This is a copyrighted excerpt from the bestselling book, Fify Shades of Narcissism:Your Brain on Love, Sex and the Narcissist. It was first featured on Self-Care Haven.
The common question posed to abuse survivors is, why did he or she stay?
Many survivors of narcissistic abuse, a form of insidious emotional and psychological abuse, are also confounded by the addiction they feel to their abusive partner, long after the abusive relationship took a toll on their physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
The truth of the matter is, recovery from an abusive relationship can be very similar to withdrawal from drug addiction due to the biochemical and psychological bonds survivors develop with their toxic ex-partners.
As a survivor myself who has studied psychology and has also coached other survivors on No Contact from their abusive partners, I knew that the answer to that question was more complex than what appeared to be on the surface irrational behavior. Abuse creates complex bonds between survivor and perpetrator that are difficult to break; it also causes a great deal of cognitive dissonance as the survivor attempts to reconcile the brutal reality of the abuse with the person he or she once saw as their greatest confidante and lover in the early stages of the relationship. This cognitive dissonance is a defense mechanism that is often resolved not by seeing the abuser for who he or she really is, but rather by denying, minimizing or rationalizing the abuse that is occurring as a way to survive and cope with the trauma being experienced.
This form of abuse amnesia is compounded by the nature of the abuse cycle. Abuse is often slow and insidious, building up over time from tiny infractions to major meltdowns. What was once a glimpse of an abuser’s false mask occasionally slipping in the beginning becomes a horrific cycle of idealization, devaluation, and eventually, discard that the survivor has not only grown accustomed to, but also inadvertently becomes addicted to due to the strength of the “trauma bond” that forms between abuser and victim.
Motivated to understand why survivors such as myself felt a sense of paralysis that made it difficult to leave an abusive relationship, I set out to compile the research that I wish I had possessed as a survivor myself when I began looking for information. Stigmatizing labels of abuse survivors as meek and irrational didn’t ring true to me, as the survivors that often reached out to me in my coaching practice were incredibly intelligent, accomplished and introspective—there was something, I knew, about the nature of the abusive relationship that created a complex, psychological, even physiological reaction in the victim, regardless of who the abuse victim was personally or professionally.
Discussion of the biochemical bonding that occurs between an abuse survivor and perpetrator has been scarce, and my research into the chemicals and hormones at work—applied to the knowledge I had about the traumatic highs and lows of these turbulent relationships—has been eye-opening. What I uncovered though was that when it comes to leaving toxic partners such as narcissists, sociopaths or psychopaths, our brain’s biochemistry is not on our side.
Understanding why we are addicted or bonded to our abuser permits us to recognize that our addiction is not about the merits of the abuser, but rather the nature and severity of the trauma we’ve experienced. It enables us to detach from the abuser, hopefully with the help of validating professional support, and move forward with powerful knowledge that can propel us towards greater agency and healthier relationships than the ones we’ve experienced in the past.
I know from personal experience that an abuse survivor that is judged, rather than supported, feels further alienated and ashamed when speaking about the abuse. We are prone to shutting down rather than getting help and society’s victim-blaming stance certainly doesn’t give us any incentive to speak out about what is happening.
Information about the effects of trauma challenges the victim-blaming discourse in society that prevents many abuse survivors from gaining support and validation—validation that would actually help, not hinder, these survivors in leaving their abusive relationships.
Some of these same biochemical bonds also make it difficult for us to detach from non-narcissistic partners as well.
This hormone, known famously as the “cuddle” or “love hormone,” is released during touching, orgasm and sexual intercourse; it promotes attachment and trust. It is the same hormone released by the hypothalamus that enables bonding between mother and child. During “lovebombing” in the idealization phases with our abusive partners, it’s likely that our bond to them is quite strong as a result of this hormone. Intermittent reinforcement of positive behaviors dispersed throughout the abuse cycle (e.g. gifts, flowers, compliments, sex) ensures that we still release oxytocin even after experiencing incidents of abuse.
I’ve heard from many survivors who reminisce about the great sexual relationship they had with the narcissist, containing an electrifying sexual chemistry they feel unable to achieve with future partners. This is because charming emotional predators such as narcissists are able to mirror our deepest sexual and emotional desires, which leads to a strong sexual bond, which then, of course, releases oxytocin, and promotes even more trust and attachment.
Meanwhile, the narcissist, who is usually devoid of empathy and does not form these types of close attachments, is able to move onto his or her next source of supply without much thought or remorse.
The addictive nature of oxytocin is also gendered according to Susan Kuchinskas, author of the book, The Chemistry of Connection: How the Oxytocin Response Can Help You Find Trust, Intimacy and Love. The unfortunate fact is that estrogen promotes the effects of oxytocin bonding whereas testosterone discourages it. This makes it more difficult for females in any type of relationship to detach from the bond as quickly as men.
The same neurotransmitter that is responsible for cocaine addiction is the same one responsible for addiction to dangerous romantic partners. According to Harvard Health, both drugs and intense, pleasurable memories trigger dopamine and create reward circuits in the brain, essentially telling the brain to “do it again.”
Do you remember recalling the pleasurable, beautiful first moments with your toxic partner? The romantic dates, the sweet compliments and praise, the incredible sex—long after you two had broken up?
