The Brain Chemistry That Pushes Us into Toxic Relationships | Mental health

What you see as “overwhelming chemistry” can be a toxic relationship.

In recent weeks, the judgment of the defamation lawsuit opened by Johnny Depp against his ex-wife Amber Heard caused a stir on social media – amid an exchange of accusations of abuse and mistreatment.

But you don’t have to go to certain extremes to be in a toxic relationship and suffer from its harmful effects.

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It is something so subtle and common that it can go unnoticed.

Let’s take an example that may sound familiar. You meet someone, and the person gets super involved — the conversation flows, you share a thousand things, you make big plans, the person says you’re amazing….

But at the same time, she disappears for a few days, leaves you in a vacuum (those blessed two blue ticks on Whatsapp!), proposed plans come to fruition very rarely, or she doesn’t spend enough time by your side. But then it comes back, and the cycle repeats itself.

“We know that the pleasant moment will return and we are addicted to waiting for it to return, as we are sure that in the end it always comes back. These moments of euphoria are so pleasant that we forget about the bad moments”, explains psychologist Marta Novoa, specialist in relationships and author of the book Amor del Bueno.

In other words, you experience highs and lows—the equivalent of what is called intermittent reinforcement.

Initial flirting is normal, but depending on how it goes, it can be toxic — Photo: Getty Images via BBC

Psychologist Frederic Skinner did an experiment with rats. He put them in a cage where there was a lever, and each time they pressed it, a ball of food fell out. They tried to see what would happen if, when pressing on it, food didn’t fall out. The rats lost interest, and no longer pressed the lever. In both cases, it was a continual reinforcement: there was always food or there never was.

But what would happen if, when pressing the lever, the food dropped randomly? They thought the mouse would forget to press the lever.

But not. He became obsessed, and pressured her all the time, even though nothing happened. He became addicted to the point of abandoning his rest, food and cleanliness.

“This is intermittent reinforcement, an unpredictable, random and inconsistent reward,” says biologist and body psychotherapist Lorena Cuendias.

“The brain’s reward circuit aims to reinforce behaviors for our survival, such as hydrating, feeding or reproducing. It is also activated when we receive external signals of approval and validation”, he explains.

Our brains make the same connections with intermittent reinforcement as they do with drugs — Photo: Getty Images via BBC

With reward and pleasure, dopamine and serotonin are released. When there is consistency in the stimulus, when the pleasure is predictable — the food pellet always arrives, WhatsApp messages are always answered — the brain gets used to it and, each time, releases less of these substances. You no longer shake on your foundations when a “Hey, what are you doing?”

When there is inconsistency, we are like the mouse.

A drug in your brain

“There’s unpredictability about when and how the (hormone) high will return to the brain. It’s something precious, and you chase it anyway,” says Cuendias.

Faced with deprivation, neurons “will increasingly need doses of stronger stimuli.”

In addition, oxytocin, the bonding and love hormone, is inhibited — and there is an imbalance between it and dopamine.

That’s where the “obsession” comes in.

The restless, roller-coaster feeling is indicative of a toxic relationship — Photo: Getty Images via BBC

“The (hormonal) imbalance can make the person feel an intense urge to keep and desire their partner. The victim can do things that put them at risk, such as allowing certain behaviors, including sexual ones, that they would not tolerate under other circumstances.”

Those who suffer from this work more and more to maintain this relationship and return to the “honeymoon” phase, in which they will obtain more dopamine. Is an addiction.

“Drug, tobacco or heroin addiction has the same mechanism,” says Cuendias.

“The drug gives that satisfaction at the time and then comes depression, even the withdrawal syndrome. It’s exactly the same thing in relationships. The circuits that are activated in the brain are practically the same”, adds Novoa.

The fine line between ‘flirting’ and toxic

Who never felt butterflies in their stomachs when they started being followed by a crush on social media and received a message? We respond, the flirting continues, stops for a few days and then comes back. And we get excited about this flirtation, this tug of war.

Both therapists maintain that at the beginning of a relationship—whether casual or formal—it is normal for there to be ups and downs of enthusiasm.

“This happens to all of us. We yearn for fusion. The preliminary game is natural to maintain the bond and for what biology seeks, which is to procreate”, says Cuendias.

But there are some warning signs. According to experts, the important thing is to look inside yourself and see how we feel.

For Cuendias, it is necessary to observe “when feelings are stronger than our ability to act for our own good and interest”.

