Toddler Brain Politics

They put enormous stress on intimate relationships.

Posted Mar 04, 2018

In 30 years of clinical practice with highly distressed couples, I have never seen intimate partners so polarized, intolerant of disagreement, emotionally reactive,  self-obsessed, and stubbornly resistant to seeing, much less understanding each other’s perspectives. In no small part, these patently Toddler-brain characteristics reflect the current political climate. Most arguments of today's politicians and intimate partners can be reduced to the favorite two words of the toddler – one says, “Mine!” and the other says, “No!”

The Toddler brain is pretty much fully developed by age 3, more than two decades before maturity of the Adult brain, the upper prefrontal cortex. For toddlers, negative emotions are alarms to summon adults to meet their needs and solve their problems, which they can't do for themselves. But the Toddler brain has no reality-testing; toddlers cannot distinguish what they feel and imagine from what is really happening. They assume the smoke alarm is the fire, because they lack the Adult brain capacity to discern if there really is a fire or if someone is cooking or smoking, and, if there is a fire, to figure out the best way to extinguish it.

Without the Adult brain to regulate emotions and impulses, toddlers use the primitive coping mechanisms of blame, denial, and avoidance to numb shame and fear. Ask a toddler about a broken toy and you’ll hear, “He/she did it (blame)” or, “I don’t know (denial),” or the kid runs away or hides (avoidance). After years of studying toddlers, the way they think still seems so darn cute!

But when politicians (and intimate partners) think like toddlers, they’re not so cute, as they reflexively indulge:

  • All-or-nothing thinking (no nuance whatsoever)
  • Self-obsession - inability to see other perspectives of those who disagree with them
  • Intolerance of differences
  • Low frustration-tolerance
  • Blame
  • Denial of responsibility
  • Avoidance of the real issues.

As with politicians, the trouble in families is not that partners disagree about problems - they always have. But now they're likely to view each other as the problem. Today's couples diagnose each other from self-help books and Internet checklists the way politicians characterize one another with an array of negative labels. Rather than cooperate to meet challenges in ways that work for both of them, partners, like politicians, try to win disputes. They come off as self-righteous more often than right. They're more focused on feeling validated than effective.

I’ve seen couples mimic political discourse before - mostly during economic downturns. Certainly the parlance of previous divisive public figures have made their way into marital disagreements. What's different now is the constant amplification of social media. Now there's 24-hour sound-bite journalism, prone to the oversimplified negative labels that seem necessary to gain an edge in a highly competitive media terrain. Marital arguments increasingly mimic tweet-wars and sound-bites of accusations and counter-accusations.

Of course, there are plenty of positive things on the Internet and in the media, and politicians sometimes make productive statements that ring of sincerity rather than posturing to stir or exploit public resentment. Trouble is, negative emotions get priority processing in the brain. A single negative statement overshadows at least five positive ones under most circumstances. They’re also the most contagious. If you’re around a resentful person, you’re likely to get resentful, too. If someone comes to work resentful, by lunchtime almost everyone around that person will be resentful. Read resentful comments on the Internet or hear them in the news, and you’re likely to react in kind and not be so sweet to your partner.

If you try to keep track of how many times politicians and their social media rebuttals blame, deny, and avoid, you’ll quickly lose track. It will be less taxing to count how many times Adult brain coping habits (the first thing we try to develop in relationship therapy) sneak into the discourse:

  • Improve (weigh evidence, plan for the future) 
  • Appreciate (inspire us to be better) 
  • Connect (we matter because others matter to us) 
  • Protect (look out for our long-term wellbeing) 

The next time you’re contacted in a political poll, tell the interviewer you’ll vote for the candidate who acts from the Adult brain. As for conflict in intimate relationships, remember that you’re not disagreeing with an opponent who must be defeated, you’re disagreeing with someone you love. Realize that your well-being is inextricably tied together and that one of you cannot feel okay while the other does not.