Why Relationships Go Bad, According to Science

Our brains have been formed by evolution to protect us from harm. If we don’t survive, we don’t reproduce and perpetuate our species. What does this have to do with relationships, you ask? Everything.

Arguably, two of the most fundamental drives encoded in our systems are the drive to be connected (including but not limited to reproduction and infant rearing) and the drive to protect ourselves. However, of these two — for the sake of survival — our brains preference threat detection and avoidance. If you miss the rock that kills you, you don’t pass on your genes.

Brains are pattern-detecting and pattern-making machines.

This creates an inescapable conundrum in relationship: the connect-protect dilemma. We want to be close to other people, but we don’t want to be hurt. Being human, it’s inevitable that we will make mistakes and hurt each other. This is the crux of where things go well…or not so well.

In the earliest years of life, from birth to about 3 years of age, human infants develop a basic sense of security about the world. Much of it is pre-verbal, and this degree of security relates to complex abilities to trust others, to feel and understand one’s emotions, to be responsive to another person’s emotions in helpful or unhelpful ways, and to characteristic adaptive or less-adaptive ways of dealing with stress.

By 3 years old infants can be reliably categorized through an procedure called the Strange Situation as securely or insecurely attached. Attachment in psychological terms refers to the quality of the emotional bond between individuals, and their abilities to be responsive to each others needs. Whichever category a baby falls under, there is about a 70% chance that he or she will maintain that attachment status throughout adulthood. In other words, it’s a fairly stable trait. Cross-culturally about 2/3 of the population is securely attached, with the remaining 1/3 insecurely attached.

Since people tend to hang out and connect with people of the same security status, the other people around you likely reflect your degree of security or insecurity.

Securely attached folks have a high degree of trust in themselves and others, a fairly strong sense of their values and who they are, can tolerate ambiguity in relationships, understand their and others’ emotions intuitively, have a higher ratio of positive to negative emotions, and for all those reasons are less emotionally reactive. They typically partner with other secures, and their relationships are mostly stable, and free of games, blame, tit-for-tat, hidden agendas, affairs and so on.

Insecure folks tend to have relatively dramatic, chaotic, and unstable relationships. Sometimes they will repeatedly break up and re-connect with the same partner. This can be seen as a more general pattern of trouble regulating emotional or physical distance. One wants to be close and the other wants distance, or both oscillate between close and distant. Or in the worst case, the closer they feel the more they blow up, which makes for a very confusing and unstable way of living.

As another means of regulating distance, insecures have problems of “thirds,” which include affairs, substances, in-laws, and using their children against each other. Because of the like-kind principle, it is almost always the case that the insecure attachments propagate across generations, so the chaos and drama can be seen in the parental relationships, grandparents relationships, aunts, uncles, cousins, and so on.

Attachment insecurity is at base a failure of trust, based on unreliable parental relationships before age 3 (and usually after as well).

Without the benefit of the doubt that trust provides, our pattern-making brains inflate negative interpretations of each other into black-and-white, all-or-nothing beliefs. Past the “connect” of the honeymoon period, trust starts to erode and the “protect” side of the connect-protect see-saw comes on full-bore. Attributions of negative intent become the whole story, and hurt begets hurt. As things worsen over time these attributions can even get woven into memory so it becomes hard to remember when things were ever good, or to hang onto the positive qualities of one’s partner.

This downward spiral is what John Gottman has designated “the distance and isolation cascade.” It starts with one or both partners being chronically flooded — or overwhelmed — by each other’s negative emotion (including Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”). They then come to anticipate and selectively over-perceive negativity, which makes them even more reactive, and leads to a growing belief that talking and trying to work out disagreements is useless. At that point the partners gradually turn away from each other out of helplessness and hopelessness, spend less time together (especially positive time), and become increasingly isolated and lonely. Once things have gotten to this stage, recovery of the relationship without professional help is extremely unlikely.

How to prevent getting to that point? Get help early. If one or both of you are feeling frequently triggered or overwhelmed by negative emotion, it’s probably a signal worth paying attention to. Same with feeling chronically misunderstood or hurt.

Both the downward spiral and its antidotes are complex, and the written word can only provide glimpses. For more, see Communication in Relationships, and Pyramid of Skills.


Thanks for reading! If you found this helpful or interesting please clap below!

(I’m a psychologist with a private practice, in Noe Valley, San Francisco)

Image Credits: Arms Crossed

Robert Solley

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