In Defense of Toxic Love
Love isn’t just niceties and good feelings; it’s time somebody stood up for the darker side of love.
As a society we seem to be in agreement that things like co-dependency, or the anxious attachment that underlies it, and vicious arguments, infidelity, and jealousy are all inherently bad. However, love itself heightens the sensitivity of all the emotions, not just the happy ones. Just as a person can be filled with joy by their beloved; they can just easily be made terrified, despondent, or angry by them. All we’re ever told of the negative emotions is that they’re something we should avoid, at least in prose. Our songs and poems are filled with odes to this pain.
The argument against “toxic relationships” is fundamentally an argument in favor of mental health. Toxicity riles up all those unhappy emotions, namely sadness, fear, and anger. The argument seems prima facie; the value of mental health is self-evident. Yet, throughout life, there is a constant trade-off between risk and reward, specifically risking health for something enjoyable. For example, sweets, alcohol, drugs, smoking, extreme sports, or overexertion (in any domain), should all be avoided for the sake of health, but most of us take part in at least a few of these because they’re pleasurable or result in things we value.
Love is another example of such a trade-off. The story of love in the brain is only slightly less romantic than in the novels: When you look into the eyes of the person that sends your heart racing, your brain is being pumped full of oxytocin that encodes social information and acts as a neuromodulator.  In other words, that oxytocin starts tinkering with all sorts of things in your head. It primes your dopaminergic system to be reactive to this person: to initiate arousal, approach/wanting behaviors, and even makes you happy when you’re around them. It’s also doing something else: It’s releasing a flood of the stress hormone, corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), into your brain. The oxytocin blunts the stress hormone, so you don’t feel it, but you’ve been primed so if that oxytocin feed ever stops — for example, after a breakup — you’re in for a world of emotional pain. As one scientist described it, “I compare it to a rifle. As soon as they form a pair-bond, the rifle is loaded with a bullet. But the trigger isn’t pulled unless there is separation.”  This is what love looks like. It’s the happy, sexy dopaminergic stuff, and it’s equally the crying, hurting CRF stuff. Love is both pain and pleasure.
The stress hormone has an interesting effect: It potentiates dopaminergic and oxytocinergic activity. This is why we experience increased wanting of people and things when we’re sad. Ever wonder why a tub of ice cream is so appealing after a breakup? More seriously, stress is a common cause for drug addicts falling off the wagon. This means that the sadness actually intensifies some of that happy, sexy stuff too. It’s, after all, a common anecdote that makeup sex is the best sex. To avoid a strain of love on the basis of its capacity for causing harm ignores the essence of love, which is designed by nature to be just as much motivated by pain as it is by pleasure.
Two psychologists, by the names of Mary Ainsworth and John Bolwby, came up with the “theory of attachment” way back in the 60s and 70s, while working with children. They later applied this to adults. According to them, there are four attachment styles: (1) secure, (2) anxious-preoccupied, (3) dismissive-avoidant, and (4) fearful-avoidant. They are each characterized by whether or not they are anxious and/or avoidant.
Secure attachment is neither anxious nor avoidant. This is your classic happy couple; they feel trusting and are comfortable with their partner’s independence. Anxious-preoccupied is anxious but not avoidant. This describes needy people who require constant reassurance that the relationship is alive and well. Dismissive-avoidant is avoidant but not anxious. These individuals act indifferent to love because they don’t feel comfortable with emotional vulnerability and intimacy. Finally, fearful-avoidant is both avoidant and anxious. These are the givers of those mixed signals we’ve all heard so much about. Sometimes they want more attention; other times they push us away.
You can see in these attachment styles all the different types of love. It sounds so scientific and sterile when explained like this, but it’s romantic when we think of Anna Karenina or Romeo & Juliet. It’s easy to say secure attachment is best, and with an eye to mental health alone, that’s definitely the case, but these are all modes of human love, and they’re each beautiful and valuable in their own right. There’s rarely a sitcom without the fast-talking charm of some playboy who is a case study for dismissive-avoidant. The ups and downs that make for a good romantic film would be impossible, or at least less poignant, without some fearful-avoidant or anxious-preoccupied type.
I’ve been in relationships with people who are anxious-preoccupied. They are attentive and loving like no one else. You wish you could more often reassure them that they are really loved in return, and it can be painful when you fail to, but their love is more intense than any other. This is probably the case with all of these less healthy variants. Our love for another person is never so enlivened as when it feels threatened.
Anxious-preoccupied individuals being particularly loving is just one positive that can come from insecure attachment. There’s rarely anyone as charming, enticing, and mysterious as someone who is dismissive-avoidant. The roller coaster of fearful-avoidant can keep the passion in a relationship at a constant high. These might not be the healthiest, but we trade our health in small or large ways for passion, pleasure, and love all the time.
Monogamy is a mixed bag for most people. Humans often demonstrate what is known as “serial monogamy.” This means that we’re with one person at a time. This trading hands a lot of us engage in every few years or months (for a time at least) is one interesting qualifier on what would otherwise be just good ol’ monogamy for life. This shows that we at least have the capacity to fall out of love with one person and into love with another while our former partner is still alive, which isn’t true for lifelong monogamous species like sea horses or bald eagles.
