The Brain Can Work Against Abuse Victims
The hidden anchors to toxic partners.
Posted Jan 18, 2017
For some men and women, love will be dangerous because of their mate choice. They fell for a partner who seemed like a safe match in the beginning. However, over time a darkness infested the relationship. Before they knew it, the rings of control were in place; growing tighter and tighter by the day. Toxic partners can destroy lives.
What causes someone to violate a person they claimed to love? There are many reasons, for example, substance or alcohol abuse, a neurological condition impacting behavior, or a disorder of character such as antisocial personality/ psychopathy, borderline personality disorder, or narcissistic personality disorder.
Although the reasons may vary, the painful reality and outcome for many victims are the same. He or she will suffer. And to make matters worse many of those individuals will find it nearly impossible to walk away. The neurochemistry of love and attachment, particularly in the presence of abuse, can seal a victim to a grim future with a malignant partner.
You might think, they should simply walk away — leave immediately. They do not have to stay with someone who frightens, controls, or intimidates them. That solution is the logical and best approach to an abusive situation. However, the natural functioning of our brain can prevent that from happening. Let's look at why.
Common Reactions of the Brain to an Abuser
A few important ingredients that contribute to someone's "addiction" to their abuser are oxytocin (bonding), endogenous opioids (pleasure, pain, withdrawal, dependence), corticotropin-releasing factor (withdrawal, stress), and dopamine (craving, seeking, wanting). With such strong neurochemistry in dysregulated states, it will be extremely difficult to manage emotions or make logical decisions.
Toxic versus Normal Relationships
The neurobiological changes that take place for victims of abuse are likely similar to those within the breakup phase of a non-abusive relationship. When any of us fall in love and connect with someone new, the neurochemistry of the reward system responds to establish this bond. In circumstances of abuse, the brain likely has the same attachment that anyone would have toward someone they love. However, for victims of abuse, the one they love is not safe and the relationship is not stable.
What happens neurobiologically in a toxic union is not much different from what happens in a normal relationship. The main difference is that given that our brain is extremely responsive to what is happening in our environment, it releases chemistry in reaction to the toxic partner's behavior. If he/she pulls away or behaves poorly, oxytocin responds in ways that someone in a "normal relationship" would not experience. This is also true of neurochemistry such as endogenous opioids, dopamine, and corticotropin releasing factor.
Normal partners do not create the same emotionally charged climate as an abuser. Context is everything when it comes to the brain.
Trauma Bond and Cognitive Dissonance
This brings us to two psychological states that are vital for victims of emotional and physical abuse to be aware of:
Both override proper reasoning that could help a victim gain freedom from toxicity. These processes happen automatically within the brain and are the result of the neurochemical storm ignited by the abusive partner.
Here are these concepts through an example.
Kaitlin and Marcus
Kaitlin and Marcus were newlyweds. His history included explosive rages, cheating, leaving without contact, lying, and mind games like gaslighting, projection, scapegoating, and blame shifting. But there were also times when he was wonderful. Now that they were married Kaitlin was hopeful that he would try harder and show more of his positive side.
A few months into their marriage, Kaitlin received a text from a number she did not recognize. It included a picture of an ultrasound, with the message, “I assume Marcus hasn't told you about this yet. I’m due soon, and I need him to stay with me until the baby’s born.”
Kaitlin felt nauseous and collapsed to the floor in disbelief. How could he do this? Why would he do this? The betrayal cut so deeply she became physically ill. After arguments and begging him to stay, Marcus left to spend the last two weeks of his ex-girlfriend's pregnancy at her home. He was not apologetic, but rather blamed the entire situation on Kaitlin: “You treated me like I didn’t matter. She was there for me! Besides, we were on a break when it happened!”
While Marcus was away, Kaitlin’s emotional pain was unbearable. All she wanted was to have her husband home and try to start over. She called and texted him several times throughout the day, everyday. She was soft with her words because she was well aware of his hypersensitivity to any criticism (even if it was well deserved). She told him that she loved him and would always support him, however, she did not know how she could make it through this. Her expressions of pain enraged him. Marcus felt attacked. He could not empathize with her; his responses were biting, cold, and filled with hate.
Kaitlin's mind whirled with confusion for days. Suddenly she came up with rationalizations that would normalize her situation. She decided that Marcus was correct when he said they were on a break the week he impregnated his ex-girlfriend. Therefore, he did not technically do anything wrong — they were not together. She told herself that his rage and hateful words were because of shame and guilt. She believed this despite that he never offered a sincere apology.
Kaitlin reasoned her pain away and ultimately told herself that everything would be fine.
Once she settled into this set of beliefs, for the first time in days, she was able to breathe a sigh of relief. Kaitlin was trauma bonded to Marcus. However, more damaging than that, because of her rationalizations, she "sentenced" herself to a future of more pain.
Cognitive dissonance is a reflection of the distress of holding two opposing beliefs. Kaitlin had two conflicting thought sets regarding Marcus:
- A. He is an awful person who violated my trust and has a pattern of cruelty. He is toxic and damaged.
