In a recent post, I committed to writing a series of posts about all the reasons why we “choose” to stay in unhealthy relationships. I put the word choose in quotation marks because this “choice” isn’t always a choice at all. This can either be because of subconscious thoughts and beliefs that drive our decisions OR because we feel trapped for other reasons (i.e. financial, physical danger) and don’t feel like leaving is an actual choice for us.I was first introduced to the idea that the brain is a social organ when I read “Conscious Uncoupling” by Katherine Woodward Thomas and not a concept invented by Gwyneth Paltrow. (Despite what a Google search on the phrase might lead you to believe.)In this book, Ms. Thomas devotes an entire chapter to the subject of why it’s hard to leave a relationship and presents the work of a number of experts in the field of brain chemistry. Specifically, Ms. Thomas met with Dr. Louis Cozolino who wrote The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain. Dr. Cozolino explained that the brain is a “social organ” and its primary focus is to keep us “safe” and “secure” and it really does not care much about our spiritual growth. Meaning, it not only wants us to be in a relationship, it actually sends messages to us that we are in physical danger even if we are not.Now, we might tell ourselves that we will die without our loved one and that we cannot endure the pain of separation, but that is different from not being able to physically survive without someone, and I’m here to tell you that heartbreak doesn’t actually kill you.However, our brain repeatedly tries to tell us that it will. Our brain will keep us in an unhealthy relationship even when the harm being done to us physically or mentally or emotionally overwhelmingly outweighs the good.
“In the brain’s world, better to have a negative bond than the existential death of no bond at all.”~ Dr. Paul Cozolino
This is because it is our brain’s job to keep us “safe”, and the oldest part of our brain (known as the Reptilian Brain) has a biological imperative that is left over from when humans needed to be part of a tribe in order to survive. For a portion of human history, this was absolutely true and, obviously, still is in some parts of the world. But for most us, we really don’t NEED other people to survive.The Reptilian Brain was formed when we needed to be protected from real, physical dangers like bears and starvation. It was formed during a time when there was safety in numbers. Safety that could take the form of more people to hunt and gather food or in protection from physical threats.Now, one in three women and one in three men in the United States have been or will be victims of domestic violence. So that means for one quarter to one third of us, we do live with the threat of physical danger. How many of us have judged someone we know or read about that refused to leave or report an abusive relationship?If it’s hard to leave a relationship that crosses the bright line into violence, imagine how hard it is to leave one where the line is not quite so bright.In my own story, as I have previously shared, it took me two years to overcome my brain’s fear of what Dr. Cozolino refers to as the “existential death” of leaving my marriage. During that dark time, I sat in what felt like purgatory as I incessantly debated whether I should stay or I should go. Everything I read, everything I watched, every conversation I had, every card I drew, every horoscope, every sermon, every yoga class was desperately screened for any indication of what was the “right” thing to do. Any of you who have made the burdensome decision of ending a relationship will know exactly what I mean.The turning point for me was the moment I was able to name that it was my fear of being alone and not really my love for my ex that kept me tied to him. It was during a session with my spiritual director where I was focusing on being totally present when I suddenly felt like a cough was trapped in my throat and, when she asked me to focus all my attention on that feeling, the words, “It’s not safe to be alone!” came roaring out of me. The words were followed closely by tears and terror and she brought me back yet again to the present moment and to the reality that, at that moment, I was safe.That night I dreamt that I was standing in my driveway, just outside of the garage door when I noticed a crumpled, brown paper bag lying on the ground. I kicked the bag angrily with my foot and a black cloud of wasps swarmed out of it and headed straight for my throat and the terror caused me to wake up immediately. After that, something shifted internally for me. I was able to see that being in a relationship with my ex was not healthy for me and I was able to break free.But it’s not like I still don’t have doubts. I went to my first wedding since my divorce was final, and it’s not like I didn’t wonder if I should just try to work it out after coming home to an empty house. Or after watching my third straight rerun of “The Millionaire Matchmaker.”Those doubts, however, are just par for the course of choosing a relationship with myself over one with someone who is toxic for me. I said it before and I’ll say it again, staying committed to yourself takes as much work as staying committed to someone else. And self-doubt is really the fear of rejection, which is really just the fear of being alone.I hope you enjoyed this first installment of “Why We Stay” and found some meaning in it. Especially if you are right now trying to decide whether you should stay or, better yet, asking yourself, “Why the hell am I staying?!”Questions, comments or looking for guidance and emotional support?!Leave them below or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next time…xoxo, Jenni