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.