- B. Marcus is a good man. He did not intend to hurt me. His aggression was not truly at me; it is a wall to protect himself from the guilt he carries for what he did.
When our brain’s attempt to make sense out of conflicting information, a process of reasoning and rationalization is common. It can happen in an instant. To end her agony and resolve the cognitive dissonance, Kaitlin had to self-deceive. She chose to believe option B.
Resolving cognitive dissonance is a form of self-regulation and self-calming enacted by the brain (associated with the right prefrontal cortex, insula, ventral striatum, and fronto-parietal regions). The victim's rationalization of their dysfunctional, possibly dangerous situation reflects a form of cognitive reappraisal.
The Trauma Bond
We touched on the four main neurochemicals that are primary drivers underlying the trauma bond (i.e., dopamine, endogenous opioids, corticotropin releasing factor, and oxytocin). Often when a person is traumatized by a romantic partner or someone they love, these chemicals become significantly dysregulated.
In the presence of such an addiction, there will be intense craving, a heightened value attributed to the abuser, and a hyperfocus on the relationship and conflict resolution. The victim’s thoughts will often follow to make sense of these feelings. Her or his brain usually turns to self-deception and rationalizations to resolve the cognitive dissonance.
A victim might offer excuses to themselves, friends, and family to explain away or minimize the toxic partner’s violating behaviors. “He was really sorry. He won't do it again."
How the Brain Works Against Abuse Victims
A person involved in a toxic relationship can become anchored to a partner that could cause him or her grave harm.
In addition to changes that occur with neurochemistry, the neuropeptide oxytocin packs a double punch for women. (Per the findings of Dr. Taylor, vasopressin, rather than oxytocin signals relationship distress for men.) Oxytocin is very responsive to our social environment – it is contextual. Therefore, psychological or physical stressors can result in the release of oxytocin.
High levels of this neuropeptide can have two completely opposing meanings – it can calm anxiety, as well as heighten it. The oxytocin receptors involved seem to depend on the social context.
- Heightened levels of oxytocin can reduce and calm stress. This is associated with oxytocin receptors located in the amygdala. However,
- High levels of oxytocin is a sign of social distress. This is associated with oxytocin receptors located in the lateral septum.
This dual role of oxytocin receptors was initially described in studies conducted at the University of California by Dr. Shelley E. Taylor and her research team. She explains that oxytocin can rise under negative social conditions causing a person to seek out better social circumstances.
For those who have the ability to bond deeply, our brain does not let go of relationships very easily. Besides, endogenous opioids are driving feelings of pain and loss causing a desperate desire for relief. It is a battle going on in there! At times, these reactions within the brain can ignite us to pursue the person we lost.
Oxytocin is one of the chemicals that pushes for this ‘reuniting’ to take place. It tends to facilitate keeping connections. Therefore, when someone takes steps to leave a relationship, they will have two stress systems causing discomfort. The first is the Hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis stress system (HPA). However, the other is a social stress system that is driven by oxytocin. This is of course accompanied by the pain, withdrawal, dependence, and craving added from the other chemistry.
How to Help the Brain
One of many ways victims can help their brain break a trauma bond is by facilitating the release of calming oxytocin (from the amygdala). Igniting oxytocin receptors of this type can reduce cravings, ease withdrawal, and lessen pain.
How is this done? With good, quality social contact — connection.
(The connection cannot be with the toxic partner, or else the bond will be deepened — with them. This is one of the reasons that I feel the 'no-contact' approach is often so helpful. The brain does not have the chance to automatically release attachment chemistry in response to the partner — particularly if he is demonstrating good behavior.)
Sadly, many people who are with toxic, controlling, or personality disordered partners (e.g., narcissists, psychopaths) are isolated. Many abusers chase away one of the most important resources a victim has: people.
Maintaining social connections is not only good from a safety standpoint (because other eyes should be watching when there is an abuser around), but compassionate, genuine, loving people help our brain to function optimally.
It is important to note that social connection and support will not work for everyone. When it comes to oxytocin, culture matters. In a 2010 study, Drs. Kim, Taylor, and their team explored culture and the expression of the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR). Specifically, individuals of Korean culture do not respond to social support (or seek it) in the manner that is common for Americans when distressed. As you may recall, oxytocin is a contextual responder, and this fact appears to apply to culture as well.
Now that you have some information regarding oxytocin (as it specifically relates to romantic relationships and abuse) view the video below. I describe the trauma bond and a theory I have regarding oxytocin’s role in anchoring victims to their abusers.
© 2017 Rhonda Freeman, PhD | All Rights Reserved
Rhonda Freeman, PhD, neuropsychologist exploring the neuroscience of healthy and abusive love relationships.
This content is informational. It is not intended to serve as any psychological service/advice/diagnosis and is not a substitute for consultation with your health care provider. Not everyone is the same (e.g., abuse survivors, brains, abusers etc). This article highlight common changes that could potentially take place when exposed to intimate partner abuse. A hypothesis was offered regarding the reason for such behaviors.
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