By Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
Courtesy of Psychology Today

It turns toddler love into fulfilling mature connection.

We fall in love in the Toddler brain, the emotional, impulsive, and volatile limbic system, which reaches structural maturity by age 3. We stay in love in the profoundest and most stable part of the Adult brain — the prefrontal cortex, which reaches full myelination at around 28. Toddler love is filled with wonder and joy at first, but inevitably reeks of conflict and pain due to its self-obsession and inability to see other people’s perspectives. Adult love rises from our deepest, most humane values of compassion, kindness, and nurturance, based on the ability to understand our partners’ perspectives. For adults in love, being protective is more important than being protected.

Did you ever wonder how we can be sophisticated adults at work and in friendships, yet struggle to maintain simple adult behaviors at home, like negotiation and cooperation? We’re more likely to slip into the Toddler brain in family relationships because love exposes our deepest vulnerabilities in ways that most of us haven’t experienced since toddlerhood. No one can “push emotional buttons” as easily as loved ones.

While toddlers are powerless over their own emotional states, they wield a great deal of power over the emotional states of others. Adults who love like toddlers make their lovers feel bad for having interests, tastes, and vulnerabilities that do not mirror the fragile sense of self embedded in the Toddler brain. Most complaints in toddler love have this subtext: “You need to be more like me. You need to think and feel like I do.”

Confusing intimacy with having their partners think and feel the same way they do, lovers in the Toddler brain feel rejected and betrayed when their partners think and behave like the unique individuals they are.

Binocular Vision

The best way to achieve adult love is to develop the most important relationship skill. Binocular visionis the ability to hold your partner’s perspectives alongside your own and to see yourself through your partner’s eyes. Only binocular vision can give an accurate picture of any given interaction and the relationship as a whole. No matter how accurate one partner’s perspective might be, it’s an incomplete picture without the other’s alongside it. With binocular vision, you don’t give up your perspective; you enrich it, through a deeper understanding of your partner’s. Only binocular vision allows you to see more deeply into the heart of your partner, while observing your part in the interaction.

Read Your Partner’s Reactions

Only a very small segment of the upper prefrontal cortex goes to objectively analyzing one’s own behavior, and that part is practically offline during emotional arousal. Our brains evolved to track other people’s behavior in interactions, not our own. On top of that, negative emotions feel different on the inside than they appear on the outside. For instance, when we’re resentful, we feel like we’re treated unfairly, taken advantage of, or disregarded, while on the outside, we appear mean, unfriendly, demanding, and unfair. If your partner is misperceiving you, be sure to express your deeper vulnerability — guilt, shame, sadness, fear — rather than your Toddler brain defenses against vulnerability — blame, denial, avoidance, anger.

The emotional bond that keeps us together acts as a conduit of emotion contagion and reciprocity. When your partner feels something, you automatically feel something very similar. If it’s negative, you’ll likely retreat to the Toddler brain and blame your partner for the feeling you’re sharing:

  • “I’m frustrated, which means you’re frustrating.”
  • “I feel rejected, which means you’re mean or cold and indifferent.”
  • “I feel controlled, which means you’re a control-freak.”

Such false perceptions are guaranteed to ruin any interaction. At best, they make our partners defensive. At worst, they weaken emotional bonds.

With binocular vision, we learn to use the internal sensor of emotional reciprocity to gain insight:

  • “I’m frustrated, which means you probably feel frustrated, too.”
  • “I feel rejected, which means you probably feel overwhelmed or distracted.”
  • “I feel controlled, which means you feel anxious or out of control.”

Formulations like these are usually more accurate and always more likely to elicit compassion from your partner, rather than defensiveness or counter-accusation.

In the Toddler brain, we blame our vulnerable emotions on our partners: “You make me so angry.”

With Adult brain binocular vision, we own our anxiety, fear, and shame (which cause most anger) and understand what they stimulate in our partners: “I’m pretty anxious, and I know you’re uncomfortable too. But I’m sure we can come up with something we can both feel okay about.”

Owning vulnerability and acknowledging your partner’s discomfort gives you both a chance to be compassionate and cooperative, rather than defensive and recalcitrant. It puts you on the same side in solving the problem, instead of making each other the problem. Rather than blaming each other for bad things, it makes you want to do good things for each other.