Mark B. Borg, Jr, Ph.D., Grant H. Brenner, MD, & Daniel Berry, RN, MHA


What is Brainlock?

A review of a brain-science-based integrative view of dysfunctional relationship

Posted Sep 03, 2015

Marina Sun /
Source: Marina Sun /

Brainlock is the series of psychological and biological adaptations underlying irrelationship—adaptations that see to it that we don’t get “too close” to another person. Rather than going through the scary parts of being known by a new person, people in brainlock unconsciously choose to stay locked in a carefully structured way of relating (their song-and-dance routine) while the idea of being known and loved “as we really are” is locked out. When we make this choice, however, we risk being cut off from all of our feelings—not just the feelings related to growing close to another person.

In successful romantic relationships, couples usually share:

  • physical bonding and intimacy;
  • emotional commitment; and
  • commitment to taking care of one another.

These three ways of relating make us vulnerable to each other. Brainlock keeps potential feelings of closeness on lockdown to that the closeness can’t develop and vulnerability is skirted. Attempts by either party to break through brainlock and change this rigid pattern will be so scary to the other partner that she or he will react with forceful, inflexible resistance.

The potential for brainlock begins to develop in very early childhood as a result of dysfunctional caregiving from the primary caregiver, usually the mother. When emotional distress causes the mother to be unable to provide the care and security the child needs, the child learns behaviors that provide emotional relief to the mother so that she’s able to meet the child’s needs. Over time, the individual comes to depend on this ability to manage others’ feelings to make her- or himself feel safe.

But behavior is not all there is to brainlock. As the individual forms a habit of using these behaviors to ensure her or his feelings of safety, the brain literally changes its functioning to support the behavior physiologically. Deployment of certain components of the brain’s functioning—hormones, neurotransmitters and specific types of proteins—become associated with the behaviors of brainlock, so that even the brain’s structure and function are enlisted and locked into the process of managing others’ feelings to ward off anxiety.

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The Irrelationship Group, LLC; all rights reserved
Source: The Irrelationship Group, LLC; all rights reserved

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The Irrelationship Group, LLC, all rights reserved
Source: The Irrelationship Group, LLC, all rights reserved