Breadcrumbring is one of the practices that are toxic — Photo: Getty Images via BBC

It could be that there’s an overwhelming chemistry and a very strong attraction. But, according to Novoa, they need to be accompanied by a sense of peace as a background — not only when the person is present, but also when he is not, “because you are sure that the treatment will not change, that he is available to you and there is an engagement”.

For Novoa, the warning sign is when there is a sense of urgency, of anxiety: “When there are mishaps, it’s like a continuous roller coaster.”

When we talk about asymmetry in couple relationships, we usually talk about differences in age or power. But an asymmetrical relationship is also one where one person talks about their expectations and the other doesn’t.

Surely you have also witnessed this scene, that moment in the relationship when one of the two asks: “And what are we, after all?”.

In addition to labels, asymmetry arises when one party says what they want — and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a stable relationship — while the other party avoids the subject.

“You never know what structure of relationship you’re getting into. You don’t really know what to expect. It’s a relationship in which there are no limits, that is, in which it is not indicated at any time what is healthy for me and what is not. is”, points out Novoa.

In this way, anything goes and, also, everything is allowed. That’s where toxicity comes in.

Observing how we feel is important in determining whether we are in a toxic relationship — Photo: Getty Images via BBC

“This inevitably leads to asymmetries. It is very difficult for there to be general satisfaction on both sides.”

This, in turn, adds to that constant rollercoaster feeling Novoa mentioned.

“There is never peace, everything is tremendous anxiety. And when there is reconciliation it is also very intense.”

In addition to looking inside ourselves and seeing how we feel, experts give other guidelines to detect if we are falling into a toxic relationship.

“If we lose our own autonomy and identity, being subjected to control and manipulation, if we abandon ourselves, if we start to doubt ourselves or lose ourselves in the other, when there is an imbalance and our energy is almost all invested in the relationship”, lists Cuendias.

Restlessness is another factor, that feeling of insecurity we feel without knowing where it comes from.

“There can be some conflict in a relationship, but there is tranquility. Another point is that you feel like you can’t be the way you are. That you have to hide a part of yourself because you believe the other person won’t accept it or doesn’t openly do it.” , notes Novoa.

Seeking psychological help, understanding the root of our attachment to a toxic relationship, can help us not repeat the pattern — Photo: Getty Images via BBC

It happens, above all, in couple relationships – stable or sporadic – but also in family and friendship relationships.

Those who are in a toxic relationship don’t see it so clearly precisely because of the same processes that are activated in the brain for attachment to happen.

Therefore, the two experts suggest that self-knowledge is essential “both to not enter or to leave” a relationship of this type.

“Working on our self-esteem, communication, listening, knowing how to set limits, manage conflicts. All this in a preventive way to get in, but it also helps us a lot to get out”, highlights Novoa.

For Cuendias, it is essential to work on the attachment bond that led us to this toxic relationship in therapy:

“The trigger for this is an insecure affective bond in childhood that makes us look for what we lack in others”.

To strengthen this, if you cannot go to therapy, it is important to seek the help of someone who offers us a reference of what a safe relationship is and helps us to see that we may have extremely strong chemistry, but with the wrong person. .

Some toxic practices

  • Breadcrumbing: Leave crumbs of love, of attention, for the other person. But avoid commitment. It doesn’t have to be going to the altar, but in this case the person avoids talking about it. There is no intention of consolidating a relationship, but that is not said either.
  • Love bombing: Love bombing. You’re at the beginning of the relationship, there’s that huge euphoria. Everything is a fairy tale, perfect and intense. Everything is love and attention. Until those who apply this practice, little by little, begin to become cold and distant, dry. It’s more gradual, there’s more involvement than in the previous type of relationship. The person who suffers often asks what he did wrong. She asks them to tell her, and whoever applies love bombing denies it (here we have already entered another phase, which involves manipulation).
  • Hoovering: When, after the breakup of the relationship, the person reappears in your life, especially on special dates such as birthdays, Christmas. It can even appear as if nothing has happened, as if you don’t want anything and intend to take something back, but you don’t want to create a real conversation about it either, they don’t want to know how you are doing. It may try to connect from the victimization, cause you pity, so that you connect with him or her emotionally in some way. What the person almost always seeks is to enlarge his ego.
  • Bench: You are on the bench. That is, waiting as a second option. The person is never fully involved, but never leaves, is always in the background. It reappears when you are not getting along with other people or when you feel lonely.

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She's our PC girl, so anything is up to her. She is also responsible for the videos of Play Crazy Game, as well as giving a leg in the news.

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