As a therapist, I spend my days listening to women and men talk about all facets of their lives—from the seemingly mundane to the monumental and magical moments.
My ears are always full, and I never experience a dull day. This is specifically accurate during the days when I am privileged to hear about my client’s romantic relationships.
Romantic relationships are defined as spaces where you can truly be yourself with someone who you respect and who respects you. A place carved out by two people where passion, pleasure, and intimacy coexist with safety.
For many of my clients, their romantic relationships exist on this foundation regardless of conflicting turbulence or disagreements. However, this is not the case for all of my clients, and this has not been the case in a romantic relationship of my very own past. I have had a romantic relationship void of safety that instead coexisted on the toxicity of trauma bonding similar to some of my clients.
None of these relationships start with the absence of safety. They began with safety, passion, intimacy, and pleasure. At first, the partner appears to be a stable, reliable, and caring human to play with both romantic intimacy and deep companionship.
Speaking from my experience, they were someone that I deeply loved who professed to love me in the same way. Much like my client, I fell in love with my then partner for a reason; however, I fell in love with someone who wasn’t real.
I didn’t know this for months, until one day they no longer showed behavior that indicated love or fell in the confinements of what would be expected from a romantic relationship. Much like my clients, I was shocked, dumbfounded, and in disbelief. I was not able to reconcile how one could switch from kindness to coldness and violate a person they declared to love.
As a therapist, I can conclude many reasons that lead someone to become toxic or hostile. I can suspect that the partners my clients speak of may, for example, be living with an addiction, a neurological condition impacting behaviour, childhood trauma being reenacted, attachment disorders, or a disorder of characters such as antisocial personality, borderline personality disorder, psychopathology, or narcissistic personality disorder.
These conclusions, plus many more, are the same ones I tossed around when trying to understand why my partner experienced no guilt or remorse when they lied, cheated, and verbally degraded me days after we miscarried our son. An experience that laid a foundation for trauma bonding. An experience that led me to understand firsthand the qualities of emotional abuse my clients had shared with me in the past.
The reasons why someone becomes emotionally abusive are varied and probably forever unknown, but the reality is the same—relationships with toxicity are filled with pain. The partner who is experiencing the coldness, where there was once kindness, suffers deeply. It is a type of pain that I don’t wish upon anyone, as it is one that lives on long after the abuser is gone. This is because the neurochemistry of love and attachment, particularly in the presence of abuse, can seal someone to their relationship in a deeper way than any amount of time or safety can create.
When myself and my ex-partner miscarried, there became a deep trauma bond between us. It was in the place of where our child once was. However, the toxicity in the relationship began before the pregnancy. The toxicity eroded the place of safety, beginning with subtle, verbally degrading comments regarding my body, ignoring my requests for him to stop sexually, using demeaning words to state that I was too sensitive, and isolation done by demanding constant communication and connection.
I didn’t know I was in an emotionally abusive relationship until I was so far in that I didn’t know how to get out. I didn’t know how to leave because I did not know who I was anymore. I only knew who he wanted me to be: submissive and subservient. This is similar to how my clients have presented during their emotionally abusive relationships.
You would think that as a clinically trained therapist, someone who hears about the intimate details of other people’s lives for a living and as the founder of a nonprofit that supports survivors of sexual exploitation, I would be able to pick up the signs of an abusive relationship. That all of my years of training and listening to stories of abuse would have equipped me with the skills to walk away.
However, walking away isn’t possible when we find ourselves in a relationship where trauma bonding has occurred because of the brain chemistry involved.
Brain chemistry is what locked me into a relationship where the father of my child could and would fabricate stories to distort my reality, show no guilt for abandoning our son to spend time with his mistress, gaslight, and deny my genuine grief over losing our shared son.
During our time together, there were many days when he would scream on the phone that it was a miscarriage and that I needed to move on or that he didn’t feel a responsibility to me during the pregnancy or miscarriage because he didn’t plan on having the child.