Alongside the messiness of serial monogamy, we have at least the potential for loving two people at once. This might work out just fine for the bigamists and polygamists, when everyone knows about everyone else, but when it happens to a person in an ostensibly monogamous relationship it can make for quite the conundrum. Yet, what really takes the cake, and is the scourge of human relationships, is that we are, at least in many a neuroscientist’s and anthropologist’s opinion, socially monogamous and sexually promiscuous, meaning that a lot of us want to be in a single, committed relationship but step out of it for sex.
The evidence is borne out in studies. There are self-report (people being asked and answering) studies that show one thing, usually rates of about 20% of heterosexual Americans being unfaithful, with varying results between genders. Some put that number as high as 40% of heterosexual men. It should be noted that these numbers apply to extramarital affairs, so it’s likely that, if we’re talking about people who are just dating, the numbers are probably higher. But the really shocking studies are the ones that check the DNA of babies that are the product of married couples. In these studies, between 5 and 30 percent of babies (of American and British birth) had biomarkers that could only have been gotten from a third party!  That means somewhere between 5 and 30 percent of American and British married men with children are actually raising someone else’s child. And this only accounts, not only for female infidelity, but for infidelity that resulted in pregnancy. Most self-report studies show that men are the real cheaters.
It’s data like this that has scientists convinced that infidelity is a natural reproductive strategy. It makes sense from a neo-Darwinistic perspective. Just because you can’t snag a “genetically superior” mate and get him to raise his children, why not just get some of his DNA and have someone else raise them? And for unfaithful males, the more progeny the better, right? It’s no wonder why we experience things like jealousy; if we don’t mate-guard, we can end up cut out of the evolutionary game of reproduction without even knowing it. It’s almost as if even something like jealousy — so often deemed toxic — might in someways be a good thing.
Infidelity occurs in every culture, despite being almost universally stigmatized. It’s so common that scientists have found genetic, physiological, and even anatomical correlates. A variant of a gene that is responsible for vasopressin receptors has been linked to factors that lead men to infidelity. A variant of the D4 dopamine receptor gene is also a likely culprit.  A ring finger that is longer than the index finger, as it is a consequence of testosterone exposure at a particular time in the womb, can be loosely predictive of infidelity as well!
Luckily, we’re not alone in these behaviors. Almost all socially monogamous animals have been known to have sex with someone other than their partner, including other monogamous primates.  Infidelity is, if nothing else, unavoidably natural. If it’s something humans have been proven to do, should we really stigmatize it like we do? Humans, as a species, are an emotionally-tangled hodgepodge.
Pain or pleasure
Let’s call it the “nice guy dilemma.” If being kind, loving, and attentive to your partner would cause you to lose them, would you — could you even — be cruel to them? If someone is drawn exclusively and inexorably to the people that hurt them, and you love that someone, what would you do?
Following the example of life itself, let’s start with sex: There are people who get their kicks in the bedroom from what in any other context would be considered abuse. Would you slap, choke, spit on, bite, insult, or force yourself on your partner if they asked you to? Sex is complicated. In the immortal words of Nick Lowe, “You’ve gotta be cruel to be kind.”
Now, what of the emotional equivalent of this? Let’s start light: They don’t like it when you’re needy or gushy, so you restrain your affection. Most of us are willing to do this. What if they don’t like an endless stream of compliments but are drawn to the tight-lipped type? Do you restrain your impulse to say nice things? What if your partner is verbally abusive to themselves and to tell them otherwise, to try and make them feel good about themselves, just leaves them distrusting and annoyed?
What about someone who is fearful-avoidant and is always switching between hot and cold, making for a tumultuous and argument-filled relationship? They’re uncomfortable in love; it’s really not their fault. Do you engage in the screaming matches and unhealthy ups and downs because you know that’s just how they love? It’s so easy for the mind to say “no,” but it’s another thing entirely to convince the heart. Should an otherwise beautiful person be avoided entirely just because the way they love can be painful? I’ll leave it as an open-ended question.
It has become a cultural movement to avoid toxic relationships and people. But even if we apply to it such a strong descriptor as “toxic,” there’s hardly anything that is black-and-white, 100% bad. What we call “toxic” has been the inspiration for some of the greatest pieces of art ever made and likely some of the most memorable moments in any of our lives. Love is a messy thing. It can be as ugly as it is beautiful, as painful as it is pleasurable, and as sad as it is happy. Passion is only a measure of intensity, not of positivity. Let’s not fail to appreciate the darker side of love.
1. The description of love in the brain throughout this paragraph can be found throughout a chapter titled “Addicted to Love” in a book titled The Chemistry Between Us by Brian Alexander and Larry Young, PhD.
2. The Chemistry Between Us, Brian Alexander and Larry Young, PhD, p. 201
3. The Third Chimpanzee, Jared Diamond, p. 86
4. The Chemistry Between Us, Brian Alexander and Larry Young, PhD, p. 230
5. The Chemistry Between Us, Brian Alexander and Larry Young, PhD, p. 236
Martin Vidal is the author of The Ambition Handbook: A Guide for Ambitious Persons