Yeah—it’s releasing the dopamine in your brain that’s telling you to “do it again.”
The salience theory of dopamine suggests that our brain releases dopamine not just for pleasurable events but to important ones that are linked to survival. As Samantha Smithstein, Psy.d, puts it, “Dopamine is not just a messenger that dictates what feels good; it also tells the brain what is important and what to pay attention to in order to survive. And the more powerful the experience is, the stronger the message is to the brain to repeat the activity for survival.”
Abuse survivors are unfortunately hijacked by dopamine. Abusive tactics like intermittent reinforcement works well with our dopamine system, because studies show that dopamine flows more readily when the rewards are given out on an unpredictable schedule rather than predictably after conditioned cues.
So the random sweet nothings whispered to us after an incident of emotional abuse, the apologies, the pity ploys, the rare displays of tenderness during the devaluation phase, right before another incident of abuse—actually help cement this type of reward circuit rather than deter it.
Combine this with powerful experiences of abuse which alert our brain to “pay attention” as well as pleasurable memories we recollect over and over again—and we’ve got ourselves a biochemical bond from hell.
3) Cortisol, Adrenaline and Norepinephrine.
Cortisol is a stress hormone, and boy, does it get released during the traumatic highs and lows of an abusive relationship. It is released by the adrenal glands in response to fear as part of the “fight or flight” mechanism. Since we are unlikely to have a physical outlet of release when cortisol is triggered during cycles of emotional abuse, this often traps the stress within our bodies instead.
As we ruminate over incidents of abuse, increased levels of cortisol lead to more and more health problems. In his article “Cortisol: Why The Stress Hormone is Public Enemy No. 1,” Christopher Bergland suggests numerous ways to counteract the effects of this hormone, which include physical activity, mindfulness, meditation, laughter, music and social connectivity.
Adrenaline and norepinephrine also prepare our body for the flight or fight response, and are also culprits in biochemical reactions to our abusers. Adrenaline promotes an antidepressant effect, triggering fear and anxiety which then releases dopamine—this can cause us to become “adrenaline junkies,” addicted to the rush of vacillating between bonding and betrayal. During No Contact or a break-up with an abuser, withdrawal from that “rush” can be incredibly painful.
Serotonin is a hormone that regulates mood. When we fall in love, the serotonin levels in our body fall in a way that mimics the way they are lowered in individuals with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (Marazziti, 1999). Individuals with low levels of serotonin are more likely to engage in sexual behavior which then again releases dopamine and oxytocin. As you can see, the biochemicals involved all interact with each other to contribute to this vicious cycle.
This is why narcissistic abusers dominate our brains in the early idealization phases of the relationship with their lovebombing, the excessive adoration we receive in the beginning. Imagine how this effect is compounded in the devaluation and discard phases, when, we are made to think about our narcissistic partner 24/7 due to their covert put-downs, their silent treatments, their stonewalling, their infidelity, and their sudden disappearances. We become obsessed with them not just through love, but again, through fear, through anxiety and rumination.
5) Trauma bonding.
All of these jolts of fear and anxiety in the face of danger can reenact past traumas and create trauma bonding. Trauma bonding occurs after intense, emotional experiences with our abusers and tethers us to them, creating subconscious patterns of attachment that are very difficult to detach from. It is part of the phenomenon known as Stockholm Syndrome, in which victims of hostage situations become attached to their perpetrators and even defend their captors. Trauma bonding is prevalent in abusive relationships as well as kidnapping, hostage situations and addiction. According to Carnes (2013), “Little acts of degradation, manipulation, secrecy and shame on a daily basis take their toll. Trauma by accumulation sneaks up on its victims.”
Although survivors of narcissistic abuse come from many different backgrounds and anyone can be a victim of narcissistic abuse, trauma bonding is even more significant for those who grow up in violent or emotionally abusive homes, and/or have had a narcissistic parent in addition to their most recent experiences with trauma and abuse.
Survivors of multiple incidents of abuse by various narcissistic individuals can further reinforce subconscious wounds they experienced in childhood in the trauma bond with their current abusers. If there has been victimization in the past, such as the experience of having to survive in an abusive household, this can lead to trauma repetition or reenactment, the root of which Gary Reece, Ph.D in his article, “The Trauma Bond,” calls “relational trauma.”
For more information on trauma bonding, please see The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitative Relationships by Patrick Carnes.
It is important to understand the various types of biochemical and psychological bonds that often create attachments between abusers and their victims. It is these bonds that cause survivors to struggle with No Contact from their abuser and cause them to suffer relapses on the road to recovery from the psychological trauma of the relationship. It’s important to explore how our own brain chemistry can lock us into this addiction to the narcissist or sociopathic partner, so that we can find ways to break and interrupt the bond with our abusers without blaming ourselves for the abuse we’ve experienced.
Better understanding these bonds enables us to move past victim-blaming and move forward into greater understanding, compassion and support for survivors who struggle with leaving abusive relationships.
We must not judge—rather, we must continue to empower ourselves and others with this newfound knowledge.
Author: Shahida Arabi
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: Francesca Dioni/Flickr