His list of comments targeted to destroy my sense of self is astonishing for me to reflect on now, as I am no longer in love with him nor in internal pain. If you have been a within an emotionally abusive relationship, you already know the nastiness and inhumanness of an abusive partner’s words.
However, for further exploration and to expand on the effects of emotional abuse, I will use a comment made a week after losing our son as an example. I was in the midst of my grief when he looked to me and told me to stop crying because I would get wrinkles—but not to worry, because he knew somewhere I could get Botox.
This moment still haunts me. It haunts me because it demonstrates how mentally absent I was to not be to able to realize my then partner’s inability to attune with empathy or compassion. I was paralyzed in the relationship due to the neurochemicals in my brain.
Before my experience in this relationship, if a client came into my office with similar comments, I would have been dumbfounded as to why the client hadn’t already left their partner. Why they hadn’t been able to see the level of neglect, abuse, and narcissism.
But now, after surviving an emotionally abusive relationship, I understand.
Why people stay in abusive relationships.
You might think that someone like me or the clients I work with should simply walk away—leave immediately. Pack their bags and run in the middle of the night. That staying with someone who lies, manipulates, controls, and lacks human empathy is crazy.
But it isn’t, actually, and this is due to neurochemistry that makes making logical decisions near impossible when in an emotional dysregulated state—a state that is the consequence of emotional abuse.
You could say that the pain my ex-partner or the pain the partners of my clients inflict robs them of rational thought.
The neurological process that was robbing me of thinking clearly and identifying abuse isn’t much different than the neurochemistry that occurs in a romantic relationship existing on a base of safety. In both types of relationship, the neurochemistry of the reward system creates a bond between partners.
We get dopamine hits and oxytocin doses when we fall in love. I am sure that we have all experienced the honeymoon stages of a relationship, when we become so infatuated that we forgot to do the mundane tasks of a Monday.
However, oxytocin is also related to anxiety; therefore, in a toxic relationship, our brain, specifically our amygdala (the “fire station” inside our bodies), becomes extremely responsive to what is happening in our environment. When there is a threat, it releases chemistry in reaction to the toxic partner’s behavior. We are getting double the dose of oxytocin. We get the regular amounts experienced when falling in love and also stronger doses due to intermittent behaviors of kindness and coldness from our partners.
If our partner behaves in a way that causes us pain, like mine did when he stonewalled me after our child’s death, oxytocin responds in ways that someone in a safe, romantic relationship would not experience.
When it comes to the brain, context is everything. What happens around you affects your neurochemistry, and this, in turn, affects the entire system of the body. The hormones released in the brain affect the total ecosystem of the body.
These effects lead to two psychological states for the partners of individuals who are emotionally abusive. Both of the two psychological states override proper reasoning that could help them gain freedom from their toxic relationship. These psychological states are known as cognitive dissonance and trauma bonding.
Cognitive dissonance: the distress of holding two opposing beliefs.
In my past relationship, when my partner disappeared into burning man abyss, stonewalling me and devaluing my grief, I had two conflicting thoughts regarding my partner. Both were equally painful.
Thought pattern number one was that he is a person incapable of empathy who has violated my trust. His behavior is cruel, manipulative, and disrespectful toward his son. He is incapable of thinking about anyone but himself.
Thought pattern number two was that he is a good person who does not intend to hurt me. His need to have space after the miscarriage and verbal attacks are because he is deeply grieving the loss of his son due to his traumatic relationship with his father. His aggression is not about me; it is a wall to protect himself from this true feeling of son grief.
These are two very different sets of beliefs. I’ve witnessed clients hold similar sets about their partners and watched them internally struggle, trying to understand what is incomprehensible. This process is known as rationalization and often ends in self-deception.
Much like many of my clients and other individuals in emotionally abusive relationships, I chose to self-deceive to resolve cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is painful because it requires being torn by two competing and contradictory thoughts that touch into our core beliefs about human nature.
As a therapist, I have an allegiance in believing that human beings are inherently good and doing the absolute best that they can. You can imagine the deep desire for this to always hold true, even in the face of contradictory evidence. When I see clients engage in similar thought processes, I do not judge because I know that self-deception is a form of self-regulation. Self-regulation is a facet of the second type of psychological state that occurs in emotionally abusive relationships.
