Science Explains Mind Control in Relationships

Darlene Lancer LMFT

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A new study sheds light on how people influence and control our mind. Research on mice, whose brains are remarkably similar to humans, reveals that our brains are affected by those around us. The key factor is dominance. The brain of the subordinate mouse synchronized to the dominant mouse. This likely applies to our relationships. Typically, people with stronger personalities make the decisions and get their needs met more often than their partners do.

Other factors play a part. The more the mice interacted with each other, the more their brain activity was synchronized. Hence, the longevity and intensity of a relationship effects the degree to which those close to us have influence.

A further twist on brain synchrony turns on two types of brain cells. One set is focused on our own behavior, and a second set focuses on other people. How we think and where we place our attention matters. At Carnegie Mellon University, neuroscientists are tracking our thoughts in fMRI’s brain scans to see which areas and neurons light up. Self and other neurons light up in varying degrees among certain populations. (60 Minutes Ep. 52, “How MRI scans are showing scientists the physical makeup of our thoughts,” Nov 24, 2019.)

Dominance vs. Balance in Relationships

Ideally, friendships and intimate relationships are balanced so that both friends and partners have an equal say in decision-making. Overall, both individuals get their needs met. They each are able to assert themselves and negotiate on their own behalf. There is give and take and compromise. This is an interdependent relationship. It requires autonomy, self-esteem, mutual respect, and assertive communication skills.

Contrast codependent relationships where power is imbalanced. This is often true in abusive relationships. One individual leads and the other follows; one dominates and the other accommodates. Some relationships are characterized by constant conflict and power struggles. Conquering Shame and Codependency describes traits and motivations of “Master” and “Accommodator” personalities. The master is aggressive and motivated to maintain power and control, while the accommodator is passive and motivated to maintain love and connection. Most of us have aspects of both types in our personality, although some people predominantly fall into one category. For example, many codependents are accommodators, and most narcissists prefer to be masters.

How Our Partner’s Brain Controls Our Mind

Brain synchronization enables the dominant animal to lead and subordinate animals to read its cues and follow. The new research suggests that in unequal relationships, the dominant partner’s brain will entrain that of the subordinate partner, whose brain will synchronize with it. This pattern becomes more established the longer the couple interacts. Some individuals, including codependents, are assertive and appear to behave independently prior to or outside of the relationship. But once attached to a master, they increasingly accommodate the dominant partner. There are many variables at work, but presumably, brain synchronization is one that makes it harder for the subordinate person in the relationship to think and act autonomously and challenge the power imbalance.

Codependents and accommodators focus on others more than themselves. They admit to losing themselves in relationships. They monitor and adapt to other people’s needs, wants, and feelings. If you ask them what’s on their mind, it’s usually about someone else. Hence, I also hypothesize that their “other neurons” light up more consistently than “self neurons.” Their personalities prime them to do so. In contrast, brains of masters and narcissists probably light up “self neurons” more than “other neurons.”

How to Combat Mind Control

The synchronization process happens automatically and outside of our conscious control. It supports healthy relationships by allowing partners to be “in sync,” and read each other’s cues and minds. We know what our partner feels and needs. When there’s mutuality, love deepens, and happiness multiplies for both. On the other hand, where this process is in the service of one partner controlling the other, the relationship becomes toxic. Love and happiness wither and die. The dominant partner has no incentive to give up control. It’s up to the subordinate partner to change the relationship dynamics. In doing so, power in the relationship may re-balance. Regardless, he or she will have gained the autonomy and mental strength to enjoy a better life or leave the relationship. Basic steps to making these changes are:

  1. Learn all you can about codependency and abuse.
  2. Join Codependents Anonymous and begin psychotherapy.
  3. Build your self-esteem.
  4. Learn not to react to putdowns or your partner’s attempts to control and manipulate you.
  5. Learn how to be assertive and set boundaries.
  6. Develop activities and interests you participate in without your partner.
  7. Learn mindfulness meditation to strengthen your mind.

If you’re dealing with someone highly defensive or narcissistic, follow the steps in my book, Dating, Loving, and Leaving a Narcissist: Essential Tools for Improving or Leaving Narcissistic and Abusive Relationships.

© 2020 Darlene Lancer

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Darlene Lancer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and expert author on relationships, narcissism, and codependency. She’s counseled individuals and couples for over 30 years and coaches internationally. Her books include "Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You," "Dealing with a Narcissist," and "Codependency for Dummies," plus six ebooks, webinars, and other resource materials. Her books are available on Amazon, other online booksellers and her website, www.whatiscodependency.com, where you can get a free copy of “14 Tips for Letting Go.”

Los Angeles, CA
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