Pop Psych: The Quick and Dangerous Dopamine Fix of ‘Togetherness’

Tina (Amanda Peet) and Alex (Steve Zissis) of Togetherness.

Tina (Amanda Peet) and Alex (Steve Zissis) of Togetherness. HBO

Pop Psych: Where we ask a real psychotherapist to delve into the mindsets of our favorite shows and TV characters.

The important thing to remind yourself of when watching Togetherness is that these people aren’t broken.  They’re assholes, the lot of them, but they’re not broken.  Admittedly, the thought “these people are broken” does pops up frequently when I watch this show, but that’s just my mind trying to distract me from how painful it is even to watch their lives from afar.  They even think they are, remember Tina’s “I’m dead inside” pep talk, but the truth is a lot more simple.  The truth is that they’re just regular people in terrible pain who are out of ideas on what to do about that.  

As we embark on the harrowing journey that promises to be season 2, there’s a lot to cover.  For now let’s stick with Alex (Steve Zissis) and Tina (Amanda Peet), because Brett (Mark Duplass) and Michelle (Melanie Lynskey) are more personally terrifying to me.  Maybe the most important question any therapist asks themselves about their client is, “what’s their deal?”  It sounds a little reductionistic up front, but actually making the effort to understand a client – which means asking yourself that question constantly – goes a long way toward helping the client feel seen.  Alex and Tina have been a roaring torch together from the beginning of the series, but have been completely unable to get on the same page.  First he ran hot and she ran cold, then they switched positions.  This relationship dynamic is nothing new, but if you’ve ever had that particular feeling of thinking your normal is everyone else’s manic episode, then it probably hits close to home.

So what is their deal?  When these kind of cycles are playing out repeatedly in any relationship, it usually indicates that the people involved have different, and unspoken, goals.  Now, working together to accomplish different goals is a hallmark of a healthy relationship, but these two really take it and run with it.  The key thing they’re having trouble with is self-awareness – whereas Brett and Michelle end up lying to each other out of being too tuned in to their personal desires, Alex and Tina have no clue what they’re after.  They just know that being in each other’s presence feels wholesome and complete in a way they don’t have access to on their own.

You can fold your laundry, but you can’t fold your dopamine.

This is what’s known (to me and my clients, anyway) as collusion.  The basic idea is when you’re colluding with someone, you’re secretly working together to achieve a goal neither of you know about, without ever having talked about it. If this is a little confusing, think about your Facebook feed: you know that guy who likes to rant that All Lives Matter anytime a cop shoots a black person, and how it makes you super angry so you get into it with him in the comments?  And then while that’s happening, you forget to fold your laundry?  Guess what, the two of you just colluded on avoiding adult responsibilities, because getting in a fight on facebook is about as useful as throwing a tea-party for your cat, but even more chemically satisfying.  You can fold your laundry, but you can’t fold your dopamine.

When Alex and Tina were a team, this was great: Alex stepping in to show off his acting and devil may care attitude when some yacht racer (?) is trying to humiliate Tina in the street?  Tina calling Alex a fucking lazy idiot to his face when she sees him passed out on the couch?  As interventions, they’re both pretty over the top but, importantly, they also work.  This is because Alex and Tina are able to see each other in their full, beautiful, over the top intensity.  And ultimately, these interventions are both way better paths to a dopamine fix than eating or sleeping around.  Except of course when they can combine the two; anyone who says they didn’t get wet when Alex force-fed Tina a donut can go dunk a dill pickle.

Anyways, It’s cute, but it’s also sad.  Because it’s easy to forget about these two when they’re not yelling at each other, which is pretty much exactly how they want it.  These are two people who have received massive external confirmation, Alex for his acting and Tina for her intense hotness.  And if you were the kind of kid who learned the term “bad attention” while sitting outside your parent/teacher conference, you know how good that feels.  And you also know how awful and low it feels anytime you’re not “on”, which may be why Alex passes out during the boring/responsible hours of the day, while Tina spends that time as an entrepreneur in a doomed business.