The second state is called trauma bonding.
When a person is traumatized by a romantic partner, there is a dysregulation in dopamine, endogenous opioids, corticotropin-releasing factor, and oxytocin. This leads to a sense of addiction, and there will be an intense craving, a heightened value attributed to the abuser, and a hyper-focus on the relationship.
You can hear this dysregulation in the tone someone speaks about their relationship with. This is the friend who will continue to repeat problems in the relationship again and again as if seeking an alternative reality. This is because all of their thoughts are trying to make sense of their feelings. This leads to more self-deception and rationalization to resolve the cognitive dissonance.
The individual is becoming more and more dysregulated in their attempts to regulate their central nervous system and the hormones in their body. This may even lead to your friend lying to you about their relationship in their effort to deny their relationship’s reality.
In the presence of such an addiction, your friend may start offering excuses for their partner’s poor behavior. Or in my case, you might find yourself minimizing the violating conduct. The more this happens, the deeper the bond between victim and abuser becomes as it continues to increase the neurochemicals of dysregulation and relational bonding simultaneously. It also creates a false sense of intimacy and a bond of secrecy.
The thicker the bond, the harder it becomes for the brain to let go. Therefore, the more trauma you experience with an abusive partner, the higher your relational connection will be neurological in nature. You can imagine how hard it was for me to release the addiction to my abusive partner. There was not only the trauma of child loss, but also infidelity and continuous attempts to make amends.
The endogenous opioids released in an emotionally or psychologically abusive relationship drive feelings of pain and loss. These are the neurochemicals that cause someone to seek relief.
In my case, it resulted in myself being willing to listen to my ex’s attempts to get me back while living with his mistress. Even months after the relationship had ended, my brain was still desperately desiring relief from the pain the relationship had inflicted. Self-deception even months later was still my attempt at self-regulation.
This is amplified by oxytocin, a chemical that pushes for the “reuniting” and facilitates keeping connections. Oxytocin is essential to talk about because it prevents the victim from leaving. This is because when someone takes steps to exit a relationship, they will have two stress systems causing discomfort.
The first is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, and it is our central stress response system. The HPA axis is an eloquent and ever-dynamic intertwining of the central nervous system and endocrine system.
The other is not so simple. It is a social stress system that alters all types of brain chemistry. In addition to this, you have the effects of relational addiction that comes with pain, withdrawal, dependence, and craving.
By this point you may be wondering, with all of these brain mechanisms and two psychological states coexisting to ensure that someone stays in their toxic relationship, how did you or any of your clients leave their emotionally or psychologically abusive relationship? How does anyone?
The answer is, it isn’t easy. Leaving is hard. Probably one of the hardest things I have ever done. But it is possible.
Exiting an emotionally or psychologically abusive relationships depends on the brain’s ability to change. Change is facilitated through the usage of the social engagement system and proper attunement. It means regulating the central nervous system off of the mirror neurons in the brain to other safe, loving, and caring humans.
During this time in my life, I had an abundance of support. My body had many people to regulate and relearn from.
Healing requires being in safe relationships with other people. Healing also means staying away from the toxic partner to diminish activation of the neurochemistry.
The mirror neurons of those who have been in an abusive relationship are primed to reconnect. Without trigger, the body may reactivate into the same state of dysregulation without warranted behavior from our past partner as biology’s way of keeping us safe from being harmed again. Our amygdala may set off into fight-or-flight simply by having their face pop up in our social media feed. No contact isn’t a joke—it is a necessity for the brain and central nervous system to heal.
This is why seeing a therapist is so important while leaving an abusive relationship. A therapist who is informed about the dynamics of emotional abuse. A therapist who is well-regulated and aware of neurochemistry and their state of central nervous system activation.
Abusive relationships often leave us isolated. I know mine sure did. That’s why creating a connection with a safe, caring, and honorable human is essential to leaving an emotionally abusive relationship. It is how both your brain and heart heal.