Push Pull Behaviour – a pernicious addiction

As a starting point, any self-work which examines our relationships with other should always place the focus on the self. This article, therefore, is not written to cast your partner in the role of demon or villain –  their stuff is their stuff. This is only about you, recognising your addictions and what you’re going to do about them. That said here is the scenario:

One moment your partner is romantic and loving and the next distant, sometimes abusive and withdrawn. It can seem like you’re living with Jeckyll and Hyde. The gesture you make one day receives a loving response and the next day an emotional outburst or cold-shoulder. If this type of behaviour was continuously happening to a friend we’d have the presence of mind to advise them to walk away but when we’re the one on the receiving end, something goes wrong. Our emotions seem to have hijacked out brain; our inner strength and intelligence are nowhere to be found. We probably don’t even recognise ourselves as we descend into a pool of craving and neediness.

If these patterns sound like a drug addict’s relationship with heroin or a gambler’s compulsion to try his luck one more time at the roulette wheel, then that is because the driving force is the same, addiction. What makes this type of dependence especially pernicious, however, is that we often don’t realise that it is there. It is fairly easy for a heroin addict to identify the cause of his craving but this type of behaviour between partners can be just as addictive yet can leave the addict completely confused about what is wrong with them. Let’s look at why:

What is at play in Push-Pull behaviour is a phenomenon know as variable reinforcement and it is extremely addictive. In normal, healthy relationships the transactions or exchanges between partners will normally give a predictable response (Y) to an action (X). In Push-Pull behaviour this is not the case. For whatever reason, when one partner does (X), the response is variable; it may be (Y) but it may also be (Z). It is these random rewards (sometimes you win and sometimes you lose) which give rise to the same addictive forces which keeps a gambler returning to the table.

If a romantic partner acts loving at times and at other times is withdrawn and distant, the other partner will begin to lust after them and not necessarily sexually. More often, psychological and emotional lust for attention and validation are stronger drivers for toxic relationship dependency than sexual lust. To make matters worse, in the same way that a drug addict attempts to play-down or justify his dependency, the love addict will attempt to justify their partner’s abusive actions by internally placing more emphasis on the good things they do; some kind words; a romantic walk etc.

What lies behind this is the body’s own chemistry and the brain’s hard-wiring. In the brain, dopamine (the brain’s happy-drug) responds to lust. Dopamine encodes on the anticipation of reward. The toxic relationship addict is waiting for the jackpot of love and affection from the other person. Not knowing whether that is going to happen or not, causes adrenaline release. Adrenaline is a stimulant and stimulants are also strongly addictive. In the presence of Dopamine and adrenaline, access to the cortex or intelligent part of the brain is staved and instead the subcortical or primitive brain is activated where we are prey to our emotions. Coupled with this is the allure of the scarcity factor. The rarer something is the more we crave it.

So, if this is where you find yourself at any point, what can you do about it. With all addiction, the pathway to detoxification, is firstly knowing that you have a problem and this article provides that starting point. The next step is down to you. This is where you draw on your inner strength and resolve and, as with all addictive habits, you need to exclude the source from your life. This is not a persecution or vilification of your partner, only a necessary step for your own mental wellbeing.

 

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