The problem is the down time.  Most of us missed out on the kind of early-childhood training required to match the feeling of external validation with the internal kind.  Basically, the dopamine we reward ourselves with for sitting quietly and enjoying the feeling of being alive sucks a fat one in comparison to the dopamine reward of having everyone tell us we’re better than them and how beautiful and talented we are.  And if you get that external kick often enough, guess what: your brain is now accustomed to an unsustainable amount of resting dopamine.

This is why when these two aren’t being awesome together they’re passed out till noon or hating Larry’s dog from the pool.  Or, more frequently, being terrible together.  Alex and Tina are colluding to get their dopamine fix.  Which is a sweet endeavor, but it’s not very realistic.  And while at first they were able to beat their jones by enjoying each other’s company, tolerance grew about as fast as the crustache on a teenage stoner’s lip.  That is to say: faster and worse than it ought to, on account of neglect.

You can see this play out: first they have a great time together in private, then they have a great time together in public, then they fight in private, then they fight in public.  They keep upping the stakes, and though I wish them well I’m not sure how much runway they have left before they end up driving the plane into the airport fence.  Which is really a shame, as they both seem like genuinely kind people when they’re not getting the message that they’re dead inside.

It’s humbling to admit that being great doesn’t preclude you from being regular, too.

The worst part of this, of course, is seeing two people with such obviously enormous hearts flounder in intense pain. It’s humbling to admit that being great doesn’t preclude you from being regular, too.  Which is part of what’s so insidious about the whole thing; even though they’re in a lot of trouble, they’re also wonderful.  This is part of why change is so hard.  No one wants to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  The good news is that they could keep what’s great about them as individuals and as a pair while also addressing some of their painful relational dynamics, but it’ll take some real doing.

As far as what they can do, I would recommend they start with some self awareness.  These two need to start realizing that being alone, which is not the same as feeling lonely, is the predominant experience of life as an individual.  It’s the one that allows for everything else.  To these two who have been affirmed externally their whole lives, though, it feels like nothing.  They’ve got ground to stand on, they just can’t see it.  It’s like coming home to the house you didn’t clean before treating yourself to a week at the spa.  And just like how you can’t get started cleaning your house without first secretly admitting to yourself that your ex was right about you, these two can’t figure out how to live with a sustainable level of stimulation without secretly admitting that they’re just regular people after all.

The problem is the down time.  Most of us missed out on the kind of early-childhood training required to match the feeling of external validation with the internal kind.  Basically, the dopamine we reward ourselves with for sitting quietly and enjoying the feeling of being alive sucks a fat one in comparison to the dopamine reward of having everyone tell us we’re better than them and how beautiful and talented we are.  And if you get that external kick often enough, guess what: you’re now addicted to an unrealistic level of dopamine in the brain.

This is why when these two aren’t being awesome together; they’re passed out till noon or hating Larry’s dog from the pool.  Or, more frequently, being terrible together.  Alex and Tina are colluding to get their dopamine fix.  Which is a sweet endeavor, but it’s not very realistic.  And while at first they were able to beat their jones by enjoying each other’s company, tolerance grew about as fast as my mustache did back in my stoner days.  That is to say: faster and worse than it ought to, on account of neglect.

You can see this play out: first they have a great time together in private, then they have a great time together in public, then they fight in private, then they fight in public.  They keep upping the stakes, and though I wish them well I’m not sure how much runway they have left before they end up driving the plane into the mountain.  Which is really a shame, as they both seem like genuinely kind people when they’re not getting the message that they’re dead inside.

As far as what they can do, I would recommend they start with some self awareness.  These two need to start realizing that being alone, rather than feeling lonely, is the predominant experience of life as an individual.  It’s the one that allows for everything else.  To these two who have been affirmed externally their whole lives, though, it feels like nothing.  They’ve got ground to stand on, they just can’t see it.  It’s like coming home to the house you didn’t clean before treating yourself to a week at the spa.  And just like how you can’t get started cleaning your house without first secretly admitting to yourself that your ex was right about you, these two can’t figure out how to live with a sustainable level of stimulation without secretly admitting that they’re just regular people after all.

James Cole Abrams, MA, is a psychotherapist living and working in Boulder and Denver, Colorado. His work can also be found at www.jamescoleabrams.com where he blogs every Sunday.

Pop Psych: The Quick and Dangerous Dopamine Fix of ‘Togetherness’