result in an unconscious familiarity with, or attachment to, negativity and emotional chaos. These states may be our comfort zone. We may even develop an addiction to negativity as adults, and in extreme cases, experience masochism, anhedonia (an inability to feel pleasure) or fear of success.
We may very well seek out unhealthy, messy and dramatic relationships, because it is what is familiar and known, creating an illusion of safety. They also mirror our unconscious belief that life shouldn’t be easy.
“Our unconscious hides a belief system we’ve been developing since childhood. We tend to make decisions to prove the strongest of these beliefs, called ‘core beliefs’, as true.”
— Harley Therapy
Knowing your belief system; the harmful beliefs that keep you rutted in an unsatisfactory cycle will help you make more conscious choices. You begin to realise that your cognitive distortions are a black smudge on your mirror, warping your view of reality.
It may seem daunting, but you possess the tools to clean and polish this mirror.
To see a different face of reality.
4) We have issues with self-worth and self-confidence.
To be in a healthy, functional relationship, your nervous system must be regulated to accept, and not flee from, secure love. You must also believe that you deserve this love.
According to Madeleine A. Fugère, “Perceiving poor alternatives to the relationship enhances the likelihood of staying with an undesirable partner”. Ultimately, women with low self-esteem are more inclined to stay in a dysfunctional relationship, because they perceive fewer “desirable alternatives”. Additionally, possessing little self regard may lead an individual to endure toxic relationships.
“We accept the love with think we deserve.”
— The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Healthy levels of confidence and self-esteem induce higher levels of relationship satisfaction. If you want to truly give and receive love, and believe you deserve it at the deepest level, you must first genuinely love and accept yourself.
5) We have unhealed sorrow within us.
Fears oriented around loneliness may keep us entwined with toxic partners, because we fear another alternative: solitude. The threat of the unknown, on our own, may thwart our boldness and assertiveness when it comes to ending a destructive connection; instead opting to acquiesce to this predictably turbulent relationship.
According to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, people who fear being single show a lesser likelihood of initiating ending an unsatisfying relationship. They are also less likely to be selective, when it comes to choosing a potential partner.
This fear, exacerbated, can spur into codependency, which can diminish self-esteem and sense of value. Enduring a toxic love can also give rise to trauma bonds, or malignant oscillations between abuse and kindness, causing the victim to feel positive reinforcement when kindness or remorse is shown by the perpetrator, after an abusive incident. This leads to a sense of connection and (traumatic) intimacy between the two, interlacing them in a dysfunctional, cyclical bond.
“I grew a lot when I looked at all of my “toxic” relationships and realized that the one thing present in each of them was: me.”
— Dr Nicole LePera
While dissolving a dysfunctional bond, or a maladaptive pattern is not always an easy feat, it is always possible. Our brains have neuroplasticity; its ability to grow and change, with experience. We can, essentially, alter our decisions, habits and patterns, thus changing our trajectories destinies.
Essentially, there is no panacea, or magic elixir, that will swiftly remedy unwholesome patterns, emotional thirst, an unstable upbringing, childhood trauma, an insecure attachment style, low-self esteem or loneliness.
But there are the wondrous tools to help with the extraction of these inner bullets: the antiseptic of introspection, the scalpel of self-awareness, the forceps of willpower, the stitches of decisive action, and the healing balms of self-assurance, self-compassion and self-love.
A healthy relationship with another requires a healthy relationship with yourself first: even if that means relearning everything you have learnt about relationships and bonding, thus far.
“Think about how long it took you to create the patterns that have kept you in fear. Be equally patient with the work to change your future.”
— Maryam Hasnaa
*Disclaimer: I am neither a neuroscientist, nor a psychologist.
I write from research and experience.