A brain-science-based integrative perspective on dysfunctional relationships

At least two people are needed for a song-and-dance routine to develop into full-blown irrelationship. Both parties must have an apparently unconditional investment in this carefully controlled “connection” between them—a connection that actually precludes true emotional investment and intimacy. To put it plainly, the song-and-dance routine is an unconsciously but carefully constructed hiding place. The song-and-dance of irrelationship can occur in would-be love relationships, friendships, families and business relationships; and occurs on broader social and cultural scales.

The psychological setting for the song-and-dance routine, and, ultimately, irrelationship, is called brainlock. brainlock is the set of processes underlying the unconscious agreement made by two or more people to maintain an emotionally numbed state. It is, in fact, a type of dissociation (literally, dis-association). It includes agreement not to introduce unpredictability (and, therefore, instability) to this state by deviating from carefully constructed routine. brainlock demands avoidance of spontaneity, love or commitment. Being yourself is out of bounds and the give and take of mutuality cannot occur. brainlock amounts to a rejection of the profound bonding mechanisms and behaviors that have evolved in our species over hundreds of millennia, opting instead for the brittle stand-in contrivance of irrelationship.

A Closer Look

Brainlock is an anti-generative psychological, and ultimately, biological adaptation that maintains distance from experience of other, thus disallowing intimacy. Understood in terms of network theory, it sidelines the possibility of the complex, interconnected patterns and systems that are demonstrable—even empirically demonstrable—in intimate relationships. In brainlock, specifically in a romantic relationship, two people get stuck—initially because an unvarying routine allowed them feel safe; ultimately, they commit to staying stuck because it’s all they can tolerate. Introduction of thoughts, behaviors or feelings outside the allowed repertory is met with alarm that forces resumption of the agreed-upon boundaries—usually before either party knows what happened, or even, that it happened.

Pink Floyd’s song, “Wish You Were Here” is evocative of what happens in brainlock:

“We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
What have we found?
The same old fears.
Wish you were here”.

This describes the phase of brainlock in which irrelationship has become frayed and the parties experiencing burnout. One or the other or both are becoming conscious of intimations that a relationship—even a long-term relationship—may have been based on dissociation and deception all along.  Despite the attraction and excitement of the first days and weeks together, as it played out “for real,” had we actually been present to and for one another? Or had we been carefully choreographing a way of being absent while only seeming to be together (“Wish you were here.”)?  Following the theme of the song, whatever they found (“same old ground…same old fears”) they didn’t find it together.

In the most common form of brainlock, a struggle of increasing urgency develops as one begins to feel inexplicably trapped and helpless in his relationship. This unease can begin in the earliest phases of connecting with a new romantic interest (though similar reactions can occur in the case of promising new business connections or friendships). Rather than tolerate the insecurity and fear that comes with caring about someone, we activate old patterns that shut down the anxiety connected with being cared for by another person. The idea of being seen and loved “as we really are” is profoundly unsettling because we can’t control the other’s feelings toward us or what that may mean in our lives. The response is emotional exit. Since both parties are subject to brainlock, both will begin “lockdown” of feelings at the same time to avoid intimacy. For this reason brainlock may be understood as a type of dissociation.

In addition to the shutdown of feelings of caring, a broad range of healthy feelings and experiences are lost in brainlock. To prevent loss of control, relational rhythms are set up to be repetitive and circumscribed, preventing incursions of variety and spontaneity.

An analogous effect is has been documented in cardiac function. Researchers have observed a moderate amount of heart rate variability in a healthy heart.  Relentlessly random heart rhythm, however, is a marker of serious cardiac disease that may even include the heart’s actually stopping. Less well known is that a heart rhythm that is “too regular” can be a sign of the approach of a severe cardiac event that can lead to death.

Similarly, excessive interpersonal regularity in the relational style of two people is a sign of irrelationship.  In such cases, the following complaints are typical:

“Everything about our lives seems like a mindless routine.”  

“We just do the same things over and over.”

“We always go to the same restaurant” or “on the same vacation.”

“We keep having the same fight again and again.”

These “exterior” aspects of a relationship may be the steps of a couple’s relentlessly maintained song-and-dance routine. While couched as complaints, they’re actually markers of a status quo that was the unconscious goal of the participants almost from the first moments they began to interact.

Other Aspects of Brainlock

Research on long-term, healthy romantic relationships identifies three independent but consistent characteristics of happy coupling: passion, including physical intimacy; pair bonding, i.e., emotional intimacy; and commitment to care-giving (Fletcher et al., 2015; Shaver & Hazen, 1988; Sternberg, 1986). These descriptors are not uniform across all successful relationships, but the presence of all three is predictive of a gratifying long-term commitment (Fletcher, et al., 2013). All three factors include biological, psychological, interpersonal and social-contextual dimensions (Acevedo et al., 2014).

brainlock’s primary purpose is to guard against the emotional risks associated with interconnection, reciprocity and mutual care. In a sense, it can, as a protective device, be compared to groupthink (Janis, 1971), a situation in which a group (usually in a business setting) convinces itself that they’ve come up with an idea that can’t fail, but are unaware of being so intoxicated by their illusions and they miss obvious information and omissions which, had they been taken into account, would dramatically changed their decision-making. An example of this is JC Penney’s attempt to re-brand itself to appeal to a more high-end customer base. Not only did Penney’s new strategy alienate their traditional customer base; they failed to persuade their new target market that Penney’s was “their kind of store” (more about this at http://tinyurl.com/pyvoho2(link is external)).  Similar to the failure of analysis underlying Penney’s ill-fated rebranding campaign, brainlock’s dissociation, makes understanding and predicting the outcome of irrelationship implementation practically impossible. Put another way, brainlock works because it functions in the context of shared blind spots.

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Brainlock may be understood to be the outcome of trauma resulting from dysfunctional caregiving received in early childhood. The affected individual latches onto mechanisms that she or he created to give relief from the anxiety caused by poor care giving. Believing that she must intervene with her caregiver in order once again to feel safe, the child is forced into a care taking role inappropriately early in life. This is the inception of brainlock. Commitment to these mechanisms is typically so profound, un-self-aware and uncritical that it can result in masochistic situations from which the individual is unable to escape.  At the same time, affected individuals may deploy passive-aggressive behaviors during arguments and other times; or, more in more severe cases, entertain seemingly unintelligible fantasies about killing or destruction, representing a desperate but sublimated desire for an exit strategy.

Though both parties to brainlock are, through mutual consent, locked into their routine, parallel attempts to lockdown the associated pain and anxiety are only partially successful: awareness of negative feelings is abated with varying degrees of success, but the feelings remain potently themselves in their effect on perception of self and other, in decision-making, and in overall functioning.

Physiological and Psychological Components of Brainlock


Oxytocin: A neuropeptide (“short protein”) brain hormone involved in: 1) mother-infant bonding and breastfeeding; 2) romantic pair bonding; and 3) “prosocial” functions such as empathy, compassion and altruism. Elevated oxytocin levels are associated with close bonding and increased drive to care for another at one’s own expense (Carter, 2014).

Dopamine: The “reward” neurotransmitter. Dopamine is involved in reinforcing repetitive behaviors, even to the point of addiction and compulsion. It also mediates “internal reward” circuit activity for regular and adaptive routines and repetitive behaviors. High dopamine levels are seen in both partners of relationships that include a compulsive quality. The high levels of reward activity mediated by dopamine are putatively required to balance the high levels of pain associated with unmet needs (deprivation) and with repetitive negative experiences related to unsuccessful attempts to “fix” things (punishment) (Love, 2014).

Other neuro-factors. Vasopressin: The “male” version of oxytocin, associated with courtship and mating; Glutamate: the key “excitatory” neurotransmitter, which increases brain activity (balanced by GABA, the key “inhibitory” neurotransmitter in the brain); Endogenous opiods, i.e., “pleasure” hormones (Insel, 2010). Other factors could be discussed, but the primary message is that irrelationship experience is mediated by an array of biological and biologically related factors.

A growing body of evidence suggests that “epigenetic” factors may play a role in adaptation to trauma. For example, children of Holocaust survivors and children of famine survivors show different responses to stress and basic regulation, which may play a role in present-day relationships. Changes in how DNA is translated are passed from generation to generation (Paine, 2014). Therefore, effects of traumatic experiences suffered byparents and earlier generations may be passed along genetically. This is referred to as “transgenerational” or “intergenerational” transmission.

Taken together, these factors create a brain environment primed to attract and be attracted to others who are likely to trigger unresolved issues from the past. (Johnson, 2013). Unaddressed, this is a recipe for repeated episodes of attraction and painful disappointment between parties who never really connect.  However, if addressed effectively, this cycle presents the parties with opportunity to unlock brainlock and learn how to grow together. The authors call this process “re-association.”


The need for the tightly controlled but below-the-radar operation of brainlock that underlies irrelationship begins in early childhood in response to perceived threats to well-being. Since the caregiver (usually the mother) is virtually the entire environment for a small child, disturbance in the caregiver is perceived as a threat to him or herself. To feel safe, the child will do anything he can to make his caregiver feel better. This is the origin of the habitually dysfunctional caregiving typical of irrelationship: the child reverses roles with the caregiver, becoming the caregiver’s caretaker in hopes of making the caregiver “feel better” so that she, the child, can again feel safe and secure.

When the child sees that the steps he has taken were successful—that the negative emotional state in caregiver’s mood passed, apparently as a result of his intervention, the child begins to deploy the same technique whenever confronted with an emotionally distressing situation. Before long, it becomes his standard operating procedure for keeping the world a safe place for himself.  But it doesn’t end with childhood: he continues using it through adolescence and adulthood in virtually all his relationships—especially on would-be romantic attachments.

By the time he leaves home, his having repeatedly resorted to this “performance routine” has left him with a poorly developed, inflexible sense of self grounded in the need to be a caretaker of others. However, since the real goal of his caretaking is to make himself feel better, his efforts usually hit wide of actually meeting others’ needs. But that doesn’t stop him: instead he becomes more insistent and forceful in his “fixing” or “doing for” others.” Just as importantly, the caretaker imposes his services in such a way that reciprocation by the other is infeasible: he must be in control and must not allow the other an opportunity for overt return of “giving.” Otherwise, he would be allowing himself to be placed “under obligation,” and, therefore, vulnerable, which is what brainlock is designed to prevent. Put succinctly, in irrelationship, giving is a defense against receiving  jointly created by two or more persons. In the case of each person involved, her or his own needs are met by rigidly structured, one-way caretaking of the other or others.


This is the area of perhaps the most profound irony of brainlock: It protects us from the things we tell ourselves we want in our relationships: intimacy, empathy, emotional investment and even vulnerability. Down deep, we may realize that these are the pieces of an integrated, mature relationship, but the prospect of allowing another person to assume importance in our lives is too terrifying to let any of that actually happen.

Irrelationship as expression of brainlock is the place where we “store” the material and experiences that are too painful to allow into our consciousness.  The mechanisms we devise (our “song-and-dance routines”) are our acting out or “enactment” of the experiences we’re keeping at a distance. However, unlike the various psychological defenses we learned about in our undergraduate Abnormal Psychology courses, irrelationship is not a “self-against-the-world” defense: it’s a dynamic, a way of being in the world that we create with others who, like us, are frightened of becoming close to others. We create irrelationship with other such individuals—individuals we’re actually attracted to, and, for precisely that reason, frighten us by representing the potential for true relational significance.

Two people with complimentary unmet needs stemming from having taken the role of caretaker to their caregiver(s) meet and feel they have finally met someone who understands them. It’s exciting and heady. But the thrill quickly gives way to a carefully scripted routine of caretakers who have mutually and tacitly agreed not even to refer to unmet needs. Instead, they cast one another in the role of the long-sought “solution to my life,” the one who is finally going to “complete me” and make everything “right” at long last.


Irrelationship is about creating the delusion that an unsafe world can be made safe through proper management. A child doesn’t understand the negative emotional states of his caregiver—depression, anxiety, fear, sadness—feelings that may make the parent at least temporarily ineffective as a caregiver. Since no other “blame” object is available, the child blames himself for his parent’s distress and emotional distance. In response, he devises his song-and-dance routines, intended to restore the caregiver’s emotional state to one that allows the child to feel safe: he becomes the caregiver’s caretaker. Success in manipulating his parent in this way leads him to believe that his, the child’s machinations, are necessary for preventing his world from sinking into chaos. When the parent accepts these ministrations from the child and responds positively, i.e., returns to a mood more acceptable to the child, parent and child have begun what becomes a lasting bargain—and role expectation—between them. If the child’s performances aren’t successful, the child will learn to believe that the world is unstable, unsafe, even hostile. In response, he will intensify his caretaking routines to “force the world to be safe” either by manipulating those around him. This generally includes refusing to acknowledge, i.e., dissociating from, others’ genuine experiences and needs. Regardless, the caretaker’s urgent purpose, i.e., the purpose of brainlock, is to protect himself from an unstable, unsafe world.

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Brainlock and irrelationship are, perhaps, most commonly observed in couples romantically interested in one another. However, the same mechanisms and same effects can be observed in virtually any forum, on virtually any scale of human interaction. Other postings in our blog explore examples of irrelationship in settings as varied as international relations, show business and online dating.  Readers’ comments and experiences are enthusiastically welcomed.


Acevedo, B. P., Aron, A., Fisher, H. E., & Brown, L. L. (2011). Neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love. Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience, 7, 145-159.

Carter, C. S. (2014). Oxytocin pathways and the evolution of human behavior. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 17-39.

Chen, S., Boucher, H. C., Andersen, S. M., & Saribay, S. A. (2013). Transference and the relational self. In J. A. Simpson & L. Campbell (Eds.) The Oxford handbook of close relationships (pp. 281-305). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Fletcher, G. J. O., Simpson, J. A., Campbell, L., & Overall, N. C. (2013). The science of intimate relationships. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Fletcher, G. J. O., Simpson, J. A., Campbell, L., & Overall, N. C. (2015). Pair-bonding, romantic love, and evolution: The curious case of homo sapiens. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10, 20-36.

Insel, T. R. (2010). The challenge of translation in social neuroscience: A review of oxytocin, vasopressin, and affiliative behavior. Neuron, 65, 768-779.

Janis, I L. (1971). Goupthink. Psychology Today, 5, 74-76.

Johnson, S. (2013). Love sense: The revolutionary new science of romantic relationships. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Love, T. M. (2014). Oxytocin, motivation and the role of dopamine. Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior, 119, 49-60.

McGrath, M. (2014) Is JC Penney the next great American comeback story? Forbes.http://tinyurl.com/pyvoho2(link is external)

Paine, C. (2014). DNA replication, transcription and translation. BioKnowledgy 2.7.http://tinyurl.com/kgnf7vu(link is external)

Shaver, P. R.,  & Hazen, C. (1988). Love as attachment. In R. J. Sternberg & M. L. Barnes (Eds.), The psychology of love (pp. 68-99). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Sternberg, R. J. (1986). A triangular theory of love. Psychological Review, 93, 119-135.

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Mark B. Borg, Jr., Ph.D. is a community psychologist and psychoanalyst, founding partner of The Community Consulting Group, and a supervisor of psychotherapy at the William Alanson White Institute. He has written extensively about the intersection of psychoanalysis and community crisis intervention. He is in private practice in New York City. Grant H. Brenner, MD is a psychiatrist in private practice, specializing in treating mood and anxiety disorders and the complex problems which may arise in adulthood from developmental childhood trauma. He works from a humanistic and integrative perspective, recognizing that each person requires an comprehensive assessment and individualized treatment plan, and that often different types of treatment are sometimes necessary to explore before finding an approach which works. At the same time, he values evidence-based approaches and stays current with new developments. He uses various approaches including talk therapy, medications, and interventional psychiatric approaches such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and neurofeedback. He is a volunteer and Board member of the not-for-profit organization Disaster Psychiatry Outreach. He teaches and supervises, and is a faculty member of the Mount Sinai Hospital and Director of the Trauma Service of the William Alanson White Institute. He is an editor of and author in the book Creating Spiritual and Psychological Resilience: Integrating Care in Disaster Relief Work, and the author of several papers and book chapters. Daniel Berry, RN, MHA has practiced as a Registered Nurse in New York City since 1987. Working in in-patient, home care and community settings, his work has taken him into some of the city's most privileged households as well as some of its most underprivileged housing projects. He is currently the Assistant Director of Nursing for Risk Management at a public hospital serving homeless and undocumented victims of street violence, drug addiction and severe traumatic injuries.