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Neuroscience Behind Idealize, Devalue, and Discard

Neuroscience Behind Idealize, Devalue, and Discard

[My Two Phase Theory]

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Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder and psychopathy tend to rotate through partners in a relatively predictable manner. The well-known idealize, devalue, and discard cycle has been reported by many victims of abuse. (The video below illustrates this common relationship cycle non-violent).
For years I have wondered what causes intimate relationships with people afflicted with these conditions to go from bliss to a nightmare, sometimes within a matter of months. It extends far beyond the expected gradual fading passion that happens to most relationships.
Instead, it is a shift toward control, disinterest, and for many with psychopathy – hate. Spouses, boyfriends, and girlfriends caught in the middle of this dysfunctional cycle will suddenly find themselves battling psychological games and episodes of rage while attempting to calm their traumatized brain. For some victims, this ‘love’ will cost them their lives.

A Hypothesis Regarding Why This Cycle Exists

For me, it is not enough to simply know that they have a relationship cycle that starts off heavenly, yet ends with depression, PTSD, anxiety, or permanent brain changes for their unfortunate mate. I have to know why. (Yes – I was one of those kids.)
It occurred to me that the idealize, devalue, and discard relationship pattern is a reflection of the brain’s reward system. There is more involved, however, let’s focus on this single component for now.
Our reward system is associated with many different processes. It is a brain system of motivation, attention/ focus, drive toward a goal, attraction, seeking, lust, pursuit, addiction, and so forth. It is vital to the beginning (and sustaining) of a romantic relationship.
The predictable relationship cycle of those with psychopathy likely reflects the reward system in a highly activated state (idealize), then returning to baseline (devalue & discard).
Their baseline status is problematic because without the excitement due to dopamine, their callousness and coldness gets targeted toward their intimate partner. This is due to limitations related to their neurobiological condition.

The Reward System and the Psychopathic Relationship

In 2010 researchers at Vanderbilt University conducted a study and concluded that the reward systems of individuals with psychopathy are hypersensitive. Often when in an intimate relationship, their beginnings with a new partner is over the top, intense, and fast.
This suggests to me that their reward system is extremely activated by their new target. During this time, many victims of abuse describe lavish gifts, attention, and compliments unlike ever received from past partners. This has become such a common phenomenon that survivors of these relationships have termed this occurrence, love bombing.
The neurochemistry of love (e.g., norepinephrine, oxytocin, dopamine, vasopressin, and endogenous opioids) flows in abundance making it an exciting time and a perfect setting for a deep connection. However, the bonding stage will only take place for the non-personality-disordered mate. The individual with psychopathy will experience the excitement of the arousing chemistry, but will not move forward toward the bond.

You are on the clock | There is an Expiration Date

Often unknown to both individuals – this initial stage of happiness and romantic intoxication is temporary. It will soon be replaced by a completely unrecognizable, possibly dangerous relationship. During this time, some victims are exposed to disrespect, criticism, yelling, meanness, and control.
What is fairly consistent is that individuals with psychopathy often become bored and lose interest in their partners. You might say, “That can happen to anyone. Not only people with psychopathy.” That is absolutely right. However, normal partners do not respond to their loss of romantic interest by psychologically, emotionally, or physically brutalizing the person they claimed to love.

Two Phases of Psychopathic Relationships

So what lies behind the idealize, devalue and discard stages of a psychopathic relationship? I think it is dysfunction associated with the brain’s reward system being observed in two different states. Therefore, I think these relationships can be viewed as having two general phases from a neurobiological standpoint.

Phase One

This phase is composed of the intense, all- consuming chase. They are often hyper-focused on their new target and stimulated beyond the excitement that non-disordered individuals feel regarding someone new. They are motivated, interested, kind, seeming able to demonstrate compassion and concern.
The reward system is ‘on so to speak with regard to their partner.
For those with psychopathy, phase one usually also includes lying, secrets, grooming, manipulation, and exploitation. These are natural (often irresistible) drives that will be difficult for someone with this condition to resist. Hence, there is a mixture of genuine (superficial level) liking, attraction, and lust, coupled with manipulation.
This phase corresponds to the idealize stage.

Phase Two

During this phase, the reward system of their brain is no longer stimulated by their mate. The reward system is ‘off” so to speak with regard to that partner (back to their baseline).
Given that individuals with psychopathy are emotionally superficial and cannot move forward in the process of love toward the bonding stage – for them, the relationship is over.
With the dopamine intensity lessened, they become bored or consumed with negative feelings and disconnect from the partnership. However, there is a problem. This is all happening while they are in the middle of an intimate relationship!
They have started the ‘love process‘ with a mate who has moved along to the bonding stage and now feels in love with them. This is when the dramatic and painful interactions often begin. Because the person with psychopathy (due to their inability to be accountable for their emotions or behavior) will likely hold their mate responsible for losing that intoxicating dopamine rush they used to feel when around them. Gaslighting, blame-shifting, projection and scapegoating often take place during this time.
This phase corresponds to the devalue and discard stages.
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For some survivors, psychopathic relationships can be dangerous, potentially life threatening and nearly always life changing. If you have been or presently within this situation, take steps to ensure your emotional or physical safety.

© 2017 Rhonda Freeman, PhD | Clinical Neuropsychologist

 Image Credit: © Wallenrock/Shutterstock

 Adapted from: I Love You … Now go Away | The Psychopath’s Love Cycle Huffington Post, January, 2017
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