Bad boys wreak havoc on our lives, our bodies and our brains. The reasons we love bad boys, toxic people and emotionally unavailable partners are not just emotional and psychological – they are downright biochemical.
The truth of the matter is, our brains can be rewired to fixate on people who aren’t good for us. Emotionally unavailable men, toxic partners such as narcissists or sociopaths and pickup artists alike all depend on these effects to get us hooked. We can become addicted to the highs and lows of dangerous romantic relationships in a way that makes a break-up from a toxic person similar to rehab from a destructive drug addiction.
Have you wondered why you were unable to let go of that one person who defined your relationship ambiguously, treated you inconsistently and unfairly, brought up your worst insecurities while simultaneously subjecting you to sweet talking and fantasy-prone fast-forwarding? Unfortunately for those of us who have a tendency towards dating bad boys (or girls), our addiction to toxic partners is actually strengthened by their mistreatment of us.
When we first meet a toxic partner or an emotionally unavailable person, our bond with him or her becomes cemented through their excessive attention combined with their emotional withdrawal and withholding throughout the relationship. The knowledge of what a toxic partner does to our brain makes it more likely for us to cut back on our investment on those who we perceive may not be a good fit earlier on, detach from any attachments we may already have to toxic people and realize that the powerful bond that’s been created has arisen from our biochemical bonds, not our true standards.
Remember that rejection and affection often go hand in hand in such a turbulent relationship where a partner is fluent in giving you mixed messages. Rejection can hurt, literally, and it’s no surprise that your brain circuitry during a break-up mirrors your brain circuitry when you are in physical pain. A break-up with a toxic person who has mistreated you throughout the relationship compounds this effect and makes it that much more difficult to recover from.
These are a few main chemicals and hormones involved which make for a powerful cocktail of attachment that have little to do with the merits of the person you’re dating and everything to do with their shady behavior:
Positive experiences like unforgettable dates, over-the-top attention, flattery, amazing sex, gifts, and grand romantic gestures can all release dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that controls the pleasure center of our brains which creates reward circuits, which then generates automatic associations in our brain that link our romantic partners with pleasure and even our survival.
The catch? Dopamine flows more readily in the brain when there is a “intermittent reinforcement” schedule of rewards rather than a consistent schedule. The inability of a toxic partner to give us what we need leaves us pining for the good times and continuing to invest in the relationship, much like a gambler at a slot machine who hopes for a perceived gain despite the inevitable losses of such a risky investment.
Dr. Helen Fisher discovered that this “frustration-attraction” experience of obstacles in a romantic relationship actually heightens our feelings of love, rather than hindering them. She discusses how the brains of those in adversity-ridden relationships become activated in an eerily similar way to the brains of cocaine addicts.
Emotionally unavailable men or otherwise toxic partners are masters of intermittent reinforcement; they do things on their own schedule – literally. They may disappear for days, they may have a plethora of side chicks, they may constantly woo you and also withhold from you that coveted relationship status. They’re always on the precipice of commitment or changing for the better before they press the reset button once again. They are always uncertain (or too certain when they’re sweet-talking you into bed) about the future, and they leave you guessing about their true intentions on a